Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a summit in Sochi, Russia, in October 2017. Photo: Reuters / Maxim Shemetov
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a summit in Sochi, Russia, in October 2017. Photo: Reuters / Maxim Shemetov

Remarkably little comment attended the strangest outcome of Saudi King Salman’s four-day visit to Moscow in early October, namely Russia’s sale of its top-of-the-line S-400 air defense system to a country whose relations with Russia have been hostile until recently. It was strange because Iran, habitually characterized as Russia’s “ally” in Western media, was permitted to purchase a much older and inferior Russian system, the S-300.

Not only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but also Russia’s Cold War adversary Turkey will buy the far more advanced S-400, a “game-changer,” as former Pentagon official Stephen Bryen described it in an October 13 analysis for Asia Times. The S-400 is highly effective against the sort of cruise and ballistic missiles that Iran will be able to field during the next several years.

Russia’s carefully-calibrated weapons sales to the opposing Persian Gulf powers follows a pattern established by China over the past decade. China sells missiles to Iran as well as to the KSA, but it sells more advanced missiles to the Saudis, because the Saudis are the weaker of the two adversaries, and China wants to maintain the balance of power. Russia has been called a “spoiler” in the Middle East so often that the term clings like a Homeric epithet. In recent weeks, Russian policy has shifted to classic balance-of-power politics.

“Peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power,” Henry Kissinger likes to say. Powers that cannot exercise hegemony, in other words, attempt to maintain a balance that contains the ambitions of prospective rivals. The classic example is Britain, which allied with Prussia against France through the Napoleonic Wars, and then allied with France against Germany at the turn of the last century. Britain could not aspire to be a hegemon on the European continent, so it sought to prevent either France or Germany from dominating. Russia does not have the wherewithal to replace the United States as a regional hegemon, but it does have considerable means to affect the balance of power.

On Ocotber 12, Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bodanov offered to mediate between Iran and the KSA, but talk is cheap. Installation of top-of-the-line weapons systems is not. The United States belatedly offered the Saudis its THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system, probably as a rushed response to the Russian offer. In Dr. Bryen’s analysis, the S-400 is simply a better system, and gives the Saudis an important edge in any prospective conflict with Iran.

Factoring Israeli security concerns

Another Russian attempt to influence the balance of power is evident in Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s October 15 visit to Jerusalem, the first since Shoigu took office in 2012. The ceasefire plans now in place in Syria allow Iranian forces to range within 5 kilometers of the Golan Heights, the great escarpment overlooking northern Israel that Israeli took in the 1967 War.

With the help of Russian air power, Iranian Revolutionary Guards units supported by Hezbollah, as well as Pakistani and Afghan Shi’ite mercenaries, have become the dominant power in Syria, changing the regional power balance to Israel’s disadvantage. Israel reportedly demanded a buffer zone for Iranian forces of at least 60 kilometers from its border last summer, and Russia refused. Washington also signed on to the Syrian ceasefire, leaving Israel the odd man out.

Israel is now threatening to attack preemptively. Elliott Abrams, an official in the administration of George W. Bush, wrote last week:

Israel has struck sites in Syria one hundred times in the last five years, bombing when it saw an Iranian effort to move high-tech materiel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Last month Israel bombed the so-called Scientific Studies and Researchers Center in Masyaf, a city in central Syria, a military site where chemical weapons and precision bombs were said to be produced. Now, there are reports (such as this column by the top Israeli military analyst, Alex Fishman, in the newspaper Yediot Achronot) that Iran is planning to build a military airfield near Damascus, where the IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) could build up their presence and operate. And that Iran and the Assad regime are negotiating over giving Iran its own naval pier in the port of Tartus. And that Iran may actually deploy a division of soldiers in Syria.”

Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned last week: “If once we spoke about the Lebanese front — there is no longer such a front. There is the northern front. In any development there may be, it will be one front, Syria and Lebanon together, Hezbollah, the Assad regime and all the Assad regime supporters.” The Israeli government has warned Lebanon that any attacks on Israel by Hezbollah — which reportedly has an arsenal of more than 100,000 ballistic missiles —would elicit a devastating counterattack against Lebanon’s infrastructure. Israeli preemptive action against a Hezbollah missile shower would occasion enormous collateral damage, because the missiles are mainly emplaced in civilian areas.

Israeli media observe that high-level consultations between Russia and Israel have been frequent, but almost always conducted on Russian soil – for example, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s August meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi. The Russian defense minister’s trip to Israel is a nod to Israeli security concerns.

Russia intervened in Syria primarily because the country’s civil war had turned into a Petri dish for jihadists from the Russian Caucasus to Southeast Asia. America’s longstanding support for Sunni jihadists had the unintended consequence of strengthening al-Qaeda and its offshoot Islamic State, as Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn famously warned. And the Sunni jihad threatened to spread to Russia’s own Muslim population, which is overwhelmingly Sunni. Backing the Shi’ites was the Kremlin’s obvious course of action. Moscow has achieved its objectives in Syria: the Assad regime is stabilized, the Sunni jihad is dwindling and Russia’s other perquisites in Syria, for example its naval port facility at Tartus, are secure. Evidently Russia now wants to take some risk off the table on the other side.

Diplomatic revolution of sorts

The fact that Russia wants to manage the balance of power, to be sure, does not mean that it will succeed in doing so. Iran is not a Russian puppet but an aspiring pocket empire with a will of its own and an apocalyptic sense of its own future. Russian air cover allowed Iran a bridgehead to the Mediterranean through Syria that it could not have imagined five years ago, and Iran will be reluctant to lose the opportunity to establish a Shi’ite corridor from Persia through Lebanon. Moscow may not be in a position to forestall an Israeli-Iranian war.

Elsewhere in the region, Russia is struggling to maintain its diplomatic footing. The Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum at the end of September put Russia in a bind. Turkey is threatening to shut the pipeline that carries from the Iraqi Kurds to the Mediterranean. That would directly impinge on Russian interests. Rosneft has a US$4 billion investment in Kurdish oil.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a ceremony ahead of their talks at the Kremlin on October 5, 2017. Photo: Sputnik via Reuters

Moscow has indicated its sympathy for Kurdish national aspirations in principle, while urging the Kurds to exercise restraint and attempting to convince the Turks not to shut off the flow of oil. Russia’s stake in Kurdish oil also puts Russia at odds with Iran, which fears the aspirations of its own Kurdish population.

The Americans, like the British before them, did poorly at balance-of-power politics in the Middle East, and there is nothing to indicate that the Russians will do any better. Nonetheless, the shift in Russia’s position from regional spoiler to would-be balancer of conflicting interests constitutes a diplomatic revolution of sorts. I offered the conjecture in the past that a “Pax Sinica” might come to dominate Middle East politics. We may be watching the first manifestations of a post-American Middle East.

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