Present days Syria’s crisis is a good start to think about how Putin’s Russia look at the whole Middle East in short and middle terms (from 1 to 5 years). After the shake down of USSR in 1991 russian presence in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf has been close to be wiped out. No political sphere of influence was viable for a nation in rubble, not to mention the overwhelming military power of the USA that was already on the brink to squash Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
It took long for Russia to come back, years of great transformation for the whole Middle East area. In the meanwhile Russia learnt a few hard lessons about how to fight islamic-inspired insurgents inside its own borders in Chechnya and how to face asymmetric warfare against terrorism. When Vladimir Putin came to power his vision was clear: to create a new russian identity the only choice against this kind of problems was to be the hard way. National pride has to be restored, no matter the costs.
The new Russia is based on the revenues given by export. Oil, natural gas, gold, platinum and weapons. The country is almost autonomous when it came to energy and basic technology, the permanent gap in agriculture compensated by the exchanges with Belarus, Ukraine and European Union. Energy and weapons are key to their approach to the Middle East. From the russian point of view their southern frontiers were a weak spot, almost open to any kind of trouble, until 2005. The phase between 1991 and 2005, with the creation and consolidation of russian-friendly governments in the –stan countries (*) and the US sponsored “war against terror” in Afghanistan was needed to strengthen anew its military presence.
The 2008 war campaign against Georgia was little more than a show of muscles in the face of the USA (under Bush Jr. administrations they sponsored a lot the local government) and the EU (Georgia in the NATO partnership program and in the first stage of agreements with the EU). The main point was clear: hello, we’re back! From then the russian flag was shown almost everywhere; strategic bombers and sub marines in the cold war friction zones, explorative missions in the Arctic circle and a renewed push in the space industry. The Black Sea fleet is in the Mediterranean Sea six months a year and caches of brand new weapons are on sale for everybody who can pay.
The russian strategy for the Middle East is based on friction. A strategy based on three pillars: the first pillar is to sell weapons directly to Syria and via Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas (respectively in Lebanon and in the Gaza strip), the second pillar is to oppose in the UN Security Council to every decision against its clients and the third is helping Iran to build up more pressure in the Persian Gulf. USA, Turkey, Israel and EU can do nothing but watch as the Middle East region get worse every year. Countries like Jordan and Iraq are already on the edge of a humanitarian crisis due to continue incoming of refugees from Syria. Such a level of chaos got an interesting effect on commodities prices, not to mention gold and platinum.
The same happens in the Persian Gulf. Russia can’t compete with the wealth of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Qatar and don’t like at all the way they finance Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Helping Iran to become a new regional power in the area causes a diversion in the attention of such countries and stretch once again the residual military power of the USA. If Iran will develop nuclear weapons of its own the power balance in both sectors will change forever (that will happen in 4-5 years, no more). The russian bet here is that they can overcome any hazardous move from Iran because they didn’t have an early warning net and they will have no capability of a pre-emptive strike against Russia. Once again, any major crisis in the Persian Gulf will be a great help for the russian export.
(*) Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan