Soviet Russia might have lost the Cold War in 1991, but its heir looks like it is winning Cold War 2.0 in the Middle East under Vladimir Putin. This phenomenon manifests itself by Russia’s ever-growing clout in the region, as American influence simultaneously declines. Washington’s inability to control policy outcomes has facilitated Moscow’s ability to attract regional actors, creating a stronger Russian sphere of influence across the Middle East. The recent Aramco attack has further affirmed this reality.
Last week, Saudi Arabia faced the bitter reality that some 15,000 American military personnel, across the Persian Gulf at numerous military bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which were supposed to shield it from Iran, could not protect its cherished oil facilities to which the country owes its existence.
Billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech American made radars and famously presented American made missile defense systems (particularly the PATRIOT PAC-3) at those bases and in the Saudi homeland couldn’t detect any of the alleged Iranian drones, let alone attempt to shoot down one.
Even more tragi-comic is that it took almost a week for the US administration to determine who or what attacked Saudi Arabia and seemed to be relying on the Saudis to guide it. Even then, confusion still persisted. Putin promptly rubbed this failure in the Saudis’ (and thus the Americans’) face.
“The Saudis should make a clever decision if they want to protect their people and buy Russian missile defense system, just like the Iranians and the Turks did.”
He said at the Ankara Summit last week: “The Saudis should make a clever decision if they want to protect their people and buy Russian missile defense system, just like the Iranians and the Turks did.”
In October 2018, Trump mocked the Saudis saying that the Saudi king “wouldn’t last 2 weeks without US support.” In fact, the Aramco attack demonstrated that two weeks was a generous estimate, more like two hours to destroy it even with US support!
Further disappointed by Washington’s inability to display a meaningful deterrence for possible future attacks, the Saudis now have every reason to reconsider the value of their relationship with the United States. It is highly likely that many in Riyadh are now contemplating cozying up with Moscow and using Putin’s leverage over the Mullahs to prevent any future attack. Therefore, it should not be a surprise to anyone that on September 21, one week after the Aramco attack, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Russia Rayed Krimly said, “Saudi Arabia plans to start working out a possible visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Kingdom soon.” It will be Putin’s first visit to the Kingdom since 2007.
“Israel knows that Putin is the Middle East’s new sheriff.”
In the same vein, the American failure to prevent the Aramco incident has had many in Israel questioning American deterrence. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have already come to the realization that (more than ever) the Iranian proxy Hezbollah poses a danger with its precision missiles. An IDF Command report describes the Hezbollah threat to the Israeli home front in a future war by “roughly 1,000-1,500 rockets and missiles being fired into Israel, thousands of homes will be hit and hundreds of Israeli civilians will be injured or killed . . . despite Israel’s highly advanced air defense systems.” All these considered, Moscow, not Washington, has been Netanyahu’s most frequently visited destination abroad where he seeks Putin’s assistance to curb Iranian aggression, particularly emanating from Syria. In fact, as far back as 2016, Shmuel Rosner of New York Times said, “Israel knows that Putin is the Middle East’s new sheriff.”
Putin did not spare any time pulling NATO’s second largest member into his orbit when Ankara was threatened by Washington’s insistence on steadfastly nurturing the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s top national security threat. Turkey’s Afrin Offensive in 2018, which dislodged the PKK from the enclave providing partial relief to Turkey’s terror concerns, would not have been possible without Russia’s nod.
Furthermore, upon Putin’s attractive terms, Turkey purchased, in a much-publicized saga, S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft/anti-ballistic missile systems, despite Washington’s pressure to buy the American PATRIOT systems. In light of the Aramco failure, many in Ankara believe declining the American offer was the better decision after all. Today, Ankara has invested so much in its relations with Russia, from defense to tourism, nuclear energy and agriculture, that it is unlikely that the US will replace Russia any time soon.
13 countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, and Qatar, have expressed interest in buying the Russian missile system.
A CNBC report published in November 2018 suggests that 13 countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, and Qatar, have expressed interest in buying the Russian missile system.
Another one of American’s major regional allies, Egypt, is displaying signs of also drifting into Russian orbit. The realities on the ground have forced Cairo to seek a rapprochement with Moscow following the downing of the Russian jetliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015, after which Russian tourists were banned from visiting Egypt. It crippled Egypt’s critically important tourism industry.
In a historic visit to Moscow in October 2018, the Egyptian leader Abdel Fettah Al-Sisi signed with Putin a “strategic cooperation treaty.” Subsequently, the Egyptian Air Force has signed a $2 billion military agreement with Russia, to buy more than 20 SU-35 warplanes. Egypt had already acquired 12 Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters in August 2018, with 30 more to be delivered by the end of 2020. It is unlikely that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s threat that “Egypt would face sanctions over SU-35s” will deter Egypt’s procurement of Russian arms just as it did not hinder Turkey’s.
Finally, Russia has become a major deterrent against a possible American strike on Iran. In June, a high level Russian diplomat warned, “Iran won’t be alone if attacked!” In a defiant move, Iran, Russia and China are planning a joint naval drill in the Sea of Oman, some 80 miles off the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, Russia plans to use Iran’s ports in Bandar-e-Bushehr and Chabahar to develop military bases in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman for warships and nuclear submarines. Along with Iran, Russia has been able to prevent key ally Al-Assad from being toppled, maintaining its access to the strategically important naval facility in Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea.
America’s inability to control policy outcomes in the Middle East coincides with Russia’s ascension as a major power broker.
Today, America’s inability to control policy outcomes in the Middle East coincides with Russia’s ascension as a major power broker. Washington’s increasingly incapacitated state and ambiguous approach to the pressing issues have propelled the regional actors from Egypt to Turkey and the Gulf states towards Russia, which has displayed a more decisive and consistent policy making approach under Putin. There is very little reason to think that this will change any time soon.