Russia’s Security Interests in the Middle East

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Phil Gordon: The first couple of years of the Obama administration, we got a lot done with Russia.

Jon Alterman: This is Phil Gordon, senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2009 to 2013, he was assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under President Obama. And from 2013 to 2015, he served as special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf region.

Early on in his administration, President Obama was pushing for a reset of relations with Russia.

Phil Gordon: We got a new start agreement that allowed us to reduce nuclear risks and save a lot of money. We got the Russians to allow us to send military equipment across Afghanistan. We got a 123 nuclear agreement with Russia. We managed to move forward with our missile defense system, which was important to us. And we got Russia into the World Trade Organization to try to get some rules to apply to trade with Russia, and many other things.

Jon Alterman:  But then, something began to change.

Phil Gordon: After the first few years in which we got all that done with Russia—while still standing strongly with our NATO allies in Europe, and deploying missile defense, and standing for our values—things started to change. When Putin came back for his second round as president, you started to see a different and more assertive Russian foreign policy, and a reversal of some of the progress we had made, and Russian determination to counter us at every turn.

Jon Alterman: Moscow’s strategy became more opportunistic and focused on countering U.S. influence as Putin entered his second term as president.

Phil Gordon: By the end of that first term, when I did transition from that Europe job to the White House Middle East coordinator job, it was crystal clear by then. In fact, one of my last initiatives—and Mike McFaul, our ambassador to Russia, wrote about this in his book—some of us got together and worked with Hillary Clinton to send the White House a memo about what we had learned about Russia in that period. I'm sad to say it was that we didn't see the prospects for cooperation in the same way that we had four years previously.

Jon Alterman: Over the course of the Obama administration, how Russia engaged with the West was changing. Putin became more focused on countering the United States and proving Russia to be a global player. This changed how the United States and Russia interacted in the Middle East.

In this series, we will uncover the motivations and implications behind Russia’s political, economic, and security policies in the Middle East. We will look at Russian-U.S. relations in the region, Russian soft power, and how the Middle East views Russia. We’ll discuss Russia’s growing role in the region and the future of Russia’s presence in the Middle East.

I’m your host, Dr. Jon Alterman, senior vice president, Zbigniew Brezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. This is the Russia in the Middle East podcast miniseries.

In this episode, we’ll look at how the relationship between the United States and Russia has changed over the last two decades. We’ll also explore U.S.-Russian competition and cooperation in the Middle East.

I asked my friend and colleague, Heather Conley, about her experiences with how Russia behaved—and how the United States reacted—when she worked at the State Department.

Heather Conley: The example of my tenure at the state department from 2001 to 2005, in some ways you can pull it forward to the pandemic.

Jon Alterman: Conley is currently senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at CSIS. From 2001 to 2005, she was deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Heather Conley: When there is a massive global shift or event—so 9/11 being the most significant, obviously in 2001—that is the moment when Russia sees an opportunity for the United States and Russia to then work together to sort the world, to sort globally. Again, we saw that in 9/11, and there were huge overtures to try to work on counterterrorism and to sort of organize the world like that. In the pandemic it was, I think, in some ways the same instinct. It was a global seismic activity that propelled, and you saw the conversations, at least five or six times, President Trump spoke to President Putin, these big moments, these “let's just make it the two of us to reorganize the world.”

Jon Alterman: Conley says each U.S. administration believes it is uniquely situated to improve relations with Russia. Phil Gordon described that during his time working for the Obama administration. Conley just described it with the Bush and Trump administrations.

Heather Conley: Every new American president believes they are uniquely qualified from a personality standpoint to fix this relationship. It transcends personalities. We don't see the world the same way. We don't see sovereignty the same way. We don't see values the same way, and that's what works at cross purposes. So, we keep going through this cycle. That's bad karma, but we can't seem to shift it.

Jon Alterman: Earlier, Gordon described limited ways in which the U.S. and Russia were able to cooperate during the Obama era. But he also described how that limited cooperation began to fall apart, starting with a shift in Russian policy that occurred around 2010, when Putin was entering his second presidency.

Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on Russian policy towards the Middle East. She elaborates on that shift.

Anna Borshchevskaya: When Putin had come into power, he viewed politics through a framework of competition and restoring Russia's primacy as a great power on the global arena.

Jon Alterman: In episode one, Carnegie’s Dmitri Trenin elaborated on how Russia views both itself and the world. That framework, which Borshchevskaya describes again here, affects how Moscow interacts with other great powers such as the United States.

Anna Borshchevskaya: I wouldn't necessarily call it cooperation. There's a Russian desire to be perceived as an indispensable power that is included in all major international decisions. Certainly, as crucial as the JCPOA agreement and the situation in Syria. I wouldn't call it necessarily cooperation when Russia is working to undermine the United States. Here's the thing, the United States has not engaged in this competition. This competition has been one sided. But it only takes for one side to start a competition.

Jon Alterman: That framework of competition and diametrically opposed worldviews limits potential cooperation between the United States and Russia. But areas where the U.S. is becoming less involved does not mean Russia views it as an area of less competition.

Anna Borshchevskaya: It's tempting to think that if the United States reduces its interest in the Middle East then Russia would care less, right? Because it does follow certain logic.

Jon Alterman: But that’s not true, says Borshchevskaya.

Anna Borshchevskaya: First, we've seen, starting with Barack Obama's pivot to Asia and the same policy had continued, with variation, basically, the same broader framework, of deprioritizing the Middle East, had continued into the Trump presidency. So, we've seen a lot of continuity on the foreign policy front. And really both of these administrations, again, for different reasons and somewhat differently had deprioritized the Middle East.

Jon Alterman: Borshchevskaya says that not only did this not deter Putin, it actually encouraged him to step up in the region and provide Russia as an alternative to the United States as an ally.

Anna Borshchevskaya: If you look at Syria in particular, Putin had calculated that the West would not oppose his intervention. And this came from a variety of factors. There was a broader perception of Western weakness in the Kremlin that took a long time to build. It wasn't just the Middle East; it was a whole host of other U.S.-Russian and Western-Russian policies. So, it might be tempting to conclude that, but in fact we've seen the opposite.

Jon Alterman: For many, Russia entering Syria in 2015 served as a reminder of Moscow’s opportunistic strategy in the Middle East.

Becca Wasser spent more than five years as a Middle East analyst at the RAND Corporation, where she worked on Russia-Middle East issues. She recently started a job as a defense expert at the Center for New American Security. She says that Russia’s strategy isn’t new, but that Syria marked a turning point of Russia becoming more visible in its bid to be a great power and a player in the Middle East. For Russia, Syria fit its strategy of stepping up when low-cost opportunities arise.

Becca Wasser: So, in order to take advantage of those opportunities, Russia needs to be inherently flexible, and that's what they demonstrate in the Middle East. They're trying to adapt to U.S. strategy, to U.S. missteps, more so than anything else. If the U.S. withholds an arm sale, Russia is going to be the first actor that's picking up the phone and saying, "Oh, you wanted that? Well, we've got something else that's kind of close. You can rely on us," because it's in their benefit to not only try and gain resources from the Middle East, so here arms sales actually help Russia's bottom line.

But also, to have the secondary benefit of being able to actively undermine U.S. priorities and objectives in the region, even if that's not really the primary intent behind Russia's actions. Ultimately, Russia's in the Middle East to gain. And there's a lot that it can gain. It just needs to position itself well, which is where this flexibility comes in.

Jon Alterman: I asked Wasser what opportunities—other than arms sales—had the U.S. created for Russia in the last five years.

Becca Wasser: I would say that a lot of the opportunities that Russia has been able to take advantage of have emerged from principled decisions that the U.S. has made, and decisions that the U.S. has made that are in its own interest, and interests that truly do help the U.S. exercise in trying to prioritize what its objectives are.

For example, you have the U.S. decisions to temporarily withhold arms sales to both Egypt and Bahrain. And both of these emerged out of the Arab spring, where you had both governments in Bahrain and Egypt undertaking activities that ultimately were resulting in human rights abuses. And the U.S. decided to temporarily withhold arms to Bahrain, as well as put an official arms hold on Egypt. And from these, again, Russia stepped up and was trying to take advantage of a void that the U.S. had left.

Jon Alterman: In doing so, Moscow was able to prove that it was a no-strings-attached arms provider that would work with governments despite human rights abuses.

Becca Wasser: And this was purposefully to stand in contrast to the United States. And so in some respects, this also allowed for Russia to signal to the U.S. that they would be able to come in and take advantage of any type of opportunity or vacuum that the U.S. left, but also provided Bahrain and Egypt with an opportunity to in turn signal to the U.S. that they had other options. So while this has created conundrums for the United States, I do think that it is worth pointing out that a lot of these opportunities have emerged because the U.S. made a choice, but a lot of these choices truly were reflective of U.S. values, and that shouldn't be understated or thought of as a bad decision.

Jon Alterman: Borshchevskaya agrees, saying that the United States stepping back has allowed Russia to position itself as an alternative:

Anna Borshchevskaya: The relative de-emphasis of the United States on the Middle East has given Russia more of a green light to expand into the region and to establish influence and presence. To build closer ties with both regional governments, but also opposition movements to them. To expand trade relationships, to present Russia as a more reliable partner and one that, frankly, from a cultural standpoint, better understands the region than the United States does.

Jon Alterman: Borshchevskaya says that in addition to areas like arms sales, military intervention is one of the primary ways Russia can assert itself as a competitor to the West:

Anna Borshchevskaya: The Russian-American competition shows itself in a variety of ways. And the most obvious one, the most visible one, of course, is in Syria. We saw that with the Russian military intervention in September 2015. The way this particular competition manifested itself, you could see through the Russian military campaign that was primarily designed to deter the West, rather than to fight ISIS or other terrorists as the Kremlin had proclaimed. We see that in Russian diplomatic efforts. We see that in all aspects of Russian involvement in Syria.

Jon Alterman: Wasser describes how, in many ways, Russia has been able to claim Syria as a win:

Becca Wasser: Russia has been able to achieve a lot in Syria. It's been able to gain a lot in terms of what it was able to demonstrate in Syria. It was able to demonstrate the fact that it could and would come to the aid of a longstanding partner, which in turn gained Moscow a lot of goodwill with other states. It also stood in stark contrast to how a number of those countries, such as the Gulf states, were presently viewing the United States, which they were worried about their perceptions of U.S. disengagement in the region, while Russia was, on the flip side, becoming more engaged.

Jon Alterman: But Gordon, from the Council on Foreign Relations, makes sure to couch that as Russia achieving a negative goal:

Phil Gordon: Because there are a lot of people who talk about this as if Russia outsmarted us in Syria and they were more effective, and they got the upper hand. They had an easier task, because they were trying to prevent something. We were trying to bring something positive about, and they were just trying to stand in its way. They were willing to achieve that goal of thwarting our efforts to get a better regime in place, to get rid of Assad, at almost unlimited costs.

Jon Alterman: Although Russia is claiming Syria as a military victory, U.S.-Russian competition in the region is far from over. Wasser says that in terms of military engagement in the Levant, it’s important to also look for areas where U.S.-Russian competition could play out in the future.

Becca Wasser: I think it's really worth watching the military competition. Right now, you have U.S. and Russian troops that are operating in close proximity to each other in the Euphrates River Valley, even with some of the flip-flopping of U.S. presence in Syria. I think the U.S. outpost and presence there is going to remain, especially as we've had reports of resurgent ISIS and resurgent violence.

So, looking at how, let's say, if ISIS does reemerge in that area, as well as others, how the U.S. and Russia are going to potentially both combat that problem while still actively competing with each other, in fairly contested geography, is going to be really interesting, particularly when you not only have boots on the ground, but also bring in air power. And there are some deconfliction measures that are already in place, but there is a lot of potential for risk.

Jon Alterman: The other area to watch, says Wasser, is rebuilding in Syria. So far, Russia has been able to use Syria to prove itself as a reliable military partner. But Moscow doesn’t have the economic resources the United States does.

Becca Wasser: The U.S. has been consistently adamant that it is not going to foot the bill for Syrian reconstruction. It's largely looked to its European and Gulf partners to take on the cost of this, but no one has really ponied up and no one is actively looking to take on that burden.

Jon Alterman: As a result, Moscow is trying to maneuver itself to financially benefit from reconstruction in Syria.

Becca Wasser: You can imagine that the United States would look to try and out-position Moscow when it comes to Syria reconstruction. However, how it would do so remains fairly murky as it would probably have to go through some third parties, given the U.S. hands-off approach to engagement with the Assad regime that seems like it is going to remain in power. So, looking forward, I think those are two areas of future U.S. and Syrian competition that are worth looking at.

Jon Alterman: Part of Russia’s approach to reconstruction comes from how Moscow relates to the Assad regime and other regional governments.

Becca Wasser: Russia is truly engaging all states in the region, which is one of the hallmarks of its approach, including states that are perhaps in competition with each other. And in return, all of these states are engaging Russia.

Jon Alterman: But that doesn’t mean Russia doesn’t have its own hearts and minds strategy that it uses to compete in the region.

Anna Borshchevskaya: If you extend this thinking to the Middle East, they want to show a country that actually understands the region. This is true, Russia has a very large Muslim minority. So, they're presenting an image of a Russia that, on the one hand, understands the Middle East, a country that frankly developed its very identity in close proximity to the region, and was influenced by it. And yet, is also different from the West. It never colonized the region, and it's not Iran.

Jon Alterman: In many ways, this is how Russian-U.S. competition manifests. It’s a battle for influence that is happening through soft power efforts and messaging. Borshchevskaya says that sometimes it can be hard to tell what the American message is, and that makes it harder to compete:

Anna Borshchevskaya: We're so wrapped up in this idea that when we report the news, for example, every story has to have more than one side, that there are often multiple sides to every story. And while that's certainly the case, we should never forget these fundamental principles of free speech. There's also a certain lack of moral clarity that unfortunately we lost. And if we regain that, we will be much more successful at countering Russian efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere, because ultimately democratic governments or governments that care about their people do tend to be more successful in the long run. And it's hard to define what that long run is.

The American approach, American values. That's a more winning strategy. The problem is that the more you wait, the more gains Russia makes. And again, the fundamental issue is that Russia has engaged in competition with us. We have not. And if we do make a more concerted effort to engage in this competition, I think we can be much more successful at countering Russian efforts.

Jon Alterman: During the Cold War, American messaging drove how the United States competed in the Middle East and in the rest of the world. Putin originally rose to power during the Cold War, and it informed the way he approached his presidency. Over the last decade especially, Putin has brought Russia back to the world stage to compete with the United States and the West. And his messaging has implicitly and explicitly contrasted Russia with the United States.

In Syria, that messaging says, “We can be a reliable security guarantor.” With arms sales, it says, “We’ll sell you arms with no questions asked.” In other areas, it says, “We’re dependable, especially where the United States is not.” As Borshchevskaya points out, it only takes one side to start a competition. Russian opportunism and willingness to build up in areas where the United States has drawn down has bolstered Russia’s ability to compete in the Middle East.

Russian officials sometimes talk about cooperating with the United States in the Middle East, and U.S. officials often explore those possibilities. In practice, though, very different worldviews and conflicting goals have limited cooperation between the United States and Russia.

Next time on the podcast, we look at Russian soft power in the region and how the Middle East views Russia. To do so, we are joined by Elizabeth Tsurkov and Mohamed Anis Salem.

I’m your host, Dr. Jon Alterman, and this is the Russia in the Middle East miniseries. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.