Russian President Vladimir Putin has cultivated a strongman image in the Middle East, positioning himself as a reliable ally for autocratic leaders in the region. His military intervention in Syria starting in 2015 underscored Moscow’s reemergence as a major power broker in the Middle East after decades of US dominance (Geranmayeh & Liik, 2018). Putin is widely seen as a decisive and pragmatic leader who gets things done, in contrast to western powers that are viewed as politically constrained and indecisive (Young, 2019).
This article analyzes how Putin is perceived across the diverse political, ethnic and religious communities in the Middle East. It examines Putin’s brand of leadership, his outreach to Arab autocrats, the Russian military deployment in Syria, and Moscow’s expanding geopolitical clout across the region. The article also assesses how Putin’s authoritarianism, anti-western posturing and promotion of Russian nationalism resonates with certain Middle Eastern publics. While many admire Putin’s boldness, he also evokes ambivalence and skepticism from various groups. The article draws on scholarly analysis, polling data and media reports to construct a nuanced appraisal of Putin’s public image in the Middle East.
Putin’s Brand of Leadership
Putin has cultivated a macho and defiant brand of leadership that appeals to disillusioned publics in the Middle East (Young, 2019). He is portrayed as the antithesis of western leaders who obsess over human rights, political reforms and international norms. As an ex-KGB officer, Putin exudes an air of mystery and intrigue. He conveys brutal honesty about power politics without the pretenses of liberal democratic leaders. Putin has remarked that “the weak get beaten”, embracing realpolitik over liberal idealism (Trenin, 2019). Unlike western leaders, he stays on message consistently without worrying about media scrutiny or fact-checkers.
Putin thrives on confrontation with the West, winning admiration from some Middle Eastern publics through his pugnacious defiance of America and Europe (Young, 2019). He effectively taps into grievances and frustrations with western powers’ foreign policies. Putin is seen as standing up to the arrogance of western powers and their belittling moralizing about democracy and human rights. He represents a model of conservative cultural values that resonates with many traditional Middle Eastern publics.
As a canny political survivor, Putin has proven decisively that he crushes opponents and gets things done. He cultivates an action-oriented, bare-chested machismo that draws positive comparisons with strong Arab leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (Badran, 2019). Unlike messy, gridlocked western democracies, Putin represents order, continuity and stability. He has dominated Russian politics for over two decades through a mix of coercion, cooptation and propaganda (Lipman, 2019). To admirers, Putin provides Russia with steady leadership while the West seems to lurch from crisis to crisis.
According to polls, Putin’s clear messaging, self-confidence and toughness earn him respect across the Middle East (Poushter & Manevich, 2017). Surveys have found Putin to be the world’s most admired foreign leader in many Arab countries, suggesting substantial ‘Putin envy’ in the region (Young, 2019, p. 1). However, polls also indicate mixed views of Putin with many seeing both positive and negative traits. Appreciation for Putin’s bold leadership often coincides with wariness about Russia’s ambitions.
Outreach to Arab Autocrats
A key pillar of Putin’s Middle East strategy has been cultivating ties with autocratic Arab leaders. He has positioned himself as a fellow strongman who can provide political, economic and military support without the pesky conditions on democracy and human rights imposed by the West (Trenin, 2019). Putin offers hard-headed realism about counting on dictators for regional security rather than unrealistic western lecturing about democratization and inclusive governance.
Putin has developed close relationships with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, propping them up despite their brutal repression and western opprobrium (Trenin, 2019). He appeals to Arab despots by emphasizing shared interests against radical Islamists and offering unconditional external backing. Putin provides them a ladder to climb down from total international isolation.
Egypt exemplifies Russia’s courtship of Arab authoritarian regimes. As the Arab world’s most populous country, Egypt is a prized geopolitical partner. After the western criticism of Sisi’s 2013 coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, Putin swooped in to deepen military, economic and political ties (Badran, 2019). He signaled support for Sisi’s harsh crackdown on dissent. Putin also struck deals to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant and establish an Egyptian industrial zone in Russia. Sisi describes Putin as a “friend and ally” while condemning European Union criticism of Egypt’s human rights violations (Badran, 2019).
However, Putin’s coziness with dictators like Bashar al-Assad also fuels doubts among Arab populations that resent those regimes. Many Syrians view Putin as complicit in Assad’s atrocities against his own people during the civil war (Abboud, 2016). Putin remains widely unpopular among Sunni Arabs in particular due to his support for Alawite Assad’s onslaught against the predominantly Sunni opposition. By enabling Assad’s survival, Putin earned deep distrust from Sunnis who likely comprise a majority of Middle Eastern public opinion.
Intervention in Syria
Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria since 2015 represents Putin’s most consequential Middle East gambit. The deployment of Russian air power and advisors dramatically turned the tide of the civil war in Assad’s favor. Moscow’s intervention demonstrated that Russia had returned as a serious geopolitical player in the Middle East after years of retrenchment in the 1990s and 2000s. Putin’s boldness in directly confronting US regional designs reaped admiration but also anxieties about Russian ambitions (Young, 2019).
Putin portrays the campaign in Syria as a heroic, disciplined endeavor by Russian forces against the barbaric Isis and al-Qaeda (Filatova, 2020). He cites Russia’s ‘victory’ in Syria as exposing the decline of American power in the Middle East. To skeptical Arab publics, though, Russia’s intervention also seems motivated by self-interest – reasserting Moscow’s regional clout, expanding arms sales and gaining permanent naval and air bases on the Mediterranean (Abboud, 2016).
Nevertheless, Putin’s decisive military action earned respect across the Middle East, especially among Shia and Christian populations who were glad to see Moscow halt Sunni jihadist advances (Poushter & Manevich, 2017). The ruthlessness with which Russia flattened opposition strongholds signaled that Moscow, unlike Washington, was serious about achieving victory. Putin gained stature for boldly exercising hard power with minimal hand-wringing over collateral damage and civilian casualties.
However, Russia’s ‘scorched earth’ bombing campaign against the Syrian opposition also shocked many Middle Eastern publics (Abboud, 2016). Putin attempted to soften Russia’s image by announcing troop withdrawals and brokering local ceasefires. But Moscow’s battlefield tactics undermined its diplomatic efforts by appalling Arab audiences through relentless aerial bombardment of urban areas (Hubbard, 2017). While cemented as a Middle East power broker, Russia emerged from Syria with an unpalatable ‘blood on its hands’ image that stirred wariness about Kremlin motives.
Expanded Geopolitical Clout
Emboldened by Russia’s Syrian intervention, Putin has expanded Moscow’s geopolitical influence across the Middle East’s conflicts, entangling Kremlin policy in ways unseen since Cold War times. Putin aspires to rival US dominance by making Russia the arbiter of regional security puzzles from Libya to Yemen to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He receives a respectful hearing from parties disgruntled with western policy. However, some also suspect Putin is an opportunist seeking to exploit divisions rather than solving them.
In Libya, Putin backs the rebel warlord Khalifa Hifter against the United Nations-recognized government in a bid to expand Russia’s Mediterranean presence (Trenin, 2019). Moscow printed money to bankroll Hifter while obfuscating its direct role. Russia also courted Iraq to blunt US regional influence after the 2003 invasion (Katz, 2018). Putin has deftly managed relations with rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran despite their proxy battles. Moscow cultivates ties across the region – from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah to Turkey’s Recep Erdogan – hedging its bets as conflicts rage.
While praised as a shrewd tactician, many also see Putin dangerously stirring the region’s volatile cauldron by propping up dictators, flooding arms and intruding in civil wars. Critics argue Putin displays little empathy for ordinary citizens suffering from endless conflict and turmoil. He seems to coldly pursue Russia’s narrow interests without concern for the human consequences.
Putin’s Policies Play to Certain Middle Eastern Publics
Putin’s authoritarianism, nationalism and anti-western posturing resonate with some key Middle Eastern constituencies, burnishing his populist credentials. However, they simultaneously alienate other groups repulsed by Putin’s hardline views and policies. Putin has carved out appeal with certain political traditions and cultural sentiments in the Middle East, generating admiration but also ambivalence about Russia’s aims.
Putin’s messages about defending Syrian Christians against radical Islamists and bashing Western moral decadence over homosexuality and multiculturalism earn him admiration from Christian and other socially conservative audiences (Abboud, 2016). He shrewdly depicts Russia as the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East. The 2013 law banning LGBT ‘propaganda’ also proved popular among Islamist groups and nationalists.
Putin’s hostility toward the West makes him the ‘enemy-of-my-enemy’ for some radical Middle East factions (Young 2019). Violent Islamists have often spared Russia from attacks while lashing out against the United States and Europe. Ultraconservative clerics praise Putin for championing Syria’s Alawite regime against Sunni insurgents backed by US-allied Gulf states like Saudi Arabia (Abboud, 2016).
Putin’s appeals to Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism against Western domination echo Soviet propaganda themes that retain some resonance (Geranmayeh & Liik, 2018). He emerges as today’s Russian strongman defending the Middle East against predatory outsiders. Putin can manipulate Arab political traditions both leftist – like Arab socialism –and conservative that harbor resentment against the West’s colonization and perceived condescension.
However, Putin’s authoritarianism, anti-Islamism and hyper-nationalism also breed deep distrust among liberal, democratic and moderate Islamist Arabs along with ethnic minorities like Kurds. Western-oriented Middle Eastern intellectuals express alarm about Putin’s expansionism and use of ‘hybrid warfare’ combining media manipulation with armed proxies. Younger ‘Generation Z’ activists also tend to see Putin as an enemy of freedom and human rights. Meanwhile, most Kurds resent Putin’s alignment with oppressive Arab nationalist regimes in Syria and Turkey.
Putin: Admired but Polarizing Figure
Polling indicates Putin’s divisive yet intriguing image across the Middle East. Surveys generally show majorities seeing Putin as a strong leader who defends Russian interests effectively (Poushter & Manevich, 2017). But attitudes split sharply over whether respondents view his leadership as positive or negative for their countries.
While many respect Putin’s boldness, they also express wariness about Russia’s resurgent regional clout. A 2019 poll showed large majorities in Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt describing Russia’s influence as self-interested and destabilizing. However, respondents also believed US influence was waning compared to rivals like Russia and China (Lewis, 2019). Publics seem skeptical about all great powers advancing zero-sum agendas rather than the region’s interests.
Putin earns affinity from certain ideological corners like Arab nationalists, Christian conservatives and radical Islamists. But most mainstream opinion across the region’s ethnic and political diversity regards Putin with ambiguity. His policies attract support from disillusioned Arabs frustrated with western policy failures in the region. But many also chafe at Putin’s authoritarianism and military interventionism (Abboud, 2016).
Ultimately Putin represents a polarizing Rorschach test for Middle Eastern public attitudes toward power politics. His manipulations reflect Russians’ own deep ambivalence about Putin. For now Putin remains exotic and fascinating to Middle Easterners but risks eventually overstaying his welcome through Syria-style military adventurism. Putin has reinserted Russia into the Middle East’s calculus of geopolitical interests and identities. Yet it remains doubtful whether Russia can transcend its narrow role as a special-forces power to become a genuine transformative player in the region’s future.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has carved out an ambiguous but intrigue-filled image in the contemporary Middle Eastern imagination. As a defiant strongman battering western powers, Putin wins admiration but also wariness about Russian ambitions. His decisive projection of military power and outreach to Arab autocrats reestablished Russia’s foothold across the region’s conflicts. However, Putin’s hardline policies also alienate many Middle Easterners. Public attitudes remain skeptical that Putin’s unsentimental realpolitik offers lasting solutions.
For now Putin seems destined to remain a polarizing figure who plays skillfully to certain Middle Eastern political and cultural predilections. But Russia still appears a sideshow lacking the motivation and resources to displace the United States as the Middle East’s dominant outside power. Putin’s reputational fortunes rise or fall on Russia’s practical ability to stabilize conflicts through force or diplomacy. His image retains mystique but remains vulnerable to evolving events. If Putin overplays his hand through reckless adventurism, his strongman persona could unravel into dangerous hubris rather than competence. For Middle Eastern public opinion, Russia under Putin represents at best a useful but unreliable counterweight, at worst an opportunistic spoiler.
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