In the Middle East, Russia is back
By LIZ SLY | The Washington Post | Published: December 5, 2018
BEIRUT — Among the presidents, prime ministers, kings and princes who have traveled to Moscow over the past year to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin are some of the United States' closest allies, who once might have been expected to devote their travel time to Washington.
There's a new power rising in the Middle East, and it needs to be wooed.
Three decades after the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States emerged as the undisputed superpower in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia is back. Under the personal direction of Putin, Russia is stepping into the vacuum left by the disengagement of the Obama administration and the unpredictability of the Trump one to challenge the United States' dominant role in the region.
Russian oilmen, arms dealers and financiers have been fanning out across the region, striking billions of dollars' worth of deals, reviving old relationships and forging new ones from Libya to the Persian Gulf.
At the center of it all is Putin, whose strongman image resonates with the region's authoritarian rulers at a time when doubts are growing about Washington's commitment to the Middle East.
Russia's 2015 military intervention in Syria has given Putin perhaps the single biggest boost, burnishing his credentials as a decisive and effective leader who delivers what he set out to achieve: the survival of President Bashar Assad.
It also positioned Putin at the nexus of the Middle East's overlapping conflicts, leveraging Russia's influence far beyond Syria's borders to include all the countries with a stake in the outcome of the war — foes such as Israel and Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. As a result, he is frequently been on the phone with U.S. allies such as Turkey and Israel — nearly three dozen times with the leaders of those two countries just in the past year.
Apart from Syria, Russia has shown little inclination to wade into most of the region's myriad conflicts, such as the Yemen war, the Arab-Israeli peace process and the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors. But Putin has welcomed anyone who wants to visit, making Moscow a must-stop destination for leaders with a problem to solve.
"Putin is effectively working as the psychoanalyst of the region," said Malik Dahlan, a Saudi who is a professor of international law and public policy at Queen Mary University of London. "The Russians are happy to hear all sides, and anyone who wants to speak, they're happy to listen."
The U.S.-allied leaders who have traveled to Moscow this year include Saudi Arabia's King Salman, who gave President Donald Trump a lavish welcome in Riyadh last year but then chose Moscow over Washington for his first and so far only official overseas visit — the first visit ever by a Saudi monarch to Russia.
The emir of Qatar unexpectedly flew to Moscow to meet with Putin on the eve of his visit to Washington in April, earning a rebuke from the Trump administration. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, a close U.S. ally, declined an invitation to Washington this spring, diplomats say. But he traveled to Moscow in June, his seventh trip in five years, signing a "strategic partnership" agreement with Putin.
Most recently, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi in October made his fourth visit to Moscow — compared with one to Washington — and also signed a strategic-partnership agreement with Putin in the Russian resort town of Sochi, marking a significant shift of a U.S. ally toward Russia.
The meetings are providing Putin with new levers of influence just when the United States is drawing down forces in the Middle East, in part to counter Russian and Chinese expansion elsewhere. His hearty greeting at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman illustrated the personal rapport Putin is establishing with regional leaders.
Those visits are also translating at times into substantive policy. An agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia to cut oil production, resulting from King Salman's Moscow visit last year, has given Russia new weight in world energy markets. The joint announcement Monday that the two countries would further cut production reflects an emerging partnership that has the potential to rival the clout of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
When not hosting visitors, Putin is often on the telephone, usually sorting out problems relating to Syria but, in the process, cultivating close relationships with some of the United States' dearest friends.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called Trump a "true friend" of Israel, has spoken 11 times on the phone with Putin over the past year and only three times with Trump, according to a tally of the calls reported on Putin and Netanyahu's websites. Netanyahu has visited Moscow four times in the past year. He's visited Washington twice since Trump became president.
It's unclear whether their rapport will survive building tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria and also Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia has expanded its influence. They have spoken only once since the downing of a Russian plane in Syria in September, which Moscow blamed on Israel. But phone calls between Putin and Netanyahu at the time played a part in tamping down the worst of the animosity, diplomats say.
Turkey, a longtime U.S. ally and NATO partner with a centuries-old history of rivalry with Russia, has been drifting deeper into Moscow's orbit of influence as their cooperation in Syria expands and relations with the United States have become strained.
According to a count of their interactions, Turkey's President Recep Tayyep Erdogan in the past year has spoken 20 times on the phone with Putin and seven times with Trump. Erdogan's decision to purchase Russia's advanced S-400 missile system, which Moscow says will be delivered next year, offers one example of how their burgeoning relationship could challenge the cohesion of NATO.
Russia has also been warming up to Lebanon and Iraq, both U.S. allies and recipients of U.S. military aid. In Iraq, Moscow has completed arms deals with the government, invested in a strategically significant oil pipeline linking the Iraqi region of Kurdistan to Turkey and opened an intelligence-sharing center with the Iraqi military in Baghdad, signaling its return to a country lost as an ally after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein.
Lebanon came under intense U.S. pressure earlier this year to rebuff a $1 billion arms deal offered by Russia that would have ended a decades-old U.S. and Western monopoly on supplying aid to the Lebanese army, according to a Lebanese government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject. Late last month, however, Prime Minister Saad Hariri accepted a donation of "millions of Kalashnikov bullets" from Russia, which will be given to the internal security forces, his office said.
Putin recognizes that many of the Middle East's problems cannot easily be solved, Russian officials say. Becoming too deeply entangled in the region's disputes might expose the limits of Russian capabilities, which they acknowledge lag far behind those of the United States.
"The Russians understand their limits very well. I don't think Russia wants to replace America everywhere, and it would be very costly," said Yury Barmin of the Russian International Affairs Council. He sees much that is ad hoc and opportunistic in Russia's pursuit of influence.
To the extent that Russia has a military strategy for the region, he said, it is focused on the Mediterranean. Russia has secured long-term basing rights for its forces in Syria, including an expanded naval base at Tartus, giving Russia its strongest presence ever in the Mediterranean.
Moscow has also been extending its reach into Egypt, a U.S. ally since the 1970s. After the Obama administration suspended some arms sales to Egypt in 2014 over human rights abuses, Russia stepped in to sell fighter jets and attack helicopters. That has been followed by a deal giving Russia the right to use Egyptian military bases and a commitment to hold regular joint military exercises.
In neighboring Libya, another former Soviet ally, Russian military officials have established a close relationship with the Libyan warlord Khalifa Hifter while signing oil deals with the U.N.-backed Libyan government, potentially positioning Moscow to play a role in any future peace settlement among Libya's warring parties.
"Very generally, the Mediterranean has been of strategic importance to Russia for a long time," Barmin said. "Russia sees that region as a crucial area for hard power, for countering NATO."
Elsewhere, Russia's role has largely focused on business deals, which serve the dual purpose of compensating for the impact of U.S. and European sanctions on Russia and cementing its role as a regional influencer, said Carole Nakhle, an energy expert at Britain's Surrey University. Russian companies have signed billions of dollars worth of deals in oil and gas ventures in markets as diverse as Saudi Arabia, the region's mega-producer of oil, and Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the newest and smallest oil producers. Russia's state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom has contracts to build nuclear reactors in five Middle Eastern countries, giving Moscow a long-term foothold in their infrastructure and transportation networks.
This is not a return to the era of the Cold War, in which Moscow and Washington competed for the loyalties of regional powers and Middle Eastern countries had to choose sides, analysts say. Even with Russia's extended commitment in Syria, its presence in the region is "nowhere near as robust" as it was during the Cold War, when Russia maintained thousands of troops in Egypt as well as Syria, said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution.
The United States maintains about 45,000 troops in the Middle East, according to the Heritage Foundation, mostly on bases in Persian Gulf countries, including Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. A total of about 60,000 Russian troops have served in Syria at some point in the past three years, according to figures published by the Defense Ministry. Though that is a higher number than what Russia had previously acknowledged, the troops serve rotations and the total number at any given time is thought to be far smaller.
Russia has boasted of a surge in regional sales of its weapons, newly tried and tested on the Syrian battlefield. But this increase is part the overall growth in the region's purchases of arms, and the United States is also seeing a big increase in exports to the Middle East, said Ben Moores, who tracks Russian weapons sales for the IHS Markit defense consultancy.
Russia has nearly doubled its weapons exports to the region over the past five years, with $24 billion worth of orders due to be fulfilled over the next decade, Moores said. By comparison, U.S. sales have increased by almost as much, and U.S. companies have booked more than $81 billion in deliveries due over the equivalent period.
In an October address to a forum of regional leaders in Bahrain, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought to dispel the notion that United States was disengaging from the region and that Russia could step in to replace it.
"I make clear Russia's presence in the region cannot replace the long-standing, enduring and transparent U.S. commitment to the Middle East," he said, adding later, "We are going to continue to stay committed here, and in no way are we walking away from this."
Yet even as the United States maintains a vast economic, military and technological advantage over Russia, increasingly it is Russia that is seen as the go-to power for a region consumed by crises and unsure of Washington's reliability, said Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
"Russia has managed to create the perception in the Middle East that it is more powerful, more capable and more relevant than the United States," he said. "It's not how much power you have. It's how you use it. The United States has all these troops and bases, and Russia has a fraction of that. But Russia uses its power more effectively."
The Washington Post's Natasha Abukammova in Moscow and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.