On Friday, February 2, the United States conducted a massive airstrike, targeting terrorist militia bases in Iraq and Syria but reverberating across Russian geopolitical designs.
In Russia’s grand strategy, the escalation of tensions in the broader Middle East triggered by the shocking attack by Hamas terrorists on Israel on October 7, 2023, is of much greater importance than just an unexpected means to redirect international attention away from its aggression against Ukraine.
Undermining the US position
The protracted military operation executed by Israel in Gaza is perceived in Moscow as a major force undermining the US position in the region and boosting Russia’s claim for leadership in the global struggle against the US “hegemony” (RIAC, January 19).
Calculations in Moscow are based on the assumption that the Biden Administration’s unwavering support for Israel will compromise US influence in the region and prompt further military withdrawals (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 24). Acting on these assumptions, the Kremlin has opted to cancel its long-cultivated ties with Israel and assumed an unequivocal pro-Palestinian stance in an echo of Soviet policy. Russian contact with Hamas has increased, including Deputy Chairman of Hamas’s political bureau Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook’s visit to Moscow in mid-January (RIA-Novosti, January 19).
Challenges from regional powers
This Russian policy fails to consider how the key regional powers, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, resent Hamas and would welcome its extermination by the Israeli operation (The Insider, February 2). Every Middle Eastern stakeholder in the post-war regional stabilization expects the United States to play a central role and believes that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy is the best available means for managing the high-risk conflict (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 1).
Another Russian miscalculation concerns the threats to maritime traffic in the Red Sea. Russian media describes the US and UK missile strikes on the military assets of Houthi rebels in the Red Sea as violations of Yemen’s sovereignty and condemns the nations as drivers of escalation (RIAC, January 19; Izvestiya, January 29). Drones targeting slow-moving tankers threaten Russia’s oil exports to India, but this has not stopped “patriotic” commentators in Moscow from hoping for a hit on a US combat ship (Moscow times, February 1; TopWar.ru, February 1). US counter-measures have tacit support from China, which is concerned about risks on its trade routes, while the European Union is deploying its own naval mission to the Red Sea, headed by Greece and Italy (RBC.ru, January 26; Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 31).
Syria: Centerpiece of Russian policy
Syria remains the centerpiece of Russian policy in the Middle East. Every US and Israeli air strike on terrorist assets in the territory controlled by the al-Assad regime underlines the feebleness of Russian military intervention.
Economic aid from Russia has been curtailed, and the ostracized dictator has compensated by turning Syria into a narco-state producing and smuggling industrial quantities of Captagon (an amphetamine-type drug, also known as Fenethylline) (The Insider, January 31). This criminal mutation has further diminished the strategic value of the Syrian “asset” for Moscow, and the purpose of having a naval base in the Eastern Mediterranean is undercut by the progressive destruction of the Black Sea Fleet by Ukrainian missiles and drones (Svoboda.org, February 2).
Russia has few connections and no control over the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s activities in Syria, and their weakening interoperability impacts the broader agenda of the strategic partnership, which stops short of maturing into an alliance (Valdai club, January 30). Even the war-mongering pundits in Moscow argue that Iran seeks to gain valuable technologies in exchange for hundreds of low-tech Shahed-136 (Geran-2) drones (TopWar.ru, February 1). Tehran harbors grand ambitions in the Middle East and manipulates multiple armed proxies. Still, it carefully calibrates the intensity of confrontation with the United States and understands that ties with Russia are useless in this risky brinksmanship (Kommersant, February 2).
Turkey’s Role and Russian Frustrations
Moscow expected that its readiness to embrace Hamas would help in strengthening its strategic partnership with Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s refusal to participate in the World Economic Forum in Davos due to insufficient attention to the plight of Palestinians in Gaza furthered this assumption (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 15). This show of support, however, did not impress those in Davos. More importantly for Russia’s interests, Ankara has decided to comply more strictly with Western sanctions. Most Turkish banks have closed accounts belonging to Russian customers and ceased to process transactions (Vedomosti, February 1). Putin is frustrated by this conformity to US guidelines but hopes to revive the rapport with Erdogan during his planned mid-February visit to Turkey, where he has not been for four years (Interfax, February 2).
Oil, BRICS, and economic ambitions
Russia’s primary stake in the Middle East is undoubtedly oil, and every outbreak of hostilities is perceived as a driver for increased oil prices and a bonus for budget revenues. This is not the case, as the world market discounts the risks of supply interruptions and ignores the deals between Russia and Saudi Arabia on production cuts (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 31). Moscow hopes that the accession of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates to the BRICS (originally a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) will add credibility to the agreements between leading oil producers (Kommersant, January 31). China, however, will apply its levers of influence to prevent a spike in prices, and Russian intrigue might become an irritant rather than an opportunity for Riyadh (Re:Russia, February 1).
Middle East Conflict and Russian Delusions
The Kremlin clings to the hope that conflict in the Middle East will become a bane for US dominance in the region and an opening for Russia’s influence.
This delusion cannot accommodate the reality in which US diplomacy plays the central role in promoting solutions for the destructive Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the US military executes active deterrence to check its escalation. Moscow used to enjoy the ability to communicate with every participant of the overlapping clashes and quarrels in the region.
This versatility, however, is either lost due to the embrace of such criminal groupings as Hamas and Ansar Allah or has become irrelevant because Russia is no longer seen as a reliable counterpart. The resource base for Russia’s foreign policy has shrunk so severely that its interests in the Middle East are set to suffer accordingly.
- Pavel K Baev is a Research Professor at PRIO
- This text is also published by the Eurasia Daily Monitor