About Russia in the Middle East

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About Russia in the Middle East

There is an outpouring of reporting on Russian activities in Syria, and to a lesser degree other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.  But there is no single effort to analyze the totality of Russian objectives, instruments of power, tactics, and strategy in the greater Middle East and their implications for US foreign and policy. This project rectifies this gap by providing 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.

Unfortunately, Western analyses miss the bigger picture:  Russia seeks to capture the entire Middle East market across several multi-dimensional issues:  Arms sales, the formation of a working coalition or bloc with Iran, Iraq, an Assad’s Syria, insertion of Russia as a broker in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, efforts to regain major influence on Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean gas sales, especially liquefied natural gas (LNG), to Europe and using its newly established position in the Middle East to augment its  military-economic-political influence regionally and upon Europe.

Tragically, given this absence of analysis of Russia’s Middle Eastern strategy, there is a lacunae in knowledge regarding how far advanced the Kremlin’s program for the Middle East really is and the metrics of such a robust Russian advance.


Our analysis bases Russia’s current trajectory on Yevgeny Primakov’s activities as Foreign and Prime Minister in 1996-99.  He may truly be described as the moving spirit and soul of the Russian policy reorientation that has come to its fullest fruition under Putin, particularly regarding the Middle East. Putin has used Primakov’s ideas and activities as a springboard for his own and continues to use them as the basis of his vision of Russia’s role in the Middle East and its actions there.  Backed by the military, energy firms, arms sellers, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the security services with their advances in information warfare, Russia has successfully reduced Western and U.S. influence in the Levant and created a new strategic equation in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Europe.

Policy Implications

Russia’s intervention in Syria and the ensuing dramatic expansion of its overall Middle Eastern profile have substantive and serious implications for the U.S.  First, both these processes betoken Moscow’s determination to force the U.S. to acknowledge the legitimacy of its aims and status as an equal global superpower to the U.S. globally and to challenge it in order to achieve that status as well as in key regions like the Middle East.  Although Putin has long sought to augment Russia’s influence here; our failure in Syria and the ensuing vacuum in U.S. policy in the Middle East due to worsening ties with Israel and the effort to pursue reconciliation with Iran have opened up opportunities for Moscow.  As a result, it now seeks a status comparable to that it had in the 1970s regionally if not globally, namely a status where, as Foreign Minister Gromyko said in 1971, no world issue can be decided without or against it.

Second, in line with centuries old Russian strategic imperatives, it seeks to challenge the U.S. and NATO militarily in the Levant and the Mediterranean.  Russia has acquired bases in Syria, seeks them in Egypt and Cyprus, and should it Libyan client, General Khalifa Halter, come to power in Libya, it will seek bases there.  In all these cases too it has positioned itself advantageously to make major arms deals and arms sales with the governments in question.  Similarly it has done so with both the government of Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds.  And it is acquiring and demonstrating military capabilities that we had not expected it to have ion these theaters.  At the same time, thanks to numerous intersecting developments, Moscow is making great strides in detaching Turkey from a pro-Western orientation and from its status as an active member of NATO.  Given Turkey’s overall strategic position in Europe and the Middle East that denouement would have profoundly negative international consequences.
Third, Moscow has forged a working partnership if not alliance with Iran against the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East and through that alliance and Moscow’s support for Iranian clients, including terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, it seeks as well to rearrange the regional map to its and Tehran’s benefit at our allies’ expense and to the detriment of U.S. interests.  It has convincingly demonstrated enhanced military capabilities in support of its political objectives, thereby highlighting as well the failures of our policy and intelligence assessments that denied the Russian possession of these capabilities.

Fourth, through the orchestration of all of its instruments of power Moscow hopes not only to leverage its Middle Eastern position to give it renewed influence on European gas and oil outcomes, it also seeks to use the Gulf states and the Middle East n general as conduits for circumventing the impact of the sanctions imposed on it due to the aggression against Ukraine.

Fifth, and finally it also seeks to use its position in the Middle East to force the U.S. and Europe to accept that aggression and an altered state of affairs in Europe and other locations around the world.


Author Bios

Pavel K. Baev

Pavel Baev is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings and a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Pavel Baev is a Research Director and Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). He is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, and a senior research associate at the Institut Francaise des Relations Internationales (IFRI, Paris). Dr. Baev specializes in Russian military reform, Russia’s conflict management in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and energy interests in Russia’s foreign and security policies, as well as Russia’s relations with Europe and NATO. His articles on the Russian military posture, Russian-European relations, and peacekeeping and conflict management in Europe have appeared in numerous publications. He has a weekly column in Eurasia Daily Monitor and is the author of the blog, Arctic Politics and Russia’s Ambitions.


Anna Borshchevskaya

Anna Borshchevskaya is the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East.  In addition, she is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy and was previously with the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the Atlantic Council. A former analyst for a US military contractor in Afghanistan, she has also served as communications director at the American Islamic Congress. Her analysis is published widely in journals such as The New Criterion, Turkish Policy Quarterly, and the Middle East Quarterly, and she also conducts translation and analysis for the US Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office and its flagship publication, Operational Environment Watch, and writes a foreign affairs column for Forbes.

Originally from Moscow, Ms. Borshchevskaya came to the United States as a refugee in 1993 and has since received an MA in international relations from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a BA in political science and international relations from the State University of New York at Geneseo.


Mitat Çelikpala

Dr. Mitat Çelikpala is Professor of International Relations and the Dean of Faculty of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences at Kadir Has University, Istanbul. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on Eurasian security, energy and critical infrastructure security/protection, Turkish foreign and domestic policy, and the Caucasus. His areas of expertise are the Caucasus, North Caucasian diaspora groups, people and security in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions, Turkish-Russian relations, energy security, and critical infrastructure protection. He has published multiple academic articles and analyses on the above-mentioned areas, and he regularly appears in the media to discuss these topics.

Prof. Çelikpala is a board member of the International Relations Council of Turkey since 2004 and the Managing Editor of the Journal ofInternational Relations: Academic Journal. He previously served as an academic advisor to NATO’s Center of Excellence for Defense Against Terrorism, in Ankara (2009–2012), particularly on regional security and critical infrastructure protection. Moreover, he was a board member at the Strategic Research and Study Center (SAREM), Turkish General Staff (2005–2011), as well as an Academic Advisor to the Center for Strategic Research (SAM), at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2002–2010) and to the Caspian Strategy Institute, Istanbul, Turkey (2012–2013). He was a Senior Associate Member at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, UK (2005–2006).


Donald N. Jensen

Donald Jensen is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and Senior Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), where he is editor-in-chief of the CEPA Stratcom Program. A former US diplomat, Jensen provided technical support for the START, INF, and SDI negotiations and was a member of the first ten-man US inspection team to inspect Soviet missiles under the INF Treaty in1988. From 1996 to 2008, he was Associate Director of Broadcasting and head of the Research Division at RFE/RL where he helped lead that organization’s expansion into new broadcast regions after the end of the Cold War and the adaptation of multimedia technology to deal with the broadcasting challenges of the 21st Century. Jensen was a foreign policy advisor to the presidential campaign of Governor John Kasich in 2016. His work has appeared in the The American Interest, US News, Newsweek, the Voice of America and the Institute of Modern Russia. He is a regular commentator on CNBC, Fox News, RFE/RL and the Voice of America. He has lectured at a variety of universities, including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Oxford and The George Washington University. In 2016, he was a Visiting Scholar at the NATO Defense College in Rome. Jensen is currently an adjunct professor at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, The Johns Hopkins University. He received his PhD and MA from Harvard and BA from Columbia.


Shehab al-Makahleh

Shehab Al-Makahleh is a senior media and policy adviser in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. He has been working for a number of media outlets as media consultant. He is president of the Jordan-based Political Studies of the Middle East Center and the executive director of Geostrategic and Media Center. Al-Makahleh has been working for several Middle Eastern countries as a political, military and security expert. He has been working as a media advisor for notable personalities in the Middle East. As an anchor journalist and columnist at various media outlets and think tanks, al-Makahleh has published many academic and political books. He has taken part in many international conferences in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Norway, Russia, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, the UAE, Bahrain, Iraq, Switzerland, Austria and Sweden. He has chronicled the modern history of his country in Jordan’s Spiritual Leader: King Hussein’s Charismatic Qualities and His Majesty King Abdullah II’s Traits: Leader and Teacher. Al-Makahleh has obtained unprecedented access to extremists who traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight and are now serving time in prison, which helped him finish his book: Into the Terrorist Minds: Through Their Own Eyes. Al-Makahleh holds a PhD in politics, first Master’s Degree in Media, second Master’s degree in international politics, a BA in Media and a BA in Economics and Statistics from the University of Jordan.


Alex Vatanka

Alex Vatanka specializes in Middle Eastern regional security affairs with a particular focus on Iran. From 2006 to 2010, he was the Managing Editor of Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst. From 2001 to 2006, he was a senior political analyst at Jane’s in London (UK), where he mainly covered the Middle East. Alex is also a Senior Fellow in Middle East Studies at the US Air Force Special Operations School (USAFSOS), at Hurlburt Field, and teaches as an Adjunct Professor at DISAM, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He has lectured widely for both governmental and commercial audiences, including the US Departments of State and Defense, US intelligence agencies, US Congressional staff, and Middle Eastern energy firms. Beyond Jane’s, the Middle East Institute and The Jamestown Foundation, he has written for such outlets as The Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Affairs, Americas Quarterly, CNN.com, Al Monitor, the Journal of International Security Affairs, BBC Persian Online, The National Interest, The World Today, PBS, Daily Beast, the Jerusalem Post, Journal of Democracy, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Born in Tehran, he holds a BA in political science (Sheffield University, UK), and an MA in international relations (Essex University, UK), and is fluent in Farsi and Danish. He is the author of Iran-Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy, and American Influence (2015) and is presently working on his second book, The Making of Iranian Foreign Policy: Contested Ideology, Personal Rivalries and the Domestic Struggle to Define Iran’s Place in the World.


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.