Russia is actively trying to re-engage in the Middle East as it adjusts its foreign diplomatic policy. However, historical mistrust and Moscow’s continued support for Iran is proving to be a stumbling block to its efforts, not least with the Gulf monarchies.
Russia’s attempt to re-engage diplomatically with the Middle East throws up a series of dilemmas for states in the region.
Moscow is certain to feel most comfortable dealing with those countries with which it has had long-standing defence and diplomatic relationships dating back to the Soviet-era. However, the reaction of other states in the region to these relationships could create bilateral tensions. Unity among ‘moderate’ Arab states is of paramount importance in facing threats from Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda and Iran. Critical to this dynamic will be the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Egypt enthusiastic, Saudi wary
Egypt’s willingness in 2015 to rekindle its previously close defence relationship with Moscow is the most recent, prominent and successful effect of Russia’s more interactive Middle East policy. Cairo has placed a major order for Russian combat aircraft (a USD2 billion deal for 46 MiG-29s has been agreed) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi welcomed President Vladimir Putin to his country in February.
Russia doubtless targeted Egypt as a potential arms customer in the knowledge that Cairo’s previously close relationship with the United States has been somewhat fraught since 2011. Egypt’s poor financial position, coupled with its desire to acquire more multi-role combat aircraft, left Moscow in a good position to offer a cost-effective solution to Egypt’s current defence needs.
Egypt has embraced this approach and a further deepening of Cairo’s ties with Moscow is likely, as Sisi seeks to cautiously re-align Egyptian foreign policy away from dependence on Washington. However, this is not a policy decision without risk. Egypt remains dependent on substantial financial assistance from the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia may have had its disputes with the US since the Arab Spring, but even as it seeks to engage constructively with Russia with the aim of trying to change its policies on Iran and Syria, it remains wary of Russian involvement in the Middle East.
As far as Riyadh is concerned, Russia is a malign influence, whether it is by its continued support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, its close relationship with Iran or its status as a major competitor in the world oil market.
Historically, the House of Saud has also been deeply distrustful of Russia’s Soviet-era support for leftwing movements in the region, seeing them as a potential threat to Saudi stability. This viewpoint cemented the US-Saudi alliance during the Cold War and led directly to Saudi support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan during their war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Russia today may be more nationalist than Communist, but Saudi wariness about Moscow’s regional motives is unlikely to have significantly diminished, especially when viewed through the prism of Moscow’s Syria policy.
As such, Riyadh will be closely watching the development of Egyptian ties with Moscow and it is unlikely to be impressed if it feels its financial assistance is being used to usher in greater Russian regional influence.
Sisi, acutely aware of his country’s current financial dependence on Riyadh, is unlikely to let any rapprochement with Russia overshadow Egypt’s strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia. However, as the Egyptian economy recovers, lessening the country’s reliance on Gulf aid, and Cairo continues to rediscover its diplomatic confidence, tensions may surface in the future if relations are not carefully managed.
Perceptions of Russia
The perceptions of Russia vary widely from state to state in the Middle East. A positive attitude remains in those states that had close relations with the Soviet Union. It is therefore no surprise that Russia’s ties with countries such as Algeria, Iran and Syria are still strong.
Algeria in particular, with its huge gas and oil reserves, remains a major market for Russian arms manufacturers. Moscow’s relationship with Iran has clearly been obstructed by the nuclear issue and the imposition of international sanctions. However, Russia has been careful to caveat its support for international efforts to control Iran’s nuclear military ambitions with support for Tehran’s right to civilian nuclear technology. This position has been accepted by the US and EU during talks to resolve the problem. Meanwhile, Russian support for Assad – including arms deliveries and financial assistance – has probably helped the Syrian president survive longer than many observers may have initially expected when the civil war broke out in 2011.
However, Russian avenues to exert regional influence have diminished in recent years. The overthrow of Muammar Ghadaffi in Libya, although not necessarily mourned in Moscow, cost Russia billions of dollars in lost revenue from arms sales and investments in infrastructure, oil and gas. Moscow has since sought to supply weapons to the internationally recognised Libyan government to aid them in their fight against IS, albeit in much lower quantities than previously.
Likewise the collapse of the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen also deprived Russia of a potential ally. Although Saleh had allied himself with the US in the fight against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), he was the sort of maverick leader – like Ghadaffi – that Moscow has been used to dealing with in the past.
The fact that Russia’s list of potential allies is short will please the Gulf Arab monarchies. Driven by Saudi Arabia, they remain wary of Russia’s ties with Iran and its policy on Syria. While Riyadh has been able to use the international policy stalemate over Syria to bypass Russia’s blocking tactics at the UN and assemble a loose coalition with Turkey with the aim of ousting Assad, it is Moscow’s relationship with Iran that is of deeper concern.
Russia’s Iran problem
As far as many Middle Eastern states are concerned, especially those in the Gulf, Russia’s relationship with Iran will provide the obstruction to more fruitful co-operation. Moscow may have played a constructive role in the P5+1 talks, but huge suspicions remain about Russian motives should any deal be finalised. Russia, along with China, is viewed by Iran’s regional rivals as Tehran’s most likely source of finance and credit to help it recover from sanctions. Russia’s willingness to assist Iran in developing civilian nuclear technologies is a further cause for concern.
Russia’s decision – shortly after the announcement of the nuclear framework agreement in April – to lift a ban on supplying the sophisticated S-300 air defence system to Iran has once more heightened unease, especially in Israel and Saudi Arabia. They believe Moscow is being far too enthusiastic in rewarding Iran, particularly given that a final, binding deal on the nuclear issue has not been reached (and my yet be derailed).
Israel, feeling Iran’s acquisition of the S-300 would seriously impact its ability to exercise its militaries options in relation to Iran’s sensitive nuclear sites, has spent much of the past five years trying to persuade Russia to abandon the sale of the system to Tehran. Moscow’s decision to go ahead was seen in Israel a failure of the government’s policy of engagement with Russia. Likewise, the decision upset Riyadh, which remains resolutely opposed to Iran gaining any kind of technological or military advantage over it. Neither state has been placated by Russian assurances that the system will not be delivered until 2016 at the earliest.
New or old thinking?
As a consequence, Russia’s determination to rekindle its friendship with Iran – largely in order to counterbalance the network of US regional alliances and make up for the loss (or imminent loss) of previous allies in Iraq, Libya and Syria – will continue to cause the major regional powers to question Moscow’s motives.
They are likely to be asking themselves whether Russian re-engagement is a serious attempt to deal with the issues facing the region on their own terms; or whether its alliances and diplomacy are merely elements of a wider, global strategy to counter the US. If the majority of regional states see Russia’s new policy as merely a replay of its Cold War mentality, Moscow is unlikely to achieve a significant level of new influence, regardless of the success of its defence diplomacy and increased ability to sell arms.
This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of Middle East Insider.
PS21 is a non-ideological, non-governmental, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.
David Hartwell is a Middle East political, military and security expert, and Director and Managing Editor at Middle East Insider.