20 years under Putin: a timeline

As the Biden administration begins its first term, Russia remains one of the main challenges on the foreign policy front. While no reset is expected, some level of cooperation with the Kremlin is inevitable, including in the Middle East, where Russia has been consistently expanding its footprint. Still, recent developments on the ground indicate that the Kremlin’s diplomatic efforts in the region are less successful than it would like them to seem.

 

December 11, 2017: Vladimir Putin visits Russia's Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. Photo: kremlin.ru. 

 

As the Biden administration officially took office last week, and given growing tensions with the Putin regime, fierce confrontation with Russia is likely on a range of policy issues, including promoting democracy and human rights. At the same time, the U.S. and Russia are also expected to outline certain areas of coordination and even cooperation, such as nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. Less than a weak into Biden’s first term, the US and Russia already agreed to extend the New START Treaty with Russia for five years.

Still, another crucial foreign policy issue on the agenda—the Middle East—remains a grey zone. The new U.S. administration’s interest in a nuclear agreement with Iran, and America’s decades-long drive to diminish its presence in the region, may push some policymakers to view the Middle East as a suitable arena for cooperation with Russia, even as the U.S. might pressure the Kremlin on other issues. Such an approach is flawed and fraught with political risks. In recent years, Russia has showed limited interest—and ability—in bringing about real solutions to Middle Eastern issues. Instead, the Kremlin has used its diplomatic efforts in the region as an opportunity to break out from international isolation and divert attention from its malign activities abroad. This approach is unlikely to change in 2021.

Since October 2015, Russia has become increasingly assertive in the Middle East—initially by deploying troops to war-torn Syria to save president Bashar al-Assad, who, at the time, had lost control of over half of the country’s territory to various insurgent forces, including ISIS. Since then, Russia has consistently strived to expand its footprint in the region and to position itself as the key power broker able to talk to all parties in the conflict, whilst playing an essential role in developing a possible solution for Syria and beyond.

At first, the Kremlin did show a unique ability to facilitate better communications with regional powers that were deeply at odds with each other. In Syria, Russia intervened as part of the Assad coalition alongside Iran, but managed to maintain relations with essentially anti-Assad and anti-Iran players—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, et al.

The Kremlin then leveraged its diplomatic success in Syria to re-establish dialogue with the West, deeming futile the latter’s post-Crimea attempts to push Russia into international isolation. Over the years, Russia tried to persuade the West to expand this dialogue through the Lavrov-Kerry diplomatic peace efforts in Syria under the Obama administration, the resolution plan for southern Syria that dominated talks in the 2018 Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, as well as Putin’s other summits with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel. But these diplomatic maneuvers brought no success.

In recent years, Russia has showed limited interest—and ability—in bringing about real solutions to Middle Eastern issues. Instead, the Kremlin has used its diplomatic efforts in the region as an opportunity to break out from international isolation and divert attention from its malign activities abroad. This approach is unlikely to change in 2021.

Despite Russia’s numerous attempts to pressure different participants in the Syrian conflict, holding rounds of meetings of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress (2018) and Syria’s Constitutional Committee (2019-2020), created little common ground for domestic reconciliation. Neither a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict or the refugee crisis, nor general stability in the country was achieved, prompting the Institute for the Study of War to describe these recurring diplomatic upsets as “Russia’s dead end diplomacy in Syria.” As Anton Mardasov, a Russian scholar of the Middle East, recently observed, any illusions that Russia could implement a peaceful transition in Syria had dissipated by the end of 2020.

Russia’s ability to continue its unique diplomatic balancing act vis-a-vis different regional actors is also in doubt. Moscow was embarrassed by Iran’s accidental downing of a civilian Ukrainian airliner in January 2020, forcing the Kremlin to de-emphasize its military cooperation with Tehran. Moreover, the two countries’ views of Syria’s future increasingly diverge. While Iran wants to keep Assad in power by perching his regime on the Shia militias it controls, Russia prefers to restore a centrally controlled military that is loyal to Assad and has strong connections to the Russian military.

Despite these differences, Russia finds itself tied to Iran in Syria, being well aware that the balance of power on the ground and the ongoing insurgency would not allow for the removal of Iranian forces from the country. Hence, even Russia’s alleged promise to Israel to keep Iranian forces at least 60 kilometers (37 miles) away from the Syrian-Israeli border could not be fulfilled. This situation calls into question Russia’s ability to influence Iran.

Russia’s relations with other regional powers in the Middle East are ever more problematic. Complications with Turkey emerged over a series of crises beyond Syria—notably, in Libya and Nagorny Karabakh. Last year, an alleged breakdown in communication between Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman revealed the limits of this relationship and caused a freefall in world oil prices amid the global pandemic. Israel, while still engaging with Russia, shows no intention of taming its reported anti-Iran activities in Syria. More friction with Russia is expected in the future. All of this raises serious questions not only about Russia’s ability to bring solutions to Syria, but, more broadly, about its dominant position in the region.

The deterioration in the Middle East and the Kremlin’s true interest and track record in the region should be carefully considered by the U.S. when it engages with Russia, particularly when it comes to renewing nuclear negotiations with Iran, where Moscow will strive for a mediator’s role. While coordination on specific, mutually beneficial issues in Syria, such as deconfliction in case of air activity, is possible, the U.S. should keep in mind that, despite its posturing, Russia ultimately plays a weak hand in Middle Eastern politics.

 

* Vera Michlin-Shapir is an expert on Russian foreign and defence policies, as well as Russian politics and media. She worked at the Israeli National Security Council, Prime Minister’s Office, 2010–2016.

 

Russia under Putin

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.