The Middle East has a new kingpin: Vladimir Putin
US retreat has allowed Russia to spread its influence on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. They appear to have made progress on the sale of an advanced Russian S-400 air missile defence system to Turkey. Photograph: Getty Images
When Donald Trump took office in January, a popular question was who among world leaders would fill the vacuum created by Washington’s inward turn. Who would step up and take advantage? Would it be that reluctant figurehead Angela Merkel, liberals wondered wishfully. Or Emmanuel Macron, slayer of the far-right and saviour of the centre? Would Trumpism hasten China’s rise, presenting Xi Jinping with the status and power on the world stage that he has been assiduously consolidating at home?
Almost a year on, there’s no clear-cut answer. Except in one part of the world – the Middle East – where one individual has, through a mixture of opportunism and cunning, managed to impose himself like no other. It’s Vladimir Putin.
For evidence of Russia’s new strength in the region, look at Putin’s travel itinerary from last Monday. His day began with an early flight to Khmeinim air base in Syria for his first visit to that country since Moscow intervened in the civil war in September 2015. Addressing his troops, he declared that Russia had achieved its aim of vanquishing Islamic State, and would begin a partial withdrawal.
Few believe the defeat of the jihadists was the chief reason for Russia’s intervention, and the claim that the demise of IS was down to Moscow’s actions is a stretch. But nobody could dispute that Russia’s intervention had been a success.
For one, it ensured the survival of its ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. When Russia entered the conflict in 2015, the then US secretary of defence, Ash Carter, said Putin was heading into a quagmire with a strategy that was “doomed to failure”. On the contrary, Moscow re-oriented the war in its favour, suffered minimal losses, showcased its military capabilities and is set to scale down its operation in time for the Russian presidential election next March.
It also gets to keep its military base at Khmeimim and a strategically prized naval facility at Tartus on the Mediterranean.
Washington’s wealth, military might and relationships mean it remains the indispensable power in the Middle East. But it is being outmanoeuvred by a resurgent Russia
From Syria, Putin flew to Egypt, where he and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agreed to resume direct tourist flights between their countries, suspended after the bombing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai in 2015, and moved closer to a deal for Russia to build a $30 billion nuclear power plant in Egypt.
In Ankara, Putin’s final stop of his whirlwind day-tour, he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to make progress on the sale of an advanced Russian S-400 air missile defence system to Turkey. The Putin-Erdogan meeting, the seventh this year, showed how relations have recovered in the year since the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey and the two years since Turkish forces shot down a Russian fighter jet.
Across the region the pattern is the same. At a time when the United States is showing little interest, and even less coherent strategy, Russia is thoroughly outflanking it – cultivating new alliances, expanding its trade (not least in arms) and spreading its influence on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The trend pre-dates the Trump presidency: George W Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan damaged the US’s standing in the region and caused both the American system and public to tire of foreign entanglements, while Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia and his failed Syria strategy took up a great deal of his administration’s finite energy.
But the shift has accelerated under Trump – a president whose commitment to the “America first” credo is matched only by his ignorance of the world around him.
In just a few years Putin has seized on that space and skilfully positioned himself as a regional kingpin. Increasingly, the Israelis, Turks, Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians are beating a path to the Kremlin as a place where their problems can be fixed.
Putin managed to bring Turkey and Iran together in an attempt to cool the conflict in Syria, while the Saudis are co-operating with Moscow in coaxing the Syrian opposition to unite for peace talks.
Moreover, Moscow has been mediating an end to the internal Palestinian rift between Fatah and Hamas, and has invited rival Libyan factions to Moscow in an attempt to broker peace.
Washington’s wealth, military might and relationships mean it remains the indispensable power in the Middle East. But, as Dimitri Trenin argues in his recent book What is Russia Up To In the Middle East?, it is being tactically out-manoeuvred by a resurgent Russia.
The result is one of the stories of the decade: how successes in the Middle East have given Moscow a springboard back to the high table of global geopolitics.