Russia, the United States and the Counterrevolutionaries: A Trilateral Chess Match in the Middle East
In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, great power competition has returned to the Middle East. Russia in particular has sought to exploit U.S. policy blunders and retrenchment (real or perceived) in order to push for greater regional multipolarity. While it is easy to understand why regional states outside of the “U.S. camp,” such as Iran or Syria, would turn to Moscow as a way to hedge against the United States, of particular concern for this analysis is how supposed U.S. allies—those regional states firmly within the “U.S. camp”—are using the return of great power competition for their own domestic and geopolitical purposes. Therefore, this analysis examines Russia’s return to the region through the lens of what is commonly referred to as the “Counterrevolutionary Bloc” (CRB), consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), post-2013 Egypt and Israel, which has emerged as the dominant regional coalition following the Arab Uprisings.
Moscow’s presence is the Middle East has expanded significantly as Washington continues to reassess its commanding role in the region. Russia intervened directly in Syria to save the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2015, continues to operate large numbers of mercenaries in Libya and Sudan and has increased considerably its diplomatic and economic presence in the region. Moscow’s expanding position in the Middle East has alarmed both policymakers and military commanders in Washington, particularly as great-power politics has returned to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. Senior Pentagon officials have warned of Russia’s growing ambitions in the region and have cautioned that as the U.S. scales back its presence in the region, it risks Moscow moving in to fill this void.
Although a great deal of attention has been devoted to Russia’s expanding regional presence post-2011, most existing analyses have adopted approaches that are primarily one-sided, examining how Russia seeks to use the Middle East as a theater in which to advance Moscow’s interests. However, my research suggests that there is a dire need to examine how external engagement in the Middle East by Russia and other countries, such as China, is being manipulated and shaped by regional actors. Far from being one-sided patron-client relationships, states within the region are increasingly manipulating great-power politics in order to further their own domestic and international agendas.
The CRB coalition has actively sought to quell the tide of mass mobilization that erupted throughout the region and preserve the regional balance of power that has historically tilted in their favor. Though they are staunchly aligned with the U.S. and their regional interests do not fully overlap with those of Russia, the CRB states have dramatically increased their relationships with Moscow. Yet, despite their desire to gain what they can from stronger relationships with the Kremlin, the CRB states recognize the limitations of such engagement with Moscow and do not view Russia as a viable alternative to the United States. Therefore, they should be viewed as engaging in a delicate balancing act designed to reap what they can from Moscow while also using this engagement to pressure the United States into remaining deeply engaged in the region while granting these actors myriad concessions.
Russia and the Counterrevolutionaries
Russia’s return to the Middle East has occurred primarily following the 2011 Arab Uprisings, a period when the states of the CRB have faced serious challenges to their own rule domestically and their dominance over the regional balance of power. The states of the CRB have found a natural ally in Russia due to their shared counterrevolutionary ethos rooted in an aversion to popular uprisings. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to portray Moscow as “a firm upholder of the status quo in the Middle East.” For his part, Putin interpreted the Arab Uprisings to be a continuation of the “color revolutions” that swept through the former Soviet republics beginning in 2000. Moscow moved to quickly denounce the Arab Uprisings, which erupted alongside the largest domestic protests to emerge in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2012, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the uprisings as “the seedling that George Bush Jr. sowed,” claiming that the “slogans of change and democratization” were the products of outside interference.
The CRB has actively sought Russia’s support in maintaining the regional status quo. Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Syria provide illuminating examples. Following the 2013 military coup in Egypt that deposed the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi and installed General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Putin joined with the states of the CRB in expressing his strong support for the new government. In Libya, Russia has found itself working with the CRB in support of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. Moscow has provided extensive support for Haftar in direct coordination with the CRB, suppling the LNA with weapons and mercenaries, conducting airstrikes on behalf of Haftar, and stationing Russian special forces in Egypt on the Libyan border. Likewise, following the revolution in Sudan that resulted in a 2019 coup and the removal of President Omar al-Bashir, Russia has worked concomitantly with the CRB–particularly the UAE–to support the Transitional Military Council (TMC) that replaced Bashir. Moscow has deployed private military contractors to aid the TMC in repressing demonstrations calling for a transition to civilian-led democratic rule, and the TMC approved the construction of a Russian military base of Sudan’s coast– its first in Africa since the collapse of the Soviet Union–further increasing Moscow’s stake in the status quo. In Syria, although Israel and the Arab states of the CRB are wary of Iran’s expanding influence, they have gradually come to view the preservation of the Assad regime–and cooperation with Russia in Syria–as the best way to balance against Iran’s growing presence. This is particularly the case for Israel. Israel desires quiet on its northern border with Syria, and Assad is a known player, someone the Israelis believe they can work with. They fear what could possibly replace a defeated Assad regime and have therefore sought increased cooperation with Russia, primarily to balance against Iran’s expanding presence. Moscow has refrained from retaliating against Israeli airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian assets or those of its proxies, in return for Israel’s agreeing not to target Russian forces or facilities.
In addition to helping uphold the status quo, the states of the CRB have increasingly turned to Russia for particular weapons and nuclear energy assistance, often following the reluctance of Washington to provide these actors with such assistance. For example, in 2014, following the temporary withholding of U.S. arms sales to Egypt due to the 2013 military coup, Russia signed a $3.5 billion deal with Cairo that included not only arms and ammunition, but air defense systems and aviation as well. Likewise, in the effort to pressure Washington after the U.S. refused to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE in 2017, the Emiratis signed a deal to codevelop a fifth-generation fighter jet with Moscow. After the UAE normalized relations with Israel in 2020 and the $23 billion arms package from the U.S. that was part of the deal increasingly came under fire, the Emirates once again threatened to turn to Russia if the package was scrapped. Moscow has also expanded its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, agreeing to a $3.5 billion arms deal in 2017. Riyadh is also reportedly in talks with Russia to purchase the S-400 missile defense system. In addition to arms sales, Russia has also sought to sell nuclear technology to the CRB in the wake of U.S. reluctance to deliver such technologies. Moscow has loaned Egypt $25 billion for the construction of its first nuclear power plant and cooperated with the UAE to launch the Barakah nuclear-energy plant in 2020, which represented the first nuclear program to be officially established by an Arab country. Lastly, Russia, an oil exporter, has also increasingly worked with states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE to coordinate oil production levels and manage oil prices.
Limits of Engagement
Despite Russia’s expanding presence in the Middle East and the desire of the CRB states to exploit the Kremlin for their own purposes, engagement with Moscow faces several limitations. First, the United States remains the dominant security actor in the region, and U.S. engagement sets the parameters for other external powers. Russia is not currently capable of replacing the United States as the predominant power in the Middle East, nor does it desire to. Russia has not outright challenged the U.S.-led security order in the region because it benefits from it. This order provides the security umbrella for Russia to become more involved in the region without having to assume the costs of physically protecting their interests, allowing Moscow to advance its objectives at a very low cost.
Additionally, U.S. trade presence in the region continues to dramatically outweigh that of Moscow. (See general and military trade volume tables below). Though trade between Russia and several of the CRB states has increased considerably – including, for example, an increase in arms sales of roughly 7,000% with Egypt alone between 2015 and 2020 – the United States continues to outperform Moscow in regional trade levels. Washington remains the dominant arms dealer in the Middle East; the ability of U.S. allies in the region to shift wholesale to alternative weapons systems is nearly impossible due to the incompatibility of foreign arms with the American defense systems in these countries. Moreover, Russia has–for the most part–refrained from taking sides in the region’s greatest geopolitical competitions. Whether it be the Saudi-Iran rivalry, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the 2017 Gulf crisis, etc., Moscow has sought to compartmentalize its regional policies in order to avoid being dragged into these intense disputes. The CRB states are aware of these limitations and do not regard Moscow as a viable alternative to Washington. Rather they seek to gain what they can from Russia while simultaneously using such engagement to pressure the United States into granting them concessions and remaining deeply engaged in the region.
In conclusion, Russia’s return to the Middle East is far from one-sided. Regional actors view the return of great power competition to the region as an opportunity to exploit great-power politics to their own advantage. Important to recognize, however, is that competition between Moscow and Washington in the Middle East is only a small piece of the broader great-power competition between Russia and the U.S. that will be shaped by both regional developments and hostilities elsewhere. If tensions between the U.S. and Russia were to escalate elsewhere–such as in Eastern Europe–this could result in increased direct competition in the Middle East as well. Moreover, Russia is not the only other great power expanding its presence in the region. China’s footprint in the Middle East continues to grow considerably, and increased competition in the region between Washington and Beijing could alter the calculus of both Moscow and the CRB states.
Regardless, what is certain is that regional actors will continue to exploit these tensions however possible in order to advance their own agendas.
General trade volumes between Russia, United States and CRB:
|General Trade||Volume of trade with Russia in 2015||Volume of trade with Russia in 2020||% change in||Volume of trade with US in 2015||Volume of trade with US in 2020||% change in|
|Saudi Arabia||$ 926,050,000||$ 1,637,370,000||76.81%||$ 41,770,690,000||$ 20,170,140,000||-51.71%|
|United Arab Emirates||$ 1,245,240,000||$ 3,145,450,000||152.60%||$ 25,442,040,000||$ 17,829,980,000||-29.92%|
|Egypt||$ 4,088,830,000||$ 4,544,530,000||11.14%||$ 6,154,210,000||$ 6,937,990,000||12.74%|
|Israel||$ 2,343,750,000.00||$ 2,316,830,000||-1.15%||$ 38,013,950,000||$ 25,464,630,000||-33.01%|
All Data taken from IMF data portal. Volume of trade calculated by adding sum total of imports and exports.
Military trade volumes between Russia, United States and CRB:
|Arms Trade||Volume of trade with Russia in 2015||Volume of trade with Russia in 2020||% change in||Volume of trade with US in 2015||Volume of trade with US in 2020||% change in|
|Saudi Arabia||N/A||N/A||N/A||$ 1,774,000,000||$ 2,151,000,000||21.25%|
|United Arab Emirates||N/A||$ 80,000,000||N/A||$ 809,000,000||$ 149,000,000||-81.58%|
|Egypt||$ 6,000,000||$ 454,000,000||7466.67%||$ 592,000,000||$ 32,000,000||-94.59%|
|Israel||N/A||N/A||N/A||$ 262,000,000||$ 502,000,000||91.60%|
All data taken from SIPRI Arms Database. SIPRI calculates these transfers in terms of TIV, which measures production cost of the arms rather than the value of the financial transfer. In the case of Russia, data was not available for every country. With the exception of Israel-U.S., all these figures represent the total value of arms exports from Russia/US to the given country because data on arms imports was not available
Jon Hoffman is a PhD student at George Mason University.
RM student associate Laszlo Herwitz contributed to the trade volume research included above.
Photo of Saudi Arabia desert by Javierblas, shared by Wikimedia with a Creative Commons license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.