All the Tsar’s Men
Why Mobilization Can’t Save Putin’s War
On October 5, King Salman became the first ever Saudi monarch to visit Russia. President Vladimir Putin, who first invited the king to Moscow more than two years ago, hailed the visit as a “landmark event.” Billboards lined city streets welcoming the king in Arabic and Russian, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had strong words of praise for Saudi Arabia’s leadership.
After the summit, Salman and Putin signed a packet of documents on energy, trade, and defense, and agreed to several billion dollars’ worth of joint investment. In addition, there are reports that Saudi Arabia agreed to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense system, making it the second U.S. ally to do so. (Turkey was the first.)
The summit is just one more milestone in the recent trend of warming Russian-Saudi ties. In June 2015, then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attended the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum—the first time the prince became publically involved in energy issues according to press reports at the time—where he met with Putin. The following month, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund committed to invest $10 billion in Russia over five years, the largest-ever foreign direct investment in the country according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund. During a visit to Moscow this spring, meanwhile, Bin Salman said that “relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia are going through one of their best moments ever.”
Given the two countries’ opposite orientations dating back to the Cold War, these recent developments are remarkable. Whether the rapprochement will last is unclear. What is certain, however, is that Russia’s new Saudi ties show Putin’s sway in the Middle East remains on the upswing.
Since Saudi Arabia’s formal establishment in 1932, Moscow and Riyadh have been at odds in almost every Middle Eastern war or dispute besides the Arab–Israeli conflict. Through it all, Moscow has always understood Saudi Arabia’s importance in the region and has periodically reached out to the country in order to weaken, however slightly, Riyadh’s alliance with the West.
After a suspicious Saudi Arabia turned down a loan and a number of treaties on trade and friendship from Moscow, Joseph Stalin finally gave up on wooing King Ibn Saud and withdrew the Soviet Union’s diplomatic mission to the country in 1938. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Kremlin renewed its overtures, but was again unable to budge Saudi Arabia from the Western camp. The outbreak of civil war in Yemen in 1962 reversed what little rapprochement did occur as Riyadh and Moscow found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Over subsequent years, the Soviet Union and U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia continued their competition for influence in countries such as Oman and the former socialist state of South Yemen.
As U.S.–Saudi relations worsened against the backdrop of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the subsequent oil embargo, Riyadh appeared more receptive to Moscow. Yet that rapprochement, too, was nipped in the bud when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. Saudi financing of Afghanistan’s mujahideen—alongside American provision of weaponry and Pakistani logistical support—contributed significantly to the Soviet Union’s disastrous defeat.
It was only in 1990, two years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, that the two countries agreed to restore relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened new doors, but only briefly. Although Saudi Arabia offered $2.5 billion in aid to Russia in 1991, Moscow blamed Riyadh for keeping oil prices low and thus hampering Russia’s economic recovery. It also criticized Saudi financial support for the Chechen opposition and Islamists in Russia more broadly. Saudi authorities, meanwhile, were frustrated with Russia’s arms sales to regional rivals such as Iran.
When Putin came to power in May 2000, he made it his goal to make Russia a power broker in the Middle East and sought to exploit strains in U.S.–Saudi ties. He became the first Russian head of state ever to visit Riyadh in 2007, against the backdrop of Saudi frustration over the U.S. war in Iraq and Washington’s support for the Shiite government in Baghdad. Yet the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 stymied any real development in bilateral ties, as both states again found themselves on opposite sides of a regional conflict.
Given this long history of distrust, it is worth exploring why there is a new push to improve the bilateral relationship. For its part, Moscow is looking to strengthen its economic relationship with Riyadh. Putin is nothing if not pragmatic, and he knows that Russia’s stagnating economy needs foreign investment. (The Saudis have yet to make good on their earlier $10 billion pledge.) There are also shared oil interests. In December 2016, Russia and OPEC agreed to cut oil production, which helped raise the price of oil to $50 per barrel—still far below the approximately $100 per barrel that Russia’s budget would need, but nonetheless a modest improvement from when oil fell below $40 a barrel. Such cooperation over oil prices builds confidence and could soon bring higher prices.
In addition, as part of his zero-sum approach to diplomacy, Putin continues to seek to peel the United States away from its allies, while also moving closer to the Shiite world through deeper engagement with Iran, working with Hezbollah, and ensuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s survival in Damascus. A warmer relationship with Riyadh offers the perception of balance.
From a purely pragmatic standpoint, Saudi Arabia has to deal with Russia now regardless of whether it would like to.
Riyadh’s interests likely lie elsewhere. It recognizes that Assad is not leaving power soon, and so seeks to open the door to reconciliation through Moscow. In addition, U.S. President Donald Trump, like Barack Obama before him, appears willing to allow Russia to take the lead in Syria. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, then, Saudi Arabia has to deal with Russia now regardless of whether it would like to.
Saudi Arabia likely hopes that by offering economic incentives, it can induce Russia to distance itself from Iran—indeed, such was its hope with previous economic deals. It may also hope that Russia will be more helpful to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, where it is fighting a proxy war with Iran. Such hopes will likely end in disappointment, however. Putin will gladly take Saudi money, but he will not change his position on Iran in doing so. Moscow and Tehran have their differences, to be sure, but they are putting them aside in service of a common interest—namely, the reduction of U.S. influence in the region. That goal is too important for Putin to abandon, and driving a wedge between Russia and Iran is a far greater challenge than many analysts acknowledge. For Putin, hedging one’s bets and supporting both sides in Yemen, as well as in other regional conflicts such as Qatar, is a more pragmatic position to take.
Given the long history of tension and distrust between Russia and Saudi Arabia, it may be too early to talk about a fundamental shift in the relationship. Whether each side will deliver what it has promised so far remains to be seen. Although Riyadh is coming around to Moscow’s position on Syria and Russia’s growing regional influence more broadly, the Saudis’ concerns about Iran’s growing influence are unlikely to decrease, and Riyadh will likely remain worried about Russia’s treatment of Muslims within its borders. Putin, for his part, is happy to take Saudi investments, but they are not important enough for him to alter policies that have served Russia well. Moscow doesn’t consider Iranian export of revolution as an existential threat in the way Saudi Arabia does, for example. For Putin, Iran is a useful card to play against the United States and not one that he is willing to abandon. On balance, Putin holds more cards than King Salman or the crown prince.