Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow has focused its resources on prosecuting the war there. Russia, though, has continued to pay attention to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) where it has sought to advance its various strategic goals in a region where Putin has actively sought to extend Russian influence ever since he first came to power at the turn of the century. Moscow, though, is not just continuing the pursuit of its pre-existing goals there but has also acquired new goals in the MENA region related to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Examined here will be Moscow’s MENA goals since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, how successful Moscow has been in achieving them, what obstacles it has encountered, and how Moscow’s MENA policies might fare under various scenarios regarding how the Ukraine conflict might end (or not end).
Moscow’s MENA Goals
The 2023 Russian foreign policy “concept” paper approved by President Vladimir Putin states that “the Russian Federation is going to focus on six goals in the “Islamic world” (though these relate mainly to the MENA region): 1) “full-scale and trustful” cooperation with Iran, support for Syria, and developing partnerships with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other unnamed member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation “given their sovereignty and constructiveness of their policy toward the Russian Federation”; 2) establishing a “sustainable comprehensive regional security and cooperation architecture” in the MENA region with all states there and in conjunction with the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council; 3) “promoting interfaith and intercultural dialogue and understanding”; 4) reconciling differences between Iran and the Arab countries, between Syria and both its Arab neighbours and Israel; and between the Arab states and Israel including a solution to the Palestinian issue (but with no mention made about attempting to resolve differences between Israel and Iran); 5) helping resolve and overcome the consequences of armed conflicts more generally; and 6) “unleashing the economic potential” of the members states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation with a view to establishing the Greater Eurasian Partnership.” Elsewhere, the document states that one of the goals that Russia intends “to give priority attention to” is providing allies and partners “with practical assistance in counterterrorism operations, including for the protection of Christians in the Middle East” (MFA, 2023). This “protection of Christians in the Middle East” is a goal that hearkens back to a similar mission that Tsarist Russia set for itself in the 19th century.
Programmatic documents such as this 2023 “concept” paper with their emphases on plans for cooperation and partnership do not, of course, give a complete picture of Russia’s goals in the MENA region. Even if not spelled out by Moscow, though, these can be inferred from examining Russian actions in the region. Doing so suggests that Moscow has the following aims:
Moscow’s minimum goal is to maintain its presence there, and not let the exigencies of the war in Ukraine result in a Russian withdrawal – especially of its various military and security forces – from MENA.
In addition, Moscow seeks to continue its past trajectory of being able to exert influence through successfully cooperating with opposing sides simultaneously throughout the MENA region. Prior to the beginning of the Ukraine war in February 2022, Moscow had good relations with Iran as well as with Iran’s adversaries Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE; with Israel as well as with rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas; with Turkey as well as with the Syrian Kurds whom Ankara regards as enemies; with the Baghdad government in Iraq and with the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil; and with opposing sides and their external backers in Libya and Yemen. This policy has enabled Moscow to provide many MENA governments and movements with an incentive to cooperate with Russia despite its support for their adversaries.
Iran and Syria are the only two MENA governments which have actively supported Russia’s war against Ukraine. Despite this, Russia has sought to maintain good relations with other MENA actors, including the West’s traditional partners, so that they do not join the United States and its NATO allies in actively supporting Ukraine or sanctioning Russia – all the while maintaining close ties to anti-Western regimes in Iran and Syria.
Finally, Moscow has sought to exploit opportunities to take advantage of the impact of the war in Ukraine on the MENA region, as well as differences over the war that have arisen between MENA and Western governments, in order to weaken Western (especially American) influence in the region and increase Russia’s own there.
Russian Successes in the MENA Region
How successful has Russia been in advancing these goals? Moscow has certainly met its minimum goal of maintaining its presence in the region. However, Russia did reportedly withdraw some military personnel as well as weapons systems from Syria after its invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces have also reportedly turned over certain areas in Syria that they had previously been deployed in over to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp and their various Shi’a militia allies (Yacoubian 2023). Nevertheless, Russia maintains both naval and air facilities in Syria as well as a robust military presence, including air defence missile systems.
Furthermore, the Wagner presence in Libya remains strong enough to support the expanding Wagner role in several Sahel countries just to the south (Eljarh, 2023). In addition, Russia and Algeria conducted naval exercises in the Mediterranean in October 2022 and military exercises in western Algeria near the Moroccan border in January-February 2023 (Algérie Part, 2023).
Moscow was also pleased that MENA countries did not join in Western economic sanctions against Russia, and so Russian trade with MENA countries has continued, as has its diplomatic presence throughout the region. Although several MENA governments have voted for various UN General Assembly resolutions criticizing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several others abstained or did not vote on these. In its capacity as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) voted to abstain on two Security Council resolutions condemning the Russian invasion – something which came as a shock to its longtime Western partners.
Ever since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s dependence on Tehran has greatly increased. With its own weapons inventories being rapidly depleted as a result of the conflict and the Russian weapons industry being unable to manufacture new weapons fast enough, Moscow has been buying armed drones and artillery shells from Iran. There have even been reports of Iranian advisers helping Russian forces launch Iranian drones against Ukraine (Barnes, 2022). Yet despite this increased Russian dependence on Iranian arms imports, Moscow has maintained strong relations with the MENA governments most fearful of Iran: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Moscow’s ability to cooperate with opposing sides successfully in the MENA region, then, has continued.
Russia has also been able to take advantage of the impact of the Ukraine war on MENA grain imports. A Russian naval blockade of Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea in the initial months of the war served to raise grain prices dramatically. It also made MENA dependent on Russia continuing to cooperate with the Turkish- and UN-brokered agreement that allowed Ukrainian grain exports to resume. Russia was also able to continue its own export of grain as well as fertilizer to the region. MENA customers buying Ukrainian grain, Russian grain, or Russian fertilizer all have a strong incentive to continue good relations with Russia in order to maintain these vital supplies without which MENA could experience serious internal turmoil (Al-Saidi, 2023).
What has also helped Russia maintain and possibly expand its influence in the MENA region has been the desire of MENA governments to profit financially from the war by continuing to trade with Moscow while the West is sanctioning Russia. In addition, Moscow benefits from MENA governments which have traditionally been aligned with the West, which see it in their interests now to cooperate with both Russia and the West. Finally, Moscow also benefits from MENA governments wishing to be seen as independent actors on the world stage who do not take orders from Washington and Brussels.
Thus, Russia has not just been able to maintain its presence in the MENA region since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, but has also successfully pursued its various aims there as a result of both its own policies and the policy choices made by MENA governments.
Obstacles Russia Faces in the MENA Region
Nevertheless, there appear to be some important limits on what Russia has been able to accomplish in the MENA region since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
One of these is that Moscow’s ability to cooperate with opposing sides simultaneously may have declined in some instances. Even though Russian forces remain present in Syria, Moscow has become progressively less willing or able to prevent Israeli-Iranian clashes there (Azizi, 2023). Furthermore, while Israel has resisted US and Ukrainian requests that it supply arms to Kyiv in order to avoid offending Moscow, Israel has more recently allowed the US to transfer American weapons stored in Israel to Ukraine (Schmitt, 2023).
Similarly, instead of an opportunity that Moscow can exploit, the conflict in Sudan between rival security forces – both of which Moscow has cooperated with to suppress Sudan’s civilian democratic movement – is something that might hurt the achievement of Russia’s efforts to obtain naval facilities at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Although an agreement to grant such facilities was reportedly reached, it has not yet been implemented. The conflict between Sudan’s rival security services may be one factor hindering this. In addition, while Egyptian leader al-Sisi (whom Moscow has long been cultivating) supports the leader of the Sudanese army led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan , Moscow’s (and also Cairo’s) ally General Haftar in eastern Libya supports its rival, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (who is also known as known as Hemedti). Wagner forces based in eastern Libya have reportedly been assisting the latter – which is either a sign that Moscow is not completely in control of what Wagner does in Africa or reflects overconfidence that the Sudanese military has no other choice but to propitiate Moscow to ameliorate this situation (Houreld, 2023).
So far, Iran and Syria are the only MENA governments to actively provide military assistance for Russia’s war effort against Ukraine. Other MENA governments have either not taken this step or been hesitant about doing so. According to US government documents leaked by Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira on the Discord messaging platform, Egyptian President al-Sisi had agreed to secretly export large volumes of artillery shells to Russia, which has been rapidly depleting its own stocks. Egypt, however, decided not to go through with this plan after it was publicized and Washington – which continues to be Egypt’s main arms supplier – strenuously objected. According to another of these documents, Cairo subsequently agreed to export weapons to Ukraine (Ryan, 2023). Furthermore, while Western governments have been unhappy about how much Turkey has been cooperating with Russia since the outbreak of the war, Moscow cannot be happy that Ankara has sold armed drones to Kyiv, which has reportedly put them to effective use against Russian forces (Carbonaro, 2022). Also, Morocco (which refused to even vote on some UN General Assembly resolutions criticizing the Russian invasion of Ukraine) has reportedly begun sending tanks to Kyiv – perhaps in response to Russian support for its rival, Algeria (Holleis, 2023).
The war in Ukraine has also recently had a negative impact on Moscow’s ability to sell arms to MENA governments. Egypt had been set to buy $2 billion worth of Russian Su-35 fighter aircraft, but this deal reportedly fell through in part because of Washington’s objections to it. Whatever Cairo’s frustrations with Washington, the Egyptian leadership apparently decided that the benefits of acquiring Russian Su-35s were not worth the risks of jeopardizing further American arms supplies, which Cairo relies so heavily on. Moscow has reportedly diverted the Su-35s intended for Egypt to Iran, which does not have good relations with Washington to worry about losing (Defensemirror.com, 2023).
Western sanctions have made it more difficult for Moscow to import the components needed for inclusion in Russian-manufactured weapons systems. Furthermore, most of the weapons that Russia does produce are now needed by Moscow for use in the war against Ukraine and so cannot be spared for export. Thus, while Algeria has reportedly signed an agreement to purchase a massive $12 billion worth of Russian weapons, it is not clear when or even whether Moscow can fulfill that agreement (Iddon, 2022b). In the meantime, MENA governments have reportedly been turning more to China for arms purchases (Iddon, 2022a).
The United States and certain of its European allies are not the only governments competing with Russia for access to military facilities in the MENA region. China has long had a naval facility in Djibouti on the Red Sea while some of the leaked Discord documents indicate that it is planning to acquire naval facilities in the UAE in the Persian Gulf (Hudson, 2023). China, of course, has been cooperating closely with Russia against the US. Up until the outset of the Ukraine war, however, there appeared to be a division of labour between Russia and China in the MENA region with Russia providing security services and China focusing on economic relations. But if indeed MENA governments are now willing to see China as more of a security partner, this means that they no longer consider Russia as the main alternative to America in this regard.
In the diplomatic realm, Putin has long claimed that Russia is better placed than the US to help MENA governments resolve their differences. This is because Moscow has good relations with all MENA actors (except the jihadists) while the US cannot or will not talk with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. While this is certainly true, Washington’s successful mediation of the “Abraham Accords,” normalizing relations between Israel on the one hand and Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco and Sudan on the other, demonstrated that the US can still serve as a mediator between governments wanting to work with it (Khalid, 2022). Even more dramatically, Saudi Arabia and Iran both turned to China – and not Russia – to help facilitate their agreement to normalize their tense relations. What this suggests is that MENA actors seeking an alternative to US mediation no longer see Russia as the only negotiating partner that they can turn to (Katz, 2023). This is not a good sign for the future of Russian diplomatic influence in the MENA region.
Looking forward, Russia’s ability to successfully pursue its goals in the MENA region will be strongly impacted by how the Ukraine war ends – something which cannot be confidently foretold at present. However, there appear to be four broad possibilities: 1) Russian victory; 2) Russian defeat; 3) compromise settlement; and 4) continued stalemate. The implications of each of these for Russia’s MENA policy will be examined in turn.
Russian Victory: Although it may not seem likely at present with Russian forces struggling just to retain their hold on those parts of Ukraine which they still control, Russia may yet prevail over Ukraine through a combination of Western military assistance to Kyiv either being ended or sharply cut back. This might occur as a result of a candidate prevailing in the 2024 US presidential election who reverses Biden’s policy of strong support for Ukraine, thus allowing Russia’s larger available manpower to wear down Ukrainian resistance. A triumphant Russia would undoubtedly want to play an even greater role in the MENA region than it does now, perhaps by redeploying some of its soldiers to Syria and private military contractors to Libya and other countries where Wagner is now active. Still, even a triumphant Russia’s ability to act in the MENA region may be limited if, as seems likely under this scenario, animosity between Russia and the West continues or even increases due to the possibility of a wider war in Europe. While MENA actors may be even less inclined to curtail their relations if Russia prevails against Ukraine than they are now, some may also become fearful of what could be a triumphant Russia’s more assertive aims in the region. If America and the West are no longer seen by MENA actors as being able to provide them with effective security, some may actively seek Chinese diplomatic and military support – something that a Russia still economically dependent on Beijing may be wary of actively challenging.
Russian Defeat: Although this scenario might not seem likely either, it could occur if continued Western military support to a determined Ukraine eventually leads to an internal crisis in Russia resulting in a new leadership which, even if it is autocratic, perceives the need to end the war and withdraw from Ukraine to prevent a worse fate such as the collapse of the Russian army, a popular uprising inside of Russia, or the breakup of Russia. Like after the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, this scenario could lead to a pullback from the MENA region by a new Russian leadership wishing to focus on restoring Russia’s economy, including through improving its ties to the West. Both anti-Western and traditionally pro-Western MENA governments would not welcome this scenario for fear that it will lead to a resurgent America and Europe making unwelcome demands on them about democratization and human rights. But if Russia cannot protect them against a triumphant West, they may turn to China to temper (but not exclude) the influence of America and Europe.
Compromise Settlement: This scenario also seems highly unlikely at present, but its occurrence might be positive both for Russia generally and for its ability to act in the MENA region. If the compromise involved a relaxation of Western economic sanctions against Russia, Russian petroleum exports might no longer need to be sold at the steep discounts that current Western sanctions have forced Moscow to accept. This would be welcome relief to MENA petroleum producers whose exports have had to compete for buyers with a Moscow that has aggressively undercut them on price. A compromise settlement to the Ukraine war would also free up Russian resources which Moscow could devote to the MENA region. Russia’s position in the MENA after this might be similar to what it was in the years just prior to its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine: an external great power which, like the US and China, is both willing and able to operate in the MENA region and which MENA actors are willing to work with.
Continued Stalemate: This appears to be the most likely scenario at present. It is one that seems to be occurring now and which could continue for months or even years. In this situation, Russia would seek to continue pursuing the many goals described earlier, and many MENA governments would undoubtedly want to continue cooperating with Moscow. But it seems already that as the war has dragged on, some of those MENA governments traditionally allied to America and the West have either curtailed their cooperation with Russia (like Egypt dropping its plans to sell artillery shells to Moscow) for fear of damaging relations with the US, or because of Russia’s decreased ability to act as effectively in the MENA region as it did before the Ukraine war began (such as through being less able to export arms due to Moscow’s own needs for them). In addition, the more that Russia depends on Iran for arms and other forms of cooperation, the more that America’s traditional MENA partners, which fear Tehran, will cling to their relationships with Washington, even while trying to continue cooperating with Moscow in an effort to motivate Russia not to cooperate with Iran in ways that are harmful to them.
Moscow’s relations with America and its Western allies deteriorated dramatically after the onset of the war in Ukraine. The fact that Washington’s traditional MENA allies have not joined the West in sanctioning Russia but have continued to cooperate with it instead has been a major boon for Moscow. Still, the unwillingness of all but the most anti-Western MENA governments to actively support Russia’s war effort or their tendency to pull back from supporting it after their plans for doing so were publicized, shows that there are limits to Moscow’s influence in the MENA region. Different possible endings for the war will impact how Moscow can operate in the MENA region. Under no circumstance, though, does Russia either seem likely to be excluded from the region or be in a position to exclude others from it. The longer the war in Ukraine continues, however, the less capable Moscow may be to pursue its aims in the MENA region effectively.
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Photo: Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attend the first plenary session as part of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, October 24, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS