Russia’s Declining Influence in the Middle East
by Dr. Anna Geifman and Yuri Teper
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 194, December 24, 2012
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Russian involvement in the Middle East is presently
nothing more than an attempt by Moscow to hold on to its deteriorating
position on the international stage. Russia’s support of the Assad regime in
Syria has hurt its image and weakened its influence in other Arab countries.
Although it will not be able to provide financial assistance, Russia may try
to fill a vacuum should the US scale back its ties to the new Islamist
governments in the region.
Since his ascent to power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been eager
to regain Russia’s previous influence in the Middle East. Being a mighty
political force is an essential part of traditional Russian self-perception
and is a cornerstone of Putin’s public mobilization strategy. Russia wants
to have a say in the Middle East, as would any aspiring great power. Yet,
Moscow’s assertive stance and militant rhetoric should not be
misinterpreted; to a large degree, the Russians conceal impotence and
frustration, results of its de facto inability to affect regional politics.
The latest events of the “Arab Spring,” which have yielded power to various
Islamist groups in the Middle East, only heighten this situation. Civil war
in Syria and the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict elucidate this point.
Syrian Civil War
Syria has long been Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East, practically
the only one since the end of the Cold War. Lacking the resources to make an
impact elsewhere, Russia has maintained a close, though largely one-sided,
relationship with Syria, based primarily on supplying Damascus with weapons.
Syria paid back with promises of future economic preferences and provided
the Russian navy with a maritime supplies base in Tartus, on the
Mediterranean coast. It also fed Russian hunger for a great-power status,
contributing to the illusion of Moscow’s regional influence.
Despite the central role that Syria played in Russia’s foreign policy, Putin’s
efforts during the ongoing civil war in Syria have mostly been confined to
diplomacy. Moscow provides President Bashar Assad’s regime with a diplomatic
umbrella in the UN, protecting it from harsh resolutions and preventing a
possible international intervention. However, it significantly lags behind
Iran in helping the Syrian government suppress the uprising. Russia vocally
protested against international involvement in the conflict, but has been
unable to counter the assistance streaming to the rebels. At the same time,
Moscow’s stubborn diplomatic support for the Syrian regime has taken a heavy
toll on its relations with the rest of the Arab world.
Moreover, Moscow has apparently been unwilling to endanger its vital
economic interests for a flimsy chance to influence the situation in the
Middle East. Thus, despite opposing views on Syria, Russia and Turkey
achieved a significant breakthrough on the construction of the South Stream
gas pipeline to Europe. While Turkey is the second-largest consumer of
Russian gas, after Germany, Russia is the weaker side in the relationship,
dependent on Ankara’s permission to run the pipeline across its territory.
Operation Pillar of Defense
Russia’s relationship with Hamas began in 2006, after the organization won
the Palestinian elections, and strengthened in 2007, when Hamas took control
of the Gaza strip. Russia is among the few great powers that maintain
official relations with Hamas and do not recognize it as a terrorist
organization. In 2006, a Hamas delegation paid an official visit to Moscow
and was received by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, thus gaining
valuable international recognition. Since then, Lavrov has met regularly
with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who went to Moscow in 2010. Russian
officials have justified their country’s position; they claim that having
connections on both sides of the conflict will allow negotiation and
constructive dialogue towards a resolution. They had previously applied the
same approach in the Korean conflict, presumably aiming to maintain Russia’s
international significance far beyond the country’s actual capacity to have
In practice, when the opportunity to make an impact presented itself during
the last Israel-Hamas standoff, Russia stayed out of the way, confining
itself to firm anti-Israeli rhetoric and empty calls for restraint on both
sides. Speaking at a news conference after a meeting with Arab foreign
ministers in Riyadh, Lavrov described Israeli actions as “disproportionate”
and “entirely unacceptable,” while Putin called on the parties to exercise
restraint. At the same time, Russia Today, Moscow’s official international
satellite network broadcasting in English and Arabic, persistently aired
vicious anti-Israeli propaganda, bordering on incitement.
These statements apparently reflect Russia’s desperate effort to mend its
shattered image in the Arab world caused by its support of the Assad regime.
Still, it was the US-backed Egypt which played the central role in achieving
the ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel, reaping the benefits of
international prestige. Russia did not have any role whatsoever, and during
the whole crisis remained entirely irrelevant.
The oil issue is almost automatically assumed to be of pivotal significance
for all players involved in the Middle East gambit, especially Russia, whose
financial fortunes are directly linked to the fluctuations of oil prices.
However, the traditional instability in the region, the latest shockwaves of
the ”Arab Spring,” and the escalation of tension between Israel and Iran
keep prices high without a special intervention from Moscow. Aside from
this, Russia has little to gain from its involvement in the region, as its
Middle Eastern politics seem to be more about pride than about financial
Lacking the ability to impact the situation on the ground and losing last
bits of diplomatic influence, Russia might be tempted to take a more
adventurous stand on Middle Eastern issues in order to restore its ruined
status on the Arab street. Yet, as long as the US maintains relations with
the new Islamist regimes, Russia’s response will be mainly confined to the
diplomatic realm. There is simply no space for the Russians in the new
Middle East, as they have little or nothing to offer or contribute to the
developing situation. On the other hand, should anything trigger a break in
the fragile relationship between the Islamists and the US, and should the
Americans retract their support, the Russians will be sure to jump in to
fill the vacuum, seeking to regain influence – as they have always in the
past – by supporting anti-American regimes. Unable to make serious financial
contributions, however, they may try to compensate by offering weapons and
Dr. Anna Geifman is a senior research fellow in the Department of Political
Studies at Bar-Ilan University and Professor Emerita at Boston University.
Yuri Teper is a PhD candidate in political studies at Bar-Ilan University.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity
of the Greg Rosshandler Family