The typical opinion in the Moscow political bazaar is that every foreign policy setback for the United States represents a net gain for Russia. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with each of its faults eagerly amplified by Russian propaganda, is nevertheless, a hard challenge to this self-serving perspective. Countless Russian pundits have been commenting on the grave, self-inflicted damage the chaotic pullout has done to US global leadership and how this has compromised the perceived reliability of Washington’s security guarantees to its allies and partners (Russiancouncil.ru, September 3). But as reassuring as such narratives are supposed to be for the Kremlin, they cannot dispel concerns about the sharply increased intensity of security risks to Russia’s positions, first of all in Central Asia, which is directly exposed to the encroachments of a triumphant Taliban, but also in the wider Middle East (Moscow Echo, September 5; see EDM, July 13, 15, 28, August 17).
Moscow’s main stake in the latter region is in the stability of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria; and the Taliban’s spectacular victory could re-energize rebels in the territories recaptured by the Syrian government, where repressions and corruption proliferate instead of post-war reconstruction. Seeking to preempt a new wave of resistance, the al-Assad forces are enforcing tighter control over the Daraa region, to the south of Damascus, where the uprising started in spring 2011 (Kommersant, September 5). Russia seeks to extinguish this seat of conflict, but it is primarily worried about the strengthening of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) grouping, an off-spring of al-Qaeda, which effectively controls the Idlib province and enjoys strong support from Turkey (TASS, September 4). The old ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban were never severed, but Russia tries to persuade the new rulers of Afghanistan to take note of its special interests, resorting to such “good will” gestures as abstaining from supporting the United Nations Security Council resolution that demands respect for human rights from the Taliban (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 1).
The main uncertainty in Russia’s risks-versus-opportunities calculus is the probable post-Afghanistan shift that US policy will take toward the Middle East (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 5). Moscow has good reason to expect that President Joseph Biden’s decision to end the unwinnable war in South Asia will be followed up with decisions to withdraw remaining US forces from Iraq and Syria; there are equally good reasons, however, to foresee an intention on the part of the White House to compensate for the humiliating Afghan evacuation with a show of resolve to sustain those less costly deployments in the Middle East (Republic.ru, August 24). The status quo in Syria generally suits the interests of most external stakeholders; it can, nevertheless, break down because of the disastrous economic slump —and the severe crisis of governance in neighboring Lebanon provides an illustration to such an alarmist perspective (Kommersant, September 1). Moscow has, in the last few months, actively engaged in political intrigues in Lebanon, seeking to provide more ammunition to Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian forces, while ignoring their pronounced hostility to Israel (Riddle, September 1).
Iran has traditionally been the main sponsor of these Lebanese factions, and Russia does not plan to step in to make up for the funding from Tehran that has been curtailed recently by the protracted economic crisis. Rather, Moscow merely aims to improve its connections with armed groupings that operate cross-border in Syria’s Latakia province, which hosts Russian bases. Moscow cannot quite figure out what to expect from the new hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who has never approved of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which effectively impeded the Iranian nuclear program, and is apparently prepared to abandon it (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 5). Russia still formally supports that nuclear deal, but assumes that Biden, on the defensive against loud criticism of his decision to abandon Afghanistan to its tragic fate, would not dare to enter into a new nuclear arrangement with Iran at this time (Moscow Echo, August 30). Meanwhile, Moscow watches with keen attention the US-encouraged détente between Israel and Saudi Arabia, feeling out of place in this delicate maneuvering and out of depth as well, since the old channel of communications between President Vladimir Putin and then–prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was shut down after the latter was ousted from his position of dominance over Israeli politics (Izvestia, September 3).
The global player that stands to benefit the most from the deescalation of tensions in the Gulf is China, which makes its own assessments of the Afghanistan-driven shifts in US foreign policy but is not particularly keen to compare notes with Russia (Rosbalt, August 26). Beijing keeps testing the strength of the US sanctions against Iran by progressively implementing the Sino-Iranian cooperation agreement signed in March 2021, but it sees no benefit in coordinating this calculated push with Moscow. Russia and China continue to vote together in the UN Security Council, for instance on the contentious issue of delivering humanitarian aid to Syria; but despite going along with Russian maneuvering toward a compromise, China shows no interest in contributing to Syria’s post-war reconstruction (see EDM, July 12). Likewise, the two states indicate a willingness to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government, but in fact they are pursuing rather different policies: China wants to invest in mining copper (Aynak deposit to the south of Kabul), lithium and rare earth minerals, while Russia invests in upgrading the security cooperation with its Central Asian allies, staging a joint military exercise in Kyrgyzstan and preparing the agenda for a session of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Tajikistan on September 16 (Forbes.ru, September 6; Interfax, September 7).
The Kremlin may have expected a fast erosion of Washington’s influence in the Middle East after the debacle in Afghanistan, but instead it is finding a greater desire among the key regional players to ensure sustained US engagement. The parameters of a new US regional strategy may remain vague, but this only stimulates the leaders of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel above everybody else, to cultivate connections with the Biden administration and signal their readiness to contribute to the yet-to-be-formulated goals. Russia cannot find any promising opportunities for expanding from its bridgehead in Syria, which looks vulnerable to local turmoil and difficult to fortify because of the urgent need to channel resources toward the threatened Central Asian frontier. Biden’s emphasis on the limits of US national interests leaves Putin with the need to reinvent a rationale for Russia’s open-ended intervention in Syria; but recycling tired propaganda clichés simply will not do.