Russia in the Middle East: Power and Pretension

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

How will challenges to Putin’s authority at home affect his regional ambitions? 

Analysts around the world are struggling to understand both the stability of Russia and the hold on power of President Vladimir Putin after a mercenary force that has played a major role in the Ukraine war turned the tables and marched toward Moscow, only to pull back at the last minute. 

A day after the apparent revolt, the leader of the breakaway paramilitary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed he was not trying to seize power during the weekend crisis but to protest the failures of the Kremlin’s military leaders and their treatment of his organization. By nightfall on Monday, Putin, who had not seen in public for several days, claimed that the episode demonstrated the unity of “Russian society.” 

At the time of this writing, it was unclear how badly Putin has been weakened domestically or internationally.  

Still, there were signs that Putin would proceed with business as usual in the Middle East. In the midst of the insurrection at home, Russian warplanes on Sunday reportedly killed at least 11 people in attacks on rebel-held northwest Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad claimed the assault was a retaliation against deadly strikes on civilians conducted by terrorists from Idlib province. Syrian rights groups asserted that the victims were mostly workers at a vegetable market. 

While the Russian military appears to have grown more aggressive in Syria this year as part of its alliance with Assad, we cannot be sure how the challenges to Putin’s rule and Moscow’s struggle to find a winning strategy in Ukraine will affect the country’s actions outside its neighborhood. 

Middle East Policy has long analyzed the influence of Russia on the region, from how it uses the Wagner Group to secure its interests in oil and mining, to its relationship with Iran and its sponsorship of Assad, to Putin’s attempts to challenge US initiatives. Several recent examinations indicate that while Moscow has affected some aspects of regional politics—bolstering anti-Western regimes and causing headaches for the United States—it likely does not have the heft required to replace American hegemony. 

Here are some of our key articles on the Russian involvement in the region: 

The Impact of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on the Middle East, by Amin Salam, Jasmine Zaki, Mark N. Katz, Sean McFate, Jim Moran 

  • McFate’s presentation at a panel of experts convened by the Middle East Policy Council explains how Russia employs the Wagner Group in the region as a brutal military force. The fact that it is a private mercenary force allows Putin plausible deniability. In Syria, Prigozhin is rewarded through profit sharing in mining and oil. This is the case in Sudan, now facing a bloody civil conflict, and in sub-Saharan Africa, as well. 

  • Katz explains why most US allies in the Middle East, including Israel, are reluctant to fully support Ukraine

  • Russia’s good relations with Iran may help them to ease tensions with the Islamic Republic 

  • Oil producers want Russian cooperation to keep a floor under energy prices. 

  • The US emphasis on human rights and democracy can make Putin a more desirable partner. 

  • However, he says, the Ukraine war may bring Turkey closer to the United States on strategic issues. 

  • The assault on Ukraine is driving food insecurity. In Lebanon, at the time of this panel, around 85 percent of imports of wheat, oils, sugar, and other commodities came from Ukraine. 


A Post-American Middle East? US Realities Vs. Chinese and Russian Alternatives, by Christopher K. Colley 

  • This article asks the key question—is Washington really engaging in a systematic pullout from the Middle East?—and demonstrates that Russia lacks the capacity to project meaningful and sustained force into the region in a way that can replace the US role. 

  • Putin’s moves are, at best, assertions of Russian presence but not of power. He has skillfully chosen to capitalize on areas the United States has neglected

  • Based on publicly available evidence, the author contends that the American military is actually increasing its forward presence in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf region, and it leads China and Russia in arms sales.  


Russia and the Kurds: A Soft-Power Tool for the Kremlin? by Anna Borshchevskaya 

  • Russia has used an authoritarian-inflected soft power, for more than two centuries, to cultivate support from the Kurds

  • The article reviews this long history, concluding with implications for the United States, given that Moscow will not let go of its Kurdish card, including in the context of the Ukraine invasion. 


Iran and the SCO: The Quest for Legitimacy and Regime Preservation, by Nicole Bayat Grajewski 

  • The article shows that Iran has viewed its involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—led by Russia and China—as a means of bolstering external legitimacy, fostering security-oriented regionalism, and promoting the transition toward the so-called multipolar world order. 

  • The SCO, typical of Russia’s international relations under Putin, emphasizes noninterference, sovereignty, and countering the “three evils”—terrorism, extremism, and separatism.  

  • Tehran’s commitment to the SCO has galvanized the organization’s role as a common front against the imposition of liberal norms and challenges to regime security


How Russia Exploited Nationalism in Turkey to Expand Its Influence in Syria, by Burak Bilgehan Özpek 

  • Özpek argues that Russia has been the primary beneficiary of rising anti-Western and other nationalist ideas in Turkey in several ways: 

    • It helps drive a wedge between Turkey and the West

    • Moscow was able to make billions of dollars by selling the S-400 air-defense system to Ankara. 

    • The withdrawal of Turkish-backed rebel groups in Syria’s north allowed the government of Bashar al-Assad to establish authority over Aleppo. At the same time, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made moves that actually protected the Syrian regime from jihadists

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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