The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been a key area of interest and involvement for Russia, especially in the period following the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011. Russia’s approach to the region is driven by a number of factors, including economic and security interests, relationships with key regional players, competition with Western powers, and Russia’s desire to re-emerge as a major power on the global stage.
This expansive article will provide a comprehensive overview of Russia’s contemporary strategy towards the MENA region. It will begin by outlining Russia’s core interests and objectives in the region. The article will then delve into the key pillars of Russia’s MENA strategy, including its diplomatic engagement, arms sales, energy relationships, involvement in regional conflicts, and soft power projection. Attention will be given to Russia’s bilateral relationships with major regional powers, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, and Syria. The evolution of Russia’s strategy since the Arab Spring uprisings will also be analyzed. Furthermore, the article will assess the strengths and limitations of the Russian approach, considering both Moscow’s achievements and challenges in advancing its interests in the turbulent MENA environment. Factors shaping Russia’s future strategy in the region will also be explored.
Overall, this article aims to provide an in-depth look at how Russia is projecting power and influence in the Middle East and North Africa amidst a complex geostrategic environment, competitive great power relations, and turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring. It will demonstrate that even while Russia faces limitations in its regional influence, under Vladimir Putin it has re-established itself as a nimble actor able to take advantage of opportunities and leverage relationships in pursuit of its interests.
Russia’s core interests in the MENA region
Russia’s strategy towards the MENA region is driven by a set of core interests linked to security, economy, energy, and prestige. At a fundamental level, Russia aims to protect its southern borders from instability emanating from the region, stem the spread of radical Islamist extremism, and prevent Western-led regime change.
Moscow also has deep economic and energy interests across MENA. The region is an important destination for Russian exports, especially arms sales, as well as investments. Meanwhile, energy trade remains a key part of Russia’s economic relationship with the region, through oil and gas exports but also nuclear energy deals.
Additionally, Russia seeks to expand its role as a major power broker in MENA’s conflicts, from the Syrian civil war to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Increased influence across the region’s hotspots bolsters Russia’s great power status on the global stage and also provides leverage against Western interests.
Finally, projecting cultural power and promoting Russian prestige across the Arab and Muslim world has become an important soft power endeavor for Moscow. Russia has utilized tools from media influence to education exchanges to boost its standing.
Pillars of Russia’s contemporary MENA strategy
To advance its interests in the Middle East and North Africa, Russia relies on a multi-pronged strategy that employs diplomatic engagement, arms sales, energy deals, conflict intervention, and cultural outreach. Each of these pillars of Russia’s approach serve to expand its influence and achieve core objectives.
A key pillar of Russia’s MENA strategy is active diplomatic engagement, both bilaterally and through multilateral platforms. Russia has cultivated extensive high-level contacts across the region’s governments, notably by hosting leaders in Moscow and through frequent presidential envoys. This enables Russia to keep strong communication channels open and directly lobby countries on major issues.
Russia has also become far more visible in MENA-focused multilateral organizations, including the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and Arab-Israel conflict forums. Russia has leveraged these organizations to boost its conflict mediation credentials and attempt to displace Western dominance in regional diplomacy.
The expansion of arms sales to MENA countries has been a major feature of Russia’s regional strategy, earning Moscow both economic and geopolitical dividends. Russia has actively courted traditional Western clients like Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and UAE, offering cheaper and often more flexible alternatives to U.S. and European military hardware. Arms deals have generated major revenues for Russia’s defense industry, reaching several billion dollars annually.
Russia’s willingness to sell advanced missile defense systems, fighter aircraft, helicopters, battle tanks and other weaponry has also allowed it to build key strategic relationships and influence with regional militaries. Large arms deals have been dangled to wrest geopolitical concessions from certain states, especially relating to Syria. Overall, robust arms sales help ensure friendly ties and Russian relevance amidst MENA’s turbulent security landscape.
Energy represents a third crucial pillar of Russian power in the MENA region. As a top hydrocarbon producer and exporter, Russia has major energy partnership across MENA in oil, gas, and nuclear power. Key oil and gas importers like Turkey and Israel rely heavily on Russian supplies, granting Moscow energy leverage and interdependence.
Russia has huge natural gas resources in its Southern Corridor fields and has sought to boost its share of the European market via pipelines transiting the MENA like TurkStream and the aborted South Stream. Turkey’s reemergence as an energy transit hub has been essential to these efforts. Russia also wants to curb potential competition, including Israel’s emergence as a Mediterranean energy exporter, and back its own firms against Western majors.
In nuclear, Russia has signed multiple reactor construction deals with states like Egypt, Jordan, and Iran, often aided by generous financing. These projects aid Russia’s nuclear industry and creates energy infrastructure ties lasting decades. Energy serves as a solid basis for Russia’s relations across the MENA region.
Involvement in regional conflicts
Deliberate involvement in MENA’s major warzones and conflicts has become a trademark of Russia’s strategy, leveraged towards broader geopolitical ends. Russia’s military intervention in Syria helped turn the tide of the civil war in Assad’s favor. The Bosnia and Georgia interventions demonstrated Russia’s will to use force to protect perceived interests and intimidate neighbors.
Russia has also carved an important niche as a mediator in conflicts like Libya’s civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Although not always successful, Russia’s aim is to displace the U.S. as the dominant conflict broker in MENA. Arms sales to rival sides in disputes, including the Gulf and Libya, allow Russia to hedge its bets and gain leverage.
While potentially risky, Russia’s conflict interventions project an image of Moscow as a consequential geopolitical actor able to shape outcomes in MENA’s wars, bolstering its great power prestige.
Soft power projection
Russia has expanded its use of soft power in the MENA region, especially under Vladimir Putin. This includes utilizing media, education exchanges, cultural outreach, and religious diplomacy to burnish Russia’s image and influence. The RT Arabic television channel promotes Russia’s geopolitical views in the region and criticizes Western policies. Moscow has also organized high-profile cultural festivals like “Days of Russian Culture” in Arab countries.
Rossotrudnichestvo, Russia’s cultural outreach agency, operates Russian Centers for Science and Culture in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and other MENA states. These centers convene conferences, exhibits, film screenings and other events to culturally engage Arab publics. To appeal to Muslim populations, Russia has highlighted its ties to Islam as a Eurasian religion and cultivated clerical links abroad. Soft power helps Moscow amplify its strategic messaging and mitigate anti-Russian narratives.
Key bilateral relationships
Russia has concentrated on nurturing ties with individual MENA states crucial to its strategy rather than pursuing region-wide integration. Bilateral relationships give Russia targeted avenues to promote its interests. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Israel, and Turkey have been among Russia’s foremost MENA partners.
Egypt has been Moscow’s essential Arab partner under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Russia has sold billions in arms to Egypt while also investing in the country’s infrastructure and nuclear energy projects. Diplomatic and military coordination on regional issues like Libya has strengthened ties. Egypt plays a prominent role in giving Russia legitimacy in Arab affairs. Moscow has returned the favor by aligning more closely with Cairo on issues like the Nile dam dispute.
While historically tense, Saudi-Russian relations have improved in recent years as the two energy giants have partnered to stabilize oil markets. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth has also flowed into joint Russian infrastructure and technology ventures. Diplomatic engagement has increased between Moscow and Riyadh, coordinated in bodies like the OPEC+ format. Russia has worked to balance relations with both Saudi Arabia and its rival Iran.
Russia has maintained largely constructive ties with Iran despite their divergent Syria policies and Russia’s partnerships with Gulf states. Nuclear energy deals, military sales, and technical cooperation have been key elements binding Moscow and Tehran. Russia participated intensively in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and pushed for sanctions relief. While amenable to Israel’s security concerns regarding Iran, Russia opposes aggressive policies like regime change.
Moscow’s deep military, economic and diplomatic ties with Damascus cemented during the Syrian civil war. Russia’s intervention rescued Assad’s regime from collapse. In return, Russia expanded its naval base in Tartus and signed generous oil and gas deals. Syria exemplifies Russia’s model of leveraging conflict intervention and arms transfers into lasting strategic influence. Moscow remains vital to Syria’s fortunes.
Russia has managed to maintain largely positive ties with both Israel and its enemies like Iran and Syria. Cordial Vladimir Putin-Benjamin Netanyahu relations, a substantial Russian-speaking population in Israel, and deep trade links account for Moscow’s strong Israel ties. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews live in Israel. Although it opposes Israel on issues like the Golan Heights, Moscow has cooperated tacitly with Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Russia’s balancing act has positioned it as a mediator in the Palestinian crisis.
Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has become an increasingly crucial Russian strategic partner in MENA despite also being a NATO member. Russia has leveraged Turkey’s rifts with the U.S. and EU to pull it closer to Moscow’s orbit. Economic ties have flourished in energy, tourism, and infrastructure. In geopolitics, Russia and Turkey have closely coordinated on Syria’s civil war despite backing opposing sides earlier on. Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles over U.S. objections represented a major strategic win for Moscow.
Evolution of Russia’s MENA strategy since the Arab Spring
Russia’s contemporary strategy towards the MENA took shape largely in response to the seismic regional shifts sparked by 2010’s Arab Spring uprisings, which forced Moscow to adapt and improvise in a rapidly changing landscape. Initially, Russia was wary of the unpredictable turmoil the protests fueled across the region. However, Moscow ultimately exploited the chaos as an opportunity to expand its influence and fill power vacuums created by weakening pro-Western autocrats.
In Libya, Russia courted both sides in the post-Gaddafi civil war while opposing the NATO-led intervention that helped topple him. In Syria, Moscow stepped up military aid to President Bashar al-Assad to stave off his potential overthrow and counter Western pressure. Russia’s decisive 2015 intervention targeting Syrian rebels rescued Assad and made Moscow the key arbiter in that conflict.
Region-wide, Moscow promoted itself as the anti-interventionist stalwart deserving Arab trust in contrast to meddlesome Western powers. Russia also postured as an ally to embattled autocrats and counterrevolutionary forces. At the same time, evolving commercial deals and diplomatic outreach built crucial inroads with new post-Arab Spring governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and the Gulf.
Overall, the regional turmoil allowed Russia to restore much of the geopolitical clout lost since Soviet days. Moscow is now both willing and able to project power into the region including through military force. While initially controversial, Russia’s combat role in Syria demonstrated its willingness to directly intervene to shape outcomes and bolster partners. Russia’s strategy has proven sufficiently nimble and opportunistic to advance core interests despite MENA’s fluid realities.
Assessing the strengths and limitations of Russia’s MENA strategy
Russia has made impressive inroads advancing its multi-pronged interests in the MENA region since the Arab Spring, regaining influence through deft strategy. However, its approach also has limitations and downsides stemming from regional blowback, insufficient policy coordination, and economic constraints.
On the positive side, Russia has firmly re-established itself as a dominant player in MENA affairs after years of American primacy post-Cold War. Moscow managed to expand ties with longstanding partners like Algeria, Iraq, and Syria while also gaining new footholds in Egypt, Libya, GCC states, and beyond. Energy and arms sales have flourished. Russia’s Syria intervention successfully rescued Assad and made Moscow an indispensable conflict mediator.
However, Russia also faces problems and constraints. Its support for Assad’s brutal war tactics and deals with Gulf autocrats have damaged Russia’s reputation with Arab publics. Hard power projection has stoked blowback, evidenced by the 2015 Metrojet bombing in the Sinai claimed by ISIS. Russia has struggled to convert many arms sales into deeper strategic relationships and leverage.
At times, Russia’s MENA policy also suffers from incoherence and gaps between its ambitious rhetoric and actual capabilities. Battling Islamist extremists in Syria and embracing conservative Gulf states seems contradictory. Putin must balance disparate interests like supporting Iraq, Iran, Israel, and Syria despite their rivalries. Russia’s domestic economic woes also hampers its ability to fully fund regional ambitions or provide reconstruction aid.
Overall, Russia has proven adept at exploiting opportunities but has struggled to convert its growing influence into strategic dominance over Western powers in MENA. While firmly re-entrenched as a leading player, Russia has not displaced America or achieved regional hegemony, highlighting the practical limits of its resurgence.
Factors shaping Russia’s future MENA strategy
Looking ahead, Russia’s strategy in the Middle East and North Africa will be shaped by multiple factors, including its relations with global powers, economic constraints, regional partners, and unpredictable events like new upheavals. Broadly, Moscow likely aims to consolidate its recent gains rather than pursue radical departures or an expanded footprint across MENA’s volatile terrain.
Russia’s ties with America and Europe will impact its freedom of action in MENA. Confrontational stances by the West would incentivize Moscow to adopt more adversarial postures in the region. However, Russia also retains incentives to modulate regional policies to ease clashes with Washington and Brussels over issues like Ukraine and Syria.
Much also depends on the durability of Russia’s partnerships with MENA governments. Regime changes could force sudden Russian foreign policy pivots, as occurred in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow. Protection of allies like Assad will remain paramount. Additionally, budgets pressures in Russia will affect strategic resources for power projection abroad in the coming years.
Developments on the ground like new wars, government cracks, or refugee crises across MENA could suddenly force Russia onto the defensive and preoccupy its focus. Alternatively, further upheaval may tempt Russia into new risk-taking gambits to expand influence amid geopolitical voids, much as occurred in Libya and Syria last decade. New opportunities to cement itself as an indispensable regional arbiter will be exploited.
Russia’s contemporary strategy towards the Middle East and North Africa aims to re-establish Moscow as a dominant player on the regional stage and advance core political, economic, and security interests. This multi-faceted strategy combines diplomacy, arms transfers, energy deals, conflict involvement, and soft power projection to expand Russian influence across a vital neighboring region after years of retrenchment.
While the Arab Spring’s destabilizing impact initially alarmed Moscow, Russia has adroitly exploited resulting opportunities, especially in Syria’s civil war. Amid turmoil, Russia ardently courted regional powers seeking alternatives to the West and used combat deployments to shape outcomes in countries like Syria. Consequently, Moscow has restored much of the clout it enjoyed across the Arab world during the Soviet era.
However, Russia’s ambitions also face limitations stemming from economic constraints, public blowback, and policy incoherence at times. Russia has regained influence but not outright primacy in the region. Looking ahead, Russia will likely aim to pragmatically consolidate recent MENA gains rather than pursue an overly expansive regional strategy creating excessive costs and risks. The Middle East and North Africa has nevertheless become a key testing ground and arena for Russia’s renewed global power projection under Vladimir Putin.
Abrams, E. (2020). Russian Strategy in the Middle East. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/russian-strategy-in-the-middle-east/
Allison, R. (2021). Russia and the MENA Region: Geopolitics, Security and Beyond. Valdai Discussion Club. https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/russia-and-the-mena-region-geopolitics/
Boghardt, L. (2021). Russia in the Middle East: Jack of All Trades, Master of None. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/russia-middle-east-jack-all-trades-master-none
El Yaakoubi, A. & Dadouch, S. (2019). Russia’s Putin revives ‘Arab Street’ in Middle East diplomacy. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-russia-analysis/russias-putin-revives-arab-street-in-middle-east-diplomacy-idUSKCN1TS0R4
Khlebnikov, A. (2021). Russia and the Middle East: Regional Role, Strategy, Vision. Valdai Discussion Club. https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/russia-and-the-middle-east-regional-role/
Kozhanov, N. (2018). Russian Policy across the Middle East: Motivations and Methods. Chatham House. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2018/02/russian-policy-across-middle-east/motivations-and-methods
Kozhanov, N. (2021). Russia’s Strategic Goals in the Middle East. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/12/09/russia-s-strategic-goals-in-middle-east-pub-85987
Lindsay, J. R. & Saidi, M. (2021). Russia in the Middle East: Jack of All Trades