This year, Moscow is celebrating the 45th anniversary of Operation Kavkaz, the Soviet military intervention on behalf of Egypt in the 1969–70 Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition. The engagement was a key moment in the history of the Cold War. It caught Western intelligence by surprise, and it was the first—and only—time the Soviet military fought the Israeli Defense Forces. Operation Kavkaz saved Russia’s closest ally from regime change and protected Moscow’s strategic assets on Egyptian soil. The Soviet Union’s subsequent activism in the region marked the height of Moscow’s Cold War achievements in the Middle East.
Once more, the Kremlin is increasingly assertive in the Middle East, and once more, it has surprised the West. Emboldened by its perceived success in addressing regional challenges and capitalizing on opportunities, it has gotten closer than ever to its key diplomatic objective: acquiring a regional status on par with Washington’s.
Seen from the Kremlin, Russia’s regional policy has been a series of remarkable triumphs. Moscow’s traditional goals are straightforward: to build a buffer against radical jihadists on its southern flank, to export arms and nuclear energy, to project power in the Middle East’s warm waters and beyond, to compete with the West, and, recently, to expand influence among and through regional Christian communities.
The Arab Spring, which Moscow saw as an outcome of U.S. policies, put these goals, and the pillars of Russia’s regional architecture—its alliances with Iran, Libya, and Syria—at grave risk. In Moscow’s view, after throwing Libya into turmoil, Washington focused on cornering Iran with sanctions and threats and on destabilizing Syria by instigating an insurgency. The Kremlin believes that, faced with such challenges, it played each hand skillfully, holding and even improving Moscow’s positions. In Libya, after the initial loss, Moscow realized that it should be more assertive in the region. In Iran, Moscow preserved relations with both moderates and hard-liners, played a
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