What is Russia up to in the Middle East?
Much recent commentary would have you believe that Vladimir Putin and those around him in the Kremlin are chess masters. In the Middle East, Russia has exploited and exacerbated Western weakness to leverage its way into the ascendency, making the best of a weak position to maneuver itself into a game-setting role.
In the U.S. and elsewhere there is a seemingly endless appetite for explanations of Moscow’s motivations. Among the pundits stepping into the ring is Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank and a former Russian army colonel. Trenin’s “What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East?” presents a largely uncritical account of Russia’s strategic goals in the region for a Western readership - summarizing the Kremlin’s thinking while barely critiquing or even analyzing it. The book is OK for what it is, but it would not pass muster if it were about a country where the bar for insights is set higher.
Trenin suggests that Russia’s overriding foreign policy objective is clear: Seeking a comeback to the top level of global politics after a 25-year absence. At the center of this is an obsession with how the U.S. views Russia, with the Kremlin keen for the U.S. to “recognize its restored global status” and to accept it as a co-equal partner. “What Russia wants from Washington, essentially, is respect and cooperation,” argues Trenin. This chimes with the conclusion of “The Long Hangover” by the Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker, which argues that Putin’s regime is girded by a profound sense of wounded pride from the fall of the Soviet Union and a desire to return to the stage as a recognized great power.
Putin has chosen the Middle East as the arena for Russia’s “comeback.” Specifically, Syria has provided the launch-pad. “Moscow’s position on Syria [is] not so much about Syria or even the Middle East,” writes Trenin, it is about “seeking a comeback to the global arena as a great power.” The Kremlin viewed the Syrian uprising as a Western-led plot to overthrow its old Soviet ally and present-day Russian arms client, so Putin “decided to make a point that U.S.-driven regime change in the Middle East had limits.”
Russia’s success is clear from the way it has brought Turkey to heel. Ankara-Moscow relations since Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 are a textbook case showing “Russia’s power to bring pressure to bear on a major regional country to make it change course and cooperate on Moscow’s terms.” After the downing of the jet on Turkey’s border with Syria, Trenin writes, Moscow refrained from hitting back militarily but “placed Ankara and President Erdoğan under heavy pressure: economic, political, and informational.” It allowed the Syrian Kurdish PYD to set up a Moscow office, while its YPG militia received Russian aid and coordination in anti-ISIS operations. This was apparently enough to make Turkey abandon its years-long goal of removing al-Assad - a significant win for Moscow. Russia may be an economic basket case with dwindling prospects for domestic renewal, but it maintains a formidable military apparatus and considerable leverage over regional rivals thanks to energy exports.
Trenin argues that the Russia-Turkey historical rivalry is deep and in many ways more direct than imperial rivalries between the Turks and others. Russia waged 12 wars with the Ottoman Empire over the centuries, while both were on opposite sides of the Cold War for much of the 20th century. Sympathetic to the “civilizational” thinking currently popular in the Kremlin (and in Ankara), he seems to suggest that Turkey and Russia are historically fated to cross swords. This remains the case despite the fact that the current rulers of both countries are guided by revisionist thinking, keen to establish a new post-U.S. world order in which they have an elevated position. The feeling of once again being a great player on the historical stage is flattering and seductive.
Describing Russia as “principled and a “paragon of pragmatism,” Trenin depicts an almost preternaturally rational Moscow: A consummate chess player and arch-realpolitician. On the surface “What is Russia up to in the Middle East?” is attractive, free of the paranoia and bad-tempered unpleasantness of something like the Kremlin’s public broadcaster RT. But it performs essentially the same function.