Putin’s position in the Middle East is getting hot

  • Putin fills the void left by the United States in the Middle East.
  • Russia builds its second military base outside its sovereign territory. 
  • Sunni and Shiites alike bridge their differences with Moscow.
Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu (left), and Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, at the Russian Hmeimim airbase (Latakia).
Source: Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty Images/ CNBC

Why is Putin’s heat level hot?

Answer: Due to his increasing influence in the Middle East. 

For the past several decades, the Middle East has been a disputed region with respect to the influence of the two traditional great powers – the United States and Russia. Clearly, the historical domination in the region has been American, with the Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain, and with more than 65,000 soldiers deployed in different bases and countries in addition to having a greater number of like-minded governments. On the other hand, Russia has preserved its area of ​​influence inherited from the cold war, focusing on its relations with countries such as Syria and Iran.

It was speculated that the policy initiated by the Trump administration, to withdraw troops from the Middle East, could lead to confusion. Yet, the traditional American allies considered that alliance safe and unbreakable. The common notion amongst these allies was that Washington has respectfuly stayed away from their national policies (not all democratic) as well as supported them publicly, militarily and strategically.

The arrival of Biden to the White House has led to apprehension due to the lack of a clear policy regarding the Middle East. Biden’s stance regarding the Iranian nuclear program is blatantly contrary to that of his predecessor, Trump; this has created insecurity and uncertainty amongst USA’s regional allies. So, who would fill this gap now?

Given this situation, Putin has played his cards well by preserving and supporting his traditional allies, but at the same time becoming a partner, with considerable capabilities, of countries traditionally aligned with the United States as well as traditional enemies of his own allies. Today, Putin has a formidable military footprint and good relations with all the key players in the region, from Israel to Saudi Arabia. 

Putin has been Assad’s supporter over the past 10 years in the Syrian civil war. Yet, he has managed to maintain good relations with both the Kurds and Erdogan despite their opposing interests to those of his Syrian ally. At the same time, Putin has improved relations with Netanyahu; the Russian army coordinates with Israel when it attacks Iranian interests on Syrian soil. Putin has done so without losing his friendship with Tehran, with whom Russia has signed a free trade agreement. Putin’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is also noteworthy, with whom he agreed to cut crude oil production to boost its price in 2016.

Putin has set his goal to reinforce Russia’s military presence in the region, which could be a precursor to setting foot in Africa. Putin has already started moving towards this goal with the announcement of an agreement with Sudan, in early December 2020, to establish Russia’s second overseas military base.

Who is changing Putin’s temperature?

Answer: The conflict of interest between the new US administration and its traditional regional allies on issues like the Iranian nuclear deal and the war in Yemen.

If something characterizes Putin, it is that with few resources he has been able to materialize his actions into great results for Russia. Learning from the mistakes of the former Soviet Union in the Afghan War or the United States in the Second Gulf War, Putin got involved in the Syrian Civil War to support his historical ally but without letting his army get dragged into a bloody conflict. Despite having soldiers deployed in the country, most of the Russian war actions come from his air force. 

Obviously, his active involvement in this conflict has been a showcase of Russian foreign policy and his army. But above all, it has been the first step to weave a network of interests with the different countries of the region. The main trigger, however, has undoubtedly been the change of administration in the United States. In his first speech on foreign policy, Biden has stated that the Middle East is not his priority, but the Pacific is, with China as the main adversary. 

Putin sees this as the perfect scenario to occupy a space that leaves the United States isolated by weaving new diplomatic relations, establishing new economic agreements, amongst other strategies. This also comes at a relatively low cost since in some cases, the infrastructure has already been set up and only has to be occupied.

The absence of a clear Middle East policy by the Biden administration has even led the US’ most faithful ally, Israel, to turn to Putin as a mediator with Syria. The UAE, another traditional American ally, has turned to Putin to get the Russian Covid-19 vaccine given its current relations with the Biden administration. These small steps, along with his ability to deal with all parties in the region, has allowed Putin to extend his sphere of influence.

Putin is also set to extend this influence further into Africa with Sudan granting him permission to establish a military base. This will allow Putin to have a military force in a strategic enclave, where the US, China, France and the UK already have military bases (Djibouti).

What is driving Putin?

Answer: Improve the Russian position in the Middle East in order to achieve greater influence and power in its particular struggle with NATO.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy suffered a great setback. Only a few controlled the majority of the resources, turning corruption into domestic law. With Putin’s arrival to power in 2000, the Russian economy underwent major reforms, experiencing the highest GDP growth in recent decades (with an appreciation of 72%), the ruble stabilized, inflation was controlled, investments began to increase, and Russia began to repay the loans granted by the IMF. 

Despite achieving all these successes in just under a decade, the Russian economy is especially vulnerable given its high dependence on the export of natural and energy resources, the prices of which are especially sensitive to fluctuations. Adding to that, the US and European sanctions make the economy more vulnerable.

Still, Putin has managed to take advantage of the energy transition that began at the beginning of the century in most European countries. He has forged alliances with leaders like Erdogan to establish extensive and advanced infrastructures to transport large amounts of energy resources, mainly natural gas. 

At present, this represents a great asset for Moscow, since it supplies 40% of Europe’s natural gas and even 100% for some countries. This dependence is due to the fact that most of the European gas reserves have depleted, or are not exploited because of certain regulations. Therefore, when it comes to importing, Russian gas is the cheapest due to its geographic proximity as well as the already existing logistics infrastructure. 

At the crossroads of sanctions, Putin seeks to expand his influence to other countries and regions, providing him with new cards which will assist him to position himself against the United States, the European Union as well as China. Here, Putin starts from the premise: “the stronger Russia is in the world, the easier it can achieve its policies of her in Eurasia, from Europe to China”. The Middle East is the backyard of Europe and also rich in energy resources. Having influence or power in that region can mean having a stronger influence in Europe, and on an international level at large. 

Since the United States has become an oil-exporting country, the three largest members of OPEC (Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates) have maintained a position of reducing production in order to stimulate the price of oil. The non-OPEC countries, led by Putin, have shown their conformity with this policy, granting more and more power to the Russian leader. Between both groups, they represent 40% of world production and 81% of proven reserves. Putin knows the importance of such an asset. Hence. his efforts to gain notoriety in this region. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Greater Russian influence in regions with natural resources will increase European dependence. 

In the short-medium term, European energy dependence will continue to be a tool for Putin to overcome pressures and European sanctions to pursue other national and international activities. If the European Union presses him excessively or imposes sanctions considered disproportionate by Moscow, Putin would close the energy tap, turning off the European economy. The idea may seem unimaginable but there are already two precedents, in 2006 and 2009, when Moscow cut the supply to Ukraine, affecting several European countries. 

There is no doubt that Russia could do considerable damage to European economies, and even to the well-being of their societies with this asset, at least until they managed to receive supplies from third countries. The cut in the supply of energy resources would affect the supply of electricity and heating, means of transport, the operation of industry, etc. This could greatly impact European citizens as well as their pockets.

Moreover, it would have repercussions on the Russian economy, since the income from this electricity bill represents 15% of the Russian GDP. This makes it a one-time trick, the use of which can lose value over time. Putin, aware of this, has set his eyes on two regions, the Middle East and Africa, which are especially rich in resources, and intends to increase his influence over them with the intention of having more assets for the benefit of Russian interests. 

In the short term, it seems unlikely that Putin will use his assets against the European Union, firstly because it would be an aggression against the NATO and secondly, because after a global pandemic, the economic cost of applying them would be quite high for Russia. Yet, maintaining such a high dependence on energy resources from a single country is a double-edged sword, which is in Putin’s hand today.