Russia's Current Strategy in the Middle East

"Russia is culturing bilateral relations with all the major Middle East players, so as to create a system in which it becomes an inevitable broker in both the national equilibria and the larger regional game." Analysis by Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi, Russia (Photo: AP)

The Russian Federation has already won the war in Syria and is, therefore, the hegemonic power throughout the Middle East.

Despite tensions at the beginning of the Syrian conflicts, Russia has maintained excellent relations with Turkey, the Second Armed Force of NATO and the strategic key to the link between the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Last September, Turkey agreed to buy the Russian S-400 missile systems, an important break in the Western military and technological monopoly. Russia has also created a climate of cooperation between Turkey and Iran, another geopolitical novelty that means only one thing: NATO has been fragmented and defused throughout the current Middle East.

It should also be recalled that Russia's Rosatom, a state-owned nuclear infrastructure company, is starting to build a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu, Southern Turkey, for an estimated cost of 20 billion US dollars. The nuclear power station should be operational by the end of 2023.

The geopolitical trade-off between Turkey and Russia is once again evident: Turkey uses its special relationship with Russia to put pressure on NATO, while Russia uses its relations to slowly take Turkey out of the Atlantic Alliance’ strategic context.

It is also clear that the central point of Turkey’s geo-economy is the necessary diversification of energy sources.

In fact, Turkey supported the Blue Stream project – completed in 2003 – and later has also accepted the TurkStream project, which will be completed in 2020. Turkey already buys over 50% of its oil and gas from Russia.

Russia’s excellent mechanism to put pressure on the second Armed Force of the Atlantic Alliance, which seems to have some strategy towards the Russian Federation, but no clear position for the system of the Greater Middle East, ruined by the unlucky "Arab Springs" or by the Muslim Brotherhood’s rebellions against "tyrants", often supported by the United States.

Another factor of a possible conflict between Russia and Turkey, which has not occurred yet, is the Kurdish issue. Russia has always had good relations with Kurds, while notoriously Turkey does not want them to have any political autonomy.

In the Syrian Constitution project currently being worked out in Astana's meetings, Kurds will have a great deal of autonomy, which obviously also serves Russia’s interest. A future Kurdish buffer State controlling the link between Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon, namely the Shi'ite axis which avoids Kurds spreading outside their current Syrian borders and ultimately avoids the establishment of a Saudi-hegemonized Sunni bloc in the Central-Southern region of current Syria.

In his October 5 visit to Moscow, shortly before leaving his throne to his son Mohammed, King Salman asked Russia to formally "put an end to Iran’s interference" in Syria, the theatre of all Middle East power flows and balances. He also signed 15 Memorandums of Understanding for Saudi Arabia’s investment in Russia, especially in the space, oil, and military sectors, as well as for closer cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia to stabilize the oil price.

A primary strategic goal, especially for Russia, who has always entertained the idea of becoming an OPEC member, especially in the early years of this century.

Saudi Arabia, the US traditional strategic pole in the Middle East, is currently diversifying its international economic and political relations after realizing that the United States does not intend to stabilize the Middle East, but rather plans to divide and fragment it between the "democratic" countries and the others, in a value-based and moralistic geopolitics that will certainly lead to other disastrous and unnecessary wars.

Russia will now be in a position to use its regional power to accept, obviously in a partial way, the Saudi demands for Iran – namely Iran’s withdrawal from Syria and the end of the Iranian support to the Houthis in Yemen – so as to later divert Saudi Arabia from the United States and its naive strategy against generic "terrorism."

Russia essentially intervened in Syria for two sets of reasons: firstly, to reach a regional hegemony to force the United States and the EU to make concessions in more vital areas for Russia, such as Ukraine. Secondly, to demonstrate that it is a top-level strategic and military power – hence capable of influencing the US and NATO movements in the Middle East and making them marginal.

Both goals have been reached.

Currently, Saudi Arabia wants to work together with Russia in Syria, thus defusing its jihadist groups, particularly Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which already works jointly with the Turkish forces, but with a very clear aim: Saudi Arabia will stop supporting the Sunni jihadists against Assad if it is allowed to acquire a big share of works and investment for Syrian reconstruction.

Hence, a balance of power enabling Russia to tip the balance between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, by possibly playing everyone against the others.

The problem lies in the fact that the Russian elite still reads Machiavelli’s works and follows his ideas, while the United States has currently developed an increasingly moralistic and value-based approach to foreign policy, which, although not hypocritical, does not permit any realistic evaluation of the relations of power, which are what really matters in foreign policy.

Russia is culturing bilateral relations with all the major Middle East players, so as to create a system in which it becomes an inevitable broker in both the national equilibria and the larger regional game.

The current crucial point for the various regional actors is basically the following: (a) cooperation for Syrian reconstruction, since no country can do so alone; (b) Turkey's access to the Syrian border areas to wipe away the remaining jihadist groups that could infect Anatolia; (c) to control, but not eliminate, the Iranian power in Syria by limiting and confining it to the South-Eastern region; and (d) to close the Kurdish area in the North, which is in nobody’s interest to strengthen.

Hence, Russia interprets its Middle East strategy as autonomous from the Sunni-Shi'ite clash and absolutely non-ideological – and this is exactly the Westerners’ mistake – while the Middle East is obviously central to Russian security, but equally irrelevant to the security of NATO, which has de facto lost Turkey.

The crazy idea of repeating the Cold War with new NATO pressure on Russia's western border enables the Russian Federation to operate smoothly – and almost without contrasts – in other regions.

Russia has always considered the US operation called "Arab Springs" not as a holistic project to bring unlikely "democracy" to the Arab-Islamic world, but as a differentiated phenomenon, to be assessed on a case-by-case basis depending on the country where the "Spring" took place.

The issue of the strategic link between Russia and Israel is even more complex.

Israel has always informed the Russian Federation of the fact that the Iranian presence in Syria is considered to be an existential threat to the Jewish State.

Furthermore, Israel has always tried to stop the US withdrawal from the Middle East, while leaving Russia free to play its game and then cry over the death of the US foreign policy in the oil system.

Does the United States believe that petrodollars are enough? Does the United States think that the next US oil autonomy will free it from Middle East commitments? In any case, these are two fully unlikely hypotheses.

In fact, the military power reached by Russia with the Syrian operations has been largely built at the United States’ expense.

Israel was not satisfied with Russia’s acceptance of the 30-kilometer limit from the Golan border within which the Iranian forces and the Hezbollah have to stay. While Jordan welcomed the "de-escalation zone" in Southern Syria to allow the refugees’ return, but Israel is currently pressing both Russia and the United States on the matter.

Israel is pressing Russia to keep on controlling Iran within Syria. It is also pressing the United States to urge it to ensure a military presence in the Middle East, which it has now left completely to Russia.

Hence, from now on, no Middle East country will take the US commitments seriously.

All Middle East countries will always prefer to find an agreement with Russia.

Russia wants to use both Turkey and Iran as guarantors – on an equal footing – of the future Syrian stabilization.

Nevertheless, Israel is a regional power in which the Russian Federation is very interested. The latter does not want to neglect Israel’s interest both in its security northwards, against Lebanon and the Golan Heights, and in the economic and military agreements with Russia, which are often already operational.

Russia takes Israel very seriously and probably wants to use it in the future Middle East theatre when the power crystallization in Syria leads Iran and Russia to a very likely clash.

Currently, in a Syria not yet pacified, no one really wants a war with the Jewish State, not even Iran – and this implies that the Israeli military threats will always be taken very seriously.

The Russian Federation has an excellent exchange of intelligence with Jordan and the Jordanian operations in Syria suggest that also the Hashemite Kingdom is recalibrating its traditional relations with the United States and Great Britain, which no longer want entanglements in the oil area, so as to rethink – from Jordan – to closer relations with Russia.

Certainly, King Abdallah participated in the establishment of the Islamic Military Alliance in Riyadh.

In fact, the basis for Jordanian security is the stability of its border with Iraq and Syria, which also influences its internal political stability to a large extent.

Hence, Jordan’s cooperation with Russia or the United States concerns only its national interest in the containment of its borders.

In fact, since 1999 – the year of his crowning – King Abdallah has paid 16 visits to Russia.

Jordan has already bought the “Kornet” anti-tank systems and the portable "Igla" ground-air defense system from Russia, while the latter is already planning to manufacture the Russian RPGs in Jordan.

Probably, Russia regards Jordan as an ideal broker with the entire Sunni world and – exactly upon Russia’s order – Jordan has sat at the Astana negotiating table.

Moreover, Jordan is communicating its ideas on the Middle East also to the United States, by even mediating between the two global players.

Hence, the more time goes by, the more Jordan will be essential to Russia, while the Syrian political and military situation is crystallizing.

As far as Lebanon is concerned, Saad Hariri met with Putin on September 12-13, with a very clear agenda in mind: (a) Russian weapons to support the Lebanese Armed Forces; (b) investment for the expansion of the port of Tripoli; (c) the creation of a free economic zone in northern Lebanon; and (d) Russia’s involvement in the future exploitation of gas deposits off the Lebanese coast.

Lebanon is also worried about an increase of US military presence in Israel and Jordan, together with the fragile equilibrium with Hezbollah.

Hence, Lebanon views and seeks – in Russia – a powerful ally against Israeli and US pressure from the south.

Certainly, Russia still has to fully relinquish the typical logic of the Westerners, who have made their own mistakes by believing in a sort of "political engineering" in the various countries and in the always excessive relevance given to religious differences.

In the future, the Russian Federation in the Middle East will reason along these lines: (1) stabilization of all current borders; (2) slow replacement of its support with the old US support; (3) strategic continuity between the Greater Middle East and the Georgian and Ukrainian region; (4) Turkey’s gradual integration; and (5) future negotiations with the United States when they cannot be marginal.

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