Magazine | September 30, 2019, Issue

Russia’s Middle East Power Play

A checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, with portraits of Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, 2018 (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)
Or, what Putin learned from Nixon and Kissinger

Turkey flouted months of American warnings this summer and took delivery of the Russian-made S-400 air-defense system — triggering Ankara’s expulsion from the F-35 stealth-fighter program and obligating the imposition of additional sanctions by the Trump administration under U.S. law. Most immediately, these developments mark a new and precipitous deterioration in the long-unraveling U.S.–Turkish alliance. But Ankara’s decision to choose a Russian weapons system over a U.S. one also points to a wider and even more ominous geopolitical shift: the growing influence of the Kremlin as a strategic force across the greater Middle East, at America’s expense.

For close observers of the Middle East, Russia’s return as a great-power rival to Washington is as startling as it is disorienting. Leaders from once-stalwart U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia now shuttle regularly to Moscow for high-level consultations about regional developments, while Russian weapons deals and energy investments have proliferated from the Arabian Gulf to the Maghreb. In fractured states such as Lebanon and Iraq, the pursuit of closer ties with Russia has become a rare point of national consensus across sectarian fault lines: Iranian clients look to Moscow as a proven friend, while Tehran’s rivals woo the Kremlin as a potential counterweight to Persian hegemony. 

Even Israel, America’s closest Middle Eastern partner, has come to embrace Moscow’s role as a regional power broker, hosting a first-of-its-kind summit of U.S. and Russian national-security advisers in Jerusalem in late June. While both the Trump administration and Israeli officials were quick to portray the gathering as an exercise in isolating Iran — testing the potential to separate the Kremlin from its erstwhile accomplice in Syria — the meeting sent another message to the region: about the acceptance of Russia by the Jewish state as a coequal to the U.S. in shaping the future of the Levant.

How did Moscow pull this off? In Washington foreign-policy circles, it is generally recognized that Russia’s return to great-power status in the Middle East has somehow run through the conflagration in Syria, where the Kremlin has — to use a shopworn phrase — “played a weak hand well.” What is less appreciated is that President Vladimir Putin has achieved this feat by applying the same great-power-competition playbook that was successfully deployed against Russia by the United States during another Middle East war nearly 50 years ago. 

Specifically, it was the Cold War statecraft of President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, around the 1973 Yom Kippur War that maneuvered Moscow to the margins of the Middle East, where it was then consigned for decades. Now the Kremlin has reversed that defeat by harnessing precisely the principles of realpolitik that propelled American strategy to triumph in the region in an earlier era.

Indeed, while Putin famously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union to be the greatest geopolitical calamity of the 20th century, the essential elements of his approach to the Middle East in recent years have been less Marxist-Leninist than Nixon-Kissinger.

These include an instinct to treat regional conflict not as an opportunity for win-win cooperation among the great powers but as an arena for zero-sum competition between them; to seek advantage in these contests not through the application of overwhelming force but through sudden but limited measures designed to surprise an opponent and break its will; and — most Kissingerian of all — to position oneself to be closer to all of the combatants in a conflict than any of them are to each other, in order to be at the center of eventual dealmaking.

Of course, there is no moral equivalence between Washington’s steadfast defense of its democratic ally Israel under threat of annihilation in 1973 and Putin’s rescue of one of the world’s most brutal dictators from a popular uprising demanding basic freedoms. 

Yet exploring the parallels between U.S. and Russian strategy during these two periods is nonetheless instructive. In addition to illuminating the precepts that have guided Russian statecraft and enabled the Kremlin to get the upper hand against the United States in Syria, it suggests why the Trump administration’s ambitions for a more collaborative relationship with Moscow in the Middle East, like those of the Obama administration before it, are likely to fail. Conversely, understanding the mentality behind Russia’s recent movements in the Middle East also offers the best roadmap for anticipating and therefore competing with the Kremlin in the region — should Washington choose to do so.

In the late 1960s, conventional wisdom in Washington held that the way to achieve Arab–Israeli peace was for the United States and the Soviet Union to work together in the region — each pressuring its respective clients to make concessions at the negotiating table. Kissinger, however, dissented from this view. As national-security adviser to Nixon beginning in 1969 and then as secretary of state in Nixon’s second term, he argued for treating what was then the Middle East’s central conflict less as a free-floating regional problem to be solved than as an element to be fitted into America’s global strategy against the Soviets. 

Seen in this light, any American initiative that invited Moscow to assume a privileged role in regional diplomacy made no sense. Not only would such an initiative inflate Soviet prestige, it would also reward the radical Arab regimes that had tilted towards the Kremlin and thereby, perversely, reduce the odds of a settlement.

Instead, Kissinger saw the Arab–Israeli conflict as an opportunity to expose the limits of Soviet power and thereby discredit it. America’s goal, Kissinger said in a 1970 interview, shouldn’t be to partner with Russia for the sake of peace but to expel Russia from the Middle East as the precondition for it. 

In practice, this meant that the U.S. under Nixon and Kissinger set out to block every Arab move that was backed by either the threat or the use of Soviet arms. Rather than squeezing the Israelis, the U.S. redoubled support for the Jewish state in order to demonstrate to the region the weakness of Moscow and the futility of any Arab aggression it sponsored. 

Eventually, Kissinger reasoned, the Arabs would grow frustrated with the U.S.-imposed stalemate and realize that the Soviet Union’s capacity for stirring up crises in the region wasn’t matched by an ability to resolve them. And when that moment arrived, the party the Arabs would need to petition for help would be Washington, not Moscow.

This, in fact, is much the same calculus that Putin has applied to the Syrian civil war since its outbreak. While senior American officials from the earliest days of the crisis trekked to Russia, making earnest appeals to the Kremlin to pressure the Assad regime, Putin happily welcomed their entreaties — which, after all, confirmed Russia as the key arbiter of Syria’s fate — while ruthlessly doubling down on his support for his client in Damascus.  

In doing so, Putin sensed correctly that President Obama’s demand that Assad must go (much like Soviet propaganda demonizing Israel) was not matched by the wherewithal to enforce it. This in turn presented the Kremlin with an irresistible opening. By backing Assad to the hilt, Putin could showcase the inability of American power to achieve its declared objective and therefore ensure its progressive irrelevance to the U.S. allies in the Middle East that had likewise hitched themselves to Assad’s ouster. At the same time, by becoming indispensable to the Syrian dictator’s survival, Putin positioned himself to be the most important factor not only for the regime in Damascus but also, in time, for its stymied opponents. 

More fundamentally, just as Nixon and Kissinger approached the Arab–Israeli conflict through the overarching framework of the Cold War, Putin has consistently viewed Syria through the prism of what he considers to be Russia’s paramount foreign-policy challenge, which is not Islamist extremism or Iranian imperialism, but geostrategic competition with the United States and the restoration of what he regards as Moscow’s rightful place in the ranks of the global great powers. It is therefore unsurprising that U.S. initiatives predicated on denying or diminishing this reality — as successive attempts to partner with Russia in Syria have been — consistently come to naught. 

With the eruption of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, the Nixon-Kissinger strategy for the Middle East faced its moment of truth. Conceived by Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad as a way to reclaim both territory and honor lost during the 1967 Six-Day War, the coordinated offensive initially took the Israelis by surprise. Striking on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal into the Israeli-held Sinai Peninsula, while Syrian troops advanced into the Golan Heights.

After Israel suffered heavy losses in the opening days of the conflict, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan warned that the country was approaching the point of “last resort.” Prime Minister Golda Meir in turn secretly authorized the assembly of approximately a dozen tactical nuclear weapons, while issuing an urgent appeal to the United States for help.

The outbreak of the Yom Kippur War — which would prove to be the bloodiest of Israel’s conflicts after its 1948 fight for independence — was also not anticipated by the United States. For Nixon and Kissinger, consistent with their Cold War focus, the most important thing was to prevent a victory by Soviet arms over a U.S. ally. To this end, Nixon overruled Pentagon objections and ordered an emergency airlift to Israel, rushing over 20,000 tons of military supplies to replace its dwindling munitions. Within a week, Israel had turned the table on its Arab attackers and begun driving into their territory. 

As a result of Israel’s gains on the battlefield, however, the specter of direct Soviet intervention on behalf of the Arabs suddenly loomed, presenting a dangerous new test for U.S strategy. In response to intimations of impending action by the Kremlin, Washington declared that it was going to DEFCON 3, put the 82nd Airborne Division on alert, directed B-52 bombers back to the U.S. from Guam, and dispatched aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean. These dramatic military moves were coupled with an equally blunt warning to Moscow that any unilateral action on its part in the Middle East would be viewed “as a matter of gravest concern involving incalculable consequences.” 

Confronted by this show of American resolve, the Kremlin flinched. “It is not reasonable to become engaged in a war with the United States because of Egypt and Syria,” conceded Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. In climbing back from the ledge, the Politburo was also influenced by a desire not to wreck the prospects for wider détente with the United States — a policy that Nixon and Kissinger had initiated in part because they hoped it would diminish the Soviet appetite for confrontations elsewhere in the world.  

Flash forward four decades, and the parallels to Putin’s Middle East strategy are again striking. While Russia’s military exertions in Syria since 2011 have been relatively modest in their scale (especially when measured against America’s toils in the region), the Kremlin’s maneuvers — in particular the deployment of Russian airpower to the conflict starting in September 2015, when it appeared Assad was on the cusp of collapse — nonetheless convinced U.S. decision-makers in the Obama administration that Putin cared more about protecting his client than Washington ever would about ousting him. 

The Kremlin thereby deterred the United States from taking a range of measures that might have shaped the trajectory of the conflict. In the face of a display of Russian strength, the White House — like the Soviet Politburo in 1973 — backed off, unwilling to risk a great-power collision over a scrap of geography it concluded wasn’t worth the gamble. 

Similarly, just as Nixon and Kissinger turned the Kremlin’s interest in détente to their strategic advantage during the Yom Kippur War, Putin has repeatedly dangled the carrot of Russo–American cooperation to secure a freer hand to achieve his ends in Syria. During Obama’s second term, this was foremost the desire for Russian cooperation to bring about a nuclear agreement with Iran; under Trump, it has been the prospect of securing the Kremlin’s help in rolling back Iranian influence in the region. In both cases, it appears the hope of winning Russian support on other matters has made Washington less eager to pursue confrontation with the Kremlin over Assad and Syria.

In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, international efforts turned towards negotiations among the combatants. It was from these talks that the 1974 Israel–Egypt Disengagement Agreement emerged, marking the first step on the road to peace between Jerusalem and Cairo, as did the Separation Agreement between Israel and Syria a few months later, stabilizing the Golan Heights for decades to come. It was also out of this diplomatic whirlwind that Washington cemented its new position as the key power broker of Middle Eastern geopolitics, while demoting Moscow to second-tier status.

The United States was able to carry off this strategic triumph because it alone was situated to shuttle among the Levantine rivals, hammering out the arrangements for a new regional framework — including, when the moment arrived, extracting concessions from the Israelis. The Soviets, by contrast, could huff and puff on behalf of their Arab clients, demanding the Israelis vacate territory they had seized during the war. But as the Arabs themselves quickly realized, Moscow’s rhetoric had no throw-weight in Jerusalem. The Americans, by contrast — precisely because they had stuck with the Jewish state in its darkest hour and had been indispensable to its military victory — now were perceived as having the means to deliver.

Today, Putin’s intervention in Syria has similarly situated Russia so that it is closer to each of the Middle East’s contestants than any of them are to each other. Thus, it is now Moscow alone that can host the prime minister of Israel in the Kremlin on one day and then the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force on the next. Last year senior Russian leaders similarly made a show of flying directly from Tehran to Tel Aviv, according to senior Israeli officials, subtly demonstrating their capacity for precisely the kind of shuttle diplomacy that Kissinger made his stock-in-trade after the Yom Kippur War. 

Nor is it just between Israel and Iran that the Kremlin has interposed itself. Russia is also the external power best positioned to mediate between the Assad regime and the surviving Syrian rebel groups, as well as the Sunni Arab states that backed the uprising but now are starting to explore the prospects of reconciliation with Damascus. In addition, Putin has established an alternative diplomatic track for ending the Syrian conflict — the so-called Astana Process — that excludes the U.S. but incorporates the Turks and the Iranians; Moscow is lobbying other U.S. regional allies, such as Egypt and Jordan, to join these talks as “observers.”

Kurdish-dominated northeast Syria presents another tempting target for Russia, especially if President Trump again orders U.S. troops to withdraw from the area, as he briefly did late last year. Absent an American presence, it is a safe bet that the Kremlin will swoop in with proposals to negotiate, alternately, between Damascus and the Kurds, the Kurds and the Turks, and the Turks and the Assad regime — juggling a series of potential combinations that would make Otto von Bismarck proud. 

Russian diplomacy over the past year suggests that Putin is trying to consolidate his advantaged position, just as Kissinger did in 1974, through a series of piecemeal agreements. Last summer, for instance, in the run-up to Putin’s summit in Helsinki with President Trump, Russia brokered a pact with the Israelis under which Jerusalem endorsed the recapture of territory adjacent to its northern border by Russian-backed Assad forces in exchange for assurances that the Iranians would be kept at bay from those areas. Then, in the autumn, Putin struck another side deal with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a de-escalation zone in the rebel-held Idlib governorate. 

In neither case did Putin hold up his end of the bargain: Anyone on the Golan Heights with a decent pair of binoculars can see Iranian-linked elements operating in areas from which Moscow last year promised to banish them, and the ongoing bombardment of Idlib by the Russians and the Assad regime has made a cruel joke of the supposed de-escalation zone there. But no matter. Despite the Kremlin’s transparently bad faith, the appetite among Syria’s neighbors to pursue such deals with Moscow has if anything only intensified, for the simple reason that they offer the only plausible relief in sight — while in their absence, Russia can credibly threaten to make things even worse.

Could Russia be persuaded to go farther and cut a grand bargain that drives Iran out of Syria altogether? Some U.S. and Israeli strategists have long fantasized about such a scenario. According to this logic, the Trump administration would make its peace with Assad’s staying in power in Damascus in exchange for the Kremlin’s cracking down on Tehran. It’s a strategically tempting — if utterly amoral — gambit. But if Putin is indeed playing by Nixon-Kissinger rules, an all-out Russian push against Tehran is as implausible as the earlier American pipe dream of a partnership with the Kremlin to coax Assad from power. 

While Russia has been content to let the Israelis keep the Iranians in check through a campaign of airstrikes in Syria, its interest is in establishing a kind of equilibrium there — with itself at the center. Even if Russia were able to expel Iranian forces entirely from the country — a dubious proposition, given its light military footprint — actually doing so would diminish the Kremlin’s importance at the heart of this new Levantine order. It would also put the burden of preserving Assad in power exclusively on Moscow. Both are contrary to Russia’s self-interest.

The status quo, conversely, will mean that all regional parties will need to keep competing for Russia’s favor and trekking to Russia to kiss Putin’s ring, in the hope of securing some margin of advantage against each other. Americans are perpetually ambivalent if not resentful about the dependence of other nations on their power and eager to wean them from it. For Russia, on the other hand, cultivating such dependency is precisely the purpose and the proof of its great-power status.

Of course, for all the parallels between what happened in the Levant 45 years ago and what is happening there today, there are vital distinctions. While U.S. partners now acknowledge the reality of the return of Russian power to the region and feel they must pay heed to the Kremlin, none show any interest, at least for the moment, in throwing out the Americans in favor of an exclusive partnership with Putin. In this respect, there is no analogue — at least not yet — for Anwar Sadat’s decision to remove Egypt from the Soviet camp and align unequivocally with the United States. 

It should also be said that any echoes between Putin’s approach to Syria and that of Nixon and Kissinger in their time are almost certainly not the result of conscious emulation on the part of the Kremlin. Rather, they more likely reflect separate but similar intuitions about how power works in the world. If geopolitics can be likened to a game of chess, there are a finite number of gambits and stratagems available on every board. The players and the stakes change, but certain tactics are timeless.

For all its geopolitical achievements, moreover, the Nixon-Kissinger playbook also comes with blind spots and limitations.

Because they viewed the Middle East through the prism of great-power rivalry, for instance, Nixon and Kissinger often saw the Kremlin as more instrumental in regional developments than it actually was. When Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in October 1973, Kissinger concluded that the Soviets had encouraged them to do so. “I think what happened is that the Russians told the Egyptians that there will not be any progress unless there is stirring in the Middle East and those maniacs have stirred a little too much,” he speculated at the time — wrongly. In fact, the impetus for the war came from Cairo and Damascus, not Moscow, which had sought to avert the blowup.

Putin today likewise seems convinced — also wrongly — that the Arab uprisings that exploded in 2011 were secretly engineered by the United States as part of a diabolical scheme for world domination, when the reality is much less flattering to Washington’s capabilities. Far from being cooked up by fiendish regime-change specialists in Washington, the revolt against Assad, together with the rest of the Arab Spring, was an organic development that not only caught the U.S. flat-footed but arrived at precisely the moment the Obama administration was attempting to pivot away from the Middle East. 

The problem with thinking about geopolitics as a chess game among the great powers, in other words, is the tendency to forget that the pawns can move themselves.

Last, and by far most important, it is vital to remember that the endgame of the Cold War was decided not by Nixon and Kissinger’s machinations in the Middle East, as artful as they were, but by the internal exhaustion of the Soviet system and its inability to fulfill its own utopian promises. To be sure, the Kremlin’s setbacks in the developing world contributed to the crisis of confidence that eventually spiraled into a broader unraveling of the USSR. But ultimately it was the industrialized heartlands of Europe and the Pacific Rim that mattered most — and the emergence in these regions behind an American defensive shield of a cohesive bloc of prosperous, capitalist democracies whose success became a conspicuous indictment of Communism’s failures and inadequacies. 

Today, similarly, it would be a mistake to make too much of Vladimir Putin’s accomplishments in the Middle East. Machiavellian realpolitik can get you far in life, but only so far. Absent underlying sources of strength, even the most cunning statecraft is likely to achieve only temporary effects, and unfortunately for Russia, its fundamental situation remains one of weakness — a reality that Putin’s geopolitical acrobatics in Syria have done much to obscure but little to reverse. 

Prestige in the Levant is not a substitute for a diversified economy or an innovative private sector or a healthy demographic base or institutionalized rule of law — none of which Russia has. In these and other respects, Russia continues to be the least powerful of the great powers — trapped in a position of inescapable structural inferiority against not just the West but also China. Even if they didn’t fully appreciate its strength at the time, Nixon and Kissinger were playing a much stronger hand than the one that has been dealt to Putin.

In the major strategy papers it has published, the Trump administration has pledged a renewed focus on great-power competition — a strategic concept that Washington has embraced on a remarkably bipartisan basis. It remains unclear, however, how it intends to translate these declarations into operational concepts, particularly in the Middle East. Reapplying Nixon-Kissinger rules to the region would be a good place to start.

In practice, this would entail several things. Most important, it would mean dispensing with the chimera of Russia’s becoming a strategic partner in Syria or anywhere else in the region. Rather than chasing after Putin in the hope of convincing him to cooperate on the basis of shared interests, the United States should approach the Middle East as Russia does — as a theater for rivalry — and look for opportunities there to diminish the Kremlin’s power, tie down its resources, and outmaneuver the Kremlin militarily and diplomatically.

In the Syrian context, in particular, a Nixon-Kissinger strategy would seek to turn the tables on Moscow by demonstrating the Kremlin’s inability to achieve its key strategic objectives there absent American assent. For all his Machiavellian skill, the fact is that Putin today cannot by himself consolidate a post-war settlement or expel U.S. forces or rehabilitate Assad’s international legitimacy or provide the funding needed to reconstruct regime-held territories. 

In fact, as the Trump administration demonstrated with its two airstrikes against Assad in retaliation for his use of chemical weapons, Russia isn’t even capable of protecting its client when the United States summons the resolve to act militarily against him. Washington should be on the lookout for other such targets of opportunity, literal and figurative, to underscore this point.

As the United States itself has learned, battlefield “victories” in the Middle East have a way of proving as costly as defeats. The aim now should be to bog Russia down in Syria until its leadership realizes that it possesses neither the unilateral capacity to resolve the crisis into which it has thrust itself nor the endurance to persist in it indefinitely. At that point, it will be Russia that is compelled to petition the U.S. for help in resolving the Syria stalemate, not the other way around.

What has happened in Syria since 2011 is typically explained in Washington policy circles as either a lesson in the intrinsic limits of American power or an argument for a more forceful application of it. In fact, it is something even more sobering: a sustained failure of statecraft by the United States, which resulted in Washington’s being outwitted at almost every turn by an objectively much weaker yet strategically more creative foe, for the most part without fully realizing what was happening in the process. 

As the United States enters a period of intensifying rivalry with Russia and China, then, the Syrian experience suggests an urgent need for Washington not only to invest in new cutting-edge weapons systems and breakthrough technologies but to rediscover its lost tradition of competitive great-power diplomacy, as previously practiced by figures such as Nixon and Kissinger. It also serves as a warning that, regardless of American preferences, U.S. adversaries will themselves increasingly be playing by Nixon-Kissinger rules against us. For this reason, the Syrian tragedy — far from being the last of a series of avoidable American entanglements in the Middle East — is more likely to prove a harbinger of inescapable struggles to come. 

Vance Serchuk — Mr. Serchuk is the executive director of the KKR Global Institute and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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