The Russians aren’t coming. They’re already here, there, everywhere in the Middle East

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 18, 2017

Nikolas Gvosdev says we should’ve known this was coming.

Mr Gvosdev, who holds the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair of economic geography and national security at the US Naval War College, recently recalled the grim warning by two of his colleagues about Russia’s emergence as a player in the Middle East. They said that US “fecklessness” was creating the right conditions for this to happen. His colleagues were roundly criticised for their pains. What would Moscow have to offer that might possibly compete with Washington’s largesse?

No one need bother with the question anymore. “The Russian hand is visible everywhere in the Middle East,” writes Mr Gvosdev. It’s a player in efforts to end the Syrian civil war. It’s spoken up on the Kurdish referendum issue. It’s helping with Libyan negotiations. It has helped sustain the Iran-Iraq-Syria “Shi’a Crescent”. It talks to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. It is engaged with Egypt and Israel. And Turkey has just embarked on a new military and strategic arrangement with Russia.

Not all of these ventures are rewarded with overwhelming success but Russia’s presence and clout cannot be denied.

This is, as Mr Gvosdev points out, not to do with old Soviet-style propaganda. “The Kremlin is no longer interested in spreading a particular ideology nor does it seek to impose any sort of binary choice on countries in the region to ‘choose’ between Moscow and Washington.”

If anything, 21st century Russia does not want to displace the US but, as he writes, “to act as the ‘hedge bet’ for the regimes of the region.” That they’re willing to go along with the offer, is largely because “after two decades of US transformational efforts [most countries are] now more interested in stability.”

Mr Gvosdev categorizes the Russian approach as follows. It recognizes that long-term solutions are not possible at present and so its efforts are “focused on jury-rigging a series of compromises”.

These include, in his words:

  • Creating deconfliction zones in Syria
  • Attempting to square the circle of de facto Kurdish self-government in Syria with a Turkish security zone
  • Maintaining a balance between Sunni and Shia interests in Syria and elsewhere in the region
  • Guaranteeing Iran’s ability to reach its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon and allowing Israel to enforce its red lines

This may be 19th-century balance-of-power diplomacy but it is realpolitik that suits the 21st  with the election of President Donald Trump.

Next stop, East Asia.