Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
Russia is on a roll in the Middle East. Russian airpower saved the Assad regime from certain defeat. Turkey and Israel must now accept the presence of Russian troops on their borders. Saudi Arabia has given Russian President Vladimir Putin the red-carpet treatment. And U.S. President Donald Trump thanked Putin for facilitating the operation to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (or ISIS). Throughout the Middle East, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, Russia is ubiquitous, with its high-level visitors, its weapons, its mercenaries, and its deals to build nuclear power plants. Russia has gotten involved in this region as the United States pulls back from it—a trend that even the success of the Baghdadi raid can do little to conceal.
The reemergence of Russia as a major power broker in the Middle East is striking not only in contrast with the United States’ erratic posture in the region but because for a quarter century after the Cold War, Russia had been absent from the region. But Russia’s absence, and not its return, is the anomaly.
For centuries, Russia fought Turkey, England, and France for access to the Mediterranean, to protect fellow Christians under the Ottoman rule, and to secure a foothold in the Holy Land. For most of the post–World War II era, the Soviet Union was a major force in the Middle East. Moscow supported the Palestine Liberation Organization in its struggle against the “Zionist entity.” Egypt and Syria waged wars against Israel with Soviet weapons, help from Soviet military advisers, and occasionally even Soviet pilots. Soviet engineers and money helped build Egypt’s Aswan Dam. Then, in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union fell on hard times and rapidly withdrew. For the two decades that followed, Russia barely registered a presence in the Middle East. The United States grew accustomed to acting as the region’s hegemon—waging wars, dictating its political vision, and punishing governments that defied its will.
Such was the new normal until 2015. In the fall of that year, Russia sent its military to Syria. A coalition of U.S.-supported opposition groups was widely expected to win the civil war in that country and overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But Putin’s bold move and his military’s unexpected prowess quickly changed the course of events, demonstrating that the Middle East without Russia was actually a departure, not the norm. The norm used to be a Middle East with Russia in it as a major power broker. By winning the war in Syria, Russia seeks to make the old normal the new one.
From Moscow’s perspective, getting back into the power politics of the Middle East was a sensible, even necessary, move in 2015. The Assad regime was Russia’s last remaining client in the region—one with which it had been in business for half a century. Now Assad was on the ropes, nearly defeated by a coalition of U.S.-backed opposition groups. Saving the Syrian regime was both a necessity if Russia wanted to retain a foothold in the Middle East and an opportunity to deliver a blow to the United States. What better way to make Russia great again?
Moreover, Russia had domestic security concerns about spillover from the Syrian fighting. Some of the most radical groups in the Syrian civil war reportedly counted hundreds, possibly thousands, of fighters from Russia in their ranks. Russia’s geographic proximity to the Middle East and porous borders meant that fighting terrorists in Syria made more sense, in Putin’s words, than waiting “for them to come to our house.”
From North Africa to the Persian Gulf, Russia is ubiquitous.
Russia’s retreat from the world stage in the 1990s was so complete that the mere fact of its military operation in Syria overshadowed the relatively modest and conservative scale of the endeavor. By the fall of 2015, when Putin dispatched his air force and ground troops to Syria, the United States had made abundantly clear that it would not intervene directly in the Syrian civil war. The risk of a military confrontation with the United States was therefore minimal. There remained the risk of bumping into each other by accident, but that was solved through deconfliction, which was in itself a triumph for the Russian military: the United States, previously free to operate in Syria at will, now had to coordinate its activities with Russia.
The campaign the United States led against ISIS provided a convenient cover for Moscow’s deployment to Syria, helping to deflect any objections from Washington. The Russian military took full advantage of that cover, indiscriminately bombing civilian targets under the guise of going after terrorists and extremists. The civilian population paid a terrible price for the Russian military’s way of war. But what could be expected of an army that had obliterated the city of Grozny during the war in Chechnya in the 1990s?
From Moscow’s perspective, the Syrian operation was a success. It was hardly the quagmire some had predicted, and it did not cost Russia a lot in blood or treasure. Rather, the intervention restored Russia to a position of prominence in the Middle East. It demonstrated the Russian military’s newly recovered prowess and provided ample opportunities to test new weapons and concepts—great for marketing these goods in a region with money to spend on hardware. Now, too, everyone in the region would know that Russia stands by its man—unlike the United States, which gives him up at the first sign of trouble, as it did with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are fighting a fierce proxy war in Syria, and the Kremlin has positioned itself as the power broker to whom all actors must talk. Russia can talk to everyone and is on good terms with everyone, so it is indispensable.
But in a region riven by religious, ideological, and geopolitical fault lines, where rivalries are old and fierce, a power broker needs to be able to do more than talk to all the players. Russia’s newfound friends want something in exchange for their friendship. Israel wants Russia to restrain Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, while Iran and Hezbollah remain intent on waging their campaign against the Jewish state. The Saudis want Russia to take their side in their rivalry with Iran. But Russia has invested a great deal in its relationship with Iran and is not about to sacrifice it for the sake of better relations with Israel or Saudi Arabia. Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, made the point clear last June in Jerusalem: he rejected U.S. and Israeli accusations that Iran was the biggest threat to the security of the Middle East and called Israeli strikes “undesirable.”
Kremlin has positioned itself as the power broker to whom all actors must talk.
Russia wants something, too. It has—mostly—won the war in Syria. Now it needs to win the peace. A political settlement in Syria would be the crowning achievement of Moscow’s military endeavor. Russia would definitively emerge as a power broker equal to and even more important than the United States, having succeeded where the United States had failed. The message of Russian military might and diplomatic skill would carry far beyond the Middle East and boost the country’s claim to recognition as a major global power. Having secured the peace in Syria, Russia could lean on Europe and wealthy Arab states to finance the country’s reconstruction. With that would come lucrative contracts for Kremlin-friendly Russian firms.
But winning the peace is proving no less difficult than winning the war. In order to broker a lasting peace, Russia will need to restrain Iran and Hezbollah and reassure Israel and Turkey about their security. At the moment, neither Europe nor anyone else is rushing to foot the giant bill for reconstruction. Russia cannot solve this puzzle without upsetting some of its friends.
Russia has returned to a vast and volatile region just as it begins to come to terms with the uncertainty of an approaching new normal: a post-American Middle East. But few, if any, governments in the region really expect Russia to fill the vacuum the United States will leave as it pulls back and focuses its attention and resources elsewhere.
The Russian military’s performance in Syria, and Putin’s cordial reception in Saudi Arabia, cannot conceal the fact that the Russian economy is struggling and in dire need of investment. For the Kremlin, the wealthy Arab Gulf states present a fundraising opportunity. Nor is it a secret that the Russian military’s procurement budget is still quite modest, and foreign arms sales are a major source of revenue for Russian defense industries. The same is true for Russia’s nuclear power industry: touted for years as the leading edge of Russian industry, the state nuclear power monopoly, Rosatom, has yet to build a single plant besides the Bushehr plant in Iran, which took decades to complete. Rosatom signed a contract in 2010 to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey, but construction began only in 2018. In Egypt, it has yet to start. Jordan canceled its contract with Rosatom in 2018.
Russia’s central relationships in the Middle East are with three non-Arab states—Iran, Turkey, and Israel—all of which are stable by comparison with their Arab neighbors. Russia has little to offer to the region’s Arab societies, which need security, stability, and opportunities for political and economic modernization. High-level visits and arms sales will not achieve those ends.
Still, Russia’s return to the Middle East is neither inconsequential nor solely a threat to U.S. interests. As the United States rethinks its own interests and commitments in the region, it may find areas where U.S. and Russian interests are compatible or even coincide. For example, the United States and Russia were able to work together on the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
Russia has returned to the Middle East and is not planning to leave. Much of what Russia has recently accomplished there has been a function of the United States’ repositioning and redefinition of its interests. These developments offer an opening for a U.S. Middle East policy guided by a more modest, but ultimately more realistic and productive, set of objectives.