Russia Refocuses on the Middle East

Opinion Articles


Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has maintained an active travel schedule in the Middle East recently. Bogdanov, a career Russian diplomat with decades of experience in the Middle East, coordinates closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and is considered a serious behind-the-scenes player in terms of Russia's diplomatic efforts in the region. (Putin named him as his special envoy to the Middle East on Nov. 1.) This is why we took note of Wednesday's announcement by the Russians that they are ready to host a meeting between the United States and Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government in Moscow if both sides request it, although serious impediments to such a scenario remain.

The announcement comes on the heels of high-level Russian moves in Turkey and Iran. Moscow's announced plans to abandon the South Stream natural gas project in favor of a pipeline running directly though Turkey, along with Russia's involvement in the P-5+1 nuclear talks with Tehran in recent weeks, reflect a resurgence of Russian diplomatic activity in the Middle East

Russia's complicated relationship with Iran limits the role Moscow can play in Iranian diplomatic efforts — a reality reinforced by Tehran's announcement on Wednesday that it would not be entering an oil bartering deal with Moscow, despite a recent flurry of Russian media reports claiming that such a deal is imminent.

Moscow understands the limits of reaching a lasting strategic accord with Iran, but Russia's primary goals in its Middle East strategy are not necessarily better bilateral relations with individual states such as Iran, Egypt or Syria. Rather, Russian activities in the Middle East are meant to augment its global strategies, especially with regard to directing U.S. attention away from areas that the Kremlin considers threatened by Washington's actions, such as Ukraine. Russia has been successful in its Middle East activities, most notably in negotiating a chemical weapons destruction plan that deterred direct U.S. military strikes against Syria in 2013.

Russia also aims to limit U.S. opportunities for building more stable relationships in the Middle East. Moscow has been successful in this regard, as illustrated most recently by Turkey and Russia's plans to transit natural gas to Europe, circumventing Ukraine, and in a more limited sense with Moscow's relationship with Tehran. A meeting between the United States and al Assad also risks alienating the United States from regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which strongly oppose any policy that could result in the al Assad government staying in place as part of a negotiated settlement.

Over the past month traveling across the Middle East, Bogdanov has hosted representatives from Syria in Moscow and met with the Qataris in Bahrain. Amid mounting domestic economic difficulties and ongoing tensions with the West over Ukraine, Moscow is reverting to what has become a familiar and successful tactic in recent years.

Russia's intentions in the Middle East are hardly altruistic. If Russia wants to mediate for the motley crew of combatants and foreign nations playing supporting roles in the Syrian conflict, the primary goal is unlikely to be peace. However, by refusing to be sidelined in global discussions and by continuing to draw U.S. attention and effort into the traditional quagmire of Middle Eastern conflict, Russia hopes to better secure its own interests in its strategic periphery. Moscow has faced a strong challenge to its position in Ukraine, and its energy-dependent economy will struggle to adjust to the current downtown in global oil prices. Russia is far from down for the count, however, and recent 

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