Both the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia have had a decided influence on the political landscape of the Middle East. Here’s what you need to know:
Russia’s Historic Great Game in the Mideast
Russia spent the 17th through the 19th centuries as a foe of the Ottoman Empire, grabbing up territories in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions—and access to vital ports—as the Turks’ grip on power crumbled. Imperial Russia also historically had a strong interest in protecting the rights of Orthodox Christians living in Ottoman lands.
In the 20th century, the Soviet Union was a strong backer of multiple Arab client states, partly as a means of countering American influence. The Soviets broke ties with Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967.
In the decades immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s footprint in the region diminished due to its focus on urgent needs at home. For example, Russia tended to take a backseat during the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations’ work at Mideast statecraft for much of the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century.
However, in the last few years, a resurgent Russian Middle East presence has rendered the already complex affairs of the region even more so.
Filling the Power Vacuum in the Region
In many ways, Russia is seeking to fill a vacuum. The deteriorating Western presence and influence in the region is perhaps most obviously illustrated by the chaos accompanying the Biden Administration’s and NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in Summer 2021.
The turning point came in 2015, when Vladimir Putin’s Russia became a major player in the Syrian civil war. Russian air strikes were the crucial factor in helping President Bashar al-Assad hold on to power.
This intervention became the defining event that re-established Russia as one of the outside powers to be reckoned with in the region. Russia’s changing governments over the past five decades have stood as a major source of support for the Assad dynasty—first for President Hafez al-Assad (in power 1971 – 2000), and now for his son.
Building Regional Partnerships
Since 2015, Russia has participated in major arms sales to Middle Eastern states that include Turkey and Egypt. It has worked to build up relationships with Middle Eastern governments, and to pursue a variety of investments.
It has additionally strengthened its long-standing partnership with Iran, which is the other major supporter of the Assad regime in Syria. It is this relationship with Iran, alongside its military success in Syria, that has provided Russia with a major foothold as it seeks to reestablish itself in the region.
Additionally, in 2017, King Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia made a historic first visit to Moscow to discuss with Putin their shared interest in preventing the US from limiting their respective interests as the world’s two top oil producers. The Russians and the Saudis finalized more than a dozen high-value agreements spanning not only energy interests, but also military cooperation, space exploration, and arms sales.
The visit served as a high point along the two nations’ still often rocky, up-and-down relationship. The Saudis notably expressed strong opposition to the Assad regime and to Iran’s entanglement in its neighbors’ affairs.
But Russia doesn’t seem to be playing the intense-involvement game that has been the bread-and-butter of American policy in the region for generations. Instead, the Russians today, like the Soviets in the past, maintain a limited but noticeable presence. The goal here seems to be to avoid over-extending Russia’s resources while gaining the most ground as a rival to the Americans as a regional power broker.
Russia has sent only a relatively small military contingent to Syria. The manner in which it has conducted operations—the emphasis on air strikes, for example—indicates a clear focus on minimizing risks of incurring Russian casualties.
Unlike the US, Russia has not been interested in promoting democracy—or any other particular type of political system—in the Mideast, but rather in maintaining stability. Russia continues to view US policy, including the Americans’ belligerent approach to Iran, as a destabilizing factor.
Rapprochement with Israel
The historically complicated relationship between Russia/the Soviet Union and Israel has also taken a recent turn toward cooperation. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia re-started diplomatic relations with Israel after three decades of estrangement. There are cultural ties as well. About one-fifth of Israel’s citizens today trace their backgrounds to Russia or the Soviet Union, and the nations maintain a visa-free travel arrangement.
As the most sophisticated Middle Eastern country in terms of its military capabilities and its technological development, Israel is drawing increasing Russian interest. After the fall of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who assiduously cultivated a positive relationship with Putin—earlier in 2021, experts were uncertain how the new coalition government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would be received in Moscow.
However, in October, a meeting between Bennett and Putin provoked extensive media commentary for its warmth and cordiality. Both governments appeared to focus on continuity and stability.
It’s also important to note that Russia has become Israel’s de facto neighbor due to its presence in Syria. That situation offers both complications and opportunities, as Russia develops as a significant factor for Israel’s to weigh as it tries to offset Iran’s influence in Syria.