Russia's growing Middle East influence
January 8th, 2014
10:15 AM ET

Russia's growing Middle East influence

By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. The views expressed are her own.

Russian President Vladimir Putin achieved perhaps his most desired goal in 2013: He successfully positioned Russia as indispensable to resolving key international problems. And nowhere has his success been more visible than in the Syrian conflict and Iranian nuclear negotiations. The Moscow-brokered deal to put Syria’s chemical arsenal under control of international inspectors helped avoid military strikes against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, Russia also emerged as a strong voice in the P5+1 group, allowing Iran to avoid tougher sanction against its nuclear program upon reaching an interim deal in Geneva in December 2013.

But behind the scenes, Russia is playing an even more significant role, and is an increasingly assertive player throughout the broader Middle East. It’s a trend the West cannot ignore.

According to Russian press reports, the Kremlin struck a $2 billion weapons agreement with Egypt last month, the culmination of years of quiet Kremlin efforts to revive Russia’s Cold War relationships in the region.

“Today Russia is coming back to many regions it lost in the 90s. I’m talking about the African continent and the Middle East,” Russian Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov said during a speech in London last month. “Russia was quite explicit about its interests in those regions even before the Arab Spring...”

Russian influence in the region is multifaceted. For instance, Russia has grown increasingly assertive in the Middle East peace process, since it initially joined the Quartet more than a decade ago. Rather than simply endorse the U.S. or European position, the Kremlin has sought to put its own stamp on the agenda. In 2006, for example, Putin invited Hamas leaders to Moscow, suggesting that Hamas was a terrorist organization. Putin has also moved to parade his growing influence. In June 2012, Putin travelled to Israel, nine months before Barack Obama made his first visit there as U.S. president in March 2013.

Meeting with Israeli President Shimon Perez, Putin said, “It is in Russia’s national interest to provide peace and tranquility in the Middle East.”

In Iraq, Russia has worked since 2003 to regain oil contracts lost when the United States and its allies ousted Saddam Hussein’s government, and Lukoil has won a number of large oil contracts since. More recently, in 2012, the Kremlin signed a $4 billion arms deal with Iraq – the largest single arms deal of Putin’s tenure, making Iraq the third largest buyer of Russian arms. According to Russian press reports, deliveries began in October 2013, after a delay reportedly caused by claims of corruption within the Iraqi parliament.

More from GPS: How Russia fears being forgotten

What is behind these moves? It is important to remember that Russia’s outreach is not ideological. The Kremlin cultivated relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, even though that group had been on Russia's list of terrorist organizations since 2003. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went on a Middle East tour in November 2012, he made the Brotherhood controlled Egypt his first stop.  When the Egyptian army’s coup ousted Mohamed Morsy in July 2013, Putin appeared just as eager to work with the military government. Likewise, even as the Kremlin cultivates the al-Maliki government in Baghdad, Russian officials have sought to reach out to Iraqi Kurdistan. Last February, Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani went to Moscow for an official visit to strengthen ties with Russia. Americans may think of the secular Barzani as a natural U.S. ally, but Putin knows Barzani can be a chameleon. After all, his father fled to the Soviet Union and Masosud Barzani spent some of his boyhood in the Soviet Union.

The Russian diplomatic and commercial presence amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states has also grown rapidly. In 2007, Putin took a trip to the Gulf. No Russian – or Soviet – head of state has ever done so before. A number of high-level exchange visits followed over the years. Cooperation continued to grow and culminated in the GCC-Russia strategic dialogue, which commenced in November 2011 focusing on issues ranging from security to trade and investment, to intercultural exchanges.

More from CNN: Why the Middle East is a mess

In addition, the Russian government has worked to shape its image with its own Arabic-language satellite stations and media. One such media outlet is Rusiya Al-Yaum, the Arabic-language version of Kremlin-funded RT (Russia Today). As Putin curtailed media freedom in Russia, he nonetheless refused to cut funding to RT, which works tirelessly to deliver a pro-Kremlin point of view to millions of viewers.

True, Russia faces too many internal impediments – demographic, weakening economy, and corruption – to be a true global leader. Yet as the United States looks inward and reconsiders its global posture, Russia appears to be trying to cash in on Western retreat. President Obama may not view the situation in the Middle East as a zero-sum competition, but Putin appears to as he seeks to fill in the vacuum whenever the U.S. withdraws.

And the reality is that senior Arab officials who grew up doing business with the Soviet Union often feel more comfortable working with their Russian counterparts than with the United States. At the very least, they need not worry about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act when working with Moscow. Indeed, Arab countries increasingly see Russia as more reliable and stable partner than the West generally. Egypt, for example, reportedly turned to Russia for arms to obtain the weaponry the U.S. denied it following Morsi’s ouster. In isolation, these may not be significant losses for the West. But momentum matters – all these small losses add up to much bigger ones.

The U.S. retreat from the Middle East is damaging American credibility with traditional allies, and will severely hamper America’s long-term interests. Putin is not unique in taking advantage of opportunities to bolster his interests as these opportunities present themselves to him. But Washington can certainly do more to reduce the number of such opportunities it provides to him.

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Topics: Middle East • Russia

soundoff (136 Responses)
  1. lwjr

    Putin appears ready to take every Obama error and leverage it. Is he being told about the faux paux in advance?

    January 8, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  2. senn

    Obama's foreign policy problem is that he has none he only makes decisions based on political considerations at home. And when ever you bring that up all you here is the old "well look at what the other guy did", but remember obama will leave a legacy and that will be one of weakness and of distrust in the international community

    January 9, 2014 at 12:12 am | Reply
  3. FM

    Jimmy Carter 2

    January 9, 2014 at 1:39 am | Reply
  4. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    January 9, 2014 at 2:25 am | Reply
    • Jake321

      You must be some Noam Chomsky in drag the way you make up totally false and exaggerated numbers. What a bunch of BS. Give some links to support your crap.

      January 9, 2014 at 4:01 am | Reply
  5. sandiegowatch

    To sum it up. ..

    Russian foreign policy is the same as the U.S. foreign policy.....

    Russian took over because Obama has no experience in governing nor foreign policy....

    I don't see a problem.....

    January 9, 2014 at 2:25 am | Reply
  6. Sausage Frenzy

    The US will continue to lose influence in the ME so long as it supports Israel to the hilt and to the detriment of its own wider interests.Ditch Israel and watch the whole equation change.

    January 9, 2014 at 4:02 am | Reply
    • Jake321

      Only on your wet dreams.

      January 9, 2014 at 4:12 am | Reply
    • Jake321

      Make that "in" not "on" in terms of your delusion.

      January 9, 2014 at 4:15 am | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Whatever Jake, but do cut the Tea Party lingo out. It has no place here.

        January 9, 2014 at 1:46 pm |
    • minnie mouse

      Somebody around here needs to "ditch their obsession with Israel".... and it isn't the United States.

      January 10, 2014 at 9:34 pm | Reply
    • Sharon

      Wow. Was just reading that outline in Zechariah, Ch. 12 – 14. Only spelled out in detail 2600 yrs ago. Can't forget Russia and the M.E. coalition detailed in Ezekial 38 and 39...same time frame. It unfolds in world news every day.

      January 12, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  7. Jake321

    Do note that Russia is a bit limited as a global power. It's total GDP is only about the same as California and it's growth in GDP and population is half that of CA. It is coasting along mostly on its residual Soviet military and technology as well as a rapid depletion of its oil and gas reserves. This and Obama's gross ineptness are the main reasons Putin can play big shot in the world.

    January 9, 2014 at 4:10 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Don't forget Jake, that is was Vladimir Putin who successfully kept Barack Obama from bombing Syria with those ungodly cruise missiles plus the murder on thousands more with those ungodly B52 and B2 bombers! Moreover Jake, in this country, poverty is on the rise while our middle class continues to shrink!

      January 9, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Reply
      • minnie mouse

        It is difficult to "pull oneself up out of poverty" when one is not even willing to finish school and sacrifice.

        January 10, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
    • Noren174

      GDP (World Bank):
      California – $1968 bln (2011)
      Russia – $3373 bln (2012) (5th)
      Population (Wiki):
      California – 38 332 521 (2013)
      Russia – 143 600 000 (2013)

      January 9, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Reply
      • Mime

        US Debt: 16 trillions
        Russia's Debt: 201 Bil

        February 16, 2014 at 6:33 pm |
    • Alen

      I agree with you. Good post. Obama’s policy of ‘No policy’ in ME makes Putin to take advantage of student ‘American President’. Moreover, the status of world leadership, the United States has at the moment, require more diplomatic support of our allies and public, more and more efforts and proof of strength. Many Americans don’t want this leadership mistakenly and forgot about main rule that ‘holy place is never empty’.
      What was done by Snoweden and those behind wasn’t of help either and brought huge damage to the Great Country in opinion of ordinary people abroad. He has been tried to drive a wedge between the allies and Putin took advantage of it.
      Syrian brutal dictator Al-Asad used poisoned gas against his own people and children with the accordance of Putin’s decision to keep him in power by all means. Obama’s policy of ‘No policy’ worked out.

      January 15, 2014 at 2:30 am | Reply
    • David

      Jake is probably a racist zionist and also a redneck for saying so many stupidities, one of them that Russia has the same GDP as California!! people like him should not talk too much...

      January 16, 2014 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  8. Maher

    I would expect the US to flement the sect hatred currently brewing throughout the Mideast. However, Russia is the power behind Assad funnelling weapons with immense consequences. Their other ally, Iran, walk away from this with their hands clean using Hezbollah to do its dirty work. Obama is weak as p*** and this devious lot know it. You had your chance to stop the blood letting and slap Assad hand when chemical weapons were used. They must be laughing their guts out at the US I reckon

    January 9, 2014 at 4:46 am | Reply
  9. ✠RZ✠

    Obama tells us we should feel "exceptional" in high class and borrowed shoes. And Putin says that kind of talk is akin to Nazi propaganda. Trying to sort this out could give "rise to disturbed individuals".

    January 9, 2014 at 8:52 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      I agree, RZ. Vladimir Putin has it right, like you say.

      January 9, 2014 at 8:58 am | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      I don't have any trouble sorting out the difference between "Nazi propaganda" and "feeling exceptional".

      January 10, 2014 at 9:25 pm | Reply
      • Alen

        Felling exceptional has nothing in common with Nazi ideology.
        Brutal Dictator Putin well aware about it ‘cause his methods in and outside the Russia are totally the same as Nazi did in 1930th.
        United States of America is exceptional and has his proven exceptional historical role of fighting dictatorships and tyranny in the globe, whether someone like it or not.
        After the second world war because of American exceptionality and great sacrifice, European countries revival and recovered their totally damaged economies very rapidly. Democracies were restored in all of them, while Russia had been established the commi-facism tyranny and spread it all over the world.
        There are became losers because of American exceptionality, so brutal soviet system and ideology was totally collapsed. People in East Europeans countries became free of Nazi lifestyle.
        Have you ever asked yourself, why people of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and other soviet republics looking for help in the United States or Europe while fighting for human dignity and freedom against ‘new nazi corrupted commies’ supported by Russians?

        January 15, 2014 at 3:11 am |
  10. Joseph McCarthy

    Could this be a real change in the Middle East? Hopefully, yes! All the Western countries did was to bring grief and pain to this part of the world! Maybe the Russians with their influence can usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.

    January 9, 2014 at 8:55 am | Reply
    • Quinton

      True, Joseph. The West has impoverished the Middle East by taking so much out of it and putting nothing back!

      January 9, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Oh, sure. Who could be more peace-loving, prosperity-producing and trustworthy than Russians. Good luck with your plan. You'll need it.

      January 10, 2014 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  11. Alexei

    Russia is an immensly strong 1000 years old country despite any current economic figures or current political changes. We are coming back after exactly a century of huge losses, sacrifices and again losses. This is the reason for some luck that appears here and there. The key to success is to work hard and avoid wars.

    January 9, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • Quinton

      Well said, Alexei. Since I studied Russian history, I have to agree with you. Unfortunately, we Americans seem to be too stupid to realize this simple fact!

      January 9, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Russia avoiding wars? Or do you mean funding-and-arming wars that somebody else technically has to fight.

      January 10, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Reply
      • Greg Keener

        At least minnie, the Russians don't go around and start wars for a profit like we do! All this Russian bashing is totally ignorant and gets old. People here who do it are only displaying their own ignorance!!!!!!!

        January 11, 2014 at 6:45 am |
    • minnie mouse

      Thank God "Russia" didn't avoid World War 2. We would all be speaking German now.

      January 10, 2014 at 9:21 pm | Reply
      • Greg Keener

        Quite true, minnie. Without the Russian front on the East, the defeat of Germany during WW2 would have been virtually impossible. Let's not bite the hand that fed us, please!

        January 11, 2014 at 6:41 am |
  12. Ali Hamza

    A little more than two decades since the US have been dictating the international scene, now it seems that this monopoly is turning monopolistic. There is more room now for more alignments; third world countries now have options in Russia or China. 2013 have proved to be a very good year for Putin, as he has successfully altered the outcome of several international events. This coupled with the inability of Washington to be more discreet and assertive. Internal rift between Republicans and Democrats have had catalytic effect. The whole Syrian scenario has exposed the limitations of American decision makers. 2014 will bring in many such cases, and the world watches. Middle-east is especially vulnerable, for there are many sides and no stronghold. Each looking for strong backing. The post “spring” setups are too weak to survive. The region can easily be exploited. Obama must be more definite. Putin have bigger ambitions now, he is very much ready to flex muscles. But still Russia is way behind US in this regard, it will take many years.

    January 9, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Good point about American internal party politics and the resulting useless political combat. But this status ends immediately in any event where Americans feel threatened. Then domestic combatants will become instant colleagues. Anyone who fails to grasp this Truth about the American psychology shouldn't be playing in this game.

      January 10, 2014 at 9:17 pm | Reply
  13. robin38

    russia will lead a coalition of arabs against Israel--ezekiel 38,39-–it is destiny

    January 9, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Reply
    • dantheman

      no that will never happen, russia doesn't have the man power nor the technology for a major war, sadly

      January 10, 2014 at 6:35 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      That is absurd. As if Russia would risk world war just to enable radical islamists to scratch their chronic itch about tiny Israel.

      January 10, 2014 at 9:07 pm | Reply
      • Otter

        It is a fact what Robin 38 says about the prophecy Ezekial 38-39

        January 14, 2014 at 3:21 pm |
  14. Rick McDaniel

    The influence is growing.........but will that be good or bad for the world?????? I suspect by the time we know the answer to that question, it may be too late to stop the tide of world domination.

    January 11, 2014 at 10:30 am | Reply
  15. Bill Weiner

    Wars are easy to launch but not so easy to win or get out of. Witness W's war in Iraq. I believe Obama's threat to bomb
    Assad was parried by Putin. Sigh of relief! No U.S. war in Syria. Mrs. Clinton said: 'Assad must go', but if its a choice of
    Assad or al Qaeda?? We didn't see around the corner.
    China will likely pass U.S. economically in some years. Makes sense; their population is 4 times ours.
    World population is 3 times what it was when I was born. As far as power is concerned, we need a multi-polar world. And
    if there is an exception, we can't let the genie of technology destroy the world.

    January 11, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  16. Agzam

    It is nice to see so many people understand the situation. America is a still a major power military wise and money wise. America is going to be in control of most world decisions for some time now. However, America learned the lesson that wars at this age do not bring profits like they used too. You start few wars in ME for the hope of gaining more influence and control of resources but the whole world wants those resources and influence and each organization using its own tactics. American use costly wars, the others use terrorism and partisan war and some patient organizations clean up after them like Russia and make profit this way. You ask me which strategy is wrong? The one that did not bring results so why blame Russian on trying to make some profit, everyone did.

    January 12, 2014 at 3:00 am | Reply
  17. manuel

    Of course they are making headway, there is a large empty space left by this administration. Their only concern right now is for an agreement with Iran, at whatever the cost.

    January 12, 2014 at 6:12 am | Reply
  18. Skorpio

    The Russian Christian Orthodox PATRIARCH could be a decisive factor to bring peace to the Middle East if orthodox churches unite to CONVERT MILLIONS OF MUSLIMS TO CHRISTIANITY. Arab Christians share the same language, culture and ethnicity as Arab Muslims except their Islamic satanic faith which is the root of this global madness. Only a massive conversion of Muslims to Christianity or to any other religion except Islam could bring peace to the world.

    January 12, 2014 at 10:39 am | Reply
  19. EU citizen

    “Today Russia is coming back to many regions it lost in the 90s. I’m talking about the African continent and the Middle East,”

    There, a diplomatic hiccup?
    Russia never owned anything there to regain something it lost there, except if you consider the former Imperial territories (Kazakhstan and south of it) its presence in the region was only during the Soviet era, which should be pointed out that it wasn't Russia at that time. Does Kremlin consider Syria, Egypt and such as possible colonies? Russians never had a colonial presence in Africa to begin with. Even if not, why get active economically in the region with weapon sales again, and not something, anything else?

    January 13, 2014 at 5:23 am | Reply
  20. Krachid

    I think it is wiser to make peace all over the world rather than war; War is essentially destructive whether it is fought in the Middle East, Far East, South Asia or Europe.

    True world leaders will make peace not war!!!They will bring the people of the world together

    January 13, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Reply
    • Quinton

      The question here is Krachid, will this happen in our lifetime? That doesn't appear too likely since the right-wing politicians in Washington are too deeply entrenched!

      January 13, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  21. yasmin

    They should have end the war and create the brotherhood nation to nation and persson to person. the citizenship of these country should have live peacefully because every person have to right live peacefully.

    July 19, 2014 at 11:33 pm | Reply
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