Russia, the United States, and the Middle East

We don’t know much about what was said when U.S. President Donald Trump sat across from Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit on July 7, but we do know they talked a lot about the Middle East. By his own account, Trump told Putin, "There's so much killing in Syria. We got to solve Syria."

Russia has been playing a more active role in the Middle East in the last five years, and before committing to strategic cooperation with Russia, it is helpful to judge Russia’s objectives and strategies in the region.

It is easier to grasp Russian strategy by contrasting it with Chinese strategy. China has a large stake in the region’s trajectory, relying on the Middle East for more than 60 percent of its imported energy. China has an expanding economic footprint, as trade and investment increase and Chinese contractors grab a multi-billion dollar share of infrastructure projects. Despite its rising interests, China’s quite evident ambition is to expand its economic footprint without taking the expensive step of expanding its security footprint. China seeks to complement the U.S. security presence with its own economic presence, not diminish it. Widespread interest in Chinese goods and Chinese know-how mean China is often welcomed warmly by host governments.

By contrast, Russia’s footprint in the Middle East is mostly in the security field. Russia sells billions of dollars’ worth of weapons systems, but it has little trade or investment in non-military areas. It has sought to become the arms supplier of second resort, selling to countries such as Egypt and Algeria when the United States has refused. In contrast to China, which seeks explicitly to work alongside the United States, Russia’s efforts in the Middle East seem precisely designed to balance against U.S. security interests. Russia has bolstered the Syrian government after the Obama White House declared “Assad must go,” delivered sophisticated S-300 missiles to Iran, and deployed even more advanced S-400 missiles in Syria.

This is not to say that Russia is acting in the Middle East merely to oppose the United States. Russia has its own judgments about the threats that come from terrorist groups and the wisdom of bolstering autocratic regimes. But there is another important dynamic at work. Russia seems to see international relations as a zero-sum game. Seen through this prism, the more benefit that accrues to the United States, the worse it is for Russia, and the more hostility there is to the United States, the better it is for Russia.

Russia’s bid for increased Middle Eastern influence comes after a period in which the United States had a remarkable run in the region. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union had clients scattered here and there: Syria, Egypt for a time, South Yemen, and so on. But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Russia was scarcely able to gather up what it had lost. By 2010, every single country in the Middle East had a positive relationship with the United States, except for Iran and Syria, which were trying to improve relations. What Russia had to show in 2010 for decades of efforts to build ties was a forlorn little naval base in Syria. If someone told you in 1980 that would be the case, it would have seemed strange.

For decades, U.S. strategy in the Middle East has been intended to create more resilient societies—first to foster societies strong enough to reject communism, and more recently to foster societies strong enough to reject terrorism. Broad economic opportunities, open markets, and inclusive politics are all intended to feed into that goal. Russia, however, seems to see the economic focus as a way to exclude Russia, and the political focus as dangerous and naïve.

The Russian strategy, as best we can make out, has three components. The first is to challenge Middle Eastern governments’ prevailing pro-Western instincts. This is done in part by undermining the image of the West and Western intentions, and in part by fomenting disorder among pro-Western coalitions (which, it must be admitted, were initially established to contain the Soviet Union).

The second component is ensuring that popular revolutions in the Middle East do not inspire copycat efforts by Russian citizens or the citizens of their allies. Successful popular movements are a threat to Russian stability.

The third component is working assiduously to define security narrowly, as a battle between governments and terrorists. The Russian effort seems directed at blunting broad Western efforts to coordinate assistance to promote economic, social, and political development. Russia has wedded itself tightly to the strategy of building strong bilateral ties to the security establishments of Middle Eastern governments, and it has shown its mettle by cleaving to the Syrian government through a series of atrocities. The Russian government’s own record fighting terrorism in the Caucasus is indicative of its preferred strategy. It is one of scorched earth.

Seen broadly, the United States and its allies have been playing for “victory” in the Middle East, seeking to promote economic and political systems that further stability. Russia, by contrast, seems eager to play for a tie. Arguably, Russia cannot “win”—compared to the United States, it is “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, and out-planned.” But Russia can be a spoiler, carving out spheres of influence and using the limited strength it has to block others’ plans. For the United States and its allies, which have devoted trillions of dollars and vast efforts to create resilient governments that participate in multilateral systems that foster wide interests, the Russian drive toward emphasizing narrow security measures not only impedes the Western construct, but it also affects the trajectory of the region.

On purely tactical objectives, there is a great deal of overlap between Russian and U.S. goals in the Middle East. For example, neither Russia nor the United States wants the Islamic State group (ISG) to take over Syria. But on a strategic level, there is more divergence. Russia appears reluctant to attack the ISG, believing that its existence legitimizes both the Syrian government and the Russian role supporting it. More broadly, Russia sees a multilateral effort to promote resilient societies not only as folly, but also as a threat to Russian stability. The differences between the United States and Russia in the Middle East are not merely matters of emphasis; they are fundamental. They show every sign of remaining so.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, holds the Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and directs the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

This commentary originally appeared in the July/August edition of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program