The successful mini-max strategy of Russia in the Middle East

Colonel Cyril Iordanow, Baltic Defence College, Saint-Cyrien and former commanding officer of the 93rd mountain artillery regiment. This article was written as part of the High Command Studies Course 2024 at the Baltic Defence College in Tartu (Estonia).

Benefiting from the confidence of Vladimir Putin, Russian diplomacy conducts a successful mini-max strategy in the Middle East based on a minimum commitment for maximum benefits. Agile, pragmatic, and opportunistic, it aims to restore the status of great power and challenge Western influence. Itmixes different tools of soft, sharp, and occasionally hard power to achieve its goals in this region which became crucial for Russia after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. However, due to a lack of resources, Russia can not challenge the US hegemon and is limited to transactional diplomacy. The West should reinvest in this region, especially the USA and France, to decrease Russian influence.

source: AFP/Photography by George Ourfalian

In November 2016, Mr. Avi Dichter, former Israeli interior intelligence Shin Bet director, declared about Russia that “this new neighbor did not come to rent a flat but to build a villa” (Baker). This expert’s assessment emphasized that Russia was back in this region, which became crucial in February 2022 for economic, diplomatic, and security reasons.

Based on old historical links, Russia conducts a very successful mini-max strategy in the Middle East focused on economic, cultural, security, and geopolitical interests, all of which have to contribute to its strategic goal of restoring its great power status and challenging Western countries. This means Russia maximizes its opportunities with minimal commitment and potential loss, with opportunistic exceptions, as in Syria since 2015. Relying on old networks and friendships, shared interests, and Western mistakes, this strategy is conducted by efficient professionals in the Russian diplomacy and intelligence services. It can be described as agile, pragmatic, proactive, and opportunistic. It is well suited for this region where alliances and allegiances can shift often and where combinations of protagonists can differ according to situations.

Russia has three main areas of interest in the Middle East: economy, culture and religion, and security. These three domains contribute to the success of the Russian strategy to restore its prestige and its power.

Since 2022 and the collapse of its economic links with the Western markets, the Middle East has played a crucial role in the Russian economy. First, it is a crossroad to connect Russia to the Asian markets and facilitate exports of Russian agricultural and petrochemical products, gas, oil, machinery, and fertilizers. The Russian economic experts promote a ‘pivot to the South’ due to the required reconfiguration of supply chains (Evgeny Y. Vinokurov, 2022). This pivot would be supported by the International North-South Transit Corridor, INSTC, a 7,200-kilometre network of railroads, highways, and maritime routes that connects Russia and India through Iran and Azerbaijan. By 2030, the INSTC corridor could transport up to nearly 25 million tons of freight yearly (Kasturi). This new road between India and Russia would reduce travel time from 40-60 days to 25-30 days and cut costs by 30 percent.

Second, the Middle East is an essential market for Russian goods. It is focused on areas where Russia has clear market advantages: weapons, grain, space, petrochemicals, nuclear energy, oil, and gas. From 2022 to 2023, the region was the first destination for Russian wheat exports, with 17 million metric tons and agricultural commodities in general. The main customers are Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran (Trego, 2023). Rosatom is the leading actor in the regional nuclear market, with atomic plants being constructed in Iran, Turkey, and Egypt and projects in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Trenin, 2018). These nuclear exports have geopolitical consequences, meaning both parties decide on long-term stability because a 40-year agreement is usually signed to supply processed atomic fuel (Winkler). To facilitate these commercial exchanges with the Middle East and attract investors, Russia launched in September 2023 a 2-year Islamic finance experimentation in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, and Dagestan (Gadzo). The results of this global economic shift are impressive, especially in Iran, Turkey, and the UAE. In 2022, UAE trade turnover increased by 68% to 9 billion dollars, Turkey by 100% to 60 billion dollars (Smagin) and Iran by 20% to 5 billion dollars (Ellie Geranmayeh). Russia has become the largest foreign investor in Iran.

The circumvention of sanctions is central to this massive increase. The UAE has a crucial role in the export of microchips. They represented 50% of all the commodities exported to Russia and grew by 15 times in 2022 (Avadaliani). Due to its own experience of 4 decades, Iran provided expertise to escape economic sanctions. Turkey is critical in exporting dual-use goods to Russia (C4ADS). The trade of computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine tools is a good illustration. Due to the absence of a domestic industry, Russia depends on imports at 70%. These CNC machine tools and software are helpful for the Russian military complex in creating missile components or aircraft parts (Olena Yurchenko, 2023). Turkish companies would be involved in imports of CNC machine tools and nitrocellulose, the main component of explosives and gunpowder. According to customs data, they sold more than 1,800 metric tons of nitrocellulose in 2023 alone (Times).

Russia launched a cultural offensive in the Middle East. Many cultural centers opened, and Russia Today’s (RT) TV network has operated an Arabic-language channel since 2007. RT and Sputnik Arabic are very active on social media, producing significantly more content on Twitter than BBC Arabic or Al Jazeera (Janadze). And it is successful, as attested by the Arab Youth Survey 2022, which revealed that more young Arabs (aged 18-24) blame the United States and NATO, rather than Russia, for the war in Ukraine (Borshchevskaya). By July 2022, RT Arabic had 22 million monthly page views, surpassing Al Arabiya’s 19.6 million and Al Jazeera’s 19.4 million (Shayan Talabani, 2022). This activity on social media is perfectly synchronized with diplomatic narratives whose accounts also play a significant role due to their large audience. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s Arabic-language Twitter account has more than 142,000 followers. Russia is penetrating regional universities and schools, with the leading results in Syria. The aim is to consolidate an influential network of ambassadors of Russian culture and state interest in the Arab world. Some ties are old and easy for the Russian authorities, like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who studied history in Moscow in the 1980s.

In line with the Neo-Byzantinism propagated by the Russian government, Russia wants to illustrate that it has been, for a long time, the protector of Christians in the Middle East. It is why it was built in 2010 a Russian history museum in Jericho. In 2019, together with Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, Vladimir Putin met in Budapest local church leaders, declaring that protecting Christians in conflict areas was now a top priority for Russia. The main Russian actors are the Duma’s Committee for the Defense of Christian Values and the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS), founded in 1882, whose leadership links closely to the Kremlin (Gerdziunas).

At least, there is an interest in Russia linked with the presence on its territory of several million Muslims. According to the US Department of State (State, 2022), they would represent 5% of the population, but 18% according to Russian Muslim authorities. And they could represent 30% in 2030, according to the country’s grand mufti, due to a high birth rate and massive immigration from Central Asia. It is such a crucial issue for internal stability to maintain good relationships with Muslim authorities and Middle Eastern leaders like Saudi Arabia. Despite previous opposition during the war in Afghanistan against the Red Army, and recent ones in Syria, both parties found standard views to defend traditional values against Western countries perceived as decadent. And Russia, due to its autocratic regime, respects local authoritarian regimes, contrary to the USA or European countries worried about the respect of human rights.

The main goal for Russia to achieve through its strategy in the Middle East is to restore the prestige and the status of great power. The two areas of interest described above must contribute to this objective. The Middle East is expected to be part of Greater Eurasia, as defined by influential Russian thinkers such as Sergey Karaganov (Karaganov, 2018), to balance the power of Western countries, especially the USA. Moscow pays particular attention to the stability of the region because it can contribute to destabilizing the near abroad of Russia, especially the North and South Caucasus , by Islamism. Weaponry sales, military interventions and bases, and diplomatic ways support this restoration of its previous prestige.

The Middle East was traditionally an important market for the USSR military industry. After a dramatic decrease post-1991, the region became in the 2010s the second market for Russia after Asia. Mega deals were signed: 4,2 billion dollars in 2012 with Iraq, 3 billion dollars in 2013, and 2 billion in 2015 with Egypt (Borisov, 2018). Since 2022, exports have changed direction when Iran became a crucial supplier to Russia. Iran provided UAVs for 6 billion dollars. More than 300,000 shells would have been exported. And Iran could still provide manpower and short-range ballistic missiles (Ellie Geranmayeh).

At least Moscow is deploying a sizeable diplomatic effort in the Middle East. Mikhail Bogdanov has been Vladimir Putin’s special representative in the region since 2012. He is a very experienced diplomat and deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia. Russia has diplomatic relations with Israel since 1991. Russia is the perfect mediator in the region because it maintains positive relations with all the countries. The relationships are transactional and never ideological to avoid creating enemies. Moscow offers several states a counterweight to Wahington and Western influence in the area. It allows them to reduce Western pressure for democratization and human rights protection. Russia is a member of the OPEC+ agreement in 2016 and plays a significant role in stabilizing the oil market, whose fluctuations immediately affect key Russian macroeconomic figures. It is crucial because oil incomes contribute hugely to the state budget and the funding of social programs. Oil prices falling below 40 dollars means the incapacity of Moscow to fund all budget needs (Kozhanov, 2022). Russia offers several countries the opportunity to increase their international stature by playing a role in facilitating prisoner exchanges between Russia and Western states or trying to bring the war in Ukraine to an end (Dalay, 2023). The regional leaders are the second most important group in Putin’s contact with foreign leaders, after those of the former post-Soviet space (Rakov, 2024). Russia reinforced links with Egypt and UAE by supporting Libyan General Khalifa Hafter. The war in Gaza offered Moscow to increase its popularity in the Arab world and the Global South while weakening Washington, perceived as a strong supporter of Israel. In the first week, Russia refused to condemn Hamas atrocities and adopted its narrative on the responsibility of Israel and the USA. But it progressively moderated its line to de-escalate the situation.

At least, this restoration of Russian prestige aims to boost President Putin’s popularity. The war in Syria, perceived by Russians as a success, allowed the shift from focusing on domestic problems towards a renewed patriotism (Issaev, 2022).

Russia successfully combines soft, hard and sharp power. It relies on critical actors and different leverages.

The Russian soft power aims to build a positive narrative and discredit Western countries. It can first rely on Russians who live or go on vacation in the Middle East. In Israel, around 1 million citizens speak Russian and create a human bridge by maintaining strong links with Russia. Media, tourists, and orthodox pilgrims reinforce this influence (Trenin, 2018). Since February 2022, hundreds of thousands of Russians have escaped their country and settled in the Middle East, especially in the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which alone issued 150,000 resident permits to Russians in 2022 (Smagin). Over one million Russians visited the Emirates in 2022 (+60% in one year) (Smagin). Numerous oligarchs settled in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to escape the financial sanctions and continue business. They benefit from the immigration rule called “Golden Visa,” which requested a minimum local investment of 2,7 million dollars. Following the political pivot of their leaders, the Russian citizens chose the region as a favorite destination for holidays and play a crucial role in the local economies. Turkey received 5,8 million Russian visitors in the first ten months of 2023, accounting for the country’s most significant percentage of tourists (Minute). In addition, the UAE and Egypt are the leading long-haul destinations for Russian tourists (Tore).

Russia aims to conquer the hearts in the area by presenting itself as the bastion of traditional values, heterosexuality, and loyalty to the state. It will use a valuable proxy diplomat to reach the Muslim audience: the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, who established effective relations with several regional leaders. He successfully conquered an audience, especially on the social media TikTok, thanks to his image as a defender of Islam and criticism of Israel, perfectly replicated by Russian-controlled media and troll factories acting on social media. Kadyrov will also use the Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation for social and religious purposes, like rebuilding Aleppo mosques. At least, Kadyrov will use MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) as a powerful soft power tool with its Chechen champions, like Khamzat Chimaev, who lives in Dubai (Jack Watling, 2024).

Russia maintains a military presence in the area. Syria is its main regional stronghold. The military intervention in 2015 aimed to avoid the collapse of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and to restore the stability of the country, which attracted many jihadists. Between 3,000 and 5,000 were Russian speakers in 2016, 90% from the Caucasus. It constituted a major security threat by allowing the creation of networks between different extremist groups of the ‘near abroad’ in the Caucasus and Central Asia (Kozhanov, 2018). This intervention was a success, especially in comparison with the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The intervention gave Russia an image of a reliable, effective partner, especially because Assad was in a challenging phase. It allowed the testing of around 200 new types of weapons in real combat conditions. But above all, it restored its prestige and diplomatic role. In 2013, Vladimir Putin dealt for the first time with Americans as equals when he managed the neutralization of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. Russia can benefit from a naval base in Tartous supporting a permanent navy presence recreated in 2013 and amounting to at least ten naval vessels at any given time (Jonas Kjellén, 2022). Russia has operated for 2017 a permanent air base located southeast of the city of Latakia in Hmeimim. Around twenty aircraft fighters, several SIGINT and transport aircraft, and ADA systems are located in this base, also a hub for Russian operations in Africa (center, 2024).

Moscow proposed to local elites the services of private military companies (PMC) like Wagner, renamed the Expeditionary Corps, now directly under the GRU’s supervision (Jack Watling, 2024). These fighters are present in Syria and Libya to support General Haftar, a strong ally of Egypt. In Syria, Wagner troops were coordinated by the GRU and the FSB for different duties. They played an essential role in supporting pro-Al-Assad forces to regain parts of the country, like in Palmyra in the spring of 2016. In August 2023, it was proposed that fighters for the Libyan and Syrian troops be trained in new camps in Tobruk and Palmyra. The idea is to decrease the visibility of the Russian mercenaries and, therefore, protect Russia’s reputation by preserving plausible deniability and recruiting some of the trained personnel to work with Russian PMC in Africa. The other course of action is to embed advisors in partner forces (Jack Watling, 2024). This discretion of Russian support in the region is not new; most of the Soviet soldiers involved in the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1974 were declared as tourists (Blank, 2018).

Since 2011, the Arab Springs, UAE, and Russian secret services and intelligence informal network have developed close ties, as revealed by Pentagon Leaks in April 2023 (Borne, 2023), to counter the Western influence perceived by Abu Dhabi as a severe threat (Krieg). In July 2013, both countries supported the counter-revolution of Marshal Al-Sissi in Egypt. And since 2014, they have been deeply involved in supporting General Haftar in Libya.

The region, especially Turkey and UAE, plays a role in allowing Russia to evade actual market restrictions on gold trade by engaging in gold and money laundering to disguise the origins of the gold and the beneficiaries of gold profits (Hunter, 2022). Criminal networks offer these services.

A 2018 report by the US Department of the Treasury reveals the growing alliance between Russia and the Lebanese Shia terrorist group Hezbollah. These relations have not always been good, as attested by the alleged 1985 intervention of KGB Alpha group special forces in Beirut to release 3 Soviet hostages (Interest). Born during the war in Syria, this primarily military alliance moved to a multifaceted and mutually beneficial relationship. Russia is involved in an Iranian oil smuggling network directed by a prominent Hizbullah leader ‘backed by senior levels of the Russian Federation government and state-run economic organs’ according to the US Treasury Department (Levitt). This alliance offers many opportunities to Moscow, in Lebanon, where the Russian policy is to be seen as an extension of its Syria policy (Tashjian, 2021), in the Middle East, and in Africa and South America, where Hezbollah developed its networks.

Russia’s regional successes are primarily due to the West’s strategic neglect and failure to address its partners’ problems, reinforced by an agile, pragmatic, and opportunistic policy. Considering that our contestation with Moscow is global and the importance of the Middle East, the West, and especially the United States, France, and NATO must vigorously reinvest in the area and reconquer the terrain. As Moscow is focused on Ukraine, there is an opportunity window.

For 15 years, the United States has withdrawn progressively from regional affairs. The primary examples are the reluctance to support their old ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in 2011 (Trager) or the refusal to bomb Syria in 2013 after the use of chemical weapons against civilians, which was nevertheless an official red line of President Obama. The US local allies understood that the center of gravity of America’s interests shifted to Asia. These countries decided to develop their policies following national interests and created new alliances with Russia, China, and other countries (Paul Salem, 2021). Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE joined the BRICS in January 2024. However, the USA remains the most potent power broker in the area, but it needs to make clear its long-term vision for the region. It can rely on more than three dozen military bases and mutual economic interests. First, the USA could only officially reaffirm that it would not abandon the Middle East to reassure its allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries feared by Iran. Diplomatically, it should invest more in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with a balanced attitude and the Iranian nuclear agreement, which is a priority in defusing regional tensions. It must reinforce its prominent role as the leading weapons supplier, especially as Russia could face problems in supplying its traditional regional customers due to its own needs for Ukraine, pressure on potential buyers by the USA, and sanctions (Mathews), as attested by the fall by 52% of its global sales in 2023 compared with 2022 (Pieter D.Wezeman, 2024). At least, The United States could shift resources to prioritize investments focused on people: health, youth unemployment, refugees, chronic poverty, and economic growth (Dalia Dassa Kaye, 2021).

Considering the willingness of most regional states to diversify their allies and their current disaffection with the USA, France can play a prominent role in the Middle East again. France can rely on several-century-old links and a network of diplomats, researchers, businessmen, and diverse actors familiar with the area. First, France could improve its cultural policy by supporting French-speaking programs in universities, student mobility, new cultural centers, and Arabic programs of French state-owned international news media. Thanks to its embassies and NGOs operating in the region, France could recover its place as a protector of Arab Christians, expelling Moscow from this role. In addition, France could reinforce its military cooperation with countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, where it benefits from a permanent base. The current excellent security relationships with Greece could increase our posture in the Eastern Mediterranean. On an economic plan, France can challenge Russia in different markets: weapons, space, grain, and nuclear. Diplomatically, France can offer a singular and alternative voice as a balancing power promoted by President Macron. 

At least NATO must ensure the stability of its southern flank, as remembered in the 2022 Strategic Concept, consistent with a 360-degree approach to deterrence. The alliance should continue strengthening its partners’ resilience to resist better pressure from competitors and transnational challenges (terrorism, organized crime, proliferation of small weapons, and irregular migration). It means deeper cooperation with regional or global organizations like the European Union, the League of Arab States, or the United Nations. It also means renewing its traditional partnership programs (the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative). In addition, securing the southern flank requires strengthening the credibility of NATO’s maritime presence in more strategic areas, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean.

To conclude, it is essential to remember that the largest opened window of Russia to the South is the shore of the Black Sea and its ports. Therefore, the final result of the war in Ukraine will be crucial for the future of Russian policy in the Middle East as well as for the neighboring countries of the Black Sea.



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