MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it his mission to reestablish his country as a dominant, indispensable player in the Middle East, one that can rival the influence of the United States. And, by some measures, he is succeeding.
Not only has Russia’s 15-month airstrike campaign probably saved the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but it also has spawned this week’s negotiations sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey to agree on a mechanism to support a delicate cease-fire in the Syrian conflict. It was a Russian-led diplomatic effort testing Moscow’s improbable role as peacemaker, with a twist that must draw smiles in the Kremlin: no formal role for the United States.
“Russia is seeking to show it has national interests not only in Crimea, Donbas and Georgia but everywhere, throughout the Middle East,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It is a very important symbol.” (Donbas is a disputed section of eastern Ukraine.)
According to Putin, those interests have been threatened by the United States, which he has accused of fomenting the current instability in the Middle East through a flawed foreign policy of intervention and democracy promotion. Decisions such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as the Arab uprisings beginning in 2011 (which he accused the United States of paying to foment), have encouraged the spread of radicalism, he says.
The nadir for Putin came in March 2011, when he was prime minister. The president at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, declined to veto a U.N. no-fly resolution in Libya that paved the way for NATO airstrikes there. The decision seemed to confirm Russia’s role as a second-rate power in the Middle East. A deeply angry Putin publicly broke with Medvedev, his protege, and declared the U.N. resolution “reminiscent of a medieval call for a crusade.”
Now in his third term as president and amid a growing rift with the United States over the annexation of Crimea, Putin has dug in his heels.
“Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster,” Putin said in the speech. “I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done? But I am afraid no one is going to answer that.”
Putin likes to portray himself as part of the solution, forging an anti-terrorist alliance he compares to the coalition against Nazi Germany. But for a world leader who has so often embraced the role of spoiler and antagonist to the liberal West, converting military force into diplomatic sway will prove complex.
Putin has had diplomatic triumphs, among them the 2013 deal he struck with the United States to seize Syria’s chemical weapons (and ward off military strikes against Assad for using them). But mediating the Syrian conflict, with its fractious and shifting politics, is far more difficult than taking part in it.
“Yes, everyone is at this point forced to listen to Russia’s concerns,” said Leonid Isayev, a Middle East researcher at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics. “But influence is not always positive. You can be a destructive force or you can try to resolve conflicts. The first is simpler and Russia has the military potential for that. The question is whether their military influence can now be translated into political influence.”
As a result, the goal of the negotiations in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, was modest: shoring up a cease-fire, rather than seeking a political solution to the conflict that has eluded negotiators in Geneva for years. But in bringing together the warring sides for the first time, the Kremlin has already achieved some success.
The negotiations are “a stress test for Russian capacity,” said Nikolay Kozhanov, an expert in Middle East Affairs at St. Petersburg University. “Now after the regime victory in Aleppo, the Astana meeting is a serious claim to prove that Russia has become an influential realm in the region.”
Headlines recently have been dominated by Putin’s growing influence abroad but mostly in the West: Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and expectations of the same in forthcoming European elections that could determine the fate of the European Union. A Kremlin connection is suspected but unproven, and Putin is unlikely to claim responsibility.
But in the Middle East, he may seek to establish a legacy for himself, by taking on a growing diplomatic and political role in a conflict that has outlasted the Obama administration.