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Russia’s Middle-East Gambit

The Syrian civil war puts Moscow’s relations with the West, Turkey, the Gulf States, and Israel to a serious test

Dmitri Trenin
May 30, 2013
A man holds a portrait of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a rally in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in support of the Syrian regime. Oct. 19, 2012.(Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds a portrait of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a rally in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in support of the Syrian regime. Oct. 19, 2012.(Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images)

If it does nothing else, the recent Syria summit arranged by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry formally marked the re-emergence of Russia as a power in the Middle East, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Yet Moscow’s objectives today are vastly different. Russia is out to raise the stakes for U.S. military intervention, which it sees as destabilizing for the world order; to minimize the impact of Islamist radicalism and extremism born out of the Arab Spring; and to try to find political solutions to a host of issues, from the civil war in Syria to Iran’s nuclear issue to post-American Afghanistan.

In the days of the czars, the Eastern Question was about seizing control of the Black Sea straits and annexing Constantinople. Communist Russia immediately viewed the Muslim “workers of the East” as allies in its revolutionary struggle against Western capitalism and colonialism. As the Soviet Union turned into a superpower after World War II it assumed a more active political, military, and economic role in the Middle East, which became a theater in the global Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Once the Cold War over, the Kremlin abandoned its ally Iraq and lost interest in its remaining clients in the region, such as South Yemen and Syria. In Russian society, the long and painful experience of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan gave rise to what was called “Afghan syndrome,” i.e., shunning involvement, especially with military forces, in the Muslim world. Focused on itself and its immediate neighborhood, the Russian Federation physically quit and then neglected whole regions of former Soviet influence, including the Middle East. It continued selling arms to some of its ex-allies, including Syria, but now on a commercial rather than ideological or strategic basis.

Yet the Chechen war revealed that Chechen separatists, and terrorists, had sources of funding and recruitment in many parts of the Middle East. To the surprise of some in Moscow, Iran turned out to be a responsible neighbor and a useful partner, staying away from the Chechen conflict and even helping Russia negotiate an end to the bloody civil war in Tajikistan. Chechnya also prepared the ground for Vladimir Putin’s prompt response to Sept. 11. Putin saw little difference between al-Qaida and Chechen extremists, and he gave strong support to the United States in Afghanistan, even though Moscow later disapproved of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The need to fight against terrorism and Islamist extremism also resulted in improved understanding between Russia and Israel. The Syrian civil war, however, has put Russia’s relations with the West, Turkey, the Gulf States, and Israel to a serious test.


Moscow’s attitude toward the Arab Spring has been cautious from the very start. Russians could well see the socioeconomic roots for the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where the rulers had lost touch with their peoples. The Kremlin was not particularly impressed with the pro-Western liberals in both countries, who managed to channel urban classes’ anger to topple the regimes but failed to come to power in the wake of revolutions. Unlike Europeans and Americans, Russian officials did not expect Western-style democracy to follow secular authoritarianism: What they began to brace for, early on, was a great Islamist revolution engulfing the entire region.

In the Russian assessment, this revolution can take a long time to unfold. It can also spread to other Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf. In general, Moscow has taken a pragmatic approach toward the new regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. It relaxed its formal ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed a terrorist organization for its role in Chechnya more than a decade ago, and invited Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for talks in Sochi last April. Despite the revolution, Egypt remains a top destination for Russian holidaymakers—2.5 million of them in 2012—and Russian energy companies may soon be following in their footsteps.

Libya, for Russians, provided another angle for assessing the Arab Spring. In the hope of getting Western support for the Russian economic modernization agenda, Moscow decided in 2011 not to stand in the way of a humanitarian intervention in Libya. It was soon bitterly disappointed, however, when the no-fly zone in Benghazi morphed into a regime change in Tripoli. The experience of being used and then ignored by the West has informed Russia’s subsequent stance on Syria.

Moscow’s attitudes to developments in Syria are governed by three principal sets of considerations. At the top comes the concern for the global order. From the Kremlin’s perspective, any foreign military intervention must be approved by the U.N. Security Council, i.e., by Russia, and regime change under pressure from the outside should be ruled out.

At the center of the Russian approach to Syria lies a sober assessment of both the Assad regime and the opposition to it. The regime, while unquestionably brutal and too inflexible from Moscow’s perspective, is credited with having considerable toughness and staying power—an assessment that has proved correct despite countless predictions to the contrary by Western and regional leaders. Moreover, the urban merchant classes of Damascus and Aleppo have so far not turned against Assad, probably fearing the alternative more than the regime in place. As to the alternative, the Russians soon noted that what had begun as a democratic protest movement was predictably taken over by radicals and extremists whose triumph, should it come, would turn Syria into a haven for al-Qaida-style terrorists. From Moscow’s perspective, Assad may be problematic insofar as his methods are concerned—but his enemies constitute a real threat not just to Syria, but also to other countries, including Russia.

Finally, and this is both last and least, in the order of priorities: Russia’s Syria policies are guided by its interests on the ground in Syria, namely the arms-trade relationship; the modest naval resupply facility at Tartus; and the humanitarian concerns for several thousand Russian citizens who are married to Syrians and for Syria’s Orthodox Christian community.

They began to brace for a great Islamist revolution engulfing the entire region.

In terms of both the underlying geopolitical logic and the actual calculus, Russia’s approach is more solid than either the West’s or Turkey’s. Moscow’s vision is not distorted by taking sides in the regional Sunni-Shia struggle whose primary battleground now is Syria. Neither is it led by wishful thinking about the longevity of the regime in Damascus. Yet Russia’s image has suffered in many parts of the Arab world, where it is portrayed as a friend of authoritarian regimes and as an ally of and arms supplier to Bashar al-Assad and therefore as a friend of Iran. More important for Moscow, the developments in Syria appear to be leading to the worst possible outcome: the overthrow of the Assad government and the ensuing chaos, with the extremist elements in the strongest position. As a result, Moscow has long been advocating a Yemen-style power-sharing deal in Syria, only to meet with a lack of interest among the opposition groups and their Gulf, Turkish, and Western backers.

It was only when the Western calculus on the ground in Syria began to change, and the prospect of the United States being drawn into the Syrian imbroglio started to look inevitable, that the Obama Administration reached out to Putin for a possible political solution on the basis of the 2012 Geneva communiqué. The amount of heavy lifting required from both Washington and Moscow is stunning, and the odds are heavily against success at the new Geneva conference next month, but the alternative to a political settlement is truly frightening.

One obstacle is that Russia has insisted in involving Iran in Syria-related discussions, to which the Gulf Arabs and the United States strongly object. Moscow is frequently referred to as Tehran’s ally and advocate. Indeed, Russia has built a nuclear power reactor in Bushehr and has supplied Iran with a range of weapons systems. Russia, for its part, sees Iran as not so much a theocracy bent on developing nuclear weapons to terrorize the region as a power that has been in the region forever and that is likely to play a more important role in the future.

Russians appreciate that the Iranian theocracy has more checks and balances than the old Soviet system. As to nuclear weapons, a country with Iran’s resources and self-image should be able to build them, if its leadership decides to do so. Tehran, they think, is probably aiming for an outcome in which it stops at a relatively small step before reaching a nuclear capability and trades its restraint in exchange for dropping all sanctions against it and respect for its security interests. Moscow interprets Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas as both part of a low-level conflict between Iran and Israel and as an element in the Shia-Sunni competition in the Muslim world.

Yet Russia’s view of Iran, while not as bleak as Israel’s or the West’s, is anything but benign, due to history and the current lack of trust. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is more than troubling for Moscow: Even today, Iranian missiles can reach many parts of southern and central Russia. According to U.S. diplomats, Moscow cooperates more with Washington on Iran than it is usually given credit for in the mainstream Western media. Unlike many in the United States, however, Russians believe that pressuring Iran has limits of usefulness: Beyond a certain point, it becomes counterproductive, undercutting the pragmatists and empowering the bad guys that one seeks to isolate.

At the same time, despite the baggage of history, and its current relationship with Iran, Russia’s attitudes toward Israel are overwhelmingly positive. Many Russians admire the social and economic accomplishments of the Jewish state and its technological and military prowess. Intense human contacts under conditions of a visa-free regime and the lack of a language barrier with a significant portion of Israel’s population help enormously. What also helps is Putin’s positive disposition toward the Jewish people in general and toward the State of Israel, even if he does not always see eye to eye with its leaders.

The meeting in Sochi in May between Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu has predictably failed to resolve the issue of the Russian S-300 air-defense systems to be delivered to Syria and maintained with Russian technical support. From the Kremlin’s perspective, it is those systems that hold the bar high for outside military intervention in Syria and thus help achieve Moscow’s main objective. The Russians also appear to be more confident than many Israelis or Americans as to the nature and degree of control over those systems: Essentially, operating them would require Russian technicians. Finally, Putin knows that denying or withdrawing air-defense cover is the ultimate argument he needs to hold in reserve to make Assad buy into a real power-sharing deal, should Moscow and Washington decide to play a “Dayton for two” in Syria.


To speak of a coherent Russian strategy in the Middle East is therefore premature. What is clear is that Moscow is beginning to step out of its post-Soviet self-absorption. Its main preoccupation is with security—and Islamist extremism features as a primary threat. This is a big issue. By contrast, Russia’s interests in the Middle East are relatively modest. They are centered on oil and gas exploration deals, pipeline geopolitics, and pricing arrangements; other energy opportunities beckon in the nuclear area. While Russia’s position in the regional arms bazaar has suffered in the last decade as a result of developments in Iraq and Libya (and may yet suffer more in Syria), Moscow is clearly determined to stay in the arms business. Finally, as Russia recasts itself as a defender of traditional Christian values as well as a land of moderate Islam, it is discovering a range of humanitarian causes in the birthplace of both global religions.

To address its concerns and promote its interests, the Russian Federation is seeking both to bolster its defenses against imports of Islamist radicalism and extremism from the Middle East, and to help settle conflicts in the region in cooperation with the United States and other world and regional powers. It is using the U.N. Security Council to limit the liberty of the United States to intervene militarily and to block all attempts at regime change from the outside. Such defense of traditional international law and state sovereignty is linked not only to the Russian leadership’s generally conservative worldview but equally, if not more, to the Kremlin’s wariness toward Western democracy promotion. In an effort to upgrade Russia’s role in the region itself, Moscow has revived, albeit on a small scale, the Russian Navy’s permanent presence in the Mediterranean. To prevent the rise of a nuclear-armed Iran, Russia prefers international negotiations but with the military option kept off the table.

To further its economic interests, Russia prefers government-to-government agreements allowing its state-owned and private companies to operate in individual countries. In the energy sector, Russia has accommodated to Turkey’s new role of a regional energy hub but has worked hard to protect its own share of the European Union’s natural gas market. Gazprom’s very expensive pipeline project, the South Stream, to be built across the Black Sea and traversing the Balkans en route to Austria, may indeed evoke comparisons with the 19th-century Russian encroachments on what was then the Ottoman Empire. But it also demonstrates how much has changed in both Russia and the Middle East.


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Dmitri Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Dmitri Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.