Russia’s Middle Eastern Position in 2025
Through 2025, Russia will continue to enjoy the prominence it now possesses in the Middle East and can be expected to succeed in this quest because it has strategically built and deployed the instruments of power necessary to sustain such a position, all things being equal. Those instruments comprise diplomatic, military and economic elements of power as well as the fact that Russia has leveraged its position in Syria to obtain partners and even enablers for itself who now have and will continue to have over time a serious stake in the success of Russian regional policies. Moreover, Russia is eagerly building up military sinews to retain power projection capabilities throughout the Middle East and Africa for the period up to and even beyond 2025.
Forecasting events and trends in the Middle East is an inherently precarious enterprise. But from the vantage point of mid-2018, we must consider what Russia’s posture and the scope of its presence in the Middle East will be in 2025 and why. Compelling reasons exist for doing so today, and not only because 2025 is a little over six years from now.
More importantly, it is clear that Moscow, by its own strategic prowess, has seized an ascending position in the Middle East that goes far beyond Syria. That position enables it to be a major actor in the region for years to come—as it has long intended to be. All this underscores the fact that Russian actions, for all their tactical adaptation to a kaleidoscopic reality and flexibility, appear to be part of a larger strategy.
In other words, despite the incessant writing of American and even some Russian writers that Putin has no strategy, he is a strategist, and we are confronting a strategic plan that, like any sound blueprint for action, permits tactical adaptation and flexibility in the face of unforeseen events. Moreover, by employing that strategy, Putin has maneuvered through the storm of events to bring Russia to an unprecedented level of prominence in the Middle East. And in so doing he has created mechanisms that will likely ensure retention of that position until 2025, barring some major unforeseen catastrophe.
Without arguing over the merits of Putin’s ability as a strategist in general (and we do not need to do so by merely noting there is a strategy), we can say with confidence that in Syria and the broader Middle East (in no small measure thanks to the victory in Syria), Russia has produced a winning military-political strategy. That strategy has allowed it to expand its regional position since the intervention in Syria. The economic, diplomatic, political, and military mechanisms that Putin has created and fostered, as well as the outcomes they have generated, create the momentum and impetus that will boost Russia’s position as a major player in the Middle East through 2025, compared to its current role—again, barring any unforeseen catastrophe. While Moscow must now convert that military victory into the legitimacy of a functioning Syrian authority that commands popular support, there is no a priori reason to assume, in the absence of other contending forces, that Russian policy will fail to bring about that outcome in the future.
Instead, there is abundant evidence that Moscow is steadily gaining traction across the entire Middle East thanks to its multi-dimensional strategy. Failing to recognize that fact by the United States and much of the West is an act of willful blindness. Despite the region’s inherent volatility, by 2025 Moscow will probably enjoy a position similar in nature but greater in substance compared to today. We can also expect that it will not willingly yield its gains except in return for massive Western political and strategic payoffs, which are unlikely to occur between now and then; there are no visible regional or other forces ready to undertake such an arduous task. Meanwhile, Russia has substantially enhanced its arsenal and therefore its overall capabilities and regional presence for defending and advancing those interests. It is highly unlikely that anyone can currently muster sufficient military forces to evict Russia from the Middle East.
Already Moscow is the acknowledged arbiter between Syria and Jordan. Russia is also maintaining or attempting to maintain the equilibrium between Israel and Iran. One account even likens Russia to being a ringmaster between them. In that capacity the Kremlin now has Military Police and observers stationed in the Golan Heights. Moscow has also enmeshed Ankara. For example, Turkey is now dependent on Russia to be able achieve its objectives with respect to domestic Kurds and those residing in Syria. Moreover, Russia provides 60–70 percent of Turkish natural gas supplies. Similarly, already in 2016, Turkey had to ultimately surrender to Russian economic pressure following the period of chilly bilateral relations caused by the November 2015 incident involving a Russian jet shot down by Turkey over the Syrian-Turkish border. So despite Turkish claims that it is not excessively dependent on Russia, contradictory proof certainly exists.
Furthermore, the closeness of Russia’s economic, political, and military ties with Turkey is well known and may grow given the crisis into which Ankara has plunged US-Turkish relations by having incarcerating Pastor Andrew Brunson and buying S-400 air defenses from Russia. The long-standing complex strategic rivalry with Russia in the Black Sea, Caucasus, and now Syria is unlikely to reverse those trends of ever closer Russian-Turkish links.
In the Gulf, Russia and Saudi Arabia alone have essentially set the bar for current energy prices, reducing OPEC to a shadow of its past self. Moreover, Russia is now discussing bringing Iran into the Eurasian Economic Union, clearly cementing its economic ties to the Islamic Republic even as it restricts Iranian policies against Israel. Finally, Moscow is, in fact, effectively supplanting Washington’s former leadership role in the region. Russia has been able to regionally come out on top in this way thanks to, inter alia, the totality of Turco-Russian relations, Russia’s cooperation with Iran and Turkey in Syria’s civil war, diverse Russian energy and investment deals with the Gulf states, its ties with Israel, its push into the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa based on its accomplishments in the Middle East, as well as Moscow’s proliferating relationships across North Africa. Those relationships along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, in fact, could well lead to a ring of naval and airbases there. Therefore we have every reason to believe that Moscow will fight to retain and augment this status as we approach 2025.
As the Helsinki summit showed, Putin apparently believes he can compel the US into reaching an agreement on Syria that reflects more of Moscow’s interests than Washington’s. In addition Russia has learned a great deal since 1990 and in many ways behaves differently than did the USSR, even if a certain level of continuity between the two regimes is apparent. Thus, the Russian state and military’s ability to learn and then shift gears accordingly represent a growing challenge to the United States. Pointedly, Moscow has avoided becoming entrapped in intra-Arab or Arab-Iranian rivalries and is free to make deals with everyone in the Middle East, whether they be Sunni, Shia or Israeli.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow and resident Russia expert at the American Foreign Policy Council. Previously, he worked as a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. Government.