Putin Moves to Heighten Russia’s Role After Suleimani Killing

The Kremlin is expected to leap at a chance to further undermine U.S. credibility in the Middle East.

By and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 14, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/AFP/Getty Images

Since its pivotal intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, Russia has sought to position itself as a major player in the Middle East, establishing itself as a rare broker that is on good terms with all of the region’s feuding powers.

Now Moscow has a fresh chance to solidify that reputation. Russian President Vladimir Putin will look to boost his country’s standing in the Middle East following the Trump administration’s decision to assassinate the Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani last week and Iran’s missile attack against U.S. air bases in Iraq on Tuesday, which have roiled the Middle East and pushed Iran and the United States to the brink of war. The escalating situation raises the stakes for Moscow’s calculus in the region significantly, but it also provides Putin with new opportunities to achieve two of his long-standing goals: undermining U.S. credibility and expanding Russia’s footprint across the Middle East. 

“Putin sees pushing back against U.S. unilateralism as a personal mission and he is extremely opportunistic. He will therefore seek to capitalize on every opportunity he can to use the assassination of Suleimani and any ensuing instability to tarnish Washington’s reputation in the region,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank who previously served as deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.

The killing sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity from Moscow. In phone calls with his American, Iranian, Chinese, and Turkish counterparts, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned the killing and characterized it as a gross violation of international law. On Tuesday, Putin made an impromptu visit to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and shore up Moscow’s patronage. 

“The last thing Putin wants is to have to pick a side in the Middle East,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington-based think tank. “His best card is as a mediator and I suspect they are in a wait-and-see mode now. If Russia does something major, it will be diplomatically.” The killing of Quds Force leader Suleimani in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad airport on January 3 will likely stress test Moscow’s ability to be a friend to all major players in the region.

On Wednesday, Putin traveled to Istanbul to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss escalating tensions in the Middle East. Despite not always seeing eye to eye on the future of the region, Erdogan and Putin have managed to cut deals in the past, such as when both leaders  agreed to effectively carve up northeastern Syria last year following the Trump administration’s unexpected withdrawal. On Saturday, Putin will welcome German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Moscow for talks about the crisis. Both Russia and Germany are among the countries that have sought to prop up the Iranian nuclear deal following the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement in 2018. 

The killing of the Quds Force leader Suleimani in a U.S. drone strike at the Baghdad airport on Jan. 3 will likely stress test Moscow’s ability to be a friend to all major players in the region. Russia and Iran have developed deep ties in recent years, working together in Syria to tilt the balance of power in favor of the Assad regime. Despite their shared interests, Moscow has simultaneously pursued deeper ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s foes, as well as with other players across the region. 

“Moscow is trying to play this role as a reliable and stable player in the Middle East and this certainly helps its cause,” said Julia Sveshnikova, a Middle East expert and consultant at the PIR Center, a Moscow think tank. “But Moscow is also very concerned about this situation and will be looking to stay out of the fray as much as possible.” 

The Trump administration’s decision to assassinate a high-ranking official caught many countries around the world off guard and undermined U.S. credibility in the Middle East, an opening that Moscow will be looking to capitalize on. The Kremlin has long proven adept at exploiting crises around the world to advance its strategic objectives, from Ukraine to North Africa to Syria. 

Washington has slapped Russia with sanctions for its intervention in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, but the Kremlin has long pointed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy and will likely use Suleimani’s killing and Trump’s call to target Iranian cultural sites as further evidence of U.S. overreach while furthering its own standing as a regional power broker.

While many of the United States’ regional allies may privately welcome Suleimani’s demise, many also feared that they may bear the brunt of Iran’s retaliation. Those fears may have been allayed slightly as Iran responded to the killing of its general by firing over a dozen missiles at U.S. military and coalition forces in Iraq. Early reports suggested that there were no U.S. casualties, and both sides showed signs that they wanted to de-escalate the situation. U.S. allies in the region may be breathing a sigh of relief, but if they conclude that Washington had left them exposed to Iranian retaliation, it could encourage a pivot toward Moscow for future mediation.

The last months of 2019 were marked by a wave of anti-Iranian protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and for a moment it looked as if Tehran’s potent influence in the region may be starting to fray. But the Jan. 3 airstrike brought anti-American sentiment in the region to the fore once more, a shift that will undoubtedly be welcomed by Moscow. The Kremlin has long proven adept at exploiting crises around the world to advance its strategic objectives, from Ukraine to North Africa to Syria. 

“As much as Putin may have wanted [a rise in anti-American sentiment] to occur, Russia could not have brought it about on its own,” said Mark Katz, a professor of politics and government at George Mason University. But Trump has done it for him.” 

While a conventional Russian military presence in Iraq would be unlikely, some Russian analysts interviewed by Foreign Policy speculated that mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group, a shadowy private military contractor that has waged war on behalf of the Kremlin and for profit in Syria, Ukraine, and in parts of Africa, could appear in Iraq in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal. The future role of U.S. troops in Iraq remains up in the air currently, as the Pentagon rushed to deny reports on Monday that it was withdrawing troops from the country after an unsigned letter from Brig. Gen. William Seely, the commander of the U.S. task force in Iraq, saying that the Pentagon would respect the decision to the Iraqi parliament calling for U.S. troops to leave.

Still, Russian analysts are quick to note that Moscow is treading cautiously in the wake of the Suleimani killing and the ensuing U.S. and Iranian responses. Despite Russian condemnation of the Suleimani killing, Moscow has not pledged any concrete actions in support of Tehran, and analysts say that Putin is unlikely to back any Iranian attempts at retaliation and may be limited in ways to bolster Tehran. 

According to Adlan Margoev, an analyst on Russian-Iranian relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a university run by the Russian foreign ministry, the Kremlin’s main concerns are preventing escalation in the region that could overturn the geopolitical status quo in the Middle East that its Syrian intervention helped enshrine and to keep charting the course that Putin has carved out for Russian interests across the region. 

“Nothing strategic has drastically changed for Moscow yet,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation for Moscow to navigate, but that’s normal in a way. All Russia does is deal with difficult situations in the Middle East.”

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack