Russia widens footprint in Middle East
Amid escalating tensions between Hezbollah and Israel after two Israeli drones crashed in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri appealed for help not to the United States or the international community but to Moscow. It was a striking moment in Russia’s rise in Middle East politics.
The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989-91 led some Americans to proclaim a brave new world with the United States as sole superpower but Vladimir Putin rebuilt Russia’s international footprint as president after 2000.
“Syria and the Middle East have become important arenas for Russia to articulate military strength and gain weight on the international stage,” said Zaur Gasimov, senior research fellow at the University of Bonn’s Russian Studies Department.
Russia’s intervention in Syria since 2015 has seen it acquire the Tartus naval base and the Hmeimim airbase but it has wider effects, Gasimov said. “Russia’s come back to the Middle East… has forced traditionally American-oriented countries like Israel to look for understanding with Moscow,” he said.
Moscow’s relations with Israel are layered. “There are about a million Russian-speaking citizens living in Israel and they have an influence on policy-making,” said Gasimov.
That’s 12% — 770,000 — of voters. For the September 17 election, Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv displays on one side a massive poster of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Putin and on another side a poster of Netanyahu with US President Donald Trump.
Moscow has intelligence co-operation with Israel in Syria, where Russia, like Iran, supports Syrian President Bashar Assad. With both Russia and Israel flying in Syrian airspace, they fear an incident worse than the 2018 downing of an Israeli F-16 jet by a Russia-supplied Syrian surface-to-air missile.
Moscow has an equally complex relationship with Tehran. “Russia is aware Iran could rise up to a regional power and has counterbalanced this by developing strong ties with Ankara,” said Gasimov, citing Moscow’s delivery to Turkey of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system and its development of Turkey’s first nuclear power station, at Akkuyu.
This helps Russian arms sales. “The location of S-400s in Syria and Crimea [since 2018] and a quite successful ‘use-in-war’ of older Russia-made antiballistic missiles by the Syrian Army contributed to popularising Russian weaponry internationally,” said Gasimov. “China has demonstrated an interest in purchasing the S-400 and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has said he plans to buy the S-500 [which supplements the S-400].”
Russia’s liaison with Saudi Arabia centres on two years coordinating oil production limits but Riyadh’s arms purchases, including an agreement for S-400s, and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s 2018 Moscow visit suggest both sides want to expand options.
Russia’s Middle East strategy is to define strategic interests and act to secure them. In his book “Winners and Losers in the ‘Arab Spring’: Profiles in Chaos,” Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher writes that Putin has thrived in post-2011 regional turmoil while the United States has undergone “zigzags and constant senior personnel changes in… [its] strategic policy-making apparatus.”
While Putin has met with Iranian President Hassan Rohani twice this year, the Trump administration in July sanctioned Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Despite “maximum pressure” on Tehran, Trump’s intentions were hardly clarified by his suggestion in August — as Zarif visited the G7 summit in France — that he might meet with Rohani.
Russia’s efforts are relentless. Its Astana process, mediating Syria’s conflict, has continued since 2017 with Turkey and Iran despite what Zarif recently called “stark differences” between the three. After the G7, Zarif was in Moscow, meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Since late August, Putin’s Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov has been in the Gulf to meet with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah and Emirati National Security Adviser Tahnoon bin Zayed. Some in the Gulf were taken aback when Washington in August rejected responsibility for others’ tankers passing Hormuz but the Emiratis had already met with the Iranians for the first time in six years to discuss maritime security.
Bogdanov has hosted Israel’s ambassador in Moscow to discuss the Lebanon-Israel border. Did Russia mediate with Hezbollah? Did this influence the limited Israel-Hezbollah exchange of fire on September 1?
“I haven’t seen any mediation but there seems to be some unwritten understanding,” said a British security analyst. “The Hezbollah reply and the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] response have been measured, almost to the extent of being pro forma. Hezbollah used short-range guided missiles, while the IDF fired into open fields.”
How far will Russia’s Middle East role go? Putin is due to firm up Russia’s proposals for Gulf security floated in a government document in July, which envisaged bilateral and multilateral consultations among stakeholders, including regional and extra-regional states, the UN Security Council, the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
This, said the document, should produce “an action group to prepare an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf area.”