Report Launch | Russia in the Middle East: National Security Challenges for the United States and Israel in the Biden Era
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As U.S.-Russian tensions continue to escalate, Russia’s role in the Middle East is of urgent concern both to Israel and the United States. Potential flashpoints include Syria and Iran, new spheres of Russian engagement from Afghanistan to North Africa, and sensitive cybersecurity issues. Russia is also moving in tandem with China to push back against U.S. dominance, including in the Middle East. Leading experts from Israel and the United States address these challenges in a new report published by the Kennan Institute and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. In a discussion moderated by Susan Glasser, the report’s contributors addressed the challenges Russia poses in the region and the decisions that policymakers in the U.S. and Israel face.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilead
"For us, Russia represents a dramatic, strategic goal and it’s a very, very delicate issue. On the one hand, Russia belongs to the hostile camp against Israel. On the other hand, we need tolerance to be able to focus on the main challenge for Israel which is Iran. Iran has two dimensions of threat, the nuclear and regional. The regional is mainly Syria. In Syria, allegedly, we need to do our best to diminish Iran and the threat from Iran, otherwise we will face, very soon, two fronts of unique military-terror threat."
"The Russian presence in Syria, the Republic of Syria, is very important. We need tolerance to have a free hand against the Iranians and the Syrians who are cooperating with them on a frequent basis. But that’s why it has become so complicated. We know for sure, based on the long experience from the Israeli perspective, that Russia is cooperating, considering Iran a strategic partner. That means a lot."
Amb. James F. Jeffrey
"Russia has an overall plan. It is to undermine the U.S.-led collective security system in the region. Syria and to a lesser extent Libya are Russian actions on the ground to that end, but it is packaged in a theoretical formula that Foreign Minister Lavrov on a recent trip to the Gulf laid out for a security and cooperation arrangement in the region where Russia would be playing a major role as both an ally to Iran and a partner of sorts with the Arab states, Israel, and Turkey, with some vague role of the United States. This is a major threat not only to the U.S. position in the region, but also to countries like Israel. Iran is a difficult target to deal with, as the Israelis and others know, but Iran allied with Russia is extremely difficult unless you have the United States fully integrated into the responses of the countries in the region. We’ve tried to do that in Syria with limited success. The key point here is the underlying system is being threatened."
"The intelligence community stresses that the entire security system in the Middle East is being threatened by the Russians. The underlying point here is that the Biden administration has not yet developed an overall policy for dealing with Russia in the region. It has a good policy for containing and deterring Russia in Europe, in cyber, on the military front, and engagement in our internal affairs, so far so good. In the Middle East, it does not have an overarching policy."
Col. Udi Evental
“Of course, they give legitimacy to terror organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah that they host sometimes in Moscow. Russia is selling nuclear energy and reactors to the region—again, without significant and adequate controls—and of course, it was mentioned Russia is a technological threat, a cyber threat, and I have news for you, they don’t only meddle with U.S. elections, also probably they interfere with Israeli elections.”
“Russia cannot match American clout in the Middle East and even if we take the Levant where the Russians are more active—in Syria, etc.—and the United States is less present in the Levant—and much of American presence is in the Gulf—even in the Levant, constructive processes were initiated and were successful by the United States, I’m talking about, for example the ability to jumpstart unprecedented negotiation talks between Israel and Lebanon on the maritime border—only the United States could promote such a dialogue.”
“When you ask the Russians whether they are back to the Middle East, they will tell you that they never left because they actually see the Middle East as their backyard, unlike the United States that can at least theoretically consider the option of just branching out—leaving the Middle East, distancing itself from its many conflicts—Russia cannot afford to do such a thing. Russia is here, it’s closer to the Middle East geographically and some would say also ideologically, yes, it’s of course closer to many of the regimes that are operating in the Arab world.”
“I still believe—and this is my concluding remark—that Russia is indeed a major power that is here to stay in the Middle East. It is about to use every single loophole that it can in order to grow its influence because it will deal with actors that the U.S. never will, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Lebanon is actually a perfect example. Yes, the U.S. can bring the actors—the Lebanese representatives and the Israeli representatives—together and seat them at the same table, but the party that actually decides whether the Lebanese—their counterparts—will appear there, is the Hezbollah, and the Hezbollah right now found a new friend, basically which is Moscow.”
“We do argue for a certain basic continuity of U.S. policy from the Obama through to the Biden administrations as far as Russia is concerned and here I think there are two key elements. The first is that for these three administrations, Russia’s presence in the Middle East has not been deemed immediately intolerable, it’s not cause for direct confrontation between the United States and Russia […] Russia doesn’t trample on the fundamental interests of the United States so far.”
“China, Russia and the United States all approach the Middle East as a very significant strategic zone with different intentions and different aspirations in mind […] each of these three great powers is trying to limit its role in the Middle East, that’s obviously the case for the U.S. for these intense debates in American politics about how much to be involved in Syria, Iraq and other countries. It’s also true for Russia which imposes quite a few limits on its military involvement in the Middle East and you see that China is in some respects a very hesitant great power in the region—so that’s the opposite of the great game where you’re trying to just expand as much as you can.”
"If you listen to what administration officials have been saying, you read the interim National Security Strategic Guidance, you get a pretty clear picture of where traditional nation state adversaries, competitors, challengers stack up in terms of the strategic thinking of the administration. China is far and away seen as the major competitor in terms of capability, but even arguably in terms of intentions, and I think that that has a plus side, that is to say, an opportunity side, and a minus side, which is the challenge side, and I think you see both dimensions of that in the way that the United States has got to deal with Russia, be it on European security, or be it on Middle East issues like Syria, as we’ve been discussing. And I think our Israeli colleagues throughout this project have offered very valuable insight to us in terms of not approaching the Russian challenge or opportunity with too many preconceptions but rather instead objectively assessing where it is that Russia has internists and where it has capabilities. "
Major General (Res.) Amos Gilead
James F. Jeffrey
Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange. Read more
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more