In late March 2015, Jamal al-Khashoggi, a well-connected Saudi journalist, wrote that Saudi Arabia could no longer bear Iran’s policy of regional expansion and “American silence over it.” He said the king had decided that Saudi interests must come first, and Saudi Arabia would act on its own, if necessary. These two points, according to Khashoggi, were the core of the new “Salman doctrine.” In recent years, Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states suspect the U.S. is retreating from its security commitments in the Persian Gulf. Even more troubling, in their eyes, is the possibility that the U.S. may be tilting toward revolutionary Shiite Iran during a period when the region has become polarized along sectarian lines, following years of Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq and Syria. There appears to be a noticeable gap in the formerly air-tight relationship between the U.S. and its Arab allies in the Gulf. Russia, for its part, is exploiting this slow-motion rift-in-the-making between the U.S. and the Arab Gulf States.
From Primakov to Putin
Russia’s foreign policy under Vladimir Putin has, to a great degree, been an extension of principles established by Yevgeny Primakov, who was the Russian foreign minister prior to Putin’s rise to power in the late 1990s. Primakov was an experienced Middle East hand, and a savvy diplomat and bureaucrat. As the head of the Institute for Oriental Studies from 1977 to 1985, and later the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, he was respected intellectually, spoke fluent Georgian and Arabic, and enjoyed close relations with the Soviet and post-Soviet security services in Russia.
Talal Nizameddin, the author of Putin’s New Order in the Middle East, argues that Primakov introduced “realism” into Russia’s foreign policy. Primakov’s post-Soviet worldview was shaped in the early 1990s, when he served as head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Primakov, according to Nizameddin, did not accept the inevitability of U.S. dominance of the international system, but at the same time, he was not an “irrational anti-Western nationalist.” Primakov’s realism was based on two ideas: first, pragmatism rather than ideological commitment should dictate policy; and, second, Russia’s position in the international system should be strengthened by building strategic relations with regional powers such as China, India, and Iran, which were viewed as lucrative markets for Russian military technology.
There is continuity between Primakov and Putin, particularly in Putin’s pragmatism, but Putin has also injected a strong dose of nationalism into Russia’s foreign policy. Putin believes that since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has systematically ignored or marginalized Russian national interests. As Sergei Karaganov, Dean of the School of World Economics and World Politics at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, has explained, Russia’s confrontation with the West is a product of the “West’s refusal to recognize a worthy place for Russia in European and global politics, which Moscow considers natural and legitimate.” In the eyes of Putin, “The West has been trying to act as a victor, while denying this position to Russia.” Putin’s strategy, which builds on Primakov’s principles, is built on “ideologizing the confrontation [with the U.S.] under the banner of building a new and more just world order in place of the U.S.-centric one that is now under increasing strain,” in the words of Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
In the U.S., analysts such as Joshua Rovner, Director of the Security and Strategy Program at Southern Methodist University, have labeled Putin “a bad strategist,” whose “mistakes are demolishing his plan to make Russia a great power again.” But Russia’s strategy is perhaps more sophisticated than is often acknowledged in the West, where some believe Russia is a failing regional power and Vladimir Putin’s behavior does Russia more harm than good. Yet Russia is not simply out to play the global spoiler or “troublemaker.” Rather, Russia would like to help construct an alternative world order that is not dominated by the United States. In the economic realm, for example, Russia may increasingly try to marry its Eurasian Economic Union initiatives with China’s “One Belt, One Road” and “Maritime Silk Road” economic projects in order to present an alternative model to U.S.-centric trade agreements. So broadly speaking, Russia’s strategy is to help create an alternative international framework to U.S. leadership. In the Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, where some states are frustrated by U.S. behavior, as evidenced by the “Salman doctrine,” Russia is putting its strategy into action.
Arms, Arms, and Arms
In August 2015, Saudi Arabia announced it was interested in purchasing the Russian Iskander-M short range ballistic missile system, and later in the month expressed interest in purchasing Russia’s Ka-52K combat helicopters. The rulers of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are all expected to make state visits to Russia in 2015. Unlike the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia, according to Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View columnist, “isn’t bound by ideology or principle, and that may help the regime stay in power.” Today’s Russia is a capitalist country that exports its goods to the world. It can feed its people and its economic system is made of “sturdier” stuff than the Soviet system. The Russian economy generates revenues by exporting and transporting energy (oil and natural gas), selling nuclear technology, selling military technology and equipment, which supports its military-industrial elites, and agricultural exports, such as wheat. The Middle East markets are important for Russia, and breaking into the U.S.-dominated Gulf market for military technology would be a coup for Russia.
Russia has benefited from conflict in the Middle East. According to Maxim Suchkov, Associate Professor at the Institute for Strategic Studies based in Pyatigorsk, Russia, between 2006 and 2009, the Middle East was the largest market for Russian arms. In the five years leading up to the civil war in 2011, Syria had increased its arms purchases from Russia by 600 percent. Algeria is also a large buyer of Russian arms, and, since 2013, Egypt has become another big Middle East customer for Russia, signing a $3.5 billion arms deal in February 2014. In 2015, Iraq was expected to spend $3 billion on Russian arms. Russia’s trade with Iraq grew from $250 million to $2 billion in 2014. There are even reports that Saudi Arabia will help Morocco purchase Russia’s Amur-1650 submarine. Morocco is expected to pay $150 million of the approximately $340 million total for the submarine. Indeed, Saudi Arabia remains the “whale” of Middle East military spending; its defense spending increased by 17 percent to more than $80 billion in 2014.
The Saudi-Russia arms deals came on the heels of Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s June 2015 visit during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, during which he met with Putin. The visit produced six agreements in several important areas, including the energy, military, and nuclear fields. In addition to the arms deals announced in August, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund committed to investing $10 billion in Russia over the next 5 years. Further, Saudi Arabia may begin purchasing civilian nuclear technology from Russia. Nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia could ultimately be worth $30 to $40 billion to Russia, if it materializes. And the Saudis may even have discussed providing Russia with the latest advanced technology for oil and gas recovery, which would allow Russia to circumvent Western sanctions on supplying such technology to its state-owned energy firms.
Taken as a whole, these agreements represent a major Saudi policy reorientation in its approach to Russia. It is important to bear in mind that while Russia’s strategy is to offer a more egalitarian world order to those frustrated with the U.S.-centric rules of the game, it nevertheless employs a ruthless tactical toolbox to advance its national interests. Lukyanov has used a martial arts metaphor—invoking Judo or Aikido—to describe Putin’s tactics, arguing that Russia dodges blows and benefits from its rivals’ mistakes by using their own strength and inertia against them. Lukyanov suggests that U.S. inaction in Syria is an example of Russia benefiting from U.S. mistakes in the region. So while Russia’s Middle East strategy may not endear it to the region’s Sunnis, it has succeeded in convincing them that they must attend to Russia’s interests to advance their own.
Since the Syrian rebellion turned into a civil war in 2012, Saudi Arabia and Russia have been on opposite sides of the conflict. Russia, which has a long-standing relationship with the Asad regime, viewed him as a secular levee holding back the rising tide of Sunni radicalism. Russia, for its part, dutifully provided the regime with military technology, arms, and intelligence and logistics support. Saudi Arabia viewed the Asad regime’s brutal war against the Syrian Sunni majority as destroying its legitimate authority in Syria. The Saudis have insisted Asad must be removed from power.
In mid-2013 Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief at the time , went to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin. Saudi Arabia wanted Russia to drop its support for Asad in Syria. According to reports, Prince Bandar tried a “carrot and stick” approach, offering Russia $15 billion in arms deals and a pledge from GCC states not to compete with Russia in the European gas market. Bandar then ominously suggested to Putin that Saudi Arabia controlled the Chechen jihadi groups who were threatening the security of Russia’s upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Putin is reported to have responded by saying, “We know that you have supported the Chechen terrorist groups for a decade. And that support, which you have frankly talked about just now, is completely incompatible with the common objectives of fighting global terrorism that you mentioned. We are interested in developing friendly relations according to clear and strong principles.” The Saudi attempt to play hardball with Putin in 2013 went nowhere.
For much of 2012 and the first half of 2013, the Saudis held out hope they would be able to convince the U.S. to help them remove Asad from power. It is clear that the Saudis felt betrayed by the U.S. decision not to enforce its red line in the aftermath of the Asad regime’s chemical weapons attacks in August 2013. Khashoggi and Nawaf Obaid, a fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, bitterly expressed the Saudi frustration with the U.S.-Russia agreement, “The removal of al-Asad is simply too important an opportunity to check Iranian interference in the Arab world for the Saudis and their allies to leave it to a deceitful Russian plan.” So what changed between September 2013 and August 2015 that caused the Saudis to reevaluate their approach to Russia?
There were three important developments that changed the Saudi thinking on Russia. First, Saudi King ‘Abdullah passed away and was succeeded by his brother King Salman. Salman aggressively promoted a new generation of leadership, including his son Muhammad. Under Salman, the Saudis are taking a more active approach to regional security challenges. Second, the Syrian civil war escalated. In June 2014, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Sham) swept over the Syrian border into Iraq and seized Mosul, declaring itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate (IS). In a November 13, 2014 audio recording, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi directly threatened the Saudi regime. The Islamic State’s revolutionary Sunni salafi-jihadis were now targeting the Saudi kingdom. Third, between September 2014 and February 2015, the Houthis, a Shiite revivalist group backed by Iran, conquered the Yemeni capital and overthrew the government. At the end of March 2015, the Saudis formed a coalition of Arab states and launched Operation Storm of Resolve to roll back the Houthi gains, restrict Iranian interference, and restore the government in Yemen.
No American Leadership
The Saudis recognized that with the U.S. on the sidelines it needed Russia’s help to simultaneously contain Iran and ISIS. Without Russian support, the Saudis would not be able to get the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution sanctioning an arms embargo on the Houthis in Yemen. And with ISIS a growing threat in Syria, and a potential danger to both Russia and the Saudis, Russian and Saudi interests were converging in Syria, despite their differences on the Asad regime. To be sure, Russia is not ready to abandon Asad, but it is beginning to recognize that his regime is wobbling and facing a potential shortage of manpower. Therefore, Russia may be more willing than before to see how it can profit from brokering a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. The proliferation of Saudi deals with Russia may be an effort to show Russia that Saudi cash may be able to mitigate Russia’s losses in Syria, if and when the regime falls.
In the wake of the announcements of the Saudi-Russian arms deals, it was suggested that the Saudis were trying to convince Russia to limit any additional sales to Iran and the Asad regime. But the Saudi approach to Russia is a broader play. Put simply, in the absence of effective U.S. involvement, Saudi Arabia wants Russia, which is a key player in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, to be on its side.
The new Saudi approach to Russia illustrates how Russia is cashing in on its political influence in the Middle East, and advancing its broader strategy of offering an alternative to U.S. power.
Brandon Friedman is a Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University. The author would like to thank Yonatan Maher and Alexandra Tyurgashova for their research contributions to this article.