Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and U.S. foreign policy, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf. Andrew S. Weiss is the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington, D.C. and Moscow on Russia and Eurasia. The two recently coauthored a paper on Russian policy in the Middle East and North Africa, titled “Reassessing Russian Capabilities in the Levant and North Africa,” in which they recommend that Western policymakers avoid seeing Russian actions in the region primarily through the prism of a zero-sum game. Diwan interviewed the authors in late September.

Michael Young: You’ve just written a paper on Russia’s capabilities in the Middle East and North Africa. What are your main conclusions?

Andrew S. Weiss: We tried to get at some of the dualities and paradoxes of Russia’s role in the region. Russia is back in the Middle East in a very splashy way, but the limitations on Russian power are also quite visible. The Kremlin’s efforts are often aimed at demonstrating that Russia once again is a true great power on the world stage and trying to fill vacuums on the cheap.

There also are clear echoes of earlier periods. As Arnold Horelick, one of the West’s most knowledgeable experts about Soviet foreign policy wrote in 1971, “The evolution of [Moscow’s] policy in the Middle East has been largely derivative, arising out of pursuit of more highly valued extra-regional objectives, and reactive, or improvised, in response to opportunities that came up as a result of events over which the [Kremlin] had little control, or as the unintended consequence of actions undertaken for other purposes.” It’s hard to top that description.

There’s no denying that thanks to the military intervention in Syria six years ago, the Kremlin returned to the Middle East’s power politics. But it’s another thing to suggest that Russia now has the political, military, economic, diplomatic, or soft power tools at its disposal (let alone the desire) to compete head-on with Washington. If you look at some of the region’s most pressing issues—the debilitating governance crisis in Lebanon or the recent spike in fighting in Gaza—Russia is happy to act as a bystander. Russian officials are fond of saying that they can talk to anybody. That provides certain advantages, but it’s not the same as trying to actually fix problems nor is there a lot of demand from the region for Russia to step into that kind of role. Rather, local players often use their engagement with Moscow as a tactic for leveraging more support from traditional patrons like the United States and Europe.

MY: What examples allow you to say that Russian policies in the Middle East and North Africa are rooted more in opportunism than in grand strategy?

Frederic Wehrey: Russia’s actions in that part of the world, especially North Africa, have not flowed from predetermined principles, norms, or a doctrine leading to a desired end-state. Nor is the region an inherently vital sphere or part of a geostrategic chessboard essential for Russia’s global comeback. Rather, the Kremlin has capitalized on openings and windows created by the post-2011 turmoil in Arab countries, local rulers’ ambitions and insecurity, and, especially, by the missteps, blunders and indifference of the United States.

Russia’s policy tools have been sufficiently flexible, low cost, and unencumbered by domestic constraints or concerns about blowback. We see frequently that Moscow can quickly insert itself into fast-moving situations, often engaging multiple players at once. If there are the outlines of a discernible strategy behind these interventions, they can perhaps best be summed up as “undermine local confidence in the American-led security order, deal a black eye to the Europeans, and make money along the way.”

Exhibit A in this opportunistic and scalable approach is Libya, where, in the wake of the power vacuum fostered in part by Washington’s ambivalence and European disunity, contending Libyan armed groups and factions sought outside assistance. Responding to this, Russia in late 2019 escalated its military support for one of these factions—the Libyan Arab Armed Forces led by Khalifa Haftar—sending mercenaries from the state-sponsored Wagner Group and some regular personnel to assist the eastern-based commander in his bid to topple the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. And while Moscow had long courted Haftar and had enabled his rise in eastern Libya with military, financial, logistical, and propaganda support, it was never exclusively wedded to him as a “client,” but rather saw him as one actor among many.

Even as it was plying Haftar with military aid, it was engaging his rivals in the capital and supporting former regime figures, the so-called “Greens.” And when Haftar’s campaign stalled on the battlefield due to Turkish military intervention on behalf of the Tripoli government, Moscow quickly pivoted to diplomacy, endorsing a United Nations-brokered road map to elections, even as it kept military forces on the ground in Libya as a hedge.

MY: What have been the main instruments of Russian influence in the Middle East in recent years, and how would you judge their success?

ASW: When it comes to Russian hard power in Syria today what is particularly striking to us, yet under-appreciated, is the fact that most of the Kremlin’s main war aims were achieved nearly four years ago. Since then, Russia has faced a hardening stalemate on the ground, and it remains unwilling to invest the kinds of military, economic, or political resources that would be necessary to shift events in its desired direction. And when Russia has run smack into other major regional military players such as the United States, Israel, or Turkey, it has largely avoided direct confrontations.

In a couple of key instances, such as the February 2018 events in Deir Ezzor, when Russian mercenaries tied to the Wagner Group attacked a U.S. special forces outpost, things haven’t gone Russia’s way. The Russians lost more than 200 men in that episode, which was both humiliating and an important lesson about testing the resolve of the U.S. military to defend its people.

Russia’s economic toolkit in the region is fairly limited. Russian actors have focused on a narrow set of areas, for example selling advanced and basic types of weapons, scooping up infrastructure and energy opportunities, and trying to build an extremely expensive nuclear power plant in Egypt. But they are not able to marshal anywhere near the kind of economic or financial resources that the United States, China, or the European Union bring to the table.

MY: Russian behavior toward Israel shows paradoxes. Can you describe what they are and explain how Moscow balances its ties to Israel with its broader regional role?

ASW: The Israeli-Russian relationship has blossomed over the past few decades. There is plenty that binds the two countries together, especially people-to-people connections. Yet during the Benjamin Netanyahu era, there was plenty of hype and exaggeration, including a notion, fostered by Netanyahu and his allies, that the two countries were steadily moving toward something akin to a strategic partnership. Much of this reflected Netanyahu’s domestic political calculations—specifically, broadening the appeal of Likud’s political base and touting his role on the world stage as a unique leader with the ability to deal directly with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, former U.S. president Donald Trump, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

At the same time, there were plenty of hardheaded reasons on both sides to make sure that good military deconfliction mechanisms were in place, now that Moscow has essentially become Israel’s newest neighbor. Since their military intervention began in 2015 the Russians have tolerated repeated Israeli strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria so long as they don’t pose a threat to Russian forces on the ground. But the Russians have also repeatedly slow-walked Israeli concerns about Iranian encroachment in sensitive locations such as Daraa or the Golan Heights.

That dynamic exposes the limitations of Russian sway over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who often plays his key patrons, Russian and Iran, off against each other. We also see that the Russians definitely don’t want to tangle directly with the Israeli military, which regards Iran’s military encroachment in Syria as a serious threat. The Russians would not want to manage the fallout for their image if Israel took out some of the high-end military hardware that Moscow has been showcasing, such as the S-400 air defense system.

MY: You write that “Middle Eastern rulers exert far more power in shaping the extent of Russian influence than conventional narratives suggest.” What makes you say this, and more importantly what are the long-term implications of this for Russian power in the region?

FW: Commentary on Russia in the Middle East often ascribes an unwarranted omnipotence and freedom of action to Russian actions, diminishing the agency of local state and nonstate actors. But the truth is that the ambitions of outside powers have long foundered on the region’s complexities and, especially, the uncanny ability of Middle Eastern rulers to spoil and thwart great power aspirations, often by playing those powers off against one another. This was certainly true during the Cold War and it continues today.

For all of its much-publicized “deals” on arms, energy, infrastructure, and so on, Moscow has been unable to convert what are essentially transactional encounters into real strategic partnerships, mainly because Arab states prefer to keep channels open to other patrons, whom they often regard as more reliable. The key example here is Egypt, where successive presidents have frustrated the Kremlin’s designs for access such as basing or overflight rights, while maintaining the United States as their principle security guarantor. Similarly, Libyan militia commander Khalifa Haftar—whom media outlets have sometimes labelled “Moscow’s man in Libya”—actually walked out of an early 2020 summit in the Russian capital convened by Putin. The blatant snub underscored that Moscow’s supposed partners in the Middle East hardly behave as docile proxies

MY: While you argue that “Washington should avoid viewing the region through a zero-sum, Cold War lens that sees every development as a net gain or loss for Moscow,” can I turn that idea around? Given the growing signs of U.S. disengagement from the region, are there ways that the United States and Russia can work together to achieve their primary regional objectives?

FW: The Biden administration should certainly be under no illusions about Russia’s capacity to wreak havoc in the region. But, given the competing demands on America’s attention, both at home and abroad, Washington will have to smartly prioritize the Russian activities that necessitate a direct U.S. counter-response, through either clandestine or overt means. At the same time, we see a need for being mindful that while such pushback can slow or obstruct Russian meddling, it is unlikely to drastically change the Kremlin’s overall calculations. In many instances, Washington will simply have to accept the Russian presence as a feature of the new landscape and trust that the region’s built-in buffers—along with Moscow’s limited toolkit, self-inflicted mistakes, and occasional over-reach—will circumscribe Russia’s penetration. In other cases, the United States can look for ways to steer Russian activity in a more productive direction by appealing to Moscow’s economic self-interests, pragmatism, and desire for stability.

In Libya, for example, Russia has no interest in perpetual civil war because chaos is not good for Russian business objectives. With this in mind, American diplomats have cautiously but wisely engaged Moscow on a peaceful way out of Libya’s impasse.