The Ukraine war has generated shockwaves far beyond the Donbas battlefields, and the Middle East has absorbed and returned the variegated impacts and, as a result, has attracted increased attention in recent weeks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to visit Tehran, Iran, on July 19, aiming to counter United States President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia last week.
Biden sought to discharge tensions in the region and encourage cooperation between historic adversaries, and every step in peace promotion narrows Russia’s opportunities to manipulate conflicts in the region. Putin’s agenda is shaped by his vision of the world order’s collapse, accelerated by Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and the Middle East is precisely where Moscow must convincingly demonstrate the erosion of US leadership (Kommersant-FM, July 13).
Saudi Arabia is seen by the Kremlin as the main hub of all Middle Eastern intrigue, and mainstream commentators in Moscow had predicted that Biden would fail to persuade the petro-kingdom to increase oil production (Russiancouncil.ru, July 5). World oil prices are in retreat from a sharp peak resulting from the Ukraine war, and the Russian government spelled out its worries, expressing hope that Saudi partnerships with other countries would not be aimed against Russia (Izvestiya, July 13). This elliptic presumption was underpinned not only by market calculations but also by a focus on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was deeply hurt by Biden’s accusations regarding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 12). For Moscow, human rights are most certainly a nonissue, and the working assumption is that Saudi leadership would view benevolently an invitation to join the BRICS grouping (a loose economic grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) (Ru.valdaiclub.com, July 13).
What complicates Russian’s game plan in Saudi Arabia is the intention—driven by the pressure of Western sanctions—to upgrade economic and security ties with Iran (Rosbalt, July 15). Putin’s visit will hardly deliver a breakthrough in the deadlocked talks on Iran’s nuclear program, but it will most likely yield more results than just ceremonial reaffirmation of a neighborly partnership (Kommersant, July 12; The Insider, July 16). The deal on purchasing a few hundred combat drones was exposed by US intelligence, and instead of the usual denials, military experts in Moscow have started to argue that buying these weapons from Iran should not be a problem (News.ru, July 14). It is telling that, after many years of expensive research and development, the Russian military industry cannot develop serial production of unmanned aerial vehicles, and as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, which has suffered many attacks from Iranian drones, such a deal puts Russia squarely into the hostile camp (Bfm.ru, July 12).
In Tehran, Putin is also scheduled to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who maintains an ambivalent stance on the Ukraine war in seeking to harvest transactional benefits and strengthen his hand domestically (The Insider, July 11). Russian military command is incensed by the continued delivery of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drones to Ukraine, but this issue has yet to be raised in the ostensibly cordial conversations between Putin and Erdogan (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, July 14). After detaining a Russian ship with Ukrainian grain earlier this month, Turkey has pushed an initiative on opening sea access to Odesa, and Moscow—aware that its blockade of Ukrainian grain exports tarnishes its reputation with many states of the Global South and China—has agreed to compromise (Svoboda.org, July 14). Erdogan may use this diplomatic success, if it indeed materializes, for advancing his political agenda in Washington, DC, following up on his far from gracious consent to a new round of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion toward Finland and Sweden (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 14).
In return for flexibility on Ukrainian grain, Putin would expect from Erdogan a postponement of the announced military operation in northern Syria, which is aimed at expanding Turkish control over the border area (RIA Novosti, July 10). Despite the reduction of military presence, Syria remains a key pillar of Russian positions in the Middle East, and the Kremlin has staged provocations aimed at testing the US commitment to maintaining limited troop deployments in northeastern Syria and at the al-Tanf military base (Kommersant, July 4). Russian supplies for the Bashar al-Assad regime are shrinking, and this worries Moscow about possible Iranian dominance in Syria. Yet in this light, Putin prefers to emphasize his closeness of views with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, with whom Putin also met last month in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (RIA Novosti, July 14). The only way to counter Iranian influence for Moscow is to ensure that Western aid keeps coming into Syria, thus after initially blocking the United Nations Security Council draft resolution, the Russian government then agreed to extend the arrangement of humanitarian aid for six months (Izvestiya, July 12).
Iranian military presence in Syria is a major issue in Russian-Israeli relations, but the informal mechanism of deconfliction still works, wherein Russia does not interfere with Israeli air strikes, even with those that come close to the Russian naval base in Tartus (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 3). Biden’s visit to Israel was scantly covered by Russian mainstream media, which focused instead on the minimal support for Ukraine among disagreeable Israeli political elites and on the rejection of invitations to join the West’s sanctions regime (Rossiiskaya gazeta, July 13). Nevertheless, the Kremlin still rues former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent electoral loss, which precipitated a break in strong ties between Putin and Netanyahu (Russiancouncil.ru, July 1).
Moscow can hardly find much comfort in the preference of most Middle Eastern states to stay neutral in the confrontation between Russia and the West and to concentrate on minimizing negative impacts of food and energy supplies. This damage minimization requires collective efforts, for which US engagement is needed—and provided. Russian war discourse proclaims the breakdown of the US-designed world order, but in fact, the demand for US leadership in managing the overlapping old and new conflicts in the Middle East may be too great to overcome.
The best option for Russia to boost its regional profile in the Middle East is to expand ties with Iran, but this will almost certainly undercut Moscow’s positions in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia may be hesitant with increasing oil production, but even a symbolic barrel—in response to Biden’s visit—may have a calming market effect and deliver a psychological blow to Moscow. The Middle East defies the Ukraine war’s description as a contest between democracy and dictatorship, but a peaceful future for this conflict-rich region depends heavily on a thorough defeat of Putin’s militarism.
- Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at PRIO