Ever since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow’s main partners in the Middle East — Iran and Syria — have largely backed Putin’s war effort. Iran has even shipped large quantities of armed drones
to Russia for use against Ukraine and has helped it evade Western economic sanctions as well. By contrast, long-time allies and partners of the US in the Middle East, as well as other governments in the region, have largely not joined the US and its Western allies either in supporting Ukraine or sanctioning Russia.
This is clearly not the policy toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine that Washington, Kyiv, Brussels, and other Western capitals had hoped for from the American’s Middle Eastern partners such as the Gulf Arab monarchies, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel — all of whom the West has been cooperating with, supporting, and even defending for several decades. Why has this occurred?
There are two main reasons. One has to do with the success of Vladimir Putin’s Middle Eastern diplomacy which he has pursued ever since he first came to power at the turn of the century. This has been aimed not just at improving Russian ties with the anti-Western regimes in the region, but with traditionally pro-Western ones as well. The other is the nexus of reinforcing considerations resulting in America’s Middle Eastern partners concluding that it is not in their interests to join the US and the West in supporting Ukraine or sanctioning Russia — and, indeed, that doing so could well be harmful to their interests. Each of these factors will be examined in turn.Putin’s Successful Middle Eastern Policy
Although the Soviet Union did attempt to establish good relations with conservative, pro-Western governments in the Middle East, it only achieved limited success at this due to Moscow’s emphasis on supporting anti-Western regimes
, including those which came to power by overthrowing pro-Western ones. Indeed, even Arab nationalist regimes in the Middle East sometimes feared
that Moscow supported internal forces which sought to overthrow them. This changed by the end of the Gorbachev era when Moscow’s relations improved with pro-Western Middle Eastern regimes in line with the general improvement of Moscow’s relations with the West.1
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of political, economic, and interethnic turmoil in Russia during the 1990s, Moscow became less active in the Middle East (though not inactive).2
When Putin first came to power, his priorities regarding the Middle East were to make sure that Middle Eastern governments did not support the then ongoing Chechen rebellion, and to bolster the ailing Russian economy through boosting exports to and seeking investment from the Middle East. Achieving both of these goals required building Moscow’s ties with wealthier states in the Middle East
, which tended to be America’s traditional partners. Russia and most of America’s traditional partners in the Middle East also found common cause in not supporting the US decision to invade Iraq.3
Further, Moscow and America’s Middle Eastern partners were on the same page in opposing American and Western attempts to promote
(however weakly) democracy and human rights in the region, especially at the time of the Arab Spring in 2011. Finally, Putin’s efforts to improve relations with America’s traditional Middle Eastern partners were cemented through Putin visiting several of them
, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
Just as in the Soviet era, though, Putin pursued policies that America’s Middle East partners found threatening. Yet while Russian support for the pro-Iranian Assad regime in Syria was unpopular with those Middle Eastern governments which had hoped to see it fall, Moscow was successfully able to portray itself
as a steadfast defender of its allies while playing into fears of America’s Middle Eastern allies that the US was not. Further, while the Gulf Arab states and Israel were unhappy with how much Putin was cooperating with Iran, Putin was able to placate them somewhat through cooperation with them as well.
Putin’s policy, then, was a successful application of a “carrot and stick” strategy
: governments unfavorable toward Putin’s cooperation with Iran dared not break with Russia for fear that such a break would further Russia’s cooperation with Iran. Yet Putin’s willingness to cooperate with Iran’s adversaries (something Tehran did not like) suggested that he might somehow restrain hostile Iranian actions against them. Perhaps