Russia's close ties to Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are a source of concern for the United States and other Western governments. At a 10 May 2010 Kennan Institute talk, Mark N. Katz, Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University, and Former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, argued that Russia's foreign policy in the Greater Middle East should nevertheless not be seen as hostile to the U.S. Rather, Russia is pursuing a defensive foreign policy meant to further its economic interests and prevent itself from becoming a target of the region's radical Sunni movement.

Arab-Israeli Conflict
According to Katz, "although Russia is on good terms with Syria and opposition movements Hezbollah and Hamas, its relations with Israel have also grown closer." There is a great deal of trade between the two countries and Israel has even sold Russia unmanned aeriel vehicles (UAVs) weapons. There is also an enormous number of Russian Jews living in Israel who wish to maintain close ties to their country of origin.

Russia initially opposed the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, but since then has chosen to focus on pursuing its economic interests there. Lukoil finally secured a contract to develop the huge West Qurna 2 field, but this means it is dependent on U.S. forces and the Iraqi government for maintaining stability in order to exploit this contract. Katz further noted that in June 2006, Al-Qaeda in Iraq kidnapped and killed some employees of the Russian embassy in Baghdad when its demand – that Russia withdraw from Chechnya – was not carried out. "Amidst all the groups al-Qaeda was fighting within Iraq, it still had time to think about Russia," said Katz, who cited this case as evidence of why Russia seeks to prevent Middle Eastern governments from becoming similarly angered by their actions in the Caucasus.

According to the U.S. and the EU-3 (Germany, France, and Britain), Russia is not working very hard at pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear program. However, Katz argued that for Russia the matter is far more complex. Not only has Russia benefited from Iran's non-involvement in the Caucasus, but it has also taken advantage of U.S.-Iran hostility, since this has resulted in the U.S. blocking Iran from serving as an export route for Caspian Basin oil and gas, thus allowing Moscow to exercise both economic and political leverage over the former Soviet republics in the region.

Indeed, the Kremlin sees relations between itself, the U.S., and Iran as a zero-sum game. It believes that U.S.-Iran relations will eventually improve, and when this occurs, Moscow expects that Iran will prefer working with the U.S. rather than with Russia. According to Katz, Russia has been less than cooperative on sanctions because it doesn't believe they will actually work. From the Kremlin's perspective, Iran is highly likely to acquire nuclear weapons and therefore Moscow's interests will not be served by joining an antagonizing effort to prevent Iran from doing so.

Saudi Arabia
During the 1990s and even after 9/11, Russian-Saudi relations were very poor due to the the latter's aid to the Chechens. However, in 2003, relations improved as both countries were similarly unhappy with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. With al-Qaeda launching attacks inside the Kingdom that year, Moscow and Riyadh also saw themselves as targets of Sunni radicals. Since then, Crown Prince Abdullah and then President Putin have bestowed visits upon one another, and Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov has also been welcomed in Saudi Arabia.

Russia approved of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but by 2005 had grown impatient with the continued "temporary" U.S. military presence in Central Asia. Since Obama became president, though, Moscow's tone has changed again. This is due to the fact that Obama has made clear that he might begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in the near future. Russia has aided the U.S. military effort by allowing the Americans to establish the Northern Distribution Network through which American military and other supplies transit through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan.

Katz argued that Russia and Pakistan still basically see each other as rivals. Although then President Putin partly improved relations because of the growing cooperation between the U.S. and India, the two states were rivals in Afghanistan in the 1980s and might be so again if the U.S. withdraws from there.

Gas-exporting countries (Algeria, Libya, Qatar)
Although Russia is perceived as attempting to dominate all of Europe's gas imports (via Nordstream, Southstream, and aggressive Gazprom attempts to acquire stakes in Middle Eastern gas projects), Katz argues that these are all part of a defensive policy. Moscow is worried about the fact that Russian gas production is decreasing, Turkmenistan now has direct pipelines to Iran and China, shale gas has been discovered in Europe, and European demand for gas in general is going down.

Katz argued that thus far, Russia has been successful in pursuing its economic interests in the Greater Middle East and keeping the Caucasus off the agenda of Muslim states it does business with. However, he warned that if things in the Caucasus worsen, Middle East states will not come to Russia's help. "Russia has little ability to affect what happens in the Greater Middle East, but what happens there has a big impact on Russia," concluded Katz.

By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


  • Mark N. Katz

    Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University, and former Title VIII-Supported Research and Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute