The Corner

The Four Dangerous Realities of Putin’s Middle East Power Play

To those who are tempted to welcome Russia’s “help” in our war against ISIS, please consider the following:

First, Putin wants Russia to supplant the United States as the pre-eminent world power in the Middle East. By forging closer ties with Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Hezbollah, Putin hopes to build an alliance that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf — an alliance that explicitly includes and incorporates known American enemies and is implacably hostile to American allies like the Israelis and the Kurds.

Second, fighting ISIS is incidental to this goal. Putin doesn’t care if the Middle East is “stable,” and he doesn’t have the slightest desire to halt the flow of migrants into Western Europe (or the U.S., for that matter). He can easily tolerate long-term conflict — so long as his forces and allies maintain the upper hand, America’s international position erodes, and American allies are weak, dispirited, and ultimately defeated. Russia cares about power, not about building stable, just, and moderate Middle Eastern governments. 

Third, Russia is humiliating the U.S. not just out of spite but also out of keen awareness of Middle Eastern culture. I’ve said this again and again, but the power brokers in the Middle East are attracted to strength and despise weakness. This mentality isn’t just cultural, it’s a pragmatic matter of life and death. When Russian forces arrogantly barged into American-controlled airspace and conducted raids on American-supported rebels, it sent a clear signal to the rest of the region. Alliance with America isn’t just foolish, it’s potentially deadly. And I agree with Ralph Peters, his desire to humiliate the U.S. may be so strong that he’d order the shoot-down of an American plane, confident that the Obama administration wouldn’t dare risk a military clash and equally confident that the rest of the Middle East would clearly understand which nation is the “strongest horse.”

Fourth, things are set to get worse. With news reports emerging of more Russian heavy weapons flowing into Syria, and with the Obama administration gifting Iran with a massive economic stimulus and access to international arms market, our enemies have the momentum. We’re looking at the ugly long-term prospect of a Russian/Iranian strategic hegemony in much of the Middle East, with ISIS still alive and threatening U.S. interests.

Putin understands a central rule of great power rivalries – the nation that fears conflict the most (regardless of actual relative military strength) will always be at a disadvantage. And so he engages in a deliberate strategy of aggressive incrementalism, where none of his actions — by themselves — are deemed serious enough to risk conflict, but the collective effect is a real change in the balance of power — complete with redrawn maps, large-scale loss of life, and defeated, dispirited allies. Yes indeed, we’ve “reset” our relationship with Russia — in all the wrong ways.

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