In the first part of this series we covered Russia’s long history of involvement in the Middle East. Though it is a major power and uses the tools of major powers, Russia tends to behave as a regional power in the Middle East. In part 2, we will cover the ways Russia exerts influence in the Middle East and their various policy tools. These include overt actions such as military deployment and public standing with local states, as well as more covert methods such as espionage, covert funding, and intelligence support.
Russia, like any other modern political state, has a variety of tools to use to exert influence around the globe. These tools range from the conventional tools used for decades to the more unconventional tools created in recent years. Russia has long been a master of using both conventional and unconventional tools to gain power, but their methodology differs depending on the situation. So we will examine their conventional and unconventional tools separately then bring them together to understand their goal and driving influence.
When it comes to conventional power, there are few that can match Russia in their region. On a global scale Russia is checked by the United States and conglomerates such as the EU, but regionally there is little standing in their way. Russia has spent centuries building its power locally to the extent they have today. This is what has allowed them to operate in Ukraine with impunity in recent years. Without a strong regional power standing against them and a lack of interest by global powers, Russia has been allowed to forcefully occupy and control portions of Ukraine, a free and sovereign nation.
The situation in Ukraine shows Russia mastery of both conventional and unconventional tactics to gain power. Russia began to exert influence by conducting military exercises on the border and then moving unmarked military forces into the country in 2014 and 2015. This was around the same time and largely in response to the ousting of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych during the Euromaiden protests. After this unmarked Russian forces began to set up security checkpoints and strongholds within Crimea while Russian intelligence forces gathered compromising information to be published about the anti-Russian government that was gaining control.
Russia uses many of these same tools in the Middle East and has for many years. Currently, Russia is using conventional military force alongside proxies to gain power in Syria. The Russian military has deployed forces inside Syria to prop up the Assad regime. This allows them to utilize Russian forces in the region while gaining them a faithful ally and proxy in the Middle East should international pressure force them to leave. While publicly Russia claims to be there to fight the Islamic State and its various terrorist offshoots, their forces have routinely attacked Syrian rebel forces that are backed by the United States and in some cases have nearly clashed with US forces in the country. These covert strikes serve to further solidify their position in the region.
Syria is not the only ally Russia has won in the region through public support. During the negotiations for the Iran Nuclear Agreement, Russia publicly supported Iran multiple times against the United States. This along with aid, intelligence support, and sharing of technology has allowed Russia to gain a more friendly relationship with Iran. It is important to note though that Russia and Iran have clashed on numerous issues including the Syrian Crisis. This shows that the relationship between Russia and Iran is largely based on an issue-by-issue basis. Having both Syria and Iran at their back has made Russia not only a global power, but a regional power in the Middle East that can operate on multiple fronts and through some of the most powerful proxies in the region.
Russia uses its massive economic and energy might as a global power as a bargaining tool to gain power in the Middle east. The Russian Direct Investment Fund has entered into investment deals with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE among others in recent years. It has also used its state-owned energy company, Gazprom, to further Middle Eastern reliance on Russia. It has constructed reactors in Iran, Turkey, and Jordan and supplies areas from Cairo to Kurdistan with Russian energy. Russia also seems to be competing with the United States in arms exports to the region, a title that Russia held during the Cold War.
Russia is struggling to become a predominant power in the Middle East and is largely exploiting local conflicts to do so. It has increased its arms sales and provided economic investment and energy supply to countries all across the Middle East. It also covertly exerts influence through intelligence sharing and covert operations to gain power int e region. Russia also uses its might as a global power to influence the Iranian Nuclear Agreement’s negotiations and deploy military forces into Syria to prevent the overthrow of a friendly Assad regime. Recent years have shown Russia steadily growing in power int eh Middle East through strategic use of their foreign policy tools, both conventional and unconventional. In part 3 of this series we will discuss Russia’s overall goal and vision for the Middle East.