BEIRUT — Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union affirmed the United States as the dominant power in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia is back, seeking ways large and small to fill the vacuum left by the departure of American troops from Iraq and the toppling of U.S. allies in the Arab Spring revolts.
The recent diplomacy that averted a U.S. strike against Syria underscored the extent to which Moscow’s steadfast support for its last remaining Arab ally has helped reassert Russia’s role.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world leader with the single biggest influence over the outcome of a war threatening the stability of the wider region, winning concessions both from President Bashar al-Assad and President Barack Obama to secure a U.N. resolution requiring Syria to surrender its chemical arms.
Less conspicuously, Russia has been nurturing new alliances and reviving old friendships further afield, reaching out to countries long regarded as belonging to the American sphere of influence in ways that echo the superpower rivalries of the Cold War era.
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Those countries include Egypt and Iraq, both traditional Arab heavyweights that have been exploring closer ties with Moscow at a time when the Obama administration has signaled a reluctance to become too deeply embroiled in the region’s turmoil.
In his address to the United Nations last week, Obama stressed that he does not regard the Middle East or the conflict in Syria as an arena of competition with Washington’s bygone foe.
“This is not a zero-sum endeavor. We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won,” Obama said, referring to an earlier period of big-power rivalry in which the British Empire and Russia’s czars vied for influence across Central Asia.
Whether Russia is equally determined not to compete with the United States in the strategically vital region is in question, however, Arab analysts say.
Saudi Arabia, the region’s strongest Arab power and still the U.S.’ staunchest Arab ally, is deeply suspicious of Russia’s maneuvering and convinced that Russia is engaged in an effort to outwit the United States at its own expense, said Mustafa Alani, of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
The overtures between the United States and Iran, a close Russian ally, further reinforce anxieties in Riyadh and other Persian Gulf capitals that Russia is seeking to eclipse the American role in the region, he said.
“The view is that Russia is looking at the whole problem in the Middle East from the old position of the Cold War,” he said. “Wherever America is, they have to spoil the game. They don’t have any principles. Their only policy is to counter the Americans.”
That is not the case, countered Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Rather, he said, it is Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies that “are trying to play great games themselves … and arrogantly casting stones in a glass house.”
Russian intentions in the region are rooted in many concerns, but foremost among them is Moscow’s determination “to emphasize Russia’s role in the world as an indispensable nation, especially vis-à-vis American helplessness to settle problems,” he said.
The intent is already being felt. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was elected after the 2003 American invasion, has made two trips to Moscow in the past year and none to Washington. His talks were focused on a $4 billion defense deal under which Russia will supply Iraq with a wide range of armaments, including jet fighters, which are expected to be delivered soon.
The size of the deal is dwarfed by the more than $18 billion worth of arms deals concluded between Iraq and the United States over the past eight years. But key elements of those — including coveted F-16 fighter jets — have yet to arrive.
Iraqi officials say they turned to Russia only because they were frustrated by the slow pace of U.S. arms deliveries at a time when the war in neighboring Syria has heightened anxieties about the country’s stability.
Russia, concerned about escalating violence in Iraq, “sees a vacuum there, which she is trying to fill,” Lukyanov said.
Meanwhile, strains between Egypt’s new military-backed rulers and the United States have led Egyptian leaders to encourage Russian advances. A Russian tourism delegation visited the country to explore ways of expanding visits by Russians at a time when most Westerners have been staying away, and interim Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, a Boston University and World Bank alumnus with close connections to the United States, chose Moscow for his first visit beyond the region in his new job.
Although many U.S. allies in the Middle East are frustrated with the Obama administration’s policies, it is unlikely any would seriously contemplate abandoning Washington altogether in favor of Moscow, if only because the military imbalance between the two countries is so great, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
Only the United States, with its extensive network of military bases around the region and superior military technology, can offer the kind of security guarantees that jittery Arab nations seek, he said.
Gulf Research Center’s Alani, who consults closely with Gulf leaders, acknowledged the dependence.
“With all our complaining, it is not going to happen,” Alani said of the likelihood that regional powers would shift allegiances. “We understand there is no alternative, and we have to live with all the faults of U.S. policy. “But that doesn’t mean we are not looking around.”