Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The Russian military intervention in Syria in the fall of 2015 marked the major turning point in the Syrian civil war and Russia’s return to the Middle East as a major power player after a decades-long absence. Russian airpower, in cooperation with Iranian boots on the ground, reversed the course of the war and saved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government from imminent collapse. Russian President Vladimir Putin used that victory to rekindle old partnerships and strike up new ones. He has convened conferences to decide the fate of post–civil war Syria, exchanged visits with long-standing U.S. allies in the Middle East, and signed deals to sell them weapons and nuclear power plants. Russia seems resurgent from the Persian Gulf to North Africa especially as the United States, worn out by nearly two decades of endless wars, appears eager to minimize its commitments in the region. Unwilling to stand in the way of Russian ambitions, U.S. policy has become increasingly erratic and disruptive for long-standing adversaries and allies alike.

President Donald Trump’s October 2019 decision to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from northern Syria and in effect green-light Turkey’s military action against U.S.-aligned Kurdish-led militias is the most dramatic manifestation of Washington’s desire to put an end to nearly two decades of war. It has magnified the impression of a hasty U.S. retreat from the Middle East and Russian ascendancy. Adding insult to injury, U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria coincided with triumphant visits by Putin to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both long-standing U.S. allies.

However, a sober assessment of the Kremlin’s pursuits across the Middle East suggests that the image of its ascendancy is somewhat of an exaggeration, and that the actual accomplishments of Russian diplomacy across the region are far more modest than they seem at first blush. Of course, the Kremlin’s accomplishments to date should not be minimized or ignored. But the single biggest accomplishment—a shared victory in the Syrian civil war—that has positioned Russia as the key power in the war-torn country, comes with a host of major diplomatic, military, and economic challenges, which make the task of winning the peace even more daunting than winning the war.

From the Persian Gulf to North Africa, nimble Russian diplomacy has produced an array of trade and investment-related deals and joint declarations about expanded cooperation in various spheres. However, a closer look at this impressive pattern of activity makes clear that the practical implementation of these agreements and deals is lagging or remains unfulfilled. Russia’s trade with the Middle East remains exceedingly modest, and there is little likelihood that this state of affairs will change in the foreseeable future.

The Drivers of Russian Policy

Why is Russia returning to the Middle East? What explains its ambition to reestablish itself as a power broker in the tumultuous region? Why is it seeking a major role in a region where major powers, including the Soviet Union, have seen their ambitions thwarted and fortunes wasted in pursuit of grandiose plans? The short answer is because the Middle East is the crossroads of the world, where tradition, interests, and political ambition all mandate an active Russian presence.

Yet for some observers, the Russian military intervention in Syria that positioned it as a force in Middle Eastern politics has been easy to dismiss as a mistake or a potential invitation to plunge into new quagmires. That would be wrong. It was the absence of Russia from the region in the aftermath of the Cold War that was a major departure from the norm. Moscow’s post-2015 active presence marked the resumption of centuries-old Russian involvement in the region’s affairs.

Russian involvement in Middle Eastern affairs dates back to the reign of Peter the Great and the founding of the modern Russian state, if not earlier. As is the case with many such long-standing foreign policy pursuits, Russian policy has combined elements of geopolitics and great-power competition with ideology and religion. At various times in history, Russian armed forces fought land battles against Persian, Turkish, British, and French armies, and confronted their navies in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

In the more recent past, after World War II, the Soviet Union emerged as a major presence in Middle Eastern affairs, securing partnerships with Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and establishing itself as the key backer of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Soviet involvement in Middle Eastern affairs during the Cold War was multifaceted and entailed economic and technical assistance, military assistance and training, arms sales, and even direct involvement in the region’s conflicts in support of client-states. The Soviet Union was a key party to efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Soviet Navy became a regular presence in the Mediterranean.

Russian policy in the Middle East has had multiple and diverse drivers. Geopolitical and ideological factors were influenced by its religious and cultural ties to the vast region where the Russian and Ottoman Empires played out their long-standing rivalry, from the Balkans to Asia Minor and the Levant. Over time, these drivers included the quest for warm water ports and territorial expansion, protection of fellow Orthodox Christian believers and Slavs oppressed under Ottoman rule, and support for various postcolonial or revolutionary movements and regimes. Russia was wholly engaged in the outright great-power competition for influence in the contested region, where all major powers of the day had interests and sought to project power and influence.

Beyond history and tradition, Russian ambition to return to the Middle East can be explained by the region’s proximity to Russia’s borders. The claim to a major role in the affairs of the Mediterranean by virtue of being a Black Sea power has deep roots in Russian strategic thought and policy. Geography not only drives Russian geopolitical ambitions, but also has obvious consequences for Russian national security. Considering the difficult terrain and porous borders of its neighbors, the prospect of instability in the Levant spilling over into Russia’s restive Caucasus region is a problem no Russian national security analyst or official can ignore. Even when there are legitimate differences of opinion on how to best secure Russia against that contingency, the existence of this problem cannot be denied.

Nor can anyone deny that Russia has interests in the region beyond historical attachments and security. It may seem, on the basis of mere statistics that bilateral trade with most individual countries is not a major driver of Russian policy in the Middle East as a whole because the region overall ranks relatively low among Russian trading partners. Russia’s only significant trading partner in the Middle East in 2017 was Turkey, with the total trade volume just under $16.5 billion. It was the fifth-largest market for Russian goods (and fourteenth-largest source of imports to Russia).

But numbers can be misleading. Several countries in the region—Algeria, Egypt, Iraq—have been historically significant buyers of Russian weapons. The arms industry is an influential interest group in Russia and arms sales have long been more than just another source of revenue for this sector of the Russian economy. During the lean times, when the Russian military’s procurement budgets dried up, arms exports were crucial to sustaining the industry. More recently, arms exports have also served as an important tool of Russian foreign policy.

By far the most important Russian economic interest in the Middle East is in the region’s role as the supplier of oil and gas to the global economy. As one of the world’s top three producers of hydrocarbons, Russia has a vital stake in the future of the global oil and gas marketplace. The activities of Middle Eastern oil and—increasingly—gas producers have direct bearing on Russian economic well-being and political stability. Although Russia and Middle Eastern producers are competitors, they are increasingly having to coordinate their activities as their previously dominant positions as energy superpowers are being challenged by the entry of new sources of supply and technologies.

Several Middle Eastern states have also expressed interest in investing in the Russian economy. While expressions of interest have so far exceeded actual amounts invested, they are not to be dismissed. For Russia, struggling to overcome the twin obstacles of U.S. and EU sanctions and its own poor investment climate, the prospect of investments by some of the biggest sovereign wealth funds is important and welcome as proof of its ability to break out of international isolation and economic potential.

Last, but not least, there is the domestic political context of Russian foreign policy. Throughout Putin’s tenure at the helm, making Russia great again has been a major stated objective of Russian foreign policy and Putin’s domestic political platform. The 2015 Russian military intervention in Syria was a critical milestone in that pursuit—a high-profile military deployment in a region long dominated by the United States, challenging the “indispensable nation’s” monopoly on decision making in the Middle East. Coming on the heels of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Syrian deployment was an important juncture not merely in Russian policy in the Middle East, but Russian foreign policy in general. A successful intervention in Syria would demonstrate to Washington and Brussels that their policy of isolating Russia, marginalizing it in world affairs, and forcing it to retreat under the weight of U.S.-EU sanctions was doomed to fail; Russia could be neither marginalized nor isolated, and it would not retreat.

For decades and centuries prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the loss of territories that long had been part of the Russian Empire, Russian presence in the Middle East had been recognized as a natural phenomenon, a major element of the region’s complex politics and the broader context of great-power politics. Its legitimacy was hardly ever questioned. It was to be opposed, as it was in the nineteenth century, when the United Kingdom and France fought Russia in Crimea; competed against, as the United States and its allies sought to do throughout the Cold War; but not questioned as an aberration. Arguably, even the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea was consistent with Russia’s traditional pursuit of unimpeded access to the Mediterranean. The Kremlin justified it to the Russian public in terms of historical continuity with earlier centuries’ struggles and victories. One does not need to put much stock in this propaganda to conclude that with Russia’s return to the Middle East in 2015, the geopolitics of the region is not entering a new phase, but returning to a status quo ante.

The intervention in the Syrian civil war occurred against the backdrop of the United States trying to disengage from the turbulent region thus greatly reducing the risk of a U.S.-Russian confrontation. U.S. disengagement from the Middle East has also created multiple opportunities for Russia to reach out to U.S. partners seeking reassurance in a time of uncertainty—in the Levant, in the Persian Gulf, and in North Africa. Notwithstanding Moscow’s success in building or restoring important ties in these regions, it has neither the means nor the ambition to fill the vacuum resulting from the United States’ pullback. The Kremlin appears careful not to overextend itself and content to remain as an indispensable actor—one whose presence is necessary, even if not sufficient, to address the region’s many problems. Moreover, the advantage that Russia has enjoyed since returning to Middle Eastern politics—the ability to talk to all parties—is also a key limiting factor in its pursuit of a further enhanced role in the region. To move beyond being everyone’s interlocutor and become a true power broker in the Middle East would require taking sides in the major conflict tearing the region apart—between Iran and virtually everyone else. So far, Russia has not been willing or able to take that step and instead appears intent on remaining the party everyone can talk to.


Russia has returned to the Middle East. In the Levant, in North Africa, and in the Persian Gulf, the Kremlin has succeeded in rebuilding some of the old relationships that it abandoned during its troubled 1990s. Thanks to a successful military intervention in Syria, Moscow has emerged as an important power broker positioned at the intersection of multiple interests that the Syrian civil war brought into conflict.

With skill, persistence, and willingness to accept some risk, Moscow may not be “the indispensable nation” that the United States once claimed to be, but the very capable representatives of the Russian state are carrying themselves in ways that leave little doubt Russia is back in the top tier of Middle East power politics.

Russia does not appear to be indispensable. In multiple situations, it has inserted itself and become a party whose consent is necessary, even if Moscow is hardly in a position to provide the right solutions to serious problems. The countries of the Middle East may want to talk to Russia, but they are under no illusion that Moscow can produce the results they are seeking.

Russia’s success in reestablishing itself as an important actor in the Middle East should not conceal the fact that its toolkit—military, diplomatic, and economic—for projecting and sustaining its power and influence in the region is quite modest. High-profile diplomacy has been useful for Russia’s image as a major power at a time when the Obama and Trump administrations were looking for opportunities to reduce U.S. involvement in the region. Even when combined with arms sales, a key instrument in the Russian toolkit, the Kremlin can do little to address the region’s pressing security, economic, or societal challenges.

Moreover, aside from Syria, Russia’s most important relationships in the Middle East happen to be with non-Arab states—Israel, Turkey, and Iran. Yet, the Middle East’s most pressing problems are within Arab societies. There is little that Russia can offer them to address those problems, which is likely to limit its reach and staying power in the region.

The ability to talk to all parties is the capital that Russian leaders appear to value the most and frequently try to play up. But the Kremlin’s unwillingness to spend any of this capital has placed a powerful constraint on Russian diplomacy in the Middle East. In Syria, for example, Russian interests are somewhat at odds with those of Iran after their shared success in propping up the Assad regime. Russia is apparently unwilling and unable to prevail on a key partner in the region to desist from disruptive policies threatening Israel, with which Russia wants to maintain good relations. In the Persian Gulf, where the relationship with Saudi Arabia has reached historic highs, Moscow appears similarly unwilling and unable to take sides between Riyadh and Tehran let alone moderate escalating tensions.

Notwithstanding the skill and persistence displayed by Russian diplomats and leadership in pursuing their goal of restoring Russia to a prominent position in the Middle East, and the risk inherent in any use of military force in the region, Russia’s return to the region has been facilitated in large measure by the perception that the United States is trying to disengage from the region. In Syria, ahead of Russian military moves in autumn 2015, the Obama administration had made it abundantly clear that it was not going to intervene directly on the side of the opposition and that the U.S. military role would be limited to the campaign against the Islamic State—thus leaving Russia free to support the Assad regime and pound regime opponents supported by the United States and its allies.

In the Persian Gulf, Russia capitalized on fears stemming from the widely advertised U.S. pivot toward the Asia Pacific region and desire for a new modus vivendi with Iran. Likewise, Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia has been driven by the decline of its relationship with the United States and Europe. And Russia’s return to North Africa is occurring against the backdrop of the U.S. absence from the region since the failed 2011 Libya campaign.

Despite early predictions that Russia was overextending itself in Syria and could face dire diplomatic, military, and economic consequences, the Kremlin has been generally quite conservative in its actions and has skillfully avoided undue risks in its Middle Eastern pursuits. The Syria intervention was carried out once it became clear that the United States would not stand in the way of the Russian military. The Russian military has operated in Syria in a way that is clearly intended to minimize the risk of losses on the ground and in the air. Elsewhere, Russian engagements have been carried out so as to minimize their costs and maximize their profits. In other words, contrary to its reputation for daring and recklessness, the Kremlin has been risk-averse.

In the policy community in the United States, Russia’s return to the Middle East has been met mostly with dismay and fears of its resurgence as a malign actor hostile to U.S. interests, in other words, as a spoiler. This attitude manifested itself particularly following Trump’s October 2019 decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria and in effect pave the way for Turkey’s incursion into the region, which endangered U.S.-aligned Kurdish-led militias. That turn of events led to Russian troops moving into the region and an agreement between the militias and the Assad government to return the territory held by militias to the government’s control as the price for halting the Turkish onslaught.

A great deal of the commentary in the United States lamented the gains that Russia would presumably realize as a result of Trump’s decision. The striking feature of that commentary has been that hardly any of it offered a realistic view of U.S. interests at stake and the likely impact of the decision on U.S. interests. It would be a mistake and a blow to U.S. interests if this one-sided view of the situation solidified into a consensus in the policy community and indeed became the rationale for U.S. policy toward Syria, Russia, and the Middle East.

It is a fact that the United States has been trying—unsuccessfully—to reduce its commitments in the Middle East since the turn of the century. The rise of China created a powerful requirement for U.S. policymakers to refocus their energies and resources on the Asia Pacific theater. The changing nature of global energy markets driven by the shale revolution and the imperative to address climate change have been gradually but significantly reducing the importance of the Middle East for the health of the global economy. This process is only likely to accelerate in the foreseeable future.

In the light of these developments, U.S. core interests in the Middle East can be distilled into the following four categories: preventing terrorist attacks on the United States; preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; ensuring the security of the state of Israel; and the flow of oil from the Middle East, as long as it remains an important factor of the health of the global economy. Russia’s return to the Middle East as a major power broker does not put at risk any of these interest, With skill and diplomatic creativity, one can imagine that Russia’s increased presence can be harnessed to advance them.

Russia has as much of a stake in defeating the Islamic State and other terrorist movements as the United States. Partnership with Russia in combating terrorism has long been a major objective of several U.S. administrations and should be continued, or attempted again. Moreover, the United States continues to maintain a robust sea, air, and land military presence in the Middle East that enables it to strike terrorist targets, which is not impeded by Russian military presence in Syria.

Russian-Israeli relations have undergone a major transformation since the Cold War and are at an all-time high. Russian officials have mostly turned a blind eye to Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and expressed their commitment to the security of the state of Israel. Moscow and Tel Aviv share an interest in restoring a degree of stability to Syria and containing Iranian influence there. Both are likely to prefer a stable Russia-backed, Assad-led government to chaos or an Iran-backed, Assad-led government with Hezbollah having a free hand to attack Israel.

Russian diplomacy in the Persian Gulf does not pose a threat to the flow of oil from the region. Russia has no military presence in the region where U.S. presence is still robust. The Kremlin is busy courting key Gulf oil-producing states, as demonstrated by Putin’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While Russia’s leverage vis-à-vis Iran is limited at best, its ability to engage with Tehran could prove useful in a future crisis situation.

The diminished U.S. stake in the Middle East should translate into a different set of pursuits for U.S. diplomacy in the region. After two unsuccessful wars with transformational goals—in Iraq and Afghanistan—and with U.S. focus increasingly on the Asia Pacific theater, the goal of transforming the Middle East and solving its many problems is unlikely to guide U.S. policy in the region. The more likely and realistic goal for U.S. policy is to help U.S. partners in the Middle East manage the region’s problems and prevent them from escalating.

Russia’s combination of limited resources and considerable ambitions make it at first glance an unlikely, but upon further consideration a plausible partner to the United States. Russian interests will not be well served by an escalation of tensions in various parts of the region. They are much more likely to be served better by a shared understanding with the United States aimed at managing instability and preventing tensions from escalating. This confluence of interests could serve as the basis for creative diplomacy and for engaging Russia and exploring how its return to the Middle East can serve U.S. interests.

This new diplomatic effort would require a different approach to Russia and to the Middle East on the part of the United States. Despite the current U.S. preoccupation with competition among great powers, much if not most of the national security community in the United States does not consider Russia a true great power. It is viewed at best as a has-been great power, which is in a state of long-term, irreversible decline. This view of Russia can lead to a risky under-estimation of Russian ambitions, capabilities, and the resources available to Russian policymakers, as well as a tendency to misperceive how other powers and leaders see Russia. Such misperceptions can lead to hubris and miscalculation fraught with negative consequences for U.S. interests. Notwithstanding all of Russia’s many problems and shortcomings, it is bound to remain an important actor in the Middle East whose interests will at times be incompatible with those of the United States, but will not always be inimical to them either. The challenge for U.S. diplomacy will be to manage the former and maximize the latter.

For the United States, long accustomed to Russia’s absence from the Middle East, these new realities are hardly a reason to panic. Instead, it is essential to recognize that much, if not most of what Russia has been able to accomplish in the region has been a function of the United States redefining its own interests in the Middle East and repositioning itself there. Taken together, these two developments should be seen as opening for a major course correction for U.S. policy guided by a more modest, but ultimately more realistic and productive set of objectives.

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