Russia is trying to appear as a new player in the process of the Middle East balance of power, and it seems that the sale of a better defense system to the Saudis (S-400) in comparison to the system sold to Iran (S-300) is consistent with the pattern of Russian efforts to influence the region. An important view in this regard deals with the issue that why did Moscow, after years of waiting, decide to sell S-300 defense system to Iran (as its ally, at least in some strategic areas such as Syria), while it responded positively and almost immediately to the request of Saudi Arabia (a country that has recently been trying to improve its relations with the Kremlin) to purchase a more sophisticated defense system (S-400)? Stephen Bryen, a former Pentagon official, writes in an analysis for Asia Times on October 13: “Not only the king of Saudi Arabia, but also Turkey, as one of the enemies of Russia during the Cold War, is willing to receive the Russian S-400 system, since the system is very effective against ballistic missiles Iran will have access to over the next few years”.
The sale of Russia’s S-400 system to the Gulf states was done based on a pattern created by China in the past decade, meaning China simultaneously sold missiles to Iran and Saudi Arabia, but it offered more advanced missiles to the Saudis who were less powerful than Iran in terms of military power - China wanted to keep this balance of power between these two countries. Russia’s policy in the Middle East seems to change from an actor “sabotaging” or “disrupting games” in a way that its policy has been like a classic balance of power approach in recent weeks.
“Peace can only be achieved with hegemony or the balance of power,” says Henry Kissinger. In other words, powers who cannot practice hegemony are trying to maintain the balance. The classic example of this case is Britain, which allied with Prussia against France during the Napoleonic Wars, and later allied with France against Germany. Britain could not play the role of a hegemon in Europe, so this country was seeking to prevent the absolute rule of France or Germany. The same story holds true about Russia who cannot replace the United States’ hegemony in the Middle East, so it seeks to strike a balance in the region.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov called for Russia’s mediation between Tehran and Riyadh a while ago, but any negotiation in this regard seems to be far-fetched and of low value. Although the United States has agreed to supply Saudi Arabia with the THAAD system (as an immediate response to the possible dealings between Russia and Saudi Arabia in terms of S-400 system), with regard to military analyses, the Saudis want to buy S-400 to have any possible conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran considered.
Another attempt by Russia to create the balance of power in the Middle East relates to the Russian approaches in Syria, meaning, on the one hand, Russia sees Iran as its key ally to support the Assad government, and on the other hand, it considers the Israeli security concerns over the presence of Iranian forces and those of Hezbollah in the borders, and is somehow aligned with Tel Aviv. The Israeli media have consistently reported the high-level consultations between Tel Aviv and Moscow officials.
One of the important points to be noted here is Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis. The Russian military intervention in Syria had several reasons, including the fact that the Russians were worried about the Caucasian jihadi fighters involved in Syria and their return after the crisis would end in Syria. From the perspective of Russia, the US long-term support for Sunni jihadists has led to the unintended consequence of strengthening al-Qaeda and the ISIS. In addition, Sunni jihadists have often threatened Russia, and the existence of a large Sunni population in Russia has led Moscow to put it in its agenda to openly support Shiites (at least tactically). However, the goals of the Russians in Syria have now been fulfilled: the Assad government has been strengthened and consolidated, Sunni jihadists in Syria have lost much of their power, and the Russian military base in Tartus is more secure than ever before. So Moscow plans to take another policy in such a situation.
Russia is trying to maintain its diplomatic influence in Iraqi Kurdistan as well. Despite the strong threats from countries such as Turkey against the Kurdish referendum in Iraq, Moscow seems to be willing to maintain its big investments in Iraqi Kurdistan. In addition, Russia has sometimes shown sympathy with Kurdish ideals.
The truth is that Russia wants to manage the balance of power in the Middle East, but it is still unclear to what extent it will succeed in this matter. Russia’s military strike on targets in Syria through Iran’s airspace was an act that was less likely to be realized before, and such cooperation has led Moscow to take positive approaches to Tehran. However, it should be said that although Iranian views are close to those of Russia, it does not mean that it is a puppet of Moscow, and always behaves according to the wishes of the Russians.
The Americans and, before that, the British have been weak in adopting policies which would balance the power in the Middle East, and there is no strong reason suggesting that the Russians can do this. Nevertheless, Russia’s changing position from a “regional actor disrupting the game” to “an actor balancing the conflict of interest among regional powers” is a kind of diplomatic revolution. Time will show whether the Russian approaches will create a kind of peace and stability in the Middle East, and whether a post-American Middle East can be seen or not.
Ehsan Taghvaeinia, an expert on Eurasia Affairs, is the guest contributor to IRAS.
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