Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian policy towards the Middle East has been marked by inconsistency and unexpected U-turns. This has made it hard for Western policymakers to understand whether Russia’s presence in the Middle East represents a source of cooperation or of future conflict between Moscow and the West.
On the one hand, Russia’s stance on Syria, its refusal to recognize the threat posed in the past by Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes, and its frequent attempts to penetrate and, in some cases, to dominate the energy and arms markets of Middle Eastern countries have raised concerns among Western powers. On the other hand, over the same period, Russia’s initial de facto support of Western involvement in the Libyan conflict in 2010–11, its cooperation to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue in 2012–15, its initiatives on conflict resolution in Yemen in 2011–12, and its refusal to export S-300 missile systems to Syria in 2013–14 offered hope that Moscow could play a positive role in the region.
The nature of Russia’s interaction with the Middle East has shifted since 2012. After the re-election of Vladimir Putin for a third term in 2012, Moscow substantially increased its presence in the region. It became more deeply involved when, on 30 September 2015, Russia launched airstrikes against groups opposing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This set a new precedent. Before September 2015, Russia had tried to avoid any fully fledged involvement in military conflicts in the region. This was also the first time Russia focused on air power instead of ground forces – an approach often used by the US.
Under these circumstances, the current turmoil in the Middle East, which poses a political and security challenge to the EU and the US, makes it crucial to ascertain whether Russia could be a reliable partner to the West in its attempts to stabilize the region. Understanding the Kremlin’s intentions is also relevant in light of Russia’s increased presence in the Middle East as well as the existing tensions between Moscow and the West. In this context, this research paper addresses the following questions:
• What influence did Putin’s re-election in 2012 have on Russian policy in the Middle East?
• How extensive are the changes in Russia’s approach towards the region?
• To what extent were these changes brought about by the crisis in Russia’s relations with the West?
• What are Russia’s economic, political and security interests in the Middle East?
• Do Russian activities in the Middle East represent a challenge to the West?
• What are the means and limits of Russian influence in the region?