Energy, Extremism and East Jerusalem: Russia's expanding influence in the Middle East

What do recent developments in Russian foreign policy towards the Greater Middle East tell us about Moscow's long-term plans for involvement in the region?

by Stacy Closson for

In the past few weeks, Russian leaders have held 'first time in a very long time' meetings with Afghan and Pakistani leaders, and have re-iterated Russia's support for an independent Palestine. What are Moscow's objectives, and is it playing a short- or long-game in the Greater Middle East? Is it seeking to address immediate needs, or are its recent manoeuvres a means towards reviving its role in great-power politics?  

The revival of Russian great-power political ambitions, spurred by its economic expansion in the 2000s, was marked by its opposition to the US war in Iraq, and perhaps saw its nadir with the financial crisis. Concurrent with an unprecedented recession among the G-20, Russia accepted the new US Administration's calls for a reset in relations. This led to Russian co-operation in sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program, to providing a corridor for NATO equipment to Afghanistan, and to reviving the Middle East peace talks.

This does not, however, mean that the Russian government has abandoned its great-power ambitions, as stated in the 2010 National Security Strategy, or that it has swapped a zero-sum realist game for a win-win approach. Nor does it suggest that Russia is moving back into the Greater Middle East to take advantage of a weak America. This would assume that Russia has been absent, and that America's position post-Cold War was ever that strong. Rather, I agree with those, such as Mark Katz of George Mason University, who suggest that Russia's reaching out to the Greater Middle East is a realistic mid-term solution designed to mend a faltering economy and to curb an insurgency from its own Muslim lands in the North Caucasus.

Mending an economy

Russia's economy was hit exceptionally hard by the financial crisis, and the stabilization fund is now drained. The price of oil has recovered for now, but Russia needs an infusion of capital into the system in order to diversify its economy.

Russia's leaders offer a tri-fold sales pitch of armaments, nuclear civilian technology, and oil and gas deals, with Iran, Syria, and Algeria continuing to buy arms. Russia wants to build civilian nuclear power plants from North Africa to the Levant, and has significant energy investments in Algeria, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

One of its best customers in the region has been Iran, to whom Russia sells arms and civilian nuclear plants, and where it invests in hydrocarbon fields. On the other hand, it is increasingly recognized among officials in Moscow that Iran's desire to develop a nuclear weapons program and long-range missiles also pose a threat. While Russia remains fervently opposed to a military attack against Iran, it did halt the S-300 sale, which harmed relations with the regime.

Some instability in Iraq and Iran, and continuing tensions with the United States, theoretically allows Russian companies to cement energy deals in both countries, and to promote efforts to prevent energy from entering the European market. On the latter, however, Russia must contend with Turkey's aim, with Western backing, of serving as the energy corridor from Iran and Iraq to Europe. 

Central Asian energy resources could serve as a source for the Arabian Peninsula. Russia's Gazprom is interested in participating in a proposed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India, via Afghanistan and Pakistan. Russia may view this as a way to reinsert itself into Central Asia, recently tested by new routes for gas to Iran and China. As natural gas, particularly LNG, has entered the market as a globally traded commodity, Russia has attempted to create a gas cartel with, among others, Qatar and Iran.

Curbing an insurgency

Russia's Muslims account for at least one-seventh of the population, and numbers continue to swell. Increasing violence in the North Caucasus and the attack on Domodedovo airport are reminders to the Russian government that it must foster better relations with the Muslim world in order to avoid further alienating them, as well as becoming a target of the region's radical Sunni movement.

To this end, Russia's support for a Palestinian state can be seen as both a historical continuum and an opportunity to send a message to the Muslim world that it is sympathetic to its most enduring cause.

Russia's engagement with the leadership of Iran, Syria, and particularly with Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, will continue to the consternation of American and other Western governments. At the same time, Moscow will be careful to maintain its developing commercial ties with Israel.

With regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Russia is anticipating a day when a US withdrawal could leave a vacuum of insecurity in Central Asia, and has suggested the CSTO be the leading security organization. As the 2010 National Security Strategy suggests, Russia has real concerns about threats emanating from Central Asia, including those 'associated with uncontrolled and illegal migration, drug and human trafficking, and other forms of transnational organized crime.'

For Russia, America's presence in Afghanistan challenges its claim to a special role in the former Soviet Central Asian states. While Russia first fought the prolongation of American military bases in the region, with the support of China in the Shangai Co-operation Organization, it now faces very real threats from Afghanistan, should the US leave. Moreover, a more assertive China in Central Asia brings problems of its own, to which American presence in the region currently offers a counterforce.

Russia essentially supports the US-led coalition's goals of preventing an outright Taliban victory, according to experts at Carnegie Moscow. During the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001), Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were under constant pressure from local extremists with ties to Afghanistan. At that time, Moscow had few options for offering assistance to its 'near abroad'.

Russia has hence recently sought a role in ensuring enhanced security in Afghanistan. Besides sending transport helicopters to the Karzai government, it has also gotten involved, to the initial chagrin of the Afghan leadership, in counter-narcotics operations. The latest talks also seem to have resulted in reviving Soviet-era development projects.

Russia suspects that Muslim extremists in Pakistan sanctuaries on the Afghan border have links with militants from the North Caucasus and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Current security talks between Russia and Pakistan are an interesting development, but have not yet achieved the advances some have been hoping for, the intense rivalry dating back to the Soviet war in Afghanistan proving a considerable obstacle to closer ties.


Any attempts by Russia to engage constructively in multi-lateral efforts in the Greater Middle East are likely to be welcomed from all sides, but multiple partners risk alienating some (Pakistan and India, Hamas and Fatah, Iran and Israel, Hezbollah and Lebanon).

Likewise, Russia's relationship with Iran appears complicated. Russia could re-instate the sale of S-300 missiles to Iran, and may do so in order to protect its energy investments or to ensure that Iran stays out of its 'near abroad', particularly Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.

Something Russia will not support is the West's promotion of democracy in the Arab world: the silence of Russian officials regarding the events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt being a case in point. The revolutions follow similar patterns of those in the post-Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine. The Russian government does not want to give any legitimacy to the popular uprisings that have seen the demise of authoritarian leaders who manipulate elections in their favor.

In the end, Moscow is playing a short-term realist game to shore up its economy and curb a rising insurgency. In the current state, Russia simply lacks the means to garner enough influence to engage in great-power politics in the Greater Middle East. In the future, Russia's efforts could generate a broader dialogue on curbing the threat of an Islamist insurgency. Russia may also play an intermediary role between the West and Iran, and energy projects in the region should have a positive effect on the market. That said, neither America nor Russia are likely to regain the degree of influence they had in the region during the Cold War.

Stacy Closson currently lectures in Russian foreign and security policy at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.  She previously had fellowships at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC, and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. 


Explore our related content