By Jacob L. Shapiro
Last month, well before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman purged the government of potential rivals, his father, King Salman, did something unprecedented as well: He visited Russia, Saudi Arabia’s erstwhile enemy. After the visit came the usual slew of announced business deals that promise a lot but deliver little. On Nov. 13, however, Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation announced that it would provide Saudi Arabia with its sophisticated S-400 air defense missiles. King Salman’s visit appears to have delivered real cooperation.
A Relationship Redefined
That Saudi Arabia and Russia would redefine the nature of their relationship is surprising in its own right. These were two countries firmly on opposite ends of the Cold War. But even more jarring is that Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, has been silent. Iran and Russia have a complicated relationship in their own right, one marked for centuries by suspicion and distrust. But in recent years they had set aside their differences, becoming military allies to save Bashar Assad and destroy the Islamic State. Now, Russia is promising to supply Iran’s biggest enemy with air defense missiles – and Iran hasn’t made a peep. Something doesn’t add up.
Consider Russia’s position in the Middle East. Most observers claim that by partnering with Iran to save the Assad regime, Russia enhanced its influence in the region at the expense of the United States. This is a misunderstanding. Russia’s intervention was actually pretty limited. At the height of its involvement, it had only 30-75 fighter jets and helicopters operating in the country. Its commitment was small but successful, insofar as it prevented the Syrian government from falling and the Islamic State from rising.
But it did not undermine U.S. strategic goals in the Middle East. If anything, it enhanced them. When the Syrian civil war started, the U.S. was determined to remove Assad. Yet there weren’t enough moderates for it to train and arm, and in any case, the Islamic State looked as though it may take Damascus for itself. And so the United States prioritized its fight against IS over its fight against Assad. Russia was, in effect, helping the U.S. do its dirty work. For all the bluster surrounding their relations, the U.S. and Russia have been coordinating their efforts in Syria in pursuit of a common goal for years.
Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems ride through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2017. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
Now that Assad has been saved and the Islamic State’s caliphate vanquished, the question is: What comes next? With IS out of the picture, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran – which had if nothing else a common enemy – no longer have a reason to cooperate with one another. Life after IS is actually more difficult for Russia than life with it. Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all competing to fill the power vacuum left by the group’s departure, and Russia’s long-term interests don’t align with any of theirs.
Unlike the Islamic State, all three countries have the power to threaten Russian interests directly. Take Turkey, for example. It can cut off Russia’s access to the Mediterranean by closing the Bosporus. It competes with Russia in the Caucasus. And as it strengthens, it will begin to project power into the Balkans, another region in Russia’s sphere of influence.
Iran, like Turkey, has interests in the Caucasus. It also shares a border with Central Asia and Afghanistan – another Russian sphere of influence where Iran can cause serious problems for Moscow.
And Saudi Arabia, for its part, poses two challenges of its own. First, Saudi Arabia can still influence global oil prices, where even small fluctuations can hurt the Russian economy. Second, Saudi Arabia is the worldwide leader in exporting jihadism, a threat to a country like Russia, which has a large minority Muslim population that is fast increasing.
Russia has met these challenges not by choosing one country to align with but by trying to forge better relationships with all of them. Its relationship with Turkey is rocky but sustainable. (In fact, in September, Turkey signed its own agreement to receive S-400s from Russia.) Its relationship with Iran is solid but not without drama. A Russian announcement in August 2016 that it was using an Iranian air base for attacks in Syria set off a short-lived political controversy in Iran, sparking backlash from Iranian politicians who felt Russia’s use of the base violated Iran’s Constitution. Now Russia is reaching out to Saudi Arabia, and besides the agreements on military cooperation, Moscow secured a promise from King Salman during his visit last month to stop Saudi proselytizing to Muslims in Russia.
Russia is cultivating other ties too. Officials from Moscow have met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several times this year and have kept lines of communication open over Hezbollah’s potential acquisition of advanced weaponry. Russia has also expressed some support for various Kurdish groups vying for independence in the region. Moscow has, for example, kept open its embassy in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, throughout the contentious independence referendum.
And while Russia has said it does not support the PYD, the Kurdish political party in northern Syria, in its push for independence, it nonetheless invited the group to a congress comprising all relevant parties to discuss Syria’s future – much to the chagrin of Turkey, Iran and anti-Assad Syrian opposition groups.
Silence and Blindness
Russian foreign policy can be disruptive, but it would be a mistake to think of it as monolithic or unchanging. The Cold War, for all its faults, simplified foreign policy. (Simple doesn’t mean easy.) It was unclear whether the U.S. or USSR was more powerful. Regions like the Middle East became battlegrounds to see which one was. The U.S. had its allies (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey) and the USSR had its allies (Egypt, Syria, Iraq). Sometimes countries switched sides, but ultimately it was a zero-sum game, with each side trying to weaken the other.
But the Cold War has been over for more than two decades. Today’s Russia is not yesterday’s Soviet Union. The U.S. and Russia actually share some long-term interests in the Middle East. Neither wants to see any one country dominate the entire region. Washington and Moscow want parity; they prefer that the region’s countries compete with one another rather than cause problems for them. In a perfect world, the U.S. would be embroiled in the Middle East and Russia would be free. But theirs is not a perfect world, so Moscow’s primary objective is to make sure the problems and ambitions of the Middle East stay in the Middle East.
This altogether different strategy of containment brings us back to Iran – and its silence on the budding Saudi-Russia friendship. Iran does not think it needs to attack Saudi Arabia head on. The government in Tehran believes Saudi Arabia will eventually collapse under the weight of its own problems, and that, in the meantime, the best thing Iran can do is engage Saudi Arabia in expensive and time-consuming proxy wars. Iran may not particularly like Russia’s providing Saudi Arabia with S-400s, but it can look past this particular issue because none of its red lines have been crossed. Russia is, after all, still playing an important role in helping the Assad regime – a key Iranian ally – retake the parts of Syria it has lost in the war. That is worth more right now than a public denunciation of some missile acquisitions.
But just because Iran is silent doesn’t mean it is blind to what’s happening. And just because Iran and Russia have cooperated in recent years doesn’t mean their relationship is ironclad. Russia cannot be everything to everyone in the region, and at some point it will be forced to make difficult decisions. In the meantime, pragmatism reigns. By improving relations with Saudi Arabia, Russia is hedging the bets it placed on Iran. By keeping quiet, Iran continues to reap what benefits it can from Russia’s moves. News about the S-400s doesn’t change much, but it underscores just how quickly change can come.