Russia and the South: Five Things to Know about Russia’s Relationship with the Middle East and North Africa

Note:  Students in Dr. Hannah Chapman’s Spring 2020 Havighurst Colloquium, “Russia and the World,” completed final projects where they assessed Russian relations with the West, East, North, and South.  This is the fourth and final project, from students responsible for studying Russia and the South.

By: Ziyong Liu, Blake Mullennix, Nancy Pellegrino, Taylor Rathe, and Muriel Truax


Analysts Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss argue that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is arguably “​the most important region of the world​, where the interests of many powers intersect: the United States, the European Union, and even China.”

Unsurprisingly, Russia wants a say in this region. Russia has historical ties to MENA, but today the relationship is evolving. With the conflict in Syria and changes in American foreign policy under the Trump Administration, Russia has an opportunity to achieve its goals in MENA.

Here are five major takeaways necessary to understanding Russia’s relationship with the Middle East and North Africa:

1. Historical Involvement in MENA

Russia’s intervention in MENA is not new. In fact, involvement in MENA has been prevalent throughout Russia’s history, and its exit during the late-Soviet era was the ​exception, not the rule​.

In the 18th Century, Russia began creating ties with Middle Eastern countries to gain access to warm water ports, and in the 19th Century, Russia protected Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. After World War II, Russia courted new Arab states and provided them with arms. In fact, Russia has consistently sold arms to MENA countries and is now the ​second largest global arms exporter​.

Before scaling back ties with MENA countries in the 1980s and 1990s — due to military failures such as the ​First Chechen War​— Soviet involvement in the region was pervasive. In the 1970s, Russia had access to Egyptian support bases and “friendship agreements” with Cairo and Damascus, as outlined in this ​EUISS report​.

Today, Russia has returned their focus on MENA. Although their presence can be found in Israel and the Persian Gulf Arab states, the most notable intervention is in Syria. Carengie Senior Fellow Eugene Rumer writes that Russia has “​emerged​ as a key power broker and military actor” in MENA countries.

2. Russia’s Involvement in the Syrian Civil War

The collapse of the Soviet Union temporarily halted Russia’s foreign policy capabilities in the Middle East and North Africa. Throughout the early 2000s, Russian relations with MENA countries remained relatively weak until the Syrian conflict. Their return to the region is seen as a ​return to the norm​ for international politics.

Russia has made it a mission to ally itself with countries that have been destabilized by US policy or that feel slighted by the West for not adhering to their norms of governance. They thought the effects of the Arab Spring uprisings, which started in 2010 and spread across many Arab states, created a ​power vacuum ​that provided Russia an opportunity to step in as a powerbroker and to address international terrorism.

With the Kremlin’s ties to the Assad family going back half a century, Russia has also diplomatically and economically supported the Assad regime against the opposition since 2011. In 2015, the Kremlin ​escalated their involvement in the Syrian Civil War ​through military intervention that continues to this day. Russia sees their role in the war as a return to their great-power status operating at the crossroads of the world and influencing the region’s politics. Russia feels that having a say in the future of Syria, and therefore, the stability of part of the region, will make them an indispensable actor in the region’s future, whose importance and policy the West will have to recognize and cooperate with.

3. Implications of US Foreign Policy in MENA

Historically, the United States has had close connections with MENA countries. In fact, the U.S. Marines’ first overseas operation took part in North Africa, during the First Barbary War. Marines troops were deployed in North Africa and successfully occupied Tripoli.

The changing of the United States’ foreign policy has influenced Russia’s influence in MENA as well. The U.S. and Kurds were traditionally allies, but after President Trump announced withdrawal from Syria in October 2019, most Kurds felt betrayed and joined the Assad government’s side. Even though U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the U.S. and Kurds were still allies, the relationship between the U.S. and Kurds is ​not easy to fix.

Since Donald Trump became president, his policies have worsened the U.S. and Iranian relationship. On April 8th, 2019, the U.S. government designated the Iran Islamic revolution guards as a ​terrorist group​.On January 3rd, 2020, President Trump ordered the ​assassination of Qasem Soleimani​, putting the U.S. and Iran at the edge of war. In the meantime, more than 60% of Iran’s weapons were provided by Russia, the United States’ behavior may push Iran into purchasing more weapons.

Saudi Arabia sees the United States’ shale gas industry as a ​threat to them​.  In 2020, many shale gas companies have ​declared bankruptcy​. Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed to decrease oil production, but the U.S. only agreed to​ decrease their production ​in exchange for a cease-fire of the oil war.

Generally, the United States’ recent foreign policy in MENA has helped Russia increase their influence in MENA countries.

4. Economic and Energy

Building on the previous points of Russia reclaiming its historical ties and countering U.S. policies, Russia is trying to build its financial status in the MENA region. As Russia searches for great power status, they have done so through diplomacy and military ventures thus far. But there’s one thing that Russia is lagging behind on — economics.

All great powers arguably have the financial resources as a tool. For Russia, whose economy ​is largely based on oil and gas, this provides some issues. They want to invest economically in the region that houses some of their biggest oil and gas competitors.

But as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The United States’ exit militarily from the region has opened up more opportunities for Russia to capitalize on. The Kremlin is proving their worth as they slowly make ​investments across the region ​and particularly in the Gulf States. On oil, Russia’s work with OPEC + has been able to shift oil prices into their favor.

But let’s not forget Russia’s ​military investments​, which have been a consistent tool across the MENA region. Russian arms have provided Russia not only with revenue, but also helps build diplomatic relations and can be effective in conflicts. For Russia, the more buyers, the better

While Russia’s finances have been their Achilles’ heel, they have been actively showing their willingness to invest. In addition, ​COVID-19 may halt​ these ventures, but it shouldn’t be surprising to see Russia trying once again to bring in more money.

5. Diplomatic Opportunities

In its efforts to establish a role as peace-broker in the MENA region, Russia will need to capitalize on its ties with Syria, as well as the opportunities for secure diplomatic opportunities in the region. Until now, the Kremlin has assumed that order will emerge spontaneously ​as strong military and political leaders network over shared interests. ​However, in order to achieve the goal of being a strong peace-broker, Russia will need to consolidate a strategy of active diplomacy oriented toward diversifying relationships, presenting a non-ideological approach, and showing long-term investment in Syria.

While the U.S. has traditionally been interested in inspiring and sustaining Western liberal values such as democracy, Russia is more pragmatic — aiming instead at security and stability. ​U.S. failures in MENA​, especially in the Syrian Civil War provide an opportunity for Russia to contrast itself with the U.S. in the eyes of both the European Union and Syrian allies. Russia has strengthened its relationship with the Assad regime at the expense of the U.S. This will continue to be the case as long as Trump is in office. The U.S. abandonment of its Kurdish allies has created a vacuum that Russia will likely continue to fill.

It remains to be seen what actions Putin ultimately will take. Partnering with the EU seems an efficacious strategy in bolstering Russia’s diplomatic relations. The fact that ​Trump’s presidency​has resulted in a difficult relationship with the EU provides a vacuum for Russia to step in as a peace-broker between the EU and the MENA region. A shared interest in thwarting terrorist activity is a valuable starting point for negotiations. Furthermore, if Russia steps in to help the EU absorb the crisis of Syrian refugees, relations could be even better.


In Russia’s quest for great power status in the world, the tools are all there. A power vacuum, oil and arms trade, and diplomatic opportunities provide ways for Russia to shine on the world stage. The question is whether Russia will be able to adjust its political methods for a post-Soviet era.

Russia’s historical interactions in the MENA region reveal that there’s more to the story than is immediately obvious to the contemporary eye. Concern for ethnic and religious groups that Russia considers under its protection create strong bias in Russia’s foreign policy attitude. Furthermore, with Putin not growing any younger, what will Russia’s next power transition look like?

The COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming 2020 presidential election in the U.S. are other factors that could drastically change Russia’s assets and options internationally. For the time being, Russia’s MENA presence is a key stepping-stone in its rise as a major player on the international stage.

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