Jamestown Launches ‘Russia in the Middle East’ Project

Contact: Matthew Czekaj


Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is in Moscow on a multi-day visit—the first ever such trip by a reigning Saudi monarch. The Russians have rolled out the red carpet for their guest. The two sides are negotiating massive new arms sales, potentially geopolitically transformative natural gas agreements and multi-billion-dollar trade deals, not to mention discussing pressing regional security issues, including the ongoing war in Syria. As Moscow attempts to reorganize the system of regional alliances built up over decades, the implications for US strategic interests could prove profound.

There has been an outpouring of reporting on Russian activities in Syria, and to a lesser degree other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. But until now, there has been no single effort to analyze the totality of Russian objectives as well as its instruments of power, tactics and strategy in the greater Middle East or their implications for US foreign policy. To rectify this gap, The Jamestown Foundation is proud to announce a new special project—Russia in the Middle East—which aims to provide the basis and material for a multi-dimensional analysis of Russian strategy and tactics in the Middle East, bringing into sharp relief the depth and scope of Moscow’s strategy.

On Monday, September 25, Jamestown hosted the first workshop connected to this project, led jointly by the two Project Investigators—Dr. Theodore Karasik and Dr. Stephen Blank. The participants discussed a series of papers produced specially for the workshop and examined the broader strategic regional picture, various international perspectives of Russia’s actions in the Middle East, as well as implications for the United States. Some of the major takeaways to come out of this first workshop include:

  • Russia does have an overall (not just Syrian) Middle Eastern strategy. It was developed twenty years ago by Yevgeny Primakov and since then has been updated, refined, and adapted to evolving circumstances by Vladimir Putin. This strategy comprises the entire Middle East (Maghreb to Iran) and is multi-dimensional, simultaneously utilizing all major instruments of state power: diplomacy, information, military force, and economics (DIME).


  • The Russian-Saudi rapprochement, made possible by King Salman’s October visit to Moscow—the first ever by a Saudi monarch—could have a far reaching strategic impact on the Middle East. If Moscow is successful in pulling Riyadh along, this could allow Russia to retain its ties with Iran, while using its closer developing relations with Saudi Arabia to bolster Moscow’s long-aspired goal of raising oil prices and undermining US influence in the Middle East with a key strategic ally.


  • The ongoing failure during the past decade of US strategy regarding the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), coupled with Washington’s policy confusion and disengagement, have been the most important factor permitting Russia to gain advantage in the region. US failures of omission and/or commission are important to Russian success in MENA.


  • As a result, Russia now has good to excellent relations with all Arab countries and various parties within those countries—a first for Moscow.


  • While there was disagreement among participants about Russia’s ability to sustain its strategy in the Middle East, the war in Syria clearly gives Moscow a strategic edge. Specifically, it is changing relationships and opening new avenues, offering Russia possibilities to be a broker to all the regional countries bordering Syria with various interests in the Syrian civil war.


  • The Qatar crisis does not test Moscow; it emboldens Russia because relations with Riyadh and Doha now come into sharper focus and allow Putin to play both sides. In addition, Moscow and Riyadh’s collaboration pushes Doha closer to Tehran, which ultimately puts the shared Iranian-Qatari South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate field within reach for Russian energy companies.


  • Russia is seeking influence in multiple current and future energy projects across MENA, while opening the Arctic to Gulf investment in mining industries and port facilities. The US is not competing.


  • The Turkish-Russian relationship is now just as significant as Russia’s relationship with Iran. Moscow increasingly occupies the position of regional balancer, which curries favor with some Arab governments and is seen as a positive development. Turkey, however, is in a transactional relationship with Russia, while Moscow sees its relationship with Ankara in realpolitik terms. As a NATO-member country, Turkey’s importance to the US heightened by Putin’s maneuvering in the region.


  • Russia is using its information strategy as a force multiplier—particularly where it has few other instruments to employ—and it has been very effective in the Middle East. Perceptions about Russia among some Arab youth is showing a shift favorable toward Moscow and against the US, despite Russian ally al-Assad’s use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Indeed, one workshop participant argued that Arabs believe Russia’s RT more than CNN. A major gap exists in the US understanding of Kremlin intent.


  • Although numerous experts in the United States track and understand the quality and scope of Russian-Arab relations or Iranian-Russian relations, such expertise has not filtered its way into US policy. Rectifying this situation will require the US government to hire more analysts with strong cultural awareness who speak the languages of the strategic actors. There is a critical need to develop cross-regional multi-disciplinary expertise and not be limited to narrow area or regional studies (Russia, Iran, etc.).

All the papers from the first workshop are now available on The Jamestown Foundation’s website (https://jamestown.org/programs/rme/). They include:

Over the next several months, the project will convene two additional workshops of published experts to address the hole in Western and, more specifically, US understanding of Russia’s goals as well as the pathways to the Kremlin’s success. The purpose of all three workshops will be to bring to bear the best expert assessments on clarifying the full range of Russian objectives and the strategies involved in realizing them throughout the Middle East from various perspectives. Moreover, the Russia in the Middle East project will explore Russia’s future political, economic and energy plans in the Middle East out to 2025, in addition to the implications for the United States. Finally, the project leaders intend to hold a Congressional Briefing on this strategically important subject, followed by a monograph of the analytical findings and implications collected throughout the entire scope of the effort.

Jamestown President Glen E. Howard notes, “This project could not be more timely. While the attention of US policymakers has been focused elsewhere, the visit of Saudi King Salman to Moscow should be a wake-up call to the United States about Russia’s grand strategy in the Middle East.”


Project Investigators

Theodore Karasik

Dr. Theodore Karasik is currently a Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute, both located in Washington, DC. Dr. Karasik spent 2004 through 2016 in the GCC, the Middle East and Russia. For the past 30 years, Karasik worked for a number of US agencies involved in researching and analyzing defense acquisition, the use of military power, and religious-political issues across MENA and Eurasia, including the evolution of violent extremism and its financing.

Dr. Karasik was an Adjunct Lecturer at the Dubai School of Government, where he taught graduate-level international relations, and also an Adjunct Lecturer at University Wollongong Dubai, where he taught labor and migration. Karasik was a Senior Political Scientist in the International Policy and Security Group at RAND Corporation. From 2002 to 2003, he served as Director of Research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. He is a specialist in geopolitics and geo-economics for the MENA and Eurasia regions and frequently conducts studies and assessments of future security trajectories and military requirements.

Dr. Karasik received his PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in four fields: Russia, Middle East, Caucasus and an outside field in cultural anthropology, focusing on tribes and clans from Central Asia to East Africa. He also holds a CPhil and MA in History and International Relations from UCLA and Monterey Institute of International Studies, respectively. He wrote his PhD dissertation on military and humanitarian operations in the northern port city of Arkhangel’sk and their impact on political institutions during the Russian civil war.


Stephen Blank

Dr. Stephen Blank is an internationally recognized expert on Russian foreign and defense policies and international relations across the former Soviet Union. He is also a leading expert on European and Asian security, including energy issues. Since 2013, he has been a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, in Washington. From 1989 until 2013, he was a Professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Blank has been Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute since 1989. In 1998–2001, he was Douglas MacArthur Professor of Research at the War College. Dr. Blank’s MA and PhD are in Russian History from the University of Chicago. His BA is in History from the University of Pennsylvania.


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Founded in 1984, The Jamestown Foundation is an independent, non-partisan research institution dedicated to providing timely information concerning critical political and strategic developments in China, Russia, Eurasia and the world of terrorism. Jamestown produces three periodic publications: Eurasia Daily Monitor, Terrorism Monitor and China Brief. Jamestown research and analysis is available to the public free-of-charge via Jamestown’s website, www.jamestown.org.