Russia set to build on Middle East policy successes

The economic lifeline from the Gulf states has allowed Moscow not just to blunt the effects of Western sanctions but also to lessen Russian dependence on China in overcoming them.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Key alliances. Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shows the way to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, last October. (Reuters)
Key alliances. Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shows the way to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, last October. (Reuters)

Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East was highly successful in 2018 and Moscow seems set to build onto this success in 2019. The Russians, though, may encounter problems in the region, some of which may stem from its success there.

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most important Middle East successes has been in Syria. Russian military support solidified the once-beleaguered Assad regime and helped it retake territory lost to its opponents. While a peace settlement in Syria has yet to be reached, Moscow is dominating the diplomatic effort to achieve one. No other country is sponsoring one that competes with it.

Russia has also continued to maintain good relations with all the major actors in the Middle East — except jihadists — despite their antagonism towards one another. Moscow, for example, has good relations with Iran but also with its arch-enemy, Israel. It has good relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt as well as with their rival Qatar.

While Moscow has maintained close ties to various Kurdish groups, Russian relations with Turkey, which fears Kurdish nationalism, have improved. Indeed, it appears that Putin has better ties with mercurial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than Turkey’s Western allies do.

Putin has continued to take advantage of tensions between the West and Middle Eastern governments over human rights issues that are of little or no concern to Moscow. Despite Russia’s verbal support for the Palestinian cause, Moscow has shown no sign of joining growing Western criticism of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Similarly, while Western publics and even governments have become increasingly critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz both in response to what is believed to be his role in the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as well as his bombing campaign in Yemen, Putin has made a point of not making a point about these issues. Indeed, photos of Putin’s meetings with Crown Prince Mohammed at the Saudi-Russian World Cup match last June and the G20 summit in Argentina indicate that theirs is a genuinely warm relationship at a time the West is critical of both.

Finally, a great achievement of Moscow’s Middle East policy has been that none of the United States’ traditional allies in the region has joined with the West in imposing economic sanctions against Russia for its aggressive policies towards Ukraine, efforts to kill Putin opponents in the United Kingdom or other actions the West disapproves of. The economic lifeline from the Gulf Arab states in particular has allowed Moscow not just to blunt the effects of Western sanctions but also to lessen Russian dependence on China in overcoming them.

The success of Putin’s Middle East policy may well continue in 2019 and beyond. Indeed, he may not have to take much initiative himself but simply be willing and able to exploit the many differences among others.

Still, not everything may go Putin’s way. Russian-Israeli relations were damaged in September when, as a result of an Israeli air attack against the Assad regime, Syrian forces shot down a Russian military aircraft. Moscow blamed Israel for this incident (even though it was the Assad regime that downed the Russian aircraft) and sternly warned Israel against further such behaviour.

Yet while Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has tried valiantly to mollify Putin, Israeli media accounts claim that the country’s attacks on Syrian targets have continued. This points to the possibility that Russia is unable to prevent more serious conflicts between Israel and Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime.

Moscow’s good relations with both sides may not be enough to influence their behaviour towards each other. Nor would Moscow welcome US military involvement that such a conflict could well lead to.

More broadly, Moscow has benefited from the fact that the Middle East has had high expectations of the United States — and been disappointed when those are not met — but low expectations of Russia, which Middle Eastern actors have been gratified with when these are exceeded.

However, the more successful Moscow’s Middle East policy becomes, the greater Middle Eastern expectations of Russia will become and if Russia cannot fulfil the growing expectations, many Middle Eastern actors may respond by continuing their reliance on the United States despite their disappointments with Washington.

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