As part of our continuous series of interviews with different European experts and officials, recently we had a chance to delve into the topic of Russia’s Middle East strategy. In this instance, Denys Kolesnyk, a French consultant and analyst based in Paris, explores Moscow’s aspirations and involvement in the dynamics of the MENA region with Konstantin Eggert, a DW Russian Affairs Analyst and Programme Host.
Mr Eggert, given that you have spent a few years of your life in Arab countries, would you share your understanding of historical and contemporary relations between Russia and the Middle East?
Except for a brief period of early post-Soviet history under President Yeltsin and probably the early years of President Putin, the Soviet Union’s and post-Soviet Russia’s attitude to the Middle East was pretty much the same. Ever since the beginning of the Cold War and the advent of Arab nationalism, Moscow saw the Middle East as one of the “football fields” on which it was playing its sort of a “great game”, in other words its adversarial game with the US and its allies.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, the main target in the Middle East was the British Empire. That’s why the Soviet Union under Stalin supported the creation of the state of Israel; he thought that since many of the people who created Israel were militant socialists, this would potentially help to decolonize the Middle East and undermine the British grip on the region. Then came the turn of the United States. After the Suez crisis of 1956, US influence in the region grew exponentially. And since that time, the framing of all sorts of, as they used to say, progressive regimes in the Middle East was the priority for Moscow.
In the late 1980s, I saw this as a completely wasteful and inefficient policy. The USSR was spending significant amounts of financial resources and human efforts for training Arab armies, which had repeatedly lost to Israel. Moscow attempted to rely on any Arab dictator who promised at least some semblance of socialism, with a specific type of Arab particularity, of course: for instance Egyptian president Nasser, or Syria, or even Iraq. And, it came out to be a completely bogus exercise. All these Arab dictators pursued their policies, actually anti-communist policies in the case of Iraq. This policy by Moscow was consistently designed to create challenges for both the United States and Israel as a result.
And what is the place of the MENA region in Russian foreign policy and how has it evolved since the breakup of the USSR?
Under President Yeltsin, this region ceased to be seen as vital. After all, the Cold War ended. It was only around the beginning of Putin’s second term when the region once again received attention from the Kremlin. Interest started to grow because of the war in Iraq and the way the United States showed its weakness there. And Putin, who at that time already contemplated resuming a new Cold War with the US, started paying attention to the region, including a particular interest towards Israel. This was partly due to Moscow’s strategy of influencing its compatriots around the world, in general terms Russian speakers living abroad.
An important thing to note here is that Putin’s interest in the Middle East, and specifically in Israel, has a lot to do with his upbringing and training as a KGB officer. The KGB officers of his generation, who grew up under the late Andropov’s rule, were taught that Mossad is the most important and most efficient secret service in the world and that – I am not joking – the Rothschilds and other Jewish billionaire families are running the world through the IMF, the Bilderberg Club, and the Trilateral Commission. Consequently, Putin initiated rapprochement with Israel, not because he was particularly philosemitic, and not only because of a rekindled interest in the MENA region, but also because of his vision of the world, where the Jews are in control of a significant part of it. Therefore it is better to be on good terms with them. In this respect, we can find several things in Russian-Israeli relations to be quite strange, unless you factor in these views of Putin.
The Arab Spring was the next important factor that influenced Russia’s approach. Putin perceived it as a result of the direct interference of Western powers in the region, and first and foremost of the United States. In my opinion, the images of Muammar Gaddafi flattered by the French president Sarkozy in Paris just a few years before the Arab Spring happened, and then brutally killed by the insurgents, stuck in his mind. Most probably it was the main turning point, when Putin decided that the Middle East is an important place.
Indeed, perception is important in international relations. But more particularly, what are the motivations and objectives behind Russia’s involvement in the region?
There are indeed commercial reasons for Russia’s involvement, especially for state energy companies. But first and foremost of all, the Middle East is important for Putin to demonstrate that Russia, albeit to a lesser extent than the US, is a significant global player. Nonetheless, he needs to assert Russia’s role as a notable player in the region, and even more importantly, position Russia as a player that can be trusted. In this regard, the Syrian civil war and Moscow’s backing of Assad can largely be seen as the outcome of Barack Obama’s policies, as well as Putin’s particular distaste for Obama, who in his eyes – and it is a rare case where I agree with Putin – was a weakling. In my opinion Putin perceived the anti-Assad rebellion as a situation of a “friend under attack”. And he wanted to prove to the world that he personally – and his country, Russia – are the world’s number one specialists in countering regime change. Putin wanted the world, and especially the so-called Global South countries, to see how he is different from the US.
Another example is when Hosni Mubarak, the US ally for decades, was in trouble. When he was calling the White House, he received an answer that Barack Obama was playing golf and shouldn’t be disturbed. By contrast, during the civil war in Syria, when Assad was under attack, Russia sent planes, desantniki (paratroopers), the Wagner group, and the Russian Air Force, which bombarded the rebels out of existence. In other words, it was a message to the world to compare whom you want to be friends with, Russia or the US.
For Putin, it wasn’t only about Assad and old ties, dating back to the Soviet days. And it’s not the Russian naval station in Tartus and air base in Latakia that are of paramount importance. They are important to some operational extent, but after the full-scale aggression against Ukraine, everyone understood that there was not much of a Russian fleet to speak of. But supporting Assad was a symbol of Russia’s and Putin’s decisiveness and trustworthiness as a global player, and that is important.
But the situation has since evolved. Does Russia’s position remain the same?
In my opinion Putin has a more complicated task in the Middle East today, especially in light of the problems he faced in the invasion of Ukraine. I think that even the Saudis and the Iranians – who generally do not understand the European affairs well and most likely do not have the full grasp of the precarious position Putin’s regime is in – they cannot help but see that this is the war that Putin promised to win in three weeks and can’t win in one and a half year. That will have consequences.
Things are not so disastrous for Russia in the Middle East however, are they?
It is worth saying that last year Putin’s efforts yielded three successes within the parameters of his policy in the Middle East. One is the fact that Erdoğan wants to speak to him and provides a useful conduit to the outside world. Number two, he managed to keep positive communication with the Saudis, and in particular with Mohammed bin Salman, as well as with the so-called expanded OPEC. And his third success, the most important in my opinion, is the fact that he managed to recruit the Iranian support in prosecuting this war because Iran so far has been a de facto co-belligerent on Russia’s side in its assault on Ukraine. I think this is a success and this will be noticed, at least in the sense that Putin can make those who are in debt to him pay. To summarize this, the results of Russia’s policies in the Middle East are not all black or white, but rather gray with relative advantages and disadvantages.
However, in my view, all these successes are tentative and precarious. Look at Erdoğan’s brusque rediscovery of NATO loyalties at the Alliance’s recent summit in Vilnius. Or, Iran’s anger at Russia’s joint statement with the Gulf States that seems to have put in doubt Iran’s sovereignty over their Persian Gulf islands.
Russia has also strengthened its ties with other countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Türkiye. How do these relations contribute to Russia’s overall strategy in the region and what are the main areas of cooperation between Moscow and those countries?
In the Middle East Russia doesn’t have a strategy, in the sense that there are no long- term goals. The key idea is to make the life of the United States and its allies as difficult as possible, to deflect their attention from other places where Russia has either overwhelming or significant interest, for instance Ukraine. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another interest emerged that could be called strategic. And this interest lies in making the Middle East a transit point for reselling sanctioned Russian goods, as well as making it a conduit or a corridor, comparable to Central Asia for example; that is, a go-between place for all sorts of contraband and a way to circumvent sanctions applied to certain goods and – most importantly — high technologies.
The Middle East is now perceived by Russia as a haven for Russian wealth and, at least in some cases, a preferred place of residence for the country’s affluent and notorious individuals. Consequently, the region has gained sudden significance in the eyes of the elites. If we examine real estate markets in Dubai, Istanbul, Ankara, and potentially even in Qatar and Egypt, we can observe that Russia’s ruling class view those places as viable alternatives to traditional Western investment and banking institutions and real estate companies. Together with other factors, this suggests that the Middle East will remain in Russia’s sight.
The relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to be important because, via Saudi Arabia, Putin hopes to influence the oil market. And Iran is an important ally in Putin’s war against Ukraine. Besides, Putin has a vested interest in preventing the collapse of the Iranian regime, as there is a strong likelihood that any subsequent government in Tehran following the mullahs’ eventual downfall would strive to establish better relations with the West. Stopping deliveries of Iranian drones to Russia would be one of the easiest things for any new Iranian government to do, and Putin absolutely wants to avoid such a scenario.
In other words, Putin is trying to glue these allies to Russia, for example, by last May’s signing of the railway construction project linking the Iranian cities of Rasht and Astara. It is an example of the kind of deals the Kremlin wants to strike with the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and especially the most anti-American regimes, in order to keep them in the Russian sphere and to provide some sort of sweeteners for them. Here we could also add the contracts for construction of nuclear power plants in Türkiye and Iran. Such contracts benefit not only the Russian regime, but also Russian business elites and their corrupt counterparts in Iran and Türkiye, since there are lots of kickbacks involved in such kinds of contracts on both sides.
It seems to be mutually beneficial cooperation, indeed. It also is known that Russia was rather positively perceived in the Middle East, at least prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Has this perception changed?
What I observe is a slightly confused sort of dualistic assessment. On the one hand, it’s clear that Russia did not achieve its goal and Russian weapons did not get the best of Ukraine. At this point it is already obvious that Russia’s share of the Middle East arms market is going to decrease significantly. On the other hand, Western sanctions against Russia have not produced the effect of regime collapse. Russia is still fighting the war, even though without decisive success. It is most likely that the majority of the Middle Eastern regimes have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. And at the same time, I don’t think a lot of them would want to irritate Western countries, and particularly the United States, by very openly supporting Putin or helping him to avoid sanctions.
Meanwhile, as Russian elites struggle in the West, the United Arab Emirates is rapidly becoming a haven for dirty Russian money, real estate acquisitions, and a place where Russians can make deals and talks with a good probability of not being too closely observed. As for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Bin Salman is playing a game of distancing from the US – or at least trying to show that he is not dependent. And that’s one of the reasons why he will continue to talk to Putin, just as he continues the dialogue with the Iranians.
The Israeli government didn’t change its policy either, since Russia is still present in Syria and maintains a relatively strong position there. In other words, Putin still has some cards to play in the Middle East. Of course, should Russia suffer a major defeat in Ukraine, these attitudes could change. It’s important to remember that the Middle East doesn’t like losers. And if Russia starts to lose significantly, Putin will start losing influence immediately.
What you are trying to say is that, in other words, the Russian policies and actions in Syria, and in the Middle East, have helped Russia with its war effort in Ukraine?
Putin has managed to lay the foundation for his current ability to still operate in the Middle East and continues to use this region to his benefit. Yet if he starts to slowly lose the appearance of a leader who is able to win the war, his credibility as a strong man in the Middle East will be eventually eroded. Even though the US has diminished its position in the Middle East, Washington remains a major player there, the number one player I would say. Therefore it is inconceivable for the Middle East leaders to fully jump on board with Putin.
It is known that certain Gulf countries became a safe haven for rich Russians and you have already mentioned it. Looking ahead, do you think that the regional powers will align their policies with the West or continue to allow these Russians to circumvent sanctions?
Beginning last year, the United States and its allies had to combine different factors and efforts in adjusting their approach to all sanctions-busting countries, and not only in the Middle East, but also with India, especially regarding New Delhi’s circumventing sanctions. We are talking about different countries in the world that are not that interested in what happens in Europe, but they are interested in making a profit, and at the same time trying to show that their policies are independent from those of the United States. In order to address sanction-busting, a combination of pressure and sweeteners must be employed by the US and its allies. For instance, speaking of sweeteners, Washington is seriously considering selling fifth-generation jets to Ankara.
Eventually the West will achieve more success with the Middle Eastern states than with India, given that New Delhi considers itself to be a completely independent power and is keen to project that image. But even with the Indians, I think there are ways of impacting their policies. Monitoring of sanctions compliance has to be very, very tight. It is important to convince the sanction-busting countries that they cannot get away with it. But, nevertheless, some Arab and Asian countries will continue their efforts to help Russia circumvent sanctions.
Bashar al-Assad’s Syria has been reintegrated into the Arab League. Do you see this as a success for Russia? And what could be the consequences of this reintegration?
Most likely, Russians were not the main driving force behind the Syrian regime’s readmission to the Arab League. In addition, let’s not overestimate its importance, since Arab solidarity is not a very tangible thing. But this does strengthen the legitimacy of the Assad regime. The readmission of the Assad regime is, to a large extent, a testimony to the fact that the Middle East is still a good place for dictators. And this fact makes Putin glad.
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