How Putin Turned Moscow Back Into a Middle East Powerhouse

It took a mix of religion, guile, and a stumbling Obama to pull it off.


BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Arab Spring, from the viewpoint of the Kremlin, has been one prolonged headache. Russia has sustained a battering across the Middle East: It was unable to stop the 2011 NATO intervention that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi, and it has been excoriated by its former friends in the Arab world for its continuing military support of President Bashar al-Assad, even after more than 120,000 people have lost their lives in Syria.

But today, President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can celebrate the end of their best week in the Middle East in the past two and a half years. Rather than being dismissed as irrelevant or supporters of the region’s most brutal dictators, they’re being described with a different sobriquet — statesmen.

The proximate reasons for this change, of course, lie with a Russian-brokered proposal that would see Assad relinquish his chemical weapons. But Moscow has been quietly building support from Cairo to Beirut to Damascus — putting Putin in a position to pounce.

In one fell swoop, Putin shielded Assad from a U.S. military strike, and presented himself as the sole figure on the international stage who could achieve a breakthrough in the region’s most intractable crisis. The Russian leader has also been helped by President Barack Obama’s stumbles: Observers in Moscow believe the president trapped himself by committing to military strikes that neither Congress nor the American public really wanted — giving Putin the opportunity to devise a solution.

“We have an American president who pronounces strong words, but his face says ‘What am I doing?'” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. “The Russian success will be primarily the manifestation of Western failure.”

It’s not only in Syria that Russia has capitalized on anger toward the United States. In Egypt, where the military-backed government has accused Washington of sympathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood, some protesters have hailed Putin as a potential diplomatic counterbalance to the United States. Pro-military demonstrators have even drawn parallels between the former KGB operative and their own strongman: During a July protest in the city of Alexandria, pro-military demonstrators unveiled a large poster of the Russian president wearing a naval uniform beside that of army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, bearing the inscription “Bye bye, America.”

In Lebanon, too, Russia has strategically built ties with the country’s Greek Orthodox community, which maintains ties to the Russian Orthodox church. Moscow’s Amb. Alexander Zasypkin regularly attends Greek Orthodox political and religious gatherings, asserting that “we have a special relationship” with the community. And it appears to be working: As one Lebanese politician put it, when Zasypkin visits Greek Orthodox communities, “they greet him like when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Akkar [a north Lebanon district with a large Sunni population] a few years ago.”

But it’s Syria that will make or break Russian ambitions in the Middle East. The initiative to remove Assad’s chemical weapons was greeted as a rare diplomatic win-win scenario: It provided Obama with a graceful way to avoid launching military strikes that remain deeply unpopular among the American public, and provided both Washington and Moscow with a path to achieve their shared goal of limiting the spread of chemical weapons.

“This should be seen not only as a win for Putin, but also for Obama,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert in Russian politics at the Center for Naval Analyses. “Everyone has latched onto it because it seems like a way out for Western countries that want to be seen as doing something, but were finding a lot of domestic resistance toward actual intervention.”

The benefit for Putin in cutting this deal, multiple analysts say, is not only that it protects Assad from American military might — Moscow also hopes that it will strengthen a norm against unilateral intervention. Russia aims to delegitimize military strikes not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, where it holds a veto, and fears that this principle was badly eroded by the NATO campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the Libya campaign more recently. Putin harped on this point in an op-ed published in the New York Times this week, where he argued that Moscow was “not protecting the Syrian government, but international law,” which was one of the only tools to “keep international relations from sliding into chaos.”

The chemical weapons deal, therefore, provided Putin with an opportunity “to make sure that the U.S. is more firmly embedded in international institutions,” according to Gorenburg. “They are the weaker power, and throughout history weaker powers have tried to use international powers to constrain stronger powers.”

The Russian resurgence carries echoes, in some ways, of the dynamics of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union enjoyed strong influence with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, Iraq, and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. As Lavrov told Foreign Policy earlier this year, “Russia feels more assertive” than it has since the Soviet collapse, and “can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests.”

But it’s still far too early to talk about Moscow’s return to the influence it had under the Soviet Union. While Putin has had a good week, there is no guarantee that his luck will continue in the months ahead. There are legions of challenges in destroying Assad’s chemical weapons: His arsenal has been spread across the country in as many as 50 sites, the United States is not sure it knows where all the stockpiles are, and destroying such toxic agents is an expensive and time-consuming effort even in peacetime. As Secretary of State John Kerry made clear yesterday, military intervention is still on the table if diplomacy fails.

At the moment, however, things are looking up for the Kremlin. Putin’s support for Assad, which has brought him so many problems in the Arab world, is even earning him the grudging admiration of critics tired of the fickleness of U.S. policy in the region.

“Here’s what I heard from many people, [who are] not very sympathetic with the Russian position: OK, the Russian line is horrible — but at least Russia has one. Compared to Europe, compared to America, compared to all the rest,” said Lukyanov. “And in a way, this didn’t give more popularity and more sympathy to Russia in the Arab world, but it produced a certain respect. Russia at least knows what it wants.”

Photo credit: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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