Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Russia Is Right on the Middle East

Moscow has been supporting, not undermining, U.S. interests in the region.

By , a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks through the porthole while aboard the presidential plane during the approach to the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia on December 11, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks through the porthole while aboard the presidential plane during the approach to the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia on December 11, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks through the porthole while aboard the presidential plane during the approach to the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia on December 11, 2017. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images

A dominant public narrative has been created in the United States and much of Europe that Russia is a “revisionist” power, seeking to overthrow the existing status quo, challenge the “rules-based order,” and generally act as a “spoiler” in international affairs—and in the lands of the former Soviet Union, there is a considerable element of truth in this portrayal.

In the greater Middle East, however, there is something seriously weird about this image of Russian behavior. In this region, over the past 20 years, it is in fact the United States that has acted as a disruptor of the existing status quo, and Russian opposition to U.S. policies on key issues has proved in retrospect to be objectively correct, from the point of view not only of Russia and of the region but also of the United States and the West.

Of course, Russian policies were designed to serve Russian interests. All the same, the fact that they turned out to correspond to Western interests as well was not purely accidental. These Russian policies were founded on an analysis by the Russian foreign-policy and security establishment of Middle Eastern states that has turned out to be correct in itself—and is also very close to those of many in the U.S. establishment.

A dominant public narrative has been created in the United States and much of Europe that Russia is a “revisionist” power, seeking to overthrow the existing status quo, challenge the “rules-based order,” and generally act as a “spoiler” in international affairs—and in the lands of the former Soviet Union, there is a considerable element of truth in this portrayal.

In the greater Middle East, however, there is something seriously weird about this image of Russian behavior. In this region, over the past 20 years, it is in fact the United States that has acted as a disruptor of the existing status quo, and Russian opposition to U.S. policies on key issues has proved in retrospect to be objectively correct, from the point of view not only of Russia and of the region but also of the United States and the West.

Of course, Russian policies were designed to serve Russian interests. All the same, the fact that they turned out to correspond to Western interests as well was not purely accidental. These Russian policies were founded on an analysis by the Russian foreign-policy and security establishment of Middle Eastern states that has turned out to be correct in itself—and is also very close to those of many in the U.S. establishment.

Underlying Russian analysis is a perception that might be called anti-democratic but is more accurately characterized as a profound sense of the fragility of states and fear of chaos and civil war, coupled with deep skepticism about projects of rapid revolutionary change. This attitude has its roots in Russia’s own terrible experiences of the 20th century. As Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked to the New York Times in October 2003 concerning the results of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “There is no surprise for us about the situation that has taken shape, because we foresaw the development of the situation there just exactly as it is developing now. … How could one imagine a different course of events in a case where the regime is dismantled? Of course, statehood is destroyed. How can it be otherwise?”

Putin linked this destruction of the Iraqi state—all too presciently, as it turned out—to a vast increase in Islamist extremism:

“Saddam Hussein’s regime was not a liberal one … but it struggled against the fundamentalists. … Now, there is no more Saddam, and we witness on Iraq’s territory the infiltration of a great number of members of different terrorist organizations.”

Given what happened in Iraq, can anyone say Putin was wrong in opposing the invasion there? Would the United States itself not be much better off today if in 2002-2003 it had accepted Russian advice?

The Soviet experience has made Russians deeply skeptical of revolutionary projects to transform other societies according to one universal ideological template—because this is what Soviet communism tried to do around the globe, thereby embroiling Russia in a series of horribly expensive disasters. Thus Russians (correctly) saw the U.S. project in Afghanistan as resembling in key respects the Soviet effort of the 1980s, and as doomed to similar failure.

And as Putin told the Financial Times in 2019 concerning the results of the Western overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s state in Libya:

“[Do] our Western partners want a region such as Libya to have the same democratic standards as Europe and the U.S.? The [Middle Eastern and North African] region has only monarchies or countries with a system similar to the one that existed in Libya. … It is impossible to impose current and viable French or Swiss democratic standards on North African residents who have never lived in conditions of French or Swiss democratic institutions. … All this led to conflict and intertribal discord. In fact, a war continues in Libya.”

Once again, have the results of Qaddafi’s overthrow proved Putin right or wrong? Civil war does indeed continue to this day, and the collapse of the Libyan state enabled a mass movement of migrants across the Mediterranean that has destabilized the European Union.

U.S.-Russian disagreements in the Middle East came to a head with the Arab Spring of 2011 and the uprisings in Egypt, Syria, and Libya. The Russian response to these events was shaped partly by a desire to defend old Soviet allies and (in the case of Syria) retain Russia’s last naval base in the Mediterranean.

Still more important, however, was Russia’s fear that these uprisings would lead to the triumph of Islamist extremist forces and the creation of bases for the revival of terrorism in Russia, which took so many Russian victims before and during the Second Chechen War. The fears of both Russia and European countries concerning the Islamic State in Syria were increased by the large number of Muslim European and Russian citizens who traveled to Syria to fight and then tried to return home.

As Putin said concerning the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war:

“I decided that the positive effect from our active involvement in Syrian affairs for Russia and the interests of the Russian Federation would far outweigh noninterference and passive observation of how an international terrorist organization grows ever stronger near our borders. … We have managed to preserve Syrian statehood, no matter what, and we have prevented Libya-style chaos there.”

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Russian opposition to the overthrow of the Baath state in Syria as “despicable.” But now here is a curious thing. In his memoir A Promised Land former U.S. President Barack Obama describes how his cabinet met in January 2011 to discuss the unfolding revolution in Egypt and whether to call for the resignation of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, then engaged in a brutal crackdown against the protesters:

“The older and more senior members of my team—Joe, Hillary [my italics], Gates, and Panetta—counseled caution, all of them having known and worked with Mubarak for years. They emphasized the role his government had long played in keeping peace with Israel, fighting terrorism, and partnering with the United States on a host of other regional issues. While they acknowledged the need to press the Egyptian leader on reform, they warned that there was no way of knowing who or what might replace him.”

It might be argued that the tactics of the Baath regime in the Syrian civil war were more brutal than anything carried out by Mubarak. Then again, 20 years earlier the administration of Clinton’s husband had followed in the footsteps of the George H.W. Bush administration by backing the military regime in Algeria in the cancellation of democratic election results and in a savage campaign against the Islamist opposition. U.S. calculations concerning Algeria were virtually identical to those of Russia in Syria.

To say this is not to condemn the Clintons or those U.S. officials and analysts who expressed doubts about so-called democratic revolutions in the Middle East and fears that they could lead to chaos and Islamist victory. Their doubts and fears were well founded, as the miserable results of the Arab Spring demonstrated. The Middle East is a harsh political terrain, and any outside power operating there has to be prepared to work with some pretty foul regimes.

Those American officials who advised Obama against overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, out of fear that the Islamic State would take over, were also almost certainly correct, as are those today who have persuaded the Biden administration to go on working with Saudi Arabia. It is hard, however, to see why Russia should be damned for following the same line as sensible American advisors.

Finally, Russian sanctions eventually (admittedly after long delays) played an important part in bringing Iran to sign the nuclear deal in 2015. Russia had long advocated a U.S. compromise with Iran on the nuclear issue, and if the United States had taken this advice in 2002-2003, it would have gotten a vastly better deal than the one it did in 2015, let alone anything that can possibly be achieved today.

Interestingly enough, Russia’s stand on the nuclear deal and partnership with Iran in Syria have not destroyed Russia’s close relationship with Israel, founded on strong bonds with Russia’s Jewish community, as well as on a strong common commitment to the fight against Sunni Islamist extremism. Israeli governments have greatly disliked the Iranian role in Syria, but they also deeply feared the consequences of a collapse of the Syrian state, and they recognized the very limited and conditional nature of Russian-Iranian cooperation.

The Biden administration has stated that while confronting Russia on certain issues, it wants to work with Russia where U.S. and Russian interests converge. The history of the Middle East over the past 20 years suggests that, in this area at least, a strong basis for cooperation does in fact exist. To develop such cooperation will, however, require U.S, policymakers to acknowledge—at least to themselves in private—the number of times that Russia has been proved right, and America wrong.

Artin DerSimonian of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft helped with the research for this essay.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World, with John Hulsman.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.