As its relations with Europe deteriorate and partnership with China hits an apparent pause, Russia searches for new opportunities to restore its compromised global status. Moscow found quite a few such prospects in the Middle East in recent years. And yet, as it sought to exploit them to pursue its grand geopolitical games, Russia was more often than not reduced to sparring with Turkey in such forlorn places as Idlib, Syria, or Sirte, Libya. Now, the sequence of proactive moves by the Joseph Biden administration, which has begun to chart its course through the convoluted Middle Eastern conflicts, simultaneously gladdens and alarms the Kremlin. Russian intrigue-spinners are delighted at the occasion to contend with the top-ranked opponent in this complicated region; but at the same time, they worry about Russian policy weaknesses potentially becoming exposed in the process.
The most visible of the United States’ actions was the February 25 airstrike on a pro-Iranian militia checkpoint on Syria’s eastern border, in retaliation for earlier attacks on US facilities in Iraq (Izvestia, February 26). The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately issued a resolute condemnation, amplified by several little-known State Duma deputies; meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained that the Russian command in Syria received the US warning just five minutes prior to the strike, even though the target was actually far away from Russian bases and patrol areas (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 26). While President Biden (just like his predecessor) had a direct and public role in the decision to conduct the aerial barrage, President Vladimir Putin never takes responsibility for any Russian strikes and has no option to respond in kind as he continues to conduct state business from his unusually acute self-isolation (Kommersant, February 27). Worse, from Moscow’s point of view, the high-precision US hit coincided with a guilty verdict issued by a German court against a former Syrian security services officer, charged with complicity in carrying out torture (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 25). Russia has long seen the European Union as an irrelevant actor in Syria, but this legal precedent might signify Brussels’ growing role in actively delegitimizing the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Another important US step was Biden’s February 17 phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Based on past history, this inaugural conversation at the start of a new US administration should have come earlier, yet it sufficed to dispel some building speculation about estrangement in this crucial relationship (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 11). Russia had tried to exploit that pause to emphasize its own ties with Israel: notably, both Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu engaged in mediation to release an Israeli citizen taken hostage in Syria (RIA Novosti, February 19). The rather unconventional deal involved Israel paying for Russian COVID-19 vaccines (Sputnik-V) to be delivered to Syria, while Moscow would refrain from its usual criticism of Israeli airstrikes in Syria (Newsru.com, February 20). The gambit nonetheless failed to peel Israel away from the US. Insightful commentators in Moscow argue that the US’s February 25 strike was more than just straightforward retribution; it was also meant as a signal to Israel that the Biden administration would not go “soft” on Iran (Russiancouncil.ru, February 26).
Moscow has sought to reengage Tehran in the political bargaining over Syria, which, in the past year, it had preferred to do bilaterally with Ankara. But the latest meeting in the rehabilitated “Astana format” (Russia, Turkey, Iran) was predictably fruitless (Kommersant, February 18). The key issue for the entire Middle East has been the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); Russia confirms its commitment to the JCPOA but offers no help in resetting it (Izvestia, February 24). In carefully monitoring the fluid repositioning and messaging between Washington and Tehran, Moscow’s best hope, apparently, is that the attempts to reach a compromise again collapse (The Insider, February 19). It is, indeed, far easier for both antagonists to stick to unacceptable demands, and Russia stands to benefit from a possible failure by Biden’s team, which would permit Moscow to continue decrying malevolent US ambivalence and to keep defying the weakened sanctions (Rosbalt, February 24).
Yet another important move by Washington was Biden’s phone call to Saudi King Salman last Thursday (February 25), which preempted the release of the US intelligence report implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (RIA Novosti, February 27). Putin made it clear to the powerful prince that he did not care about such mundane matters when they met at the G20 summit in November 2018, and the Kremlin leader confirmed this attitude in their phone conversation two weeks ago (Kremlin.ru, February 15). Moscow hopes that complications in US-Saudi relations play into Russian hands and make Riyadh more attentive to Russia’s key interests, from oil production quotas to Syria (Izvestia, February 26). The Kremlin assumes that Biden’s democracy-upholding agenda has no takers among US allies in the Middle East, from Egypt to Jordan to Turkey, while those allies (particularly in Europe) that do embrace this agenda have neither the intention nor the capacity to intervene in Middle Eastern conflicts (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 24).
Russia can afford to ignore some of these regional clashes, such as the war in Yemen, and it manipulates others, such as in Libya, where Moscow declares support for the peace process, while denying the deployment of hundreds of Wagner Group mercenaries who aggravate the split in the country and hamper oil production (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 15). Additionally, Russia is eager to add to the US difficulties in negotiating an end to the conflict in Afghanistan and persists with opening its own channel of talks with Taliban (RIA Novosti, February 24). It is typically easier and much cheaper to play a spoiler role in the political maneuvering around deeply entrenched hostilities, the resolution of which would hardly help in advancing Russian interests.
The problem with this perfidious policy is that local stakeholders can easily see through Moscow’s pretenses. They are keen to exploit Russia’s great power ambitions much as their predecessors exploited Soviet ideological dogmatism for their own parochial purposes. Accepting Russian advances often helps them to obtain a better deal in bargaining with the United States—unless the intrigue goes too far and backfires, as is the case of Turkey’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Where the crisscrossing interests of regional actors come together—and where Russia fits in—is the desire to pull US attention away from its strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific, an area marked by spectacular growth and escalating tensions.