This research was supported with a grant from The American University in Cairo.
This article argues that President Putin's securitization agenda stems from the second Chechen War and is far more pragmatic concerning Russian engagement in the Middle East than former Soviet policies. The Kremlin is intent on regaining leverage in its bilateral relationships with the United States and the European Union. Furthermore, in an era of economic hardship, Moscow is seeking out new regional relationships based on securing future liquefied natural gas (LNG) supply networks, nuclear energy contracts and defense cooperation. I will first address the background to the Russian intervention in Syria, move on to Russia-NATO relations, and specify the driving factors for Russian intervention in Syria, how the air campaign gave way to diplomatic engagement, and what the prospects are for building longer-term bilateral relations with other states in the Middle East.
In September 2015, Russian forces intervened decisively in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, thereby preventing his imminent overthrow by moderate and extremist elements. Having recovered from a series of domestic crises including the fall of the USSR, recession and wars of independence in Chechnya, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia was about to mark its reentry as a major player in the Middle East. The region had been a subsidiary concern following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and lay between Russia's traditional interests in the West —including the United States, Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — and increasingly important actors in Asia such as China, India, Japan and South Korea.
The importance of the Middle East for Russia is reflected in its relationship with allies such as Syria, Israel (20 percent of Israel's population are Russian-speaking former Soviet Jews1), and Turkey (a key strategic partner primarily due to its control of the straits of Bosporus and the Dardanelles and energy transport). Russia's relationship with Iran is more complex, while its relationships with Algeria, Libya and the Gulf states have largely remained energy-based.2 Russian tourism tends to focus on coastal resorts in Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Tunisia.
Recent Western interventions in Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) as well as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran signed in 2015 have also played a role in shaping Russian policy. Moscow believes that liberal interventionism undermines its political legitimacy: it has been defined in Western capitals (although the Trump administration appears to be rolling back on its commitment in this regard); it can be a threat to international security; and it might eventually be used as a justification for regime change in Russia.3 The Kremlin has therefore focused its attention on diluting any UN Security Council resolutions that could be used to reinforce the precedent established by UNSCR 1973 on Libya. Though it may have acceded to that resolution through its abstention, Moscow was ultimately shocked by the course of events there.4 Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that any attempt to reproduce the Libyan experience in states such as Syria, Yemen or Bahrain would be "very dangerous."5 Moscow will not allow the removal of its last remaining ally in the region — Bashar al-Assad of Syria — at least not without adequate compensation. In Lavrov's view in 2011, Yemen became the new model. Attempts at a negotiated settlement became the order of the day, and whereby parties were working towards a compromise at the UN Security Council.6
Since the Russian sphere of influence encompasses the South Caucasus, the Caspian region and Central Asia, and it is a near neighbor to the Middle East and Afghanistan (both of which have experienced U.S. interventions over the last decade), Russia is mindful of its national interests. Taking a longer-term view towards the rising multipolarity in the international system and relative autonomy of regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Russia is also forging a vision of maximum influence. In attempting to restore its great-power status and influence it has been heavily reliant on military assets and active diplomacy to offset economic, demographic and societal weaknesses.7 Shetsova mentions the last point in discussing the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency. In his overemphasis on foreign policy and military patriotism, preparing for war with neighbors and Western attempts to humiliate Russia, he tries to shift people's attention away from the economy and other problems.8 Hence, the annexation of Crimea is consistent with Russian history and its status as a landlocked country.9 The recurrent pattern of securing these strategic locales, from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin, is noted by Henry Kissinger.10
THE U.S. AND NATO
Russia pays very close attention to NATO, the United States and the EU. In Russian Foreign Ministry documents there emerges a pattern of dissatisfaction with NATO's "humanitarian intervention" in Yugoslavia in 1999,11 although it was followed by Russian military cooperation with NATO in the multinational Kosovo Force (KFOR).12 No mention is made of the row over Western support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 or subsequent NATO interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Libya, though the latter has clearly affected Russian thinking. President Putin saw U.S. and EU actions in Libya as a crusade.13 Relations with the United States also had an impact on how Russia conceptualized the NATO intervention, especially in the way UNSCR 1973 was used as a justification for preemption.
In the Russian Foreign Ministry documents, mention is made of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), signed on November 19, 1990. The treaty was quickly affected by changes in the European security landscape following the break-up of the USSR, the end of the Warsaw Pact and NATO enlargement. The treaty has never been ratified by NATO members, due to Russia's failure to fulfill its side of the commitments.14 Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine ratified the treaty in 2004, but then Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which were not previous parties to the treaty, were brought into NATO. This, along with dissatisfaction about the implementation with NATO, led Russia to suspend its observance of the treaty in 2007.15 In 2011, talks were still deadlocked due to U.S. linkages between the CFE and "frozen conflicts" such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia; the U.S. requested that Russia withdraw its recognition of their independence.16 Russia's recognition of breakaway "states" from Georgia is intimately tied to Georgia's pro-western posture, but had not been enough to undo Russia's relationship with the West, which remained quite pragmatic up until its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The unilateral creation of a U.S. global missile-defense system, the stationing of Russian forces in Georgia and Moldova, and NATO enlargement have all combined to reduce Eastern European security cooperation with Russia. In dealings with the EU and the United States, Russia promotes the concept of a relationship between equals rather than a Western-imposed, norms-based approach.17 Norms tend to tie Western states together in their common understanding of the rules of the game, limiting the potential of Russia to "divide and rule." Since the Ukrainian crisis, NATO cooperation with Russia has been suspended. The United States has implemented a series of sanctions against Russia that continue to cut deep into its economy.
There are only three identifiable periods of cordial U.S.-Russian relations: the period immediately after the fall of the USSR under Boris Yeltsin, the moment after 9/11 when Vladimir Putin wholeheartedly supported the U.S. War on Terror,18 and the brief reset period under President Obama in 2009.19 Given the enduring political culture in the Kremlin that favors a zero-sum mentality, it would be wrong to assume that negotiations will be possible on Syria. The terms of engagement lie with President Putin.
Many of the drivers of the Syria conflict are ongoing issues between the United States and Russia that have not been resolved since the Cold War: liberal versus illiberal states and competing spheres of influence. The situation has deteriorated due to the "world disorder,"20 in which Western civilization appears to some to be in decline. Facts are interpreted differently, and trust between leaders is lacking. In Syria, confidence building has taken the form of avoiding clashes in eastern Syria at the main points of contact, while pushing ISIS back.21 There is also a de-escalation zone in the southwest, where the United States, Russia and Jordan have tried to ensure there is no Iranian footprint bordering Israel, an attempt to advance a ceasefire line 40 km from the border.22 Other de-escalation zones have been discussed in the north near Idlib and in southern Damascus. The JCPOA could have fostered further cooperation between the West and Russia in Syria. There could have been a breakthrough up to and following President Trump's summit with President Putin in Helsinki in July 2018. However, the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine were not discussed, and neither was Russian interference in the US election. John McCain subsequently called the meeting "One of the most disgraceful performances by an American President" for failing to defend American values.23 Furthermore, President Trump's withdrawal from the Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia over fears about Pacific security coupled with the expiration of the New Start Treaty in 2021 could leave US - Russian nuclear arms control without limits.24 Whilst bilateral irritants accumulate, the continuing Mueller investigation may yet take its toll on the Trump administration and its ability to achieve any foreign policy wins. The longer the conflict continues, the more likely that tactics such as Israeli incursions into Syrian airspace or Hezbollah/Quds-Force drone incursions into Israeli airspace will trigger further escalation and even direct confrontation.25
RUSSIA IN SYRIA
Syria is the third military intervention by Russia in recent years, following its backing of rebels in the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and in its war with Georgia in 2008. What is important about the Georgian experience is that Russia lost four planes; this led the Kremlin to ramp up military reform and investment in order to become more effective and efficient.26 The rationale for each of the interventions varies, but little is related to unquestioning support for President Assad. Syria and Russia do not have a particularly close political relationship. Certainly, at one time Syria had more Soviet advisers than any other country, but that was due to the importance Damascus attached to arms and technicians, not to any shared ideology. For example, the USSR secretly supported the Lebanese Communist Party, which opposed Syrian intervention in the June 1976 war. As a result, Assad expelled half of the military advisers.27 As early as 2011, Dmitry Medvedev, then president of Russia, predicted that a "sad fate" awaited Assad, should he fail to enact reforms.28
A number of factors have been advanced to explain Russian behavior during the Syria conflict. These generally concern a host of security issues, such as containing the spillover effects from instability in the Middle East and enhancing counterterrorism measures. This is a problematic justification; military engagement could increase, rather than decrease, exposure to terrorist retaliation. However, the calculation was clearly made that, with jihadi groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra on the march in Syria, they would be the main beneficiaries should the Assad regime fall. Furthermore, that could embolden extremists in Russia.29 As it was, an attack in Russia in August 2017 was claimed by ISIS.30 Another aspect of security is President Putin's securitized policy, especially during the second Chechen war. It helped bring him to power and sustain his extended period in office.
Other justifications include compensating for sanctions and a drop in the international oil price, although these affected public relations more than any major export opportunities. Nor are there oil and gas deposits of any major value in Syria. The deployment of the S-300 missile-defense system into Syria in 2016 was, therefore, aimed at deterring other would-be interventionists. It perhaps underscores the detrimental effect of Washington's suspending talks with Moscow.31 Any political rationales for Russian intervention in Syria are connected to gaining international leverage, especially over the United States and the EU. That leverage would, however, only last as long as President Putin was perceived to be in "control" of the situation — increasingly difficult amid new economic hardships.32 Perhaps this was why he declared "victory" during a visit to the Russian Hmeimim Air Base in December 2017.33 The bold statement was quickly followed by a mortar shelling of that base and the one at Tartus in January 2018.34
President Emmanuel Macron of France had ideas for a new contact group in Syria but the EU experience in Iraq and Libya is not a good template to build on. Instead, after Russia (which can help with electricity grids, for example) and Iran, it is China that is in Damascus to discuss reconstruction projects, mainly infrastructure and industrial parks.35 Russia can, provided all goes well, assert its global reach once again and engage in high-level diplomacy with the United States. But Baev believes that Russia continues to misread the source of revolutions and popular uprisings as being fundamentally linked to subversive plans executed or influenced by Washington.36 Even when the results do not appear to favor U.S. foreign policy, they are attributed to the United States and a "controlled chaos" theory in pursuit of its ambitions. When considering Russian comments in October 2017 about Washington's half-hearted approach to tackling ISIS in Iraq or Syria to put pressure on Assad or Russia, this mode of thought seems not so far-fetched.37 In any case, it is not unsurprising; such conspiracy theories about U.S. foreign policy are common in Russia and across the Middle East.38 The irony is that Russia would benefit greatly from continued unrest in the Middle East; it would propel the oil price up to a comfortable level for Russia and sustain it for quite some time.
Regaining its global power status through intervention in Syria could also help Russia prove its value to China as a strategic partner. While this motivation, like many others, remains unjustified, it is logical. It would serve to further delay China's entry into the Middle East as a potential competitor, enhancing Russian influence. The intervention might also address any domestic backlash from the Ukraine conflict and satisfy demands emanating from Russia's military-industrial complex.39 Svetsova suggests that the Syria intervention would be a distraction from the mess in Ukraine. Instead of a loyal enclave there, Russia has so far ended up with two Donbass separatist entities from which to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.40
The motivation for Russian access to warm-water ports outside the former USSR cannot be discounted either. Russia's lease of Sevastopol was up in 2017,41 so Tartus has enhanced Russia's geostrategic position. By securing a 49-year lease on the port at Tartus, which could automatically be renewed for another 25 years after that, President Putin has also catered to the interests of the Russian navy.42 A similarly long-term commitment was made for the Hmeimim Air Base in Katakia, which the Russians built in 2015.43
Proximity is an important factor in Russia's position on Middle East issues: the distance from Mosul in Iraq to Grozny in Chechnya is about 600 miles; from Sochi to Tartus in Syria about 800 miles. Therefore, sealing its border against returning jihadis and enhancing national security could be considered a major driving force for Russian engagement in the Syria conflict. However, in 2014, jihadis returning to the northern Caucasus region constituted 8 percent of the total number of ISIS fighters.44 Fighters have come from Chechnya, Dagestan, Karachai-Cherkessia and, to a lesser extent, Ingushetia.45 All these regions have demanded independence in the past and host some individuals suspected of attacks against the state. The persisting tensions make radicalization all the more threatening, especially from the North Caucasus, the central Russian republics of Tartarstan and Bashkortostan, and post-Soviet Central Asia. The Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 by two Chechens has underscored this sensitivity.
The number of fighters travelling to Syria has generally been in the hundreds, steadily rising to 2,900 by December 2015, most often after mid-2013.46 The timing has been attributed to the rise of ISIS at the time — including establishing camps47 — and the federal security service (FSB) making sure the 2014 Sochi Olympics passed without incident.48 The total number of fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics could be anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000.49 Russia comes in third behind Tunisia and Saudi Arabia as a source of foreign fighters going to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS.
It is unclear what makes its intervention "successful" for Russia, since it is not wed to Assad. While the United States was content to see how Russia fared in Syria over time, the ISIS-inspired attacks in Paris in November 2015 may have changed Washington's thinking to favor seeking out opportunities for U.S.-Russian cooperation,50 although at the time, President Obama knew that 90 percent of the Russian strikes were not targeting ISIS but the moderate opposition forces.51 A new low was reached when the Russian Defense Ministry used video-game footage to suggest the United States was cooperating with ISIS.52
FROM AIR SUPPORT TO DIPLOMATIC COVER
Russia played no role in the Arab uprisings but moved quickly to take advantage of perceived American failure in Syria. Following the U.S.-led debacle in Iraq, President Obama had no intention initially to intervene in Syria, except to declare in 2011 that Assad must go.53 He had "led from behind" in Libya and split the Syria conflict into opposition forces that could be left to fight Assad and ISIS — a threat to U.S. interests. The UK parliament voted in August 2013 against using military action in Syria to deter further use of chemical weapons.54 Although having stated that chemical-weapons use by the Assad regime constituted a "red line," President Obama, the following month, dropped plans to hold a similar vote in Congress to authorize the use of force — he knew consent would not be forthcoming.55 The only alternative was diplomacy with Russia, to remove Syria's chemical weapons arsenal and implement a limited strategy of arming some rebels. The use of overwhelming force, possibly committing tens of thousands of troops without an end date, was a cost Obama was not willing to bear.56 Thus, the administration believed there were "no good options" in Syria beyond degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS.57
Russia has continued to provide diplomatic cover for the Assad regime, most notably on further investigations into chemical weapons use.58 This is based on a diametrically opposed interpretation of events. While President Obama's aides were instructed to publicize an unclassified U.S. intelligence report allegedly proving that Assad was behind the chemical attacks in 2013,59 President Putin stated categorically in aNew York Times op-ed that "…there is every reason to believe it [poison gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces…"60 Russia also watered down the Geneva communiqué on peaceful transition of authority without any preconditions on the role of Bashar al-Assad. He therefore did not have to go.
Since the meeting in 2013 between the Russian and Syrian foreign ministers, the United States believed they needed Russian help to broker a solution. This may be a fallacy.61 Once Russia withdraws its air cover, he will be at risk again. Even before this eventuality had occurred, the Trump administration acted against Assad's further chemical weapons use by launching missiles at a Syrian military base in April 2017.62 The United States meanwhile searches for a Syrian leader Russia can live with.63 If Washington continues to take a stronger position on Syria, given the continued use of chemical weapons by the regime, it may limit Moscow's room for maneuver.64 Russia continues its Astana process with Turkey and Iran but has also attempted to bring the UK and France into talks on Syria. This was rejected by both states as an attempt to set up a parallel track to the UN-led process.65
Russia and Turkey
Although Russia and Turkey maintain differences over Syria, they have come together during four rounds of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. The Kurdish issue is a clear complication, of course, demonstrated by Russia's allowing the PYD to open an office in Moscow in February 2016.66 Turkey had fielded a ground mission from 2015 to evacuate trapped soldiers, support rebels and target Kurdish forces; it has subsequently (January 2018) led a ground offensive against Kurdish forces in northwest Syria.67 As Turkey continues to have tense relations with the EU and United States, the main focus between Russia and Turkey is economics. Their relationship was worth $32 billion in 2011, and Presidents Putin and Erdogan hope it will soon reach $100 billion.68 Both states have managed to recover from Turkey's downing a Russian jet in November 2015 — the plane had allegedly entered Turkish airspace — and from the 2016 assassination of the Russian ambassador to Ankara by a Turkish policeman at a public event in Istanbul.69 While the economic target looks very ambitious, given the constraints of sanctions and regional insecurity, the long-term economic rationale (tourists, energy, infrastructure investments) and political rationale (Syria, regional security) are solid foundations for a durable relationship.
Russia and Jordan
Russia and Jordan have a problematic relationship; many arms shipments to the Syrian opposition (which Russia considers terrorists) are channeled through Jordan. However, Russia also needs Jordan as an interlocutor between Moscow and Chechnya, since about 8,000 Chechens live in Jordan.70 Again, Russia is central to parts of the Jordanian economy, especially the civilian nuclear sector that Jordan hopes Russia will support. Jordan remains important in the Russian intelligence sphere, especially in preventing attacks on airlines coming in and out of the Middle East. So far Amman has managed to balance its intelligence relations with the United States and UK and Russia simultaneously.71
Russia and Egypt
Egypt is attempting to develop strategic relations with both Presidents Trump and Putin. The Egypt-Russia bilateral relationship looked in good shape; an official visit by President Putin to Egypt in February 2015 brought with it the possibility that the relationship could be elevated to a strategic partnership. The two share similar positions on issues such as terrorism; there were even reports in 2017 that Russian Special Forces had been deployed along the western border with Libya.72 If there is any subsequent growing concern in Washington about Russia's role in Libya, Egypt may find it difficult to balance relations with both powers. However, President Putin may use his relationship with Field Marshall Haftar to emphasize counterterrorism cooperation as a way to diffuse tensions with the United States in Libya and enhance Egypt-Libya border security.73 The U.S. Congress has cut back military aid to Egypt, citing human rights, so the choice of security partners could be made for Egypt rather than the other way around.74 Bilateral Egyptian-Russian trade was low in 2015 at just $4.6 billion, most of it Russian exports (Russia provides 40 percent of all wheat consumed in Egypt).75 More than 3 million Russian tourists visited Egypt in 2014; however, after ISIS brought down a Russian flight from Sharm El Sheikh and Moscow banned further flights, visitor numbers have declined drastically. As of October 2017, there was the prospect of restarting flights after the ban had been lifted, but they have not yet resumed.76 Most important are the prospects for Russian state-owned Rosatom to build the $21 billion nuclear power plant at El Dabaa, Matrouh, on the north coast of Egypt, 85 percent of it to be financed by a Russian loan.77
Russia and the GCC States
President Putin has learnt that Soviet support for anti-government opposition forces in the Arab Gulf was ineffective at building ties and has instead emphasized his support for the status quo.78 Although there are few areas of policy convergence between Russia and Saudi Arabia, especially on Syria, where Russia sees Qatari and Saudi support as tantamount to backing violent extremism, they do share similar objectives on energy. The Saudis know this, offering to help increase the oil price in exchange for Russia's dropping its military and diplomatic support of Assad.79 The visit of King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman to Moscow in October 2017 illustrated a new approach to addressing the important relationship. Much of it was about attempting to lock out or at least supersede the Russian-Iranian economic and military relationship through negotiating a qualitatively superior arms-defense agreement. This was best illustrated by the Saudis' statement of interest in the S-400 missile-defense system.80 There is a growing political realization in Riyadh, especially after the fall of Aleppo, that Russia is important to securing a stake in the future of Syria. Riyadh must, therefore, develop strategic relations as soon as possible. The impetus is made more urgent by the knowledge in Riyadh that the United States may not be as reliable as it once was.81 Still, Saudi economic relations with Russia are easily outstripped by Qatar which Riyadh is boycotting. As of 2017, Saudi investments in Russia stood at $600 million; versus Qatar's considerable $2.5 billion, ranging from banks to airports.82
Russia has been developing better relations in the GCC with Bahrain and the UAE, which are less entangled with extremist groups in the Syrian conflict. An "Arab-Russian Forum" was set up in 2013 at the foreign-minister level, under the Arab League, and a Russia-UAE business forum was held in Dubai in February 2014. It has met every year except 2015, when Russia deployed its air force in Syria. By February 2017, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had started to attend.83 This forum seems to have had a moderating effect on GCC political communiqués. For example, in supporting the Geneva communiqué (the "road map" for Syria), no mention was made of Bashar al-Assad by name (just the "leadership of Syria"). It went on to praise UNSC 2336 from 2016 and, significantly, the Astana meeting in February 2017, which aimed to consolidate the ceasefire but also involved Iran.84 Russia was able to welcome all of it. At the International Defense Exhibition (IDEX) in 2017, Russia and the UAE signed a joint-venture memo of understanding to develop fighter jets, just a year after Russia had signed a similar deal with India.85 Closer arms relations between Russia and the UAE would seem to suggest that the UAE is replicating the strategy of Saudi Arabia (or vice versa): attempting to use commercial diplomacy to challenge Russia's relationship with Iran. It is Qatar, though, that has done well to manage its apparently competing energy relationship, by investing heavily in Russia to maximize political goodwill in return. There is evidence to suggest an emergent Russia-Qatar-Iran LNG alliance, especially after Qatar is scheduled to quit Saudi and Russia dominated OPEC on January 1, 2019.
Russia and Iran
Since President Putin assumed office in May 2012, he began working vigorously with his counterpart in Iran. Between August 2013 and February 2015, he met with President Rouhani four times, and other bilateral meetings took place every couple of months.86 By September 2015, Russia had entered the war in Syria and by November 9, 2015, the S-300 missile defense deal was signed. This contact has been essential in laying the foundations for cooperation. However, there is little shared religious or cultural interest beyond the important issue of Syria. The historical tensions speak for themselves: the Russian Empire seized what is now Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan from Iran in the early nineteenth century. Czarist forces intervened again in Iran early in the twentieth century to crush the constitutional revolution, and Soviet forces occupied the northern part of Iran in World War II.
The ongoing tensions in the relationship are highlighted by the public furor associated with Russia's using an Iranian military base to conduct missions in Syria.87 Since the Russian operations have been largely successful, the logistical arrangement was never critical to Russian aerial supremacy; and since the air operation has ended, the point has become moot. Russia and Iran do invest together in Central Asia, but this is still a region dominated by Russia (beyond the cultures close to Iran such as Tajikistan) and, increasingly, China. Iran has tried to develop new transport opportunities, and encourage technology transfer and investments to avoid isolation from Western-imposed sanctions.88 The focus has been therefore on Moscow's cooperation with the Quds Force, which Russia sees as a particularly effective ground force along with Hezbollah, which has effectively been integrated into the Syrian army.89 The Syria conflict is fluid and President Putin called for withdrawal of all foreign forces to withdraw from Syria in May 2018. Whether this is due to domestic pressure remains to be seen but a collection of Russian press coverage of the war in Syria suggests there are at least some who question its efficacy.90 The move may also support Moscow's efforts to advance the Astana Peace Process, relate to a possible partnership with Western or Arab states on resolving the conflict, or reflect Israeli interests in Syria (or all three). Needless to say, the invitation was quickly dismissed by the Iranian foreign ministry. Russia and Iran look set to maintain an unstable entente as President Trump's sanctions against Iran take effect in November 2018. Russia may be helpful in Iranian attempts at sanctions avoidance, especially if the EU joins the US by implementing new sanctions against Iran after an assassination attempt in Copenhagen and a foiled bomb attack in Paris.91 But with so few allies left in the West, Russian policy may to some extent have been achieved, whilst more arduous Russian terms may become a sticking point.
Russia and Israel
For many years, Israel was a sanctuary for Russian Jews, who left in large numbers, especially in the 1970s and 1990s. Since the elections of President Putin and the pro-Russian Ariel Sharon, relations have markedly improved amid tensions with the United States and Europe. Indeed, Israel did not expel any Russian diplomats over the Skripal poisoning incident in the UK.92 Russian is widely spoken in Israel, and the social ties between the two states are unique. Russia now maintains a close dialogue with Israel, especially on security matters, illustrating their shared fear of the threat of Sunni extremism. They also have growing economic ties, with bilateral trade reaching $3 billion in 2017, but the social, security and political rationales will continue to outweigh them,93 though only to a certain point. Russia is unlikely to conspire with Israel at the expense of ties with Iran. Furthermore, Russian relations with Israel have not been without tension. Israel has been increasingly concerned about the Quds Force becoming embedded in the fabric of Syrian security — it has launched 200 strikes in Syria since 2013.94 The frequency of strikes has inevitably led to communication issues with Russia, culminating in the downing of a Russian military aircraft over Latakia in September 2018. Fourteen servicemen were killed.95 Notwithstanding issues such as this, the two states are likely to remain close, to maximize their influence in Syria as well as counterbalance Iran's long-term security interests in the region.
Russia's intervention in Syria can be seen through the lens of securing a range of benefits for its own energy sector, economic development and influence. There is significant potential for Russian and Saudi energy cooperation, while relations with Iran are partly linked to making sure the Nabucco gas pipeline excludes Iran and permits Russian domination of the European gas market. Nabucco was established to attract gas supplies away from Russia and include other states.96 However, this does not appear to have been achieved yet. Indeed, Gazprom's share in the EU gas market hit new highs in 2013 after disruption was caused by violent unrest in Libya and the terror attack at the Tigantourine gas facility in Algeria.97 Closer ties with these states will maintain Russia's stranglehold on the EU market and concessions from them in other areas.
Russia is entering the Middle East this time as a non-ideological actor perceived to be able to get things done.98 Influencing the Middle East can be considered to be tier one, and India and Africa tier two (through relations with natural-gas-rich Mozambique, which could fall under Gazprom's dominance in Europe, for example).99 Russia is therefore keeping its sights on Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt, Libya and Algeria to create a monopoly at the periphery of southern Europe. A new sphere of influence could run from Moscow to Grozny, Damascus, Amman and Abu Dhabi. Establishing a new network of Middle East clients seeking to construct civilian nuclear-power plants is another project that will serve Russian interests during a Western-imposed sanctions regime, while potentially shifting some related influence from Washington to Moscow. A lack of U.S.-Russian cooperation, though, could be quite dangerous for maintaining and extending non-proliferation norms and constraints.100
President Putin has attempted to work with all possible partners in the Middle East and become becoming an indispensable ally for the Assad and for the Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, in the process. This highly risky strategy has so far enabled President Putin to claim that he is returning Russia back to its rightful position as an international power. However, the long term consequences of the strategy are by no way inevitable. All we can say with a degree of certainty is that Russia is increasingly important in the social, economic, energy, security and defense calculations of many Middle Eastern states. Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Israel appear particularly willing to develop relations with Russia, based on a range of drivers including growing regional insecurity, responses to U.S. policy, and domestic economic demands. For many states such as Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the focus remains on Syria but with a parallel economic track. For GCC states such as Saudi Arabia, where energy cooperation is relatively new and Syria policy is divergent, there is little to keep the two sides bound together. Economic, energy, security and defense relations are all areas where there is potential for a series of expanding Russian engagements in the Middle East. Context is key, though. The Syrian conflict, other existential challenges, and tensions with various states (including Western states and policies) will continue to drive Russian engagement in the Middle East — and MENA responses in turn.
1 Dmitri Trenin, "Introduction," Russia's Policy in the Middle East: Prospects for Consensus and Conflict with the United States (Century Foundation, 2010), 3.
3 This is argued by Roy Allison, "Russia and Syria: Explaining Alignment with a Regime in Crisis," International Affairs 89, vol. 4 (2013), 795-823.
4 Russia Today, "No UN Mandate for Libyan Ground Operations, Regime Change — Lavrov," (2011), https://www.rt.com/politics/nato-russia-berlin-lavrov-rogozin/.
5 Sergei Lavrov, Interfax, 2011.
6 Sergei Lavrov (2011), http://www.mid.ru/en/press_service/minister_speeches/-/asset_publisher/….
7 European Parliament: Directorate-General for External Policies, Russia's National Security Strategy and Military Doctrine and their Implications for the EU, 2017.
8 Lilia Shevtsova, "Unravelling in the Kremlin," Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 23 (2016), 66.
9 Catherine the Great first took Crimea and established the port at Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, in 1783.
10 Henry Kissinger, "The Russian Enigma," World Order (Penguin, 2015), 52.
11 For details on why this may have been the case, see Roy Allison, "Russia, the West and Military Intervention," Validaiclub, http://valdaiclub.com/a/books/russia_the_west_and_military_intervention/.
12 When requesting an interview with the Russian Foreign Ministry, I received back two documents: one titled "Russia-EU Relations" and the other "Russia-NATO: Facts and Myths."
13 Nikolay Kozhanov, "Putin's Turn to the Middle East after 2012," Russian and the Syrian Conflict: Moscow's Domestic, Regional and Strategic Interests (Berlin: Gerlach Press, 2016), 26.
14 Anne Witkowsky, Sherman Garnett, and Jeff McCausland, "Forward," Salvaging the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty Regime: Options for Washington (Brookings, 2010): iv.
15 Ibid. Russian Foreign Ministry, "Russia-NATO: Facts and Myths."
17 See European Parliament: Directorate-General for External Policies, Russia's National Security Strategy and Military Doctrine and their Implications for the EU (2017).
18 President Putin lobbied hard to ensure Chechnya was afforded a high profile in the War on Terror accompanied by U.S. officials believing that counterterrorism could be a touchstone for advancing U.S.-Russian relations. Closer relations on this basis were ultimately unrealized due to a lack of connectivity between Moscow's threat narrative and global terrorism. See Hanna Notte, "Russia in Chechnya and Syria: Pursuit of Strategic Goals," Middle East Policy 25, no. 1 (2016), 61-64.
19 Bobo Lo, "Engaging the West," Russia and the New World Disorder (Chatham House, 2015), 165.
21 Interview with a Russian analyst, Moscow, October 26, 2017.
22 Suleiman Al-Khalidi, "Russia, Jordan Agree to Speed De-escalation Zone in South Syria," Reuters, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-jordan-russia/russia-….
23 Katie Reilly, "John McCain Calls Trump's Press Conference with Putin 'One of the Most Disgraceful Performances by an American President", Time, 16 July 2018, http://time.com/5339932/john-mccain-statement-trump-putin-meeting/
24 Julian Borger and Martin Pengelly, "Trump Says US Will Withdraw from Nuclear Arms Treaty with Russia", The Guardian, 21 October 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/20/trump-us-nuclear-arms-tre….
25 Maayan Lubell and Lisa Barrington, "Israeli Jet Shot Down after Bombing Iranian Site in Syria," Reuters (2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-iran/israeli-jet-shot-down-af….
26 Christopher Phillips, "Enter Russia: Putin Raises the Stakes," The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (Yale University Press, 2016), 220.
27 Roy Allison, "Russia and Syria: Explaining Alignment with a Regime in Crisis," 802.
28 Andrew Osborn, "Syria: Dmitry Medvedev Warns Bashar Al-Assad to Prepare for 'Sad Fate,'" The Telegraph, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/8684255/Syri….
29 Christopher Phillips, "Enter Russia: Putin Raises the Stakes," 220.
30 Chris Baynes, "Russia Attack: ISIS Claims Responsibility for Stabbing Rampage in Siberian City of Surgut," The Independent, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/russia-attack-isis-claims-….
31 "After U.S. Suspends Talks, Russia Deploys S-300 Missile System to Syria," Haaretz, 2016, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/1.745749.
32 Email interview with Lilia Shevtsova, November 24, 2016.
33 "Putin Declares Victory on Visit to Air Base in Syria," U.S. News, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-12-11/russias-putin-sto….
34 Vladimir Isachenkov, "Russia Says It Eliminated Syria Rebels Who Attacked Its Base," ABC News, 2018, http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/russia-eliminated-syria-r….
35 Steven Heydemann, "Rules for Reconstruction in Syria," (Brookings, 2017) https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/08/24/rules-for-reconstructi….
36 Pavel K. Baev, "Russia as Opportunist or Spoiler in the Middle East?," International Spectator 50, no. 2 (2015): 8 - 21.
37 "Russia Accuses U.S. of Pretending to Fight Islamic State in Syria, Iraq," Reuters, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-usa/russ….
38 Conspiracy theories abound as I have witnessed through personal interactions in the region.
39 See Nikolay Kozhanov, "Putin's Turn to the Middle East after 2012," Russian and the Syrian Conflict: Moscow's Domestic, Regional and Strategic Interests (Berlin: Gerlach Press, 2016), 31.
40 "Unraveling in the Kremlin," Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 72.
41 Jiri Valenta and Leni Friendman Valenta, "Why Putin Wants Syria," Middle East Quarterly, 2016, 5.
42 Rod Nordland, "Russia Signs Deal for Syrian Bases; Turkey Appears to Accept Assad," New York Times, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/20/world/middleeast/russia-turkey-syria….
44 Europol, North Caucasian Fighters in Syria and Iraq and IS Propaganda in Russian Language (The Hague, 2015), 3.
46 Maria Tsvetkova, "How Russia Allowed Homegrown Radicals to Go and Fight in Syria," Reuters, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/russia-militants/.
47 In June 2013, the head of the FSB, Aleander Bortnikov, said that Syria was becoming a training camp for extremists. Nikolay Kozhanov, "Why Is Syria So Important? Moscow's Vision of Its Tasks in Syria Prior to Beginning of Russian Military Deployment," Russia and the Syrian Conflict: Moscow's Domestic, Regional and Strategic Interests, 49.
48 Maria Tsvetkova, "How Russia Allowed Homegrown Radicals to Go."
49 Ian Bremmer, "The Top Five Countries Where ISIS Gets Its Foreign Recruits," Time, 2017, http://time.com/4739488/isis-iraq-syria-tunisia-saudi-arabia-russia/.
50 Angela Stent, "Putin's Power Play in Syria: How to Respond to Russia's Intervention," Foreign Affairs, 2016, 111.
51 Maksymilian Czuperski, et al., "Deceive: What Was Said and What Was Struck," Distract, Deceive, Destroy (Atlantic Council, 2016), 12.
52 Alec Luhn, "Russia Uses Video Game Pictures to Claim U.S. Helped ISIL," The Telegraph, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/11/14/russia-use-video-game-pictur….
53 The White House, "President Obama: 'The Future of Syria Must be Determined by its People, But President Bashar Al-Assad Is Standing in Their Way,'" 2011, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2011/08/18/president-obama-fu….
54 "Syria Crisis: Cameron Loses Commons Vote on Syria Action," BBC News, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-23892783.
55 "Syria Crisis: Barack Obama Puts Military Strike on Hold," BBC News, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-24043751.
56 Barbara Plett Usher, "Obama's Syria Legacy: Measured Diplomacy, Strategic Explosion," BBC News, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38297343.
57 Dennis Ross, "The United States Has No Good Options on Syria," Washington Post, 2014, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/united-states-has-no-good-opti….
58 Louisa Loveluck, "Russia Vetoes U.N. Resolution to Continue Syria Chemical Weapons Investigation,"Washington Post, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/russia-vetoes-un-resol….
59 Fred Kaplan, "Obama's Way," Foreign Affairs, 2016.
60 Vladimir Putin, "A Plea for Caution from Russia," New York Times, 2013.
61 Mark Katz, "Russia and the Conflict in Syria: Four Myths," Middle East Policy 20, no. 2 (2013), 39.
62 Courtney Kube et al., "U.S. Launches Missiles at Syrian Base Over Chemical Weapons Attack," NBC News, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/u-s-launches-missiles-syrian-base-….
63 David Ignatius, "Trump Got Syria and China Right Last Week. That's a Start," Washington Post, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/trumps-week-of-….
64 Alexander Shumilin, "Why the Crisis in Ukraine Will Determine What Happens in Syria," Moscow Times, 2014, https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/why-the-crisis-in-ukraine-will-dete….
65 "France, Britain Shun Sochi Meeting on Syria, Want U.N. Process," Reuters, 2018, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-france/france-br….
66 Christopher Phillips, "Enter Russia: Putin Raises the Stakes," 222.
67 Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ellen Francis, "Turkey Says Seeks No Clash with U.S., Russia, But Will Pursue Syria Goals," Reuters, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey/turkey-s….
68 Mehmet Cetingulec, "Can Turkey-Russia Trade Reach $100 Billion Target?," Al-Monitor, 2016, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/08/turkey-russia-trade-….
69 "Putin Says Russia's Relationship with Turkey Have Fully Recovered," Reuters, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-turkey-putin/putin-says-russi….
70 Russell Working, "War 'Back Home' Divides Jordan's Chechen Community," Japan Times, 2001, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2001/12/20/commentary/world-commen….
71 Yury Barmin, "Russia's Syria Strategy Hinges in Jordan," Al-Monitor, 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/05/russia-strategy-syri….
72 Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Lin Noueihed, "Exclusive: Russia Appears to Deploy Forces in Egypt, Eyes on Libya Role–Sources," Reuters, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-libya-exclusive/exclusive….
73 Mattia Toaldo, "Russia in Libya: War or Peace?," European Council on Foreign Relations, 2017, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_russia_in_libya_war_or_peace_7223.
74 "Senate Panel Slashes Military Aid to Egypt," U.S. News, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-09-07/senate-panel-slas….
75 Vitaly Naumkin, "Russia and Egypt's 'New Partnership," Al-Monitor, 2015, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/02/moscow-cairo-relatio….
76 "Russian Airlines to Resume Egypt Flights within Month after Ban Lifted," Sputnik News, 2017, https://sputniknews.com/world/201709071057165059-russia-resume-egypt-fl….
77 Henry Foy, "Russia and Egypt to Sign Nuclear Power Plant Deal," Financial Times, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/663f5dd6-af72-36b7-a002-c27ab5b13a66.
78 Mark Katz, "Better Than Before: Comparing Moscow's Cold War and Putin Era Policies Toward Arabia and the Gulf," Durham Middle East Papers, No. 96, p. 28.
79 Mark Mazzeti, Eric Schmitt and David D. Kirkpatrick, "Saudi Oil Is Seen as Lever to Pry Russian Support from Syria's Assad," New York Times, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/04/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-is-sai….
80 Robert Mason, "Saudi Visit to Moscow: Driving a Wedge between Russia and Iran?," Globe Post, 2017, http://www.theglobepost.com/2017/10/10/saudi-salman-russia-iran/.
81 Robert Mason, "Back to Realism for an Enduring U.S.-Saudi Relationship," Middle East Policy 21, no. 4, 2014, http://www.mepc.org/back-realism-enduring-us-saudi-relationship.
82 Nikolay Kozhanov, "Why Russia Seeks to Stay Neutral in Saudi-Qatar Rift," Al-Monitor, 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/russia-neutral-saudi….
83 Alexander Shumilin and Inna Shumilina, "Russia as a Gravity Pole of the GCC's New Foreign Policy Pragmatism," International Spectator 52, no. 2: 123.
84 Ibid., 125.
85 Sean Cronin, "Idex 2017: UAE and Russia to Develop Fighter Jet," The National, 2017, https://www.thenational.ae/business/idex-2017-uae-and-russia-to-develop….
86 Nikolay Kozhanov, "Putin's Turn to the Middle East after 2012," Russia and the Syrian Conflict: Moscow's Domestic, Regional and Strategic Interests (Berlin: Gerlach Press, 2016): 25.
87 "Iran Says 'Ungentlemanly' Russia Will no Longer Use Iranian Bases," CBC News, 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/russia-iran-bases-ungentlemanly-1.3730454.
88 Irina Zviagelskaya, "In Search of Support Points: Iran in Central Asia," RIAC, 2014, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/in-search-….
89 Laila Bassam, "How Iranian General Plotted Out Syrian Assault in Moscow," Reuters, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-soleimani-insig….
90 East View Press, War in Syria: Russian Press Coverage 2015-17, 2017.
91 BBC News, "The Story Behind Iran's 'Murder Plot' in Denmark", October 31, 2018; Shane Harris et al, "Foiled Paris Bomb Plot Raises Fears that Iran is Planning Attacks in Europe", The Washington Post, October 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/foiled-paris-bom…
92 Fred Weir, "Will Russia's Involvement in Syria End Up Burning Its Ties with Israel?," CS Monitor, 2018, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2018/0424/Will-Russia-s-involvem….
94 Yoav Zitun and Reuters, "IDF Says It Launched 200 Strikes in Syria over Past 1.5 Years," Ynet News, 2018, https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5341135,00.html.
95 Seth J. Frantzman, "Russia to Israel: You Are Wholly to Blame for the Downing of the Plane," Jerusalem Post, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Syrian-air-defense-mistakenly-shoots-….
96 Georgi Gotev, "Nabucco 2.0 to Transport Russian Gas?," Euractiv, 2015, https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/news/nabucco-2-0-to-transport-r….
97 Pavel K. Baev, "Russia as Opportunist or Spoiler in the Middle East?," 17.
98 Author's interview with a Middle East analyst, Washington D.C., November 23, 2017.
99 Ibid. Steve Levine, "How Mozambique Could Shake Up Putin's World," Foreign Policy (2012), http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/03/28/how-mozambique-could-shake-up-putin….
100 Alexey Arbatov and Pavel Koshkin, "Russia Might be the First Casualty If Nuclear Terrorism Becomes Reality," Carnegie Moscow Center, 2016, http://carnegie.ru/2016/04/18/russia-might-be-first-casualty-if-nuclear….