Less than four years ago, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near its border, prompting fears of a widening conflict between those neighbors as they faced off in Syria.
Yet today, with the withdrawal of American troops from northeastern Syria, analysts agree it now falls to Russia to restrain Turkey through talks and persuasion.
Several years of adroit diplomacy and politicking have left Russia in a new and untested position in the Middle East: It is the one country all sides can talk to.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, for instance, have nothing but deep enmity for each other, yet Moscow maintains good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran. In a sense, it plays one off the other, Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University who studies Russia and the Middle East, said in a recent interview.
“You don’t like the Iranians in Syria?” he paraphrases the Russian message to the Saudis. “Then it’s a good thing we’re there to keep an eye on them.”
The Turks loathe Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. Russia is Assad’s staunchest ally, yet Russia just sold an antiaircraft missile system to Turkey.
Now Putin wants to sell one to Saudi Arabia, too. Plus a nuclear power plant.
“Saudi Arabia appreciates Russia’s active role in this region and in the world,” King Salman bin Abdulaziz said Monday as he opened talks with Putin.
“In Soviet times, relations between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union were at a rather low level. In recent years, the quality of our relations has changed dramatically. We consider Saudi Arabia a friendly nation,” Putin responded.
Analysts say that American confusion, bungling and missteps — especially in the past few days — have opened the door to the Middle East for Russia. Moscow, by not talking about human rights and transparency, is a welcome change of pace from the West, they say. Putin finds common ground with leaders as diverse as Assad of Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Hassan Rouhani of Iran and even Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Russians do not scold the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, over the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist.
But experts question whether Russia, having established diplomatic beachheads, has the means to bend the Middle East to its will. “They don’t have enough oomph to turn it,” said Heather A. Conley, a former U.S. diplomat who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The American withdrawal from Syria gives Russia an even freer hand in that country. Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish areas does not directly threaten Russia’s interests. In fact, it offered Russians the opportunity to persuade the Kurds to start talks with Assad’s government. The mutual recriminations between Turkey and the United States — two NATO allies — give Russia even more to build on as it attempts to weaken the Western alliance.
Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, said in a tweet that Russia’s influence in Syria “has been again tested and proven strong” by the Kurds’ decision to talk to Damascus. “Keeping contacts with all, including Turkey, and having a clear view of one’s own interests and thus a coherent policy is paying off.”
Yet the dramatic turn of events of the past few days has led to signs of an underlying uneasiness among some in Moscow.
“The Turkish military invasion in the north of Syria has only complicated the situation in the region,” Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, wrote on his blog. “Trying to solve its problem by military means, Turkey creates a new one and exacerbates the old ones.”
Invading a neighboring country, he wrote, is not an effective counterterrorism tactic.
Russia, he concluded, must call for more substantial dialogue.
There is not a great deal else it can do while it waits to see how the invasion plays out.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, the deputy head of the Federation Council foreign affairs committee, suggested that Russia and the United States could jointly broker further talks between the Kurds and Assad’s government.
Syria is just one item on the agenda during Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The price of oil is another — both Riyadh and Moscow believe its price should not be allowed to go too high. Russia wants to pursue a number of energy and military deals — that nuclear power plant being one of them. They will also talk about the attacks on a Saudi oil refinery last month and on an Iranian tanker on Friday. Another topic sure to come up is war-torn Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing sides — both of which, as it happens, have had cordial talks with the Russians.
It is a balancing act for Moscow: Sow some friendship with one side, then the other; sow some uncertainty at the same time, get some deals done, some boots on the ground. Katz argues that Russia does not have an actual strategic goal for the Middle East. It wants to continue as a player and prevent any one side from becoming dominant.
“They’re dependent on keeping the pot simmering but not boiling over,” he said.
It is not clear, he said, that is possible in the long run.