Washington DC, March 13, 2018.- On Monday, January 29, The Jamestown Foundation hosted the third and final workshop connected to the Russia in the Middle East special project, led jointly by the two Project Investigators—Dr. Theodore Karasik and Dr. Stephen Blank. Through a series of expert workshops, published papers and further planned briefings and events, the project aims to provide 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 as well as its implications for US foreign policy.
The participants of Workshop 3 discussed a series of papers produced specially for this meeting, which focused on Russia in the Middle East to 2024 by building on the findings of Workshops 1 and 2, held last year. The exercise was to explore three key areas to watch for during Vladimir Putin’s next, and potentially last, six-year term as president: the sustainability of Russia’s policies in the Middle East; Russia’s energy strategy until 2024; and the nexus of the Russo-Islamic World.
Some of the major takeaways to come out of the third workshop include:
Russia’s campaign in Syria, regardless of setbacks and attacks against Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is seen as a platform for the rest of the Middle East region through 2024.
Russia’s campaign in Syria has allowed Moscow to re-emerge as a leading actor in the Middle East thanks largely to the use of hard power and coercive diplomacy.
As the March 18 presidential election approaches, Vladimir Putin will rely on his victories in the Middle East, despite recent setbacks, in his campaign rhetoric.
Putin will need to plan his strategy toward the region for his next term in office and to address any inter-agency disagreements between the Russia foreign ministry and defense ministry about ongoing strategy in Syria.
As the Syrian war’s overt military phase winds down, Russia will need to look beyond weapons in order to be recognized as a trusted partner among Sunni Arab states and might have to readjust its position toward existing partners, particularly Iran.
In the post–Syrian war Middle East, Russia may try to equally distance itself from all conflicting parties, as it does in Libya and in Yemen, in order to be recognized as an impartial regional referee. Other future confrontations are likely to rely on Moscow as a negotiator.
Russia’s relentless drive in the Middle East is tied to the future of energy markets.
Russia’s regional energy goals can be summarized as finding new markets for its oil and gas; attracting investment to replace Western capital blocked by sanctions; working with other energy exporters to stabilize international oil prices; undermining Europe’s efforts to diversify its natural gas supplies; and helping Russia deliver more oil and gas to Asia.
A favorable geopolitical environment coupled with higher oil prices has eased the Kremlin’s efforts to build bilateral energy relations with the regional powers.
Energy contracts give Russia presence, but actual control over regional infrastructure projects remains undetermined. This again raises questions about the sustainability of Moscow’s energy push into the Middle East during Putin’s fourth term.
Resilience of the American shale industry to the low oil price environment and the future of the Iran nuclear deal will be among the most significant elements that will influence Russia’s future in the region, and particularly the strength of its continued cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
Serious questions remain about the sustainability of Russia’s push into the Middle East.
Russia is operating with limited resources everywhere in the world. It is doubtful that it can sustain a large continued military presence in the MENA region.
While Moscow tries to expand its presence, footprint and optics must be taken into consideration by policymakers. . It is possible that Russia does not need to do much to create the optics necessary for strategic and tactical success because of media amplification.
The US government needs a different set of metrics to measure Russia’s future influence in the Middle East, including discerning key differences in actual projection versus optics of influence.
Russia’s policy in the Islamic world will form a unique nexus with Arab States through 2024 and beyond.
Demography is among the most underappreciated drivers of contemporary Russian policy in the Middle East. Ongoing population decline—and the expansion of Russia’s own Muslim minority—has exerted a significant influence over Moscow’s attitudes and activities in the region over the past several year.
The growth and radicalization of “Muslim Russia” has helped propel the Kremlin into assuming a leading role in the Syrian civil war, and will play an important role in shaping Russia’s regional objectives for years to come.
The nexus between Muslim Russia and the Islamic Middle East is an extraordinary driver in Moscow’s current and future relationship with MENA. Muslim Russia and the Islamic Middle East build on historical, governmental and business ties, and are now focusing on counter-terrorism and messages of peaceful co-existence and tolerance.
Russia and the Gulf States are leading the moderation of Islam. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are articulating the same message now. The relative success of this trend will strongly reflect on Russia’s perceived policy success in the region.
All the papers from the first, second and third workshop are now available on The Jamestown Foundation’s website (https://jamestown.org/programs/rme/). The third batch of papers includes: