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Russia Still Has Willing Partners in the Middle East

Despite Moscow’s military shortcomings and Western efforts to make it an international pariah, Vladimir Putin remains a capable player in the region.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and , a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Putin, Raisi, and Erdogan clasp each others' hands in a line facing toward the camera.
Putin, Raisi, and Erdogan clasp each others' hands in a line facing toward the camera.
(Left to right) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose for a photo before a trilateral meeting on Syria in Tehran on July 19. SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the prevailing view in Washington was that Russian President Vladimir Putin had become a master of the geopolitical game. He had a well-armed and capable war machine and had managed to extend Moscow’s influence well beyond Russia’s near abroad into Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Yet although Putin has not lived up to this hype given his disastrous late-February blitz, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

Moscow’s war on Ukraine has certainly revealed Russia to be weak, which will inevitably undermine Putin’s global influence. The hedge against U.S. decline and withdrawal that Washington’s partners, especially those in the Middle East, have undertaken with Moscow will likely come to an end. After all, who would want Russian military equipment and doctrine after such spectacular military failures as, for instance, the attempted crossing of the Siverskyi Donets River, during which Russia lost an entire battalion. Of course, the Russians seemed to have recovered and learned from these disasters, proving themselves more effective in more recent battles in Luhansk and Donetsk.

Yet for all of Russia’s military shortcomings and Western efforts to make Moscow an international pariah, not only does Putin remain a capable player in the Middle East, but he also has willing partners there.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the prevailing view in Washington was that Russian President Vladimir Putin had become a master of the geopolitical game. He had a well-armed and capable war machine and had managed to extend Moscow’s influence well beyond Russia’s near abroad into Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Yet although Putin has not lived up to this hype given his disastrous late-February blitz, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

Moscow’s war on Ukraine has certainly revealed Russia to be weak, which will inevitably undermine Putin’s global influence. The hedge against U.S. decline and withdrawal that Washington’s partners, especially those in the Middle East, have undertaken with Moscow will likely come to an end. After all, who would want Russian military equipment and doctrine after such spectacular military failures as, for instance, the attempted crossing of the Siverskyi Donets River, during which Russia lost an entire battalion. Of course, the Russians seemed to have recovered and learned from these disasters, proving themselves more effective in more recent battles in Luhansk and Donetsk.

Yet for all of Russia’s military shortcomings and Western efforts to make Moscow an international pariah, not only does Putin remain a capable player in the Middle East, but he also has willing partners there.

On Tuesday, perhaps in a direct response to U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent trip to the region, Putin traveled to Tehran for a meeting of the Astana Peace Process with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts—a trilateral effort to manage the three governments’ competing interests in Syria’s decadelong conflict.

Previously uneasy partners in rescuing the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Russians and Iranians have drawn closer to one another since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Tehran has expertise that Moscow wants, specifically on how best to skirt Western sanctions. The Iranians also produce military equipment the Russians need, in the way of lethal drones to attack Ukraine’s Western-provided advanced weaponry. Iran also has historic and current geographic significance to Russia, serving as the gateway to much of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had his own agenda in meeting with Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. After presiding over the Turkish-Iranian High-Level Cooperation Council, Erdogan pushed his main objective: an agreement to launch another Turkish incursion into northern Syria, where Erdogan wants to set up a safe zone for the forcible return of Syrian refugees—likely a popular move at home ahead of a dicey election next year.

Moscow has long resisted a Turkish offensive, because Turkey’s territorial control in the north would jeopardize Putin’s vision of victory in Syria as a unified country under Assad’s leadership. Yet Putin may be willing to countenance a limited and temporary Turkish invasion, because it would complicate the U.S. mission in Syria and exacerbate strains in NATO over Ankara’s relationship with Moscow.

Despite their differences over Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh, both Putin and Erdogan chafe at a U.S.-led order in the regions around them—especially in Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. This is where the Gulf states come in. If Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia was in part to shore up that order in an era of great-power competition, it does not look like he achieved all that much. This is because few in the Middle East want to make a choice between Washington and Moscow—or Washington and Beijing, for that matter.

Washington’s friends in the Middle East undoubtedly want U.S. security guarantees and lots of weaponry. Yet the combination of two decades of failure in the region, the clear U.S. desire to de-emphasize the region in favor of Asia, and ongoing U.S. domestic political dysfunction raise questions among the region’s potentates about Washington’s commitment to regional stability and their security. The meager results of Biden’s visit to the region suggest that none of the regional actors, especially in the Gulf, are willing to give up their hedges with Russia or China.

During Biden’s visit, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman explained that his agreement with the U.S. president to produce more oil was contingent on market conditions and agreement by OPEC+ members. In doing so, the crown prince, perhaps posturing for effect at home and in the region, was implying that ties to the United States do not trump his relationship with Russia—the most important member of the “plus” part of OPEC+.

It would not be a good look for him to be doing Washington’s bidding, especially after so much Saudi chatter about the kingdom’s global importance and dynamism, and Biden’s very public pledge to censure the crown prince over his role in the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Clearly, Mohammed bin Salman will continue to play hard to get while seeking more U.S. concessions, particularly in the way of arms and economic deals.

At this moment, the Saudis have a far greater confluence of interests with the Russians on the price of oil than they do with the United States on regional security. That is because the Saudis and others have lost confidence that the United States is committed to regional security and stability. As evidence, they cite a long litany of U.S. actions—from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s failure to respond to Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2019—that benefitted Iran at the expense of Washington’s Gulf partners. None of this means that the Saudis or any members of the Gulf Cooperation Council prefer or want Russian military equipment and/or doctrine, but they continue to want the Russians at the table.

Outside the Gulf, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also refuses to isolate Moscow. Between 2017 and 2021, Russia was Egypt’s largest supplier of weapons followed by France and Italy. (The United States was Egypt’s fifth on the list behind Germany.) Egypt and Russia, alongside the United Arab Emirates, have also collaborated in Libya, where Moscow’s private army, the Wagner Group, has fought alongside Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Overall, Egypt’s leaders—like those in the Gulf—do not want to be forced to make a choice among the United States, Russia, and China. In some ways, this harkens back to former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “positive neutrality,” in which he sought to play the great powers off one another to extract as much aid as possible.

And when it comes to Israel, the differences between interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, concerning criticism of Russia for invading Ukraine are a matter of degree. The Israelis continue to need the Russians in Syria to conduct their shadow war against Iran (an effort that is likely to become more challenging as Moscow and Tehran draw closer).

It seems odd given all that has happened since the war in Ukraine began, but the Middle East does not look all that different from the way it did before Russia’s tanks began to roll on Feb. 24. This underscores not so much U.S. weakness but rather the fact that Moscow shares a discrete set of common objectives with almost all of Washington’s partners in the region, from high energy prices to a more multipolar world order.

This is quite different from the Cold War redux that some analysts infer. It is instead a messier, more challenging environment for U.S. policymakers who remain ambivalent about the Middle East. From where the Saudis, Egyptians, Emiratis, Turks, Israelis, and others sit, Russia is a legitimate player in ways that a whirlwind U.S. presidential visit is not likely to change any time soon.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

Beth Sanner is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She previously served as deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration and the CIA’s deputy director for Russian and European analysis.

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