Moscow Scrambles to Sustain Its Positions in the Middle East

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 34

The long-planned Ukrainian war is going poorly for President Vladimir Putin on many fronts, from the fiercely defended outskirts of Kyiv to the closed doors of McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow. However, the drastic deterioration of Russia’s international standing is likely particularly painful for him. The Kremlin head has sought to exploit the presumed feebleness of the United States’ leadership and the European Union’s dependency upon gas import to assert Russia’s “great power” status. But instead, he is encountering a surge of Western unity and, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had promised, “more NATO” from the Arctic to the Black Sea (Kommersant, February 19). This buildup of potential threats was acknowledged at the meeting of the Russian Security Council last Friday (March 11); but what captured most media attention was Putin’s instruction to deploy “volunteers” from the Middle East to the war zone in Donbas (Izvestia, March 11). If indeed organized, such a deployment would hardly make a difference for the stalled Russian offensive operations, but it reflects the desire to uphold Russia’s positions and influence in the Middle East and North Africa.

The criticism in this region of the Russo-Ukrainian war is, indeed, more muted than in the West, even if most of those states voted for the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian aggression (Syria voted with Russia; Algeria, Iran and Iraq abstained; and Morocco did not vote) (EADaily, March 10). The main focus of Russia’s efforts at preserving long-cultivated ties has been on Israel, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held four calls with Putin since the start of the war and paid a visit to Moscow on March 5 (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 6). Public opinion in Israel strongly condemns the conflict, so Bennet keeps communication channels open also with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who plans to address the Knesset in the coming days. Yet the request for military aid and support to the Ukrainian cyber-defense system remains pending (RBC, March 12). Little space exists for Israeli mediation, but what matters most for Israel is Russia’s capacity to manufacture new conditions and stall the international talks on the Iranian nuclear program (Kommersant, March 9).

The war has simultaneously provided new impetus for Israel’s rapprochement with Turkey, and President Isaac Herzog made the long-contemplated visit to Ankara, where he found much common ground with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 9). Erdoğan is also charting a cautious course in the stormy Black Sea theater. He has managed in his one phone call with Putin to secure for Turkey an exemption from the newly expanded Russian list of “hostile states,” which includes all NATO and EU members (RIA Novosti, March 6). Turkey’s good-will initiative at organizing a meeting (on March 10) between Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers in Antalya was predictably fruitless and yielded only Sergei Lavrov’s absurd denial of Russia’s attack on Ukraine (, March 9). More impactful is Ankara’s decision to close the Turkish Straits to the Russian navy; Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had to call his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, for clarifications and was informed that Turkey treats the Russian “special operation” as war, so Article 19 of the Montreux Convention (1936) applies (, March 1).

Russia does not need to bring any more combat ships into the Black Sea, but the transportation of supplies to its military grouping in Syria by sea is set to be interrupted, and the air bridge can deliver only so much to the Khmeimim base (Vedomosti, March 2; see EDM, March 3). Russian experts discussed this situation with much concern two years ago, against the background of an escalation of tensions around the rebel-controlled Idlib province in Syria; however, the ceasefire deal agreed to by Erdoğan and Putin had removed that risk and still holds. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has declared solidarity with Ukraine (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 20, 2020; Kommersant, February 22, 2022). Now, Erdoğan can not only remind his NATO allies that the war is a result of the weak response to the Russian aggression in 2014 but also put pressure on Russian vulnerabilities in Syria, if Moscow demands that Ankara stop the deliveries of Bayraktar TB2 drones, which Ukrainian forces use with devastating effect against Russian armored columns (UNIAN, March 11; Obozrevatel, March 12). Israel, in turn, continues to execute airstrikes on Iranian assets in Syria, making sure that the mechanism of “de-conflicting” with Russian forces works even when Damascus is targeted (Izvestia, March 7).

Putin recently spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but there are no records of his communications with leaders of the petroleum-producing Arab states, even though the situation on the global oil market is of crucial importance for Russia (Business Gazeta, March 9). President Joseph Biden’s decision to stop US imports of Russian oil is not a major blow in itself, but it has amplified Rosneft’s and Transneft’s short-term revenue flow difficulties (, March 13). New deals are almost impossible to sign, so even private Russian corporations like Lukoil are forced to curtail production (, March 11; Kommersant, March 10). The Kremlin holds onto the belief that Russia is an indispensable supplier, and the foreign ministry declared a readiness to undertake a “tough energy confrontation” with the EU; but in fact, the privileged positions of Russian suppliers, first of all Gazprom, on this central market are now damaged beyond repair (Kommersant, March 12). The global oil market has absorbed the initial shock from the outbreak of the war, and the Arab producers stand to win from Russia’s misfortunes. Moscow cannot hope for the OPEC+ production quota format to protect its interests (, March 11).

Russian influence in the Middle East and North Africa has been based on Moscow’s perceived capacity to oppose US policies and was boosted by its experiments in projecting military power directly and in various “hybrid” forms. But every day of the disastrous war in Ukraine brings new proof of the folly in Putin’s perceptions of Western weakness; and his counterparts in Tehran, Riyadh and Jerusalem have to question his judgement in matters of importance for their agendas. The defectiveness of the Russian military machine was starkly exposed, and the Kremlin’s supposed plan to recruit foreign “volunteers,” including “warriors” from the Central African Republic, only illuminates this degradation (RIA Novosti, March 11). Syria, the far-from-solid bedrock of Russia’s positions in the Eastern Mediterranean, is set to experience new tremors. Conflicts in the Middle East will not be reduced by the major war in Europe. But the forced departure of Russia, a proficient and cynical conflict manipulator, may make them more manageable.