by Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero
The Ukraine crisis and the resulting deterioration of Russia’s ties with the West have fomented a level of geopolitical instability in Europe unseen in decades. Yet, the Middle East is arguably where Moscow and Washington’s tension is most significant. Although it remains to be seen the extent to which Russia can successfully wedge itself between the U.S. and its traditional Arab allies, the Kremlin is unquestionably seeking to undermine Washington’s remaining influence in the Middle East while enhancing its own footprint in the region.
As the Obama administration continues to project incoherent strategies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the region’s balance of power is in flux. Within this context, Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen an opportunity to enhance Moscow’s standing in the region by partially filling the void created by Washington’s diminishing influence. The number of Middle Eastern states turning to Russia for weapons and nuclear energy at a time when many of Washington’s traditional Middle Eastern allies have grown disillusioned with U.S. foreign policy fits neatly into Putin’s objective of enhancing Russia’s influence in the region at the expense of Washington.
Although America’s most important military clients in the Middle East are unlikely to abandon the U.S. and fully pivot to Moscow, recent arms and energy deals between the Kremlin and Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states are significant. Traditional U.S. allies that seek options beyond Washington’s sphere of influence see such agreements as a pathway toward greater independence.
Russian-Egyptian relations are a case in point. Whereas the White House criticized the military takeover in 2013, Moscow supported Egypt’s post-Morsi leadership. Four months after the coup, an Egyptian delegation visited Russia and thanked the Kremlin for backing the “June 30 Revolution.” Earlier this year Putin travelled to Cairo and announced with President Sisi the signing of a memorandum of understanding for Russia to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant at Dabaa. Last year, Russia and Egypt signed arms deals worth $3.5 billion (though analysts doubt that this will supplant the value of U.S. support to the Egyptian military, at $1.3 billion annually).
In March, Russia and Jordan signed a $10 billion deal in which Moscow agreed to build the Hashemite kingdom’s first nuclear power plant. Jordanian officials welcomed the Russian support, especially given that violent unrest has frequently interrupted the flow of energy resources from Iraq and the Egyptian Sinai. Moreover, the influx of Syrian refugees has placed considerable pressure on the kingdom’s resources.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman visited St. Petersburg and signed agreements in the areas of nuclear technology sharing, oil production, and space exploration. The agreements open the doors to the eventual construction of nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh seeks to build a total of 16). They also send a clear message to Washington that the kingdom has other powers to which it can turn for collaboration, and it will not hesitate to do so.
Yet, playing geopolitical chess in the Middle East will prove no easy task for Russia. In large part due to the Kremlin’s continued support for the Syrian regime and growing partnership with the Islamic Republic, Moscow has its share of baggage in the region. In March, Saudi Arabia had harsh words for Putin at an Arab summit held in Egypt. In response to a letter that the Russian president wrote to the summit’s attendees, in which he expressed Moscow’s support for the Arab states’ efforts to address security dilemmas without outside interference, Saud al-Faisal stated that Putin “speaks about the problems in the Middle East as though Russia is not influencing these problems.”
Between Iran and Saudi Arabia
Moscow’s role in the current round of the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran will challenge Russia’s ability to enhance its relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Just weeks before the June 30 deadline for a nuclear agreement, Putin lifted Russia’s embargo (imposed in 2010 under Western pressure) on the export of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran, despite Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the deal. The Russian decision strengthened Iran’s negotiating position and put additional pressure on Washington. Last November, Putin did the same thing two weeks before another P5+1 deadline, when Russia and Iran signed an agreement to build two more nuclear reactors, which enabled Tehran to extend the talks and negotiate more favorable terms.
Although less is at stake for Russia in Yemen than in Syria, Moscow also has interests in Yemen’s future. In the grander geopolitical context, Russia views the rise of the Houthis as a gain for Iran and a loss for Saudi Arabia—and by extension the U.S. If the Houthis remain in control of Yemen for the longer term, they would likely reach out to non-Western powers—most notably Russia and China—to seek support, particularly given the West’s support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen. Furthermore, given the value of Yemen’s location (in the strategically important intersection of the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Horn of Africa, and Indian Ocean), if Russia were to secure access to its ports, the Kremlin could regain greater military influence in the region. (During the Soviet era Moscow had access to a naval base near the Gulf of Aden).
In February, a Houthi delegation visited Moscow and reportedly offered lucrative agricultural and energy deals, including a promise to permit Russian oil firms to explore the Marib province that the Houthis asserted would soon come under their control. According to Saudi sources, when Mohammed bin Salman visited Russia last week, he sought to secure Moscow’s support for Riyadh’s hardline stance on the Houthis but failed to do so.
For now, the Russian leadership has adopted a relatively restrained role in Yemen, on the assumption that the conflict is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. This caution was underscored in April when Russia abstained from (rather than vetoed) a UN Security Council resolution that imposed an arms embargo on the Houthis. Yet, Russia’s opposition to the Saudi campaign in Yemen—and its agreement with Iranian officials on this issue—will likely undermine the extent to which the Kremlin and Saudi Arabia will become aligned on regional issues involving Iran.
As Washington’s reactions to crises continue to frustrate and confuse Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab allies, Russia is taking notice and advantage of this opening. Putin realizes that the map of the future Middle East is being re-drawn today. Despite the decades and billions of dollars that Washington has spent investing in its alliances with notoriously authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, the post-Arab Awakening landscape is proving increasingly difficult for Washington to successfully navigate. The ability of the Islamic State to seize greater swathes of territory in Syria—despite the U.S. bombing campaign since September—demonstrates the limits of U.S. hard and soft power in the region. The Kremlin hopes to exploit these limits as it tries to gain influence in the Middle East’s rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape.
Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi