By Tim Sadov
Until very recently, Russia had complete initiative and momentum for order building in the Middle East. While the Trump administration has scaled back commitments to U.S. allies, the Kremlin has built strategic partnerships with the governments of Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. And these decisions seem to be paying off. Following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria in late 2019 and a series of victories on the battlefields of northern Syria, Russia has reasserted itself as a top geopolitical contender. The Kremlin now has a market for its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and a dependable ally in Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Fortunately for Washington, these and similar gains are unlikely to last.
The truth is that if Russian policymakers are concerned with order building, they are inept at doing so. Blinded by short term profits and domestic popularity boosts when new alliances are made, those within Putin’s inner circle are guided by an inconsistent grand strategy. The Kremlin’s foreign policy ignores the tenet that allying with the enemy of one’s friend is unacceptable if long-term stability is to be desired. It is characterized by failures in commitments to newfound allies, severance of ties with longstanding allies, and self-contradictory motives. In short, the order that Putin has forged is a house of cards.
Moscow’s support of Saudi Arabia threatens its strategic relationship with Iran and risks regional conflict. From 2014 to earlier this year, Iran and Russia cooperated in the prosecution of the civil war in Syria. A broader partnership seemed likely to come. But the Kremlin’s sale of the S-400 ABM system to Saudi Arabia, following the Fall 2019 attacks of Saudi oil sites by Iranian backed militant groups, has strained its relations with Iran – turning it from a strategic partner to a potential adversary. Russian interference in the Saudi-Iranian conflict, especially its diminishment of Iran’s deterrence capabilities through the S-400 sale to Saudi Arabia, might have been a calculated realignment to Saudi Arabia’s power block. But this is unlikely given that Russia’s military relationship with Iran has much deeper roots than its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Russia has long sold S-300 missiles, armored vehicles, warplanes, helicopters, and ships to Iran. It’s far more likely that the Kremlin saw the opportunity for a quick profit in the S-400 sale and failed to consider the long-term implications of its decision.
Thanks to the short-sightedness of those in Putin’s circle, especially those who operate Russia’s state-run oil companies, prospects for a Saudi-Russian alliance have been short-lived. While the Kremlin could have built off of the S400 sale as the foundation for a long-term strategic partnership with Riyadh, it has instead opted to maximize short-term profits. Russia’s recent skirmishes with Saudi Arabia over oil production best demonstrate this fact. Instead of cooperating with Saudi Arabia in lowering oil production, a decision which would have mutually benefited Russian and Saudi oil producers, the Kremlin made a unilateral decision to maintain high oil production.
Russia’s strategic partnership with Israel is no less precarious. For many years, Israel and Russia have mutually benefited from the trade of arms, agricultural products, and oil. But by September 2018, it became clear that Russia’s partnership with Assad in Syria and its partnership with Iran, which sponsors Hezbollah attacks on Israel, has put serious strain on Israel-Russia relations. After Russia blamed Israel for the downing of its jet over Syrian airspace, Russia responded by bolstering Syrian air-defense with the S-300 system – a move which infuriated Israeli defense officials due to reduced potency of Israeli missiles against Hezbollah targets in Syria. Though Israel-Russian relations have since stabilized, the cracks are still there. The Kremlin’s tactic of playing both sides comes at a heavy cost.
There are important lessons for U.S. policymakers. Instead of reversing withdrawal from the region and doubling down on existing commitments, it may be wiser and cheaper for the U.S. to watch from the sidelines as Russian policy collapses from its own weight. The self-destructive tendencies inherent in Russian foreign policy are likely to worsen as Russia’s dire economic situation, exacerbated by recent coronavirus shutdowns, forces the Kremlin to look for more short-term arms sales to generate revenue.