The annual session of the United Nations General Assembly is being run this year as a video-conference, but President Vladimir Putin deemed his address so important that the key points of his planned speech were discussed ahead of time with his Security Council (Kremlin.ru, September 17). Ultimately, the presentation resonated weakly with his virtual audience of international representatives, perhaps because Putin’s emphasis on arms control so clearly contradicted the Russian president’s habitual bragging about Moscow’s nuclear super-weapons (Republic.ru, September 23). Effectively conceding this point, Putin then pivoted to a rather unusual statement on restoring Russian–United States cooperation on cyber-security (Kommersant, September 26). The intention is clearly to preempt and neutralize investigations of Russia’s interference in the US elections. Nonetheless, this proposal also fell flat.
Leaving banalities and self-serving posturing aside, it is interesting to look at the key issues Putin opted not to discuss. Notably, He did not respond to French President Emmanuel Macron’s demand for an investigation into Moscow’s use of chemical weapons, including the attempted poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 23). Nor did he react to the attacks on China launched by US President Donald Trump; in fact, Putin did not mention China at all. The evolving crisis in Belarus and failure of the talks on restoring order in the Ukrainian Donbas war zone were also left out; problems of migration and terrorism were omitted; and not a word was uttered about the Middle East.
The final lapse is particularly odd considering that engagement with and manipulation of various conflicts in the Middle East underpin Russia’s claim to a prominent status in global affairs—far stronger than Putin’s persistent references to the world order created by the victorious powers after World War II. Moscow may find it difficult to relate to the US-sponsored normalization of relations between Israel and the Gulf States (the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) because it reduces the space for Russia’s traditional maneuvering between supporting the Palestinians and building ties with Israel (Izvestia, September 15). The Kremlin also does not know what to make of Turkey’s attempt to mediate a reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 23). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cordially greeted his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Moscow, and deplored the new US sanctions against Iran, but there is little Russia can actually do about them (Kommersant, September 24).
The centerpiece of Russia’s policy in the Middle East is certainly the intervention in Syria; but today, it has transformed into a multifaceted source of problems. The friction between Russian and US military patrols in northeastern Syria is actually the least of these troubles (RBC, September 20). Greater risks stem from tensions with Turkey, which resolutely rejects Russian plans for restoring the Bashar al-Assad regime’s control over the rebel-held Idlib province. Moscow sought to strike a bargain by offering to expand the Turkish zone of control along the border with Syria; but Ankara asserts that it will move into Kobane and Manbij when it sees fit (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 21).
Even greater trouble is brewing—despite diplomatic geniality—in Russia’s interactions with Iran. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis hit the Islamic Republic so severely that they curtailed its external engagements, notwithstanding renewed pledges from Tehran to exact revenge for the US assassination of General Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 (RIA Novosti, September 20). Moscow used to worry about an overly strong Iranian presence in Syria; but now it has begun to express concerns about its reduction. Russia cannot take on the full burden of rebuilding the war-desolated Syria and understands that Western aid will only materialize following the initiation of political reforms. However, despite cutting its own investments in Syria, Iran still maintains enough influence to block all meaningful reforms (Russiancouncil.ru, September 11). Moreover, in seeking to stop Israeli air strikes on its assets, the Iranian command moved to take control of parts of the Syrian air-defense system, effectively elbowing out Russia (Svobodnaya Pressa, September 23).
Troubles in Syria determine the timidity of Russia’s policy in Libya, where Wagner Group mercenaries are supposed to be the key instrument but whose performance has been far from stellar (Lenta.ru, September 23). Egypt has taken on the central role in terminating the hostilities and building a minimally effective government in eastern Libya, perhaps calculating that a division of the troubled neighboring state is a relatively acceptable option (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 24). The lull in fighting has allowed the Libyan Oil Company to resume production and export, except from the oil fields where the presence of “gangs of Wagnerites” make it impossible to lift the force majeure (Kommersant, September 22).
One immediate consequence of this fragile pacification has been a further drop in oil prices, prompting some Russian experts to repeat their predictions that the propitious period of over-priced hydrocarbons may be over forever (Forbes.ru, September 23). Moscow claims a readiness to deliver on its commitments to cut oil production according to the OPEC+ deal with Saudi Arabia, but the implementation of this cartel arrangement remains shaky (Izvestia, September 17). Putin tries to keep engaging with Saudi royals but cannot talk them out of their proclivity to give special discounts to China in order to boost exports to this key market, where Russia has, heretofore, had a slight edge (Neftegaz.ru, September 25). Moreover, confrontation with Iran is central to Saudi regional strategy, and the joint Russian-Iranian naval maneuvers in the Caspian Sea (held as part of Moscow’s large-scale Caucasus 2020 strategic exercises) invited strong resentment in Riyadh (TV-Zvezda, September 25).
Russia has positioned itself as a major opponent of US policy in the Middle East, but the benefits from this posturing are now mostly exhausted. Moscow cannot, in any meaningful way, fill the imaginary “vacuum” left by particular US withdrawals and disengagements, because local stakeholders are concurrently expanding their own influence. Moreover, the deepening disaster of the COVID-19 pandemic increases the need for economic assistance and humanitarian aid, but Russia cannot deliver anything except promises of sharing its dubious vaccine. Whatever international ambitions the Kremlin might cherish, the ongoing revolution in Belarus constitutes an urgent and massive challenge closer to home, and Putin’s apparent inability to quickly resolve that unrest undermines his pretenses for contributing to global leadership. The sudden eruption of public anger next door has destroyed the rationale for projecting Russian power to faraway Syria and revealed the inefficacy of Moscow’s intrigues in the perturbed Middle East.