Foreign Policy Essay

Understanding Russia’s New Role in the Middle East

By Yuri M. Zhukov
Sunday, April 23, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Russia's return to prominence on the world stage is forcing security officials in the United States and Europe to rethink their postures. One of Russia's biggest moves is its renewed emphasis on the Middle East in general and its backing of the Assad regime in Syria in particular—a potentially transformative shift for the region. Yuri Zhukov of the University of Michigan explains the reasons for Russia's return to the region and points out the likely limits to Moscow's influence.

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Russia appears to be newly ascendant in the Middle East. In the last 18 months, Moscow has turned the tide in Syria's six-year civil war, bolstering its ally President Bashar al-Assad, and quickly established itself as a key arbiter in the region's affairs. This month saw signs of a potential new Russian intervention in Libya in support of military commander Khalifa Haftar, following the reported deployment of Russian special forces to western Egypt. At a time of perceived U.S. disengagement from the region, coupled with an unusually rocky transition of power in Washington, Russia's expanding role raises important questions about Moscow's interests and capabilities in the Middle East, and whether Russia's gambit is likely to pay off.

Recent evidence suggests that much of Russia's activity can be attributed to genuine, traditional national security concerns, rather than simply a short-term desire to "stir up trouble" or distract the international community from the conflict in Ukraine. Moscow sees the Middle East, first and foremost, as a source of instability that no world power has managed to successfully contain. After railing for years against U.S. policy in the region—which Moscow has perceived as dangerous and destabilizing—Russia is now fashioning itself as an alternative "security manager" in the Middle East. Yet what we are witnessing is not a direct challenge to the United States—there is no full-throttle attempt to establish a new set of permanent military bases and client regimes, or to re-create a Soviet-style regional footprint. Rather, Russia's approach has been and is likely to remain asymmetric, seeking to make the most of its limited capabilities by diversifying points of contact in the region, keeping costs low, and relying increasingly on soft, non-military instruments of power.

After railing for years against U.S. policy in the region—which Moscow has perceived as dangerous and destabilizing—Russia is now fashioning itself as an alternative "security manager" in the Middle East.

Western perceptions of Russia's interests in Syria and the greater Middle East have fallen into two general camps: "Russia wants chaos" and "Russia wants stability." The first view proceeds something like this. By intervening in Syria, Russia has sharply escalated the conflict and left the United States and other powers with few options to intervene against the Assad regime and put an end to civilian suffering. The intervention also produces second-order effects that help Russia and weaken its rivals. To the extent that continued instability in the Middle East could produce supply disruptions in the global oil market, Russia's economy would stand to gain from the resulting positive price shocks. And by increasing flows of refugees toward Turkey and Europe, Russia is also helping to destabilize Europe's incumbent governments ahead of several key national elections. As a bonus, these actions have enabled Russia to break out of its international isolation and divert attention away from its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

This view is not entirely without merit. There are some short-term benefits from regional instability.

Look hard enough and you will find them. Indeed, many Kremlin insiders view Washington's Middle East policy in much the same way: as short-sighted, disruptive, and naive. Such an outlook mistakenly conflates short-term benefits with long-term strategic intent. It also overlooks the fact that—in the long run—it will be very hard for Russia to insulate itself from a willfully destabilizing Middle East policy.

Russian policy experts like to point out that—unlike the United States—Russia does not have two oceans separating it from the rest of the world. In this sense, instability in the Middle East is as physically proximate a threat to Russia as instability in Central America might be to the United States.

As one Russian analyst opined, "Russia is on the frontier, we are in jihad territory. Our own fringes, the northern Caucasus, Central Asia, and even the central Volga region are threatened. Yet [the West] always seems ready to play with fire, and to use militant jihadists against Russia and its national interests—as they did in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Libya, and Syria."

For the Kremlin, the primary threat to Russian interests, of course, has traditionally emanated from the West, in the form of NATO expansion and Western support for protests and "color revolutions" in former Soviet satellites. The Kremlin has seen the Arab Spring and popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria as a secondary theater of the same "destabilizing," U.S.-led democratization campaign.

For now, Russia has managed to partially contain this threat on its western front: With separatist conflicts still unresolved in Ukraine and Georgia, extending NATO membership to these countries is like selling insurance to a burning house. Moscow also sees a potential slowing of revolutionary momentum in Eastern Europe, as Ukraine's pro-Western political leadership falls into familiar patterns of scandal and corruption and more Russia-friendly leaders take center stage in Hungary, Moldova, and Bulgaria. Having found some breathing room in the west without provoking a military response from the United States and NATO, Moscow now sees a window of opportunity to reverse the revolutionary tide in the Middle East, bolster friendly regimes facing armed insurrection, and secure its southern flank.

The Kremlin has seen the Arab Spring and popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria as a secondary theater of the same "destabilizing," U.S.-led democratization campaign.

Projecting power to the Middle East and North Africa has never been easy for Russia. Even at the height of Soviet power, Moscow faced onerous constraints on establishing a military foothold there.

The Montreux Convention of 1936 limited the passage of warships through Turkey's Dardanelles Straits into the Mediterranean, requiring augmentation of Black Sea Fleet elements by units from the Northern and Baltic Fleets—thousands of miles away. These burdensome deployment distances—which forced Soviet vessels to sail around northern Europe and through Gibraltar and multiple other choke points controlled by NATO—were compounded by periodic restrictions on shore access by the Soviet Union’s often-erratic client regimes. These same constraints remain in place today, and Russia is in a much weaker position than before.

In becoming a Middle East power broker, Putin's Russia faces the fundamental constraint of running a "great power foreign policy" with a GDP the size of Italy’s. Much as Otto von Bismarck described 19th-century Italy as a country with a "large appetite but poor teeth," there is an apparent mismatch between Moscow's ambitious goals and its limited means. Russia's current leadership understands that their country is in no position to directly challenge, much less replace, the United States as the region's main security manager. As an "upstart" regional power, Russia's approach has been and is likely to remain asymmetric.

The first element of this strategy has been to diversify points of contact in the region. The Soviet Union learned the hard way about the difficulties of establishing permanent military bases in the eastern Mediterranean, as a series of hosts—first the Albanians in 1961, then several Arab regimes in the 1970s—expelled the Soviet Navy and Soviet military advisors from their shores. Rather than deepen its relations with a single stalwart ally (e.g. Assad's Syria), Moscow has opted to broaden its outreach to multiple regional players. In this outreach, Russia's marketing message is twofold: (1) we are willing to find common ground with anyone fighting against the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups, and (2) our security cooperation is not conditional on your respect for "democracy" or "human rights."

Even where Moscow has seemingly little to offer, this "value-free" approach has given Russia a great deal of flexibility and a potential comparative advantage over the United States.

The second element of this strategy is cost savings. Wary of repeating its own mistakes, and those of the United States in Iraq, Russia has sought to keep its military footprint small, opting instead for a limited, scalable presence that it can ramp up or down as the situation demands. The Syrian operation is illustrative of this approach. Limiting its ground presence to private contractors, special operations forces, and military police, Russia has sought to do as much as possible from 15,000 feet, relying on local proxies to consolidate the gains. Even the indiscriminate nature of Russian airstrikes is a form of cost savings—while Russia possesses more expensive precision-guided munitions (PGM), these weapons represent just 20 percent of Russian munitions dropped in Syria. The result has been a great deal of human suffering on the ground, but also a remarkably low effort-to-payoff ratio for Moscow.

At an average estimated daily cost of $2.5-3.5 million, or $1.25 billion per year, Syria represents about 2 percent of Russia's annual military spending.

The third element is soft power, a traditionally under-utilized tool in Russia's foreign policy arsenal. Its importance stems from the relative difficulties of relying on Russia's military instruments of power in the Middle East. Syria-style expeditionary operations have never been Russia's strong suit. While Russia has made great strides in military logistics, the Syrian operation has stretched Russia's strategic-lift capabilities to their absolute limit—leading to some innovative solutions, like re-flagging Turkish commercial vessels to transport Russian military equipment to theater. Even if Russia can overcome the geographic burden of deploying forces to the Eastern Mediterranean, it still faces the challenge of sustaining and expanding this presence in a de facto "NATO lake". As a relative newcomer to the region, Russia has benefited from anti-American sentiments endemic in the Arab world, and is thus reluctant to undercut its propaganda by establishing a large military presence of its own.

Russia is relying increasingly on economic and diplomatic components of its foreign policy.

Given these challenges, Russia is relying increasingly on economic and diplomatic components of its foreign policy. On the economic front, the Russian state oil company Rosneft recently acquired a 30 percent stake in Egypt's massive Zohr natural gas field, and in February signed an investment and crude-purchasing agreement with Libya's National Oil Corporation. On the diplomatic front, by cultivating contacts with actors with vastly different, even conflicting interests and priorities, Russia has increased its leverage as a potential intermediary. In Syria, for instance, Russia has managed to cooperate extensively—on separate issues, and mostly on a bilateral basis—with Turkey, Israel, and Iran. In Libya, international media attention has focused on Russia's support for Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), which is locked in a domestic power struggle with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Yet in early March, Russia also hosted GNA Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj on a two-day visit to Moscow, where he held talks with Russia's foreign minister and representatives from Haftar's camp. Russia has made similar headway in Egypt, where, three years after a partial suspension of U.S. military engagement in the wake of a military coup, Moscow and Cairo recently held their first combined military exercises since the Cold War.

Is Russia's "lightweight" Middle East strategy likely to succeed? The evidence, so far, is mixed. Russia's expanding network of regional partners certainly reduces the importance of any one military or diplomatic foothold. While this lack of a regional "anchor" may seem like a potential weakness, it also makes Russia less vulnerable to regional political shocks, like Egypt's realignment away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Soviet experience also taught Russia that local bases—like Tartus in Syria, or potentially Sidi Barrani and Marsa Matroukh in Egypt—are helpful, but not necessary to project power. Due to the uncertainty associated with permanent bases in the Middle East, the Soviet Navy relied instead on twelve offshore anchorages with floating dry docks and repair facilities, mostly in international waters, and a standing force of auxiliary vessels. This lightweight and mobile force posture reduced Soviet dependence on local Arab clients while extending the time Soviet units could spend in theater. The current Russian strategy of diversifying points of contact along the eastern Mediterranean follows in the same tradition, albeit on a more limited scale.

At the same time, Russia's strategy of "regional security management lite" has already demonstrated clear limits. This is especially true in Syria.

While Russian airstrikes have been effective in helping to clear rebel territory, reliance on Syrian ground troops and relatively undisciplined local proxies has made it more difficult to hold this ground...

Operationally, Syria is a fundamentally new type of challenge for Russia's military. It is the highest-intensity air campaign in which Russia has participated since World War II, with an average operational tempo of 45 air sorties per day flown by 50 aircraft in theater. The logistical burden of sustaining such an operation is far greater than anything Russia faced in Chechnya, Afghanistan, or earlier civil conflicts like Western Ukraine. The complexity and multidimensionality of the Syrian conflict are further complicating factors: Russia’s opponents here benefitted from extensive external support, and the cast of potential spoilers and veto players is large. While Russian airstrikes have been effective in helping to clear rebel territory, reliance on Syrian ground troops and relatively undisciplined local proxies has made it more difficult to hold this ground—as the experience of Palmyra has clearly shown. Russian military operations in Syria also face greater media visibility and scrutiny than anything Moscow has experienced before, making civilian suffering harder to conceal. Given these challenges, any short-term gains in security are highly likely to become offset by long-term negative political consequences. Indeed, this has happened before.

Like the United States, Russia is discovering that getting into the Middle East is far easier than getting out. Although Russia's lightweight, scalable approach was designed to make this extraction easier, a dignified exit appears nowhere in sight. It became clear to Russia fairly early in its Syrian intervention that a total victory by Assad is not feasible without a significant increase in Russia's military commitment—something Moscow has neither the desire nor resources to do. The clearest articulation of Russia's desired end state in Syria is in the draft Syrian constitution presented at the Astana summit in January: The Syrian regime would stay, but remaining opposition-held areas would receive regional autonomy. This proposal elicited little support from either the Syrian opposition or from key regional stakeholders like Turkey and Iran. While Russia has successfully positioned itself as an indispensable mediator in the Syrian conflict, this increased bargaining leverage has yet to begin bearing fruit.

All of this is not to dismiss Russia's expanding role in the Middle East as foolhardy or destined for failure. What we are seeing is a serious, sincere effort to reshape regional security dynamics and halt a wave of revolutionary upheaval deemed inimical to long-term Russian interests. It is also a strategy tailored to make the most of Russia's limited resources, and its execution thus far has been admirably cost-efficient. Whether it will prove effective is an open question, but early signs suggest that by keeping costs low, Russia is largely getting what it paid for.