Russia’s Balancing Act in the Middle East

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, p. 58

Waging Peace

Russia’s improved relationship with Middle East countries has created a new dynamic in global relations, raising questions as to the country’s overall foreign policy goals. Moscow’s bilateral relations with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, in addition to its warming relations with Iran, focuses on economic, political and security concerns.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to Moscow in July “was rather emblematic of this improvement in relations,” Oxford University doctoral candidate Nicole Grajewski said in a Gulf International Forum (GIF) online discussion on Aug. 6. “As much as this relationship has been shaped by their so-called strategic loneliness, I think it also reflects some overarching common interests in various regional domains from the Middle East to Central Asia, as well as broader international goals,” she said. 

Grajewski suggested looking at Russia’s relationship with Iran as emblematic of Moscow’s goal to focus on areas of cooperation while mitigating tensions. “I think Russia views its policy in the Middle East as something of regaining respect internationally and as maintaining its voice in international forums,” she added.

According to Samuel Ramani, non-resident fellow at GIF, Gulf countries are possibly turning toward Russia “as a hedge against uncertainties in continued U.S. leadership in the Persian Gulf.” They are also leaning toward Russia in the hopes that a closer relationship will scare the U.S. into selling them weapons such as F-35 fighter jets, he said. They are likely additionally interested in the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, its Pantsir S1 air defense system and “a broader understanding of global energy prices and a stabilization of the global energy markets.”

One high point of Russia’s relationship with Gulf countries was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2019 visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Russia’s coordination with both of those countries in Libya, Ramani posited. “The low point was the oil price war that we saw unfold this past winter and early spring.”

Alexey Khlebnikov of the Russian International Affairs Council pointed out the importance of Syria in the Russia-Gulf equation. “Russian involvement in Syria has already played a substantial role in developing relations with Gulf states,” he said. “The way the Syrian crisis will be settled will affect the new security architecture of the region and the role external powers will play in this security architecture. It will show how Russian policy and relations with the Gulf countries will develop and what will be the ties between external powers and regional players.”

Khlebnikov dismissed the idea of the U.S. withdrawing from the Middle East or Gulf region as “just rhetoric,” adding, “if you ask if it is realistic that the U.S. withdraws from the Gulf—no! Russia knows that America will not withdraw and will take its own steps.”

Elaine Pasquini





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