With Russia in Middle East, China Claims Central Asia

Moscow’s diplomatic push in the Middle East will fail, even as it loses influence in more vital regions.

Russia’s Middle East policy is all the rage these days.

An article in the Washington Post on Tuesday notes what we at The Diplomat have long been discussing: Moscow’s diplomatic offensive in the Middle East region.

The most visible sign of this, of course, is Russia’s policy of protecting the Syrian regime. Along with the diplomatic cover Moscow is providing Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council, Vladimir Putin has also established a permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean Sea for the purpose of facilitating Russia’s support for Syria. Russia’s Navy is far from limitless, though, so the ships being deployed to the Mediterranean are coming from Moscow’s other naval regions including the Pacific.

Beyond Syria, Russia’s new beefed up Middle East diplomacy includes more discrete actions. As I noted back in August, when the Egyptian military was in the thick of suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood’s street protests, Putin appeared to “be seizing on the Egyptian crisis and the U.S. response to it to expand Russia’s influence in the Arab world’s most populous country.” According to the Washington Post article, Moscow has been making similar moves in Iraq, another Cold War ally of the Soviet Union.

It’s unclear what logic is driving this policy, but certainly it’s not any realistic assessment of Russia’s strategic interests. The Middle East has little value to Russia. The strategic value of the region lies, of course, in its rich energy resources. But energy is perhaps the one thing Russia doesn’t need. Although Russia does maintain a naval base at Tartus in Syria, this is of dubious value at best.

Some analysts suspect that Russia’s Middle East gambit is driven by Putin’s desire to distract Russians from the country’s mounting economic difficulties. Many others believe it’s driven by Putin’s desire to enhance Russia’s prestige on the world stage. Another possibility, at least in the case of Syria, is that Moscow is really just driven by its lingering resentment towards the West over getting duped in Libya. In this scenario, Russia’s Syria policy is driven by its perceived need to take a hard line against the rollback of sovereignty in the post-Cold War era.

Whatever is behind Russia’s Middle East gambit, it’s not at all likely to succeed. Indeed, Russia’s just as likely to come out of this with less influence in the Middle East, and one can’t escape the feeling that Moscow may be getting played by all sides here. Although Russia is accumulating some goodwill with Assad and his inner circle, Assad is certain to be greatly weakened from the civil war for years to come, if indeed he manages to retain power at all. Should another regime emerge, particularly one including some Sunnis, Moscow will find itself greatly weakened in Syria.

Furthermore, in fashioning itself as Assad’s most public defender, Moscow is alienating nearly all of the other much more important states in the region. This is certainly true of Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states led by Saudi Arabia, as well as groups like Hamas. In palling around with Assad’s other main backer, Iran, Russia is winning itself no fans in Israel.

One can’t help but compare Russia’s collective alienation of the Middle East to how China has fared. Although Beijing has voted with Moscow on Syria at the UN Security Council, and continues to maintain an embassy in Damascus, it has happily allowed Russia to take the lead in voicing support for Assad. Beijing has also sought to offset its alienation of the Sunni powers in the region by taking on a larger role in other issues they care about, like the Middle East Peace Process.

Thus, as the Washington Post article highlights, Russia is increasingly despised throughout the Middle East. By contrast, the Persian Gulf states, Egypt and Turkey are courting China more aggressively than ever. Indeed, the GCC and China may soon renew talks over establishing a free trade agreement. Russia may be exerting the effort in the Middle East, but China appears to be reaping the rewards.

There are a few countries were Russia’s support for Assad may not entirely scuttle relations. One example is Egypt. Given the military leadership in Cairo’s own domestic struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, one imagines they may not be as upset with the Assad regime’s violent efforts to suppress a rebellion mounted, at least at this juncture, by even more radical Islamists than the Brotherhood.

Still, Egypt’s military leaders are trying to maintain political support from Egypt’s Salafists, and ultimately hope to coax the Brotherhood’s supporters into backing a new political process. Taking a hard line against Russia’s support for Assad might be helpful in shoring up support for these goals at home. Moreover, Egypt is entirely dependent on huge aid flows from Persian Gulf governments, who can use this to limit Egypt’s embrace of Moscow. And while, as the Washington Post notes, Egypt is exploring the possibility of purchasing arms from Russia, this could very well be a tactic to pressure the U.S. to continue selling it arms despite the domestic crackdown. If so, it appears to be working, given the Obama administration’s diminishing interest in supporting the Arab Spring.

That leaves Iran and Iraq for Russia to court, which it has most certainly been doing. However, Russia’s diplomatic offensive in the Middle East risks working at cross purposes with expanding ties to these countries as well. To begin with, despite Iran’s enormous sacrifice on behalf of the Assad regime, it is Russia who has been representing Assad in negotiating with the U.S. and international community. Iran by contrast might not even be invited to Geneva 2, which cannot endear Russia to Iranian policymakers.

Meanwhile, by sparking U.S. concern that Russia is seeking to challenge Washington’s position in the Middle East, Moscow could inadvertently encourage America to pursue détente with Iran. This would cut Russia out of the picture altogether, and embolden Iran to contest Russian influence in Central Asia.

In fact, one of the most foolhardy aspects of Russia’s Middle East gambit is that it appears to be coming at the expensive of protecting Russia’s interests closer to home. This is especially true with regards to Central Asia, which is coincidently Russia’s outlet into the Middle East.

Thus, with Russia distracted in the Middle East, China has continued to chip away at Russian influence in Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for instance, recently spent a week and a half traveling through the region, signing a series of economic deals that increasingly ties Central Asia’s future to China, not Russia. As Carnegie’s Martha Brill Olcott observed at the end of the trip:

“China has come to displace both the United States and Russia as the great power with the most influence in Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping just ran a ten-day victory lap through the region. Rarely has a leader of a major power accomplished so much in such a short time.”

Since Russia under Putin is simultaneously tying its economic future to China’s expected energy appetite, its ability to check China’s designs in Central Asia will be significantly constrained.

In the final analysis, then, Russia has little interest in the Middle East and little to offer the region itself. Not only will Moscow’s diplomatic offensive in the region fail accordingly, but it could come at the expense of protecting interests closer to home.


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