Russia’s Declining Influence in the Middle East

By and December 24, 2012

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 194

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Russian involvement in the Middle East is presently nothing more than an attempt by Moscow to hold on to its deteriorating position on the international stage. Russia’s support of the Assad regime in Syria has hurt its image and weakened its influence in other Arab countries. Although it will not be able to provide financial assistance, Russia may try to fill a vacuum should the US scale back its ties to the new Islamist governments in the region.

Since his ascent to power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been eager to regain Russia’s previous influence in the Middle East. Being a mighty political force is an essential part of traditional Russian self-perception and is a cornerstone of Putin’s public mobilization strategy. Russia wants to have a say in the Middle East, as would any aspiring great power. Yet, Moscow’s assertive stance and militant rhetoric should not be misinterpreted; to a large degree, the Russians conceal impotence and frustration, results of its de facto inability to affect regional politics. The latest events of the “Arab Spring,” which have yielded power to various Islamist groups in the Middle East, only heighten this situation. Civil war in Syria and the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict elucidate this point.

Syrian Civil War

Syria has long been Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East, practically the only one since the end of the Cold War. Lacking the resources to make an impact elsewhere, Russia has maintained a close, though largely one-sided, relationship with Syria, based primarily on supplying Damascus with weapons. Syria paid back with promises of future economic preferences and provided the Russian navy with a maritime supplies base in Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast. It also fed Russian hunger for a great-power status, contributing to the illusion of Moscow’s regional influence.

Despite the central role that Syria played in Russia’s foreign policy, Putin’s efforts during the ongoing civil war in Syria have mostly been confined to diplomacy. Moscow provides President Bashar Assad’s regime with a diplomatic umbrella in the UN, protecting it from harsh resolutions and preventing a possible international intervention. However, it significantly lags behind Iran in helping the Syrian government suppress the uprising. Russia vocally protested against international involvement in the conflict, but has been unable to counter the assistance streaming to the rebels. At the same time, Moscow’s stubborn diplomatic support for the Syrian regime has taken a heavy toll on its relations with the rest of the Arab world.

Moreover, Moscow has apparently been unwilling to endanger its vital economic interests for a flimsy chance to influence the situation in the Middle East. Thus, despite opposing views on Syria, Russia and Turkey achieved a significant breakthrough on the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline to Europe. While Turkey is the second-largest consumer of Russian gas, after Germany, Russia is the weaker side in the relationship, dependent on Ankara’s permission to run the pipeline across its territory.

Operation Pillar of Defense

Russia’s relationship with Hamas began in 2006, after the organization won the Palestinian elections, and strengthened in 2007, when Hamas took control of the Gaza strip. Russia is among the few great powers that maintain official relations with Hamas and do not recognize it as a terrorist organization. In 2006, a Hamas delegation paid an official visit to Moscow and was received by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, thus gaining valuable international recognition. Since then, Lavrov has met regularly with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who went to Moscow in 2010. Russian officials have justified their country’s position; they claim that having connections on both sides of the conflict will allow negotiation and constructive dialogue towards a resolution. They had previously applied the same approach in the Korean conflict, presumably aiming to maintain Russia’s international significance far beyond the country’s actual capacity to have an effect.

In practice, when the opportunity to make an impact presented itself during the last Israel-Hamas standoff, Russia stayed out of the way, confining itself to firm anti-Israeli rhetoric and empty calls for restraint on both sides. Speaking at a news conference after a meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Riyadh, Lavrov described Israeli actions as “disproportionate” and “entirely unacceptable,” while Putin called on the parties to exercise restraint. At the same time, Russia Today, Moscow’s official international satellite network broadcasting in English and Arabic, persistently aired vicious anti-Israeli propaganda, bordering on incitement.

These statements apparently reflect Russia’s desperate effort to mend its shattered image in the Arab world caused by its support of the Assad regime. Still, it was the US-backed Egypt which played the central role in achieving the ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel, reaping the benefits of international prestige. Russia did not have any role whatsoever, and during the whole crisis remained entirely irrelevant.

Conclusion

The oil issue is almost automatically assumed to be of pivotal significance for all players involved in the Middle East gambit, especially Russia, whose financial fortunes are directly linked to the fluctuations of oil prices. However, the traditional instability in the region, the latest shockwaves of the ”Arab Spring,” and the escalation of tension between Israel and Iran keep prices high without a special intervention from Moscow. Aside from this, Russia has little to gain from its involvement in the region, as its Middle Eastern politics seem to be more about pride than about financial gains.

Lacking the ability to impact the situation on the ground and losing last bits of diplomatic influence, Russia might be tempted to take a more adventurous stand on Middle Eastern issues in order to restore its ruined status on the Arab street. Yet, as long as the US maintains relations with the new Islamist regimes, Russia’s response will be mainly confined to the diplomatic realm. There is simply no space for the Russians in the new Middle East, as they have little or nothing to offer or contribute to the developing situation. On the other hand, should anything trigger a break in the fragile relationship between the Islamists and the US, and should the Americans retract their support, the Russians will be sure to jump in to fill the vacuum, seeking to regain influence – as they have always in the past – by supporting anti-American regimes. Unable to make serious financial contributions, however, they may try to compensate by offering weapons and diplomatic cover.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Click here to see a PDF version of this page

Dr. Anna Geifman

Dr. Anna Geifman is a senior research fellow in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and Professor Emerita at Boston University.

Yuri Teper

Yuri Teper is a PhD candidate in political studies at Bar-Ilan University.