2018-02-19

Russian bid for a cooperation with US in the Middle East


Russia demonstrates that it is neither ready to intervene in every conflict in the Middle East, nor eager to directly challenge U.S. presence in the region. Sober assessment of risks that any engagement in the Middle East may have and clear understanding of a global power balance underpin Russian foreign policy nowadays. While pursuing its own agenda, Russia offers the U.S. to share the burden of leadership and guide the Middle East collectively.

Syrian campaign witnessed a return of the Russian military to the region for the first time since the 1990s. But despite much attention to details of Russian military campaign in Syria since 2015, few note that the scale of Russian involvement remains to be no match to the U.S. presence. For example, highest number of Russian troops and affiliated unites in Syria was at the level of 10000 servicemen, while US largest deployments in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2011 were at the level of 166000 and 100000 troops respectively.

Since 2011 Russia has been active in areas where Western parties failed to provide security when promoting certain political and ideological visions. For the most of its part, Moscow is welcomed in countries which have strained relations with the West: for many Russia seems to be an acceptable alternative for the West since Moscow doesn’t demand broader commitments and doesn't precondition dialogue with domestic political reforms. Russia doesn't build alliances on ideological premises and anti-Westernism either. In Syrian and Libyan conflicts Russia has been adhering to the UN-led resolution processes, while in Egypt ties are getting built on security-related military and economic cooperation.

Russian diplomatic activity is limited to some conflicts in the Middle East and Russian officials don't seek ways to mediate conflicts that don't promise success. Selective approach to engagement underlines absence of proactive involvement of the Russian diplomacy in the dispute between Iran and Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Kurdish issue and the Middle East conflict.

Cautious attitude to the degree of involvement in regional affairs is directly linked to what importance Moscow attaches to the Middle East within the hierarchy of its geopolitical interest as declared in multiple national security documents: Russian presence in the area should serve a supplementary role in efforts to preserve a global outreach and protect interests in closer periphery in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia.

Further underlying reason for a limited activity lies in Russia's views on the Middle East itself. Russian decision-makers perceive the area as highly volatile and unpredictable. Following the lessons from the U.S. invasions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, any attempts to impose a direct steering over the domestic processes and to restructure fragile socio-political order may cause tremendous backlash and result in further violence.

With all this peculiarities and details of the diplomatic engagement in the Middle East Russia has never tried to challenge U.S. interests in the region directly. Instead, Moscow has been trying to create an environment where Washington would find itself unable to secure and protect interests without cooperation with the Russians. 

In Syria, Russia has been building from behind a situation where Israel's border security hangs upon Russian mediation. It seems that Russia is ready to cooperate unofficially on the issue of presence of non-state militias affiliated with Iran in the Syria: Moscow has been struggling to incorporate all relevant armed factions into the Syrian army to deprive Iran additional leverage on Damascus. Besides, it was Russia, who proposed de-escalation zone near the Golan Heights. Recently, this policy also include steps directed at enlarging the pro-Russian military and high-ranking bureaucrats in the Syrian government.

In its dealings with Turkey, Russia has been directing negotiations that would further condition NATO solidarity and associated U.S. interests to Russia's own plans as well. Russia is not trying to persuade Turkey to abandon NATO and build an alliance other nations. Instead, Russia is offering Turkish leadership an avenue to exercise anti-Western criticism and support it with largely symbolical gestures like participation in Russian diplomatic initiatives in Syria or offering military technologies allegedly used as an alternative to the Western ones.

If we want to understand what Russia is really up to in the Middle East, we should examine two interrelated things. First of them is Moscow's struggle to change opinion of the American political establishment on Russia resurgence. The aim is to convince political elites that American interests are increasingly connected to Russian willingness to cooperate. In the long run Moscow's diplomacy should prove that Russia is becoming an indispensable actor in multiple critical areas relevant for American foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

The second thing that frameworks Russian activity is Moscow's efforts to undermine US hegemony in the world, but through a less competitive way by stimulating transition to long-preached multi-polarity where Russia wants to be treated as an equal and responsible partner. Expansion of cooperation between Russia and regional players like Egypt, Syria, Iran contributes, among other things, to better handling of security situation in the region. Security through stability is declared approach of the American government in the new U.S. National Security Strategy and Russia signals that it is ready to work with Americans in stabilizing the region by supporting regional mechanism of security and energizing local initiatives for cooperation.

Today, alas for Moscow, new sanctions mean that American elites still perceive Russia as a threat and eager to prompt the administration to further restrain Russians globally. Nevertheless, Russian diplomacy doesn't give up its plans to increase own capacity to influence US interests in multiple regions. On the other hand, Russia doesn't want to threat US interests as it would lead to escalation into a conflict where Russia will be a losing side. The combination of calls for a dialogue and demonstration of a firm posture in the Middle East may mean that Russia is trying to invite US to guide the region cooperatively.

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