What’s ahead in the Middle East with six more years under Putin?

Is Putin likely to undertake any more surprise moves like his military intervention in Syria that began in 2015?
Sunday 25/03/2018
A Russian soldier stands near a poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin at Wafideen camp in Damascus, Syria, on March 2, 2018.  (Reuters)
Weaponised influence? A Russian soldier stands near a poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin at Wafideen camp in Damascus, Syria, on March 2, 2018. (Reuters)

Although the result was never in doubt, Vladimir Putin was re-elected to another 6-year term as president of Russia. What, if anything, does this mean for Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East? Is Putin likely to undertake any more surprise moves like his military intervention in Syria that began in 2015?

Putin seems to relish making surprise moves, so this cannot be ruled out. It is not clear, though, that Putin has any sort of “master plan” for the Middle East. In general, he can be expected to preserve what influence Russia has gained and to take advantage of opportunities — especially negative reaction to US foreign policy moves — to expand Moscow’s influence. What does this mean specifically?

If, as seems increasingly likely, the Trump administration withdraws from the Iranian nuclear agreement, Putin, who supports it, can be expected to seize on this as an opportunity to isolate the United States diplomatically. This is more relevant for Russia’s ties with Western and other governments outside the Middle East since they are also supportive of the Iranian nuclear accord whereas it is mainly certain that Middle Eastern governments (Israel as well as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members) oppose or are wary of it.

Putin’s Middle East diplomacy, then, is likely to warn about how Trump administration policy risks war in the region and to offer Russia’s services as a mediator between Iran and its regional opponents. For those Middle Eastern governments that are fearful of Iran but also wish to avoid war with it, this offer might be highly appealing.

In addition, now that the Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime is no longer in danger of being overthrown by its internal opponents, Moscow’s attention has become more focused on the post-war reconstruction effort in Syria. Putin is probably less interested in this out of humanitarian concern than out of a desire to stabilise the Assad regime and minimise the possibility of renewed opposition arising.

However, since Moscow is unable and unwilling to fund this effort on its own, Putin wants to enlist others — particularly the United States, Europe and Gulf Arab countries — to contribute to Syrian reconstruction. Convincing them to do so will not be easy.

If Putin cannot persuade them to contribute voluntarily, he may seek to do so by continuing his “threats” to withdraw from Syria to convince others that they are better off paying Russia to stay in Syria than leaving Iran as the predominant power there.

Another initiative that Putin might undertake is the acquisition of a naval base at the southern end of the Red Sea. This would be considered another sign of Russia’s expanding influence. Putin may see this as more important just to keep up appearances.

With China and the United Arab Emirates acquiring naval bases in the region and India becoming more assertive in the western Indian Ocean, he might fear that Russia risks looking less important if it does not do so, too. Adding to Putin’s motivation for acquiring a base in that region is that the Soviet Union used to have them there and Putin seems to want to reacquire everything that the USSR had but lost.

Putin’s most important goal in the Middle East, though, may simply be to preserve Russia’s rebuilt influence there at a cost that is not too expensive for a still economically weak Moscow.

This may only be possible if the region’s many tensions and conflicts remain relatively contained. The outbreak of one or more major conflicts (such as between Iran and Israel and/or the Gulf Arabs or an expanded Turkish-Kurdish conflict) may make playing the role of great power in the Middle East much more costly without any guarantee of being successful.

It is perhaps, then, the desire to avoid this that motivates Putin to offer Moscow’s services as a mediator. For even if Russian diplomacy cannot resolve the region’s fractious conflicts, Putin’s hopes for Russia playing the role of great power in the Middle East at a relatively moderate cost may depend on these conflicts not spinning out of control.

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