So what are the Russians doing in the Middle East? The downing of a Russian jet by Turkish F-16s raises questions about Russian ambitions and goals in the region, with President Obama and President Hollande of France outlining changes Russia should make to its military strategy in Syria and to its position vis-a-vis the Islamic State. Perhaps the first and obvious point is that Russian military power is being exercised to keep Bashar Assad in his present position as president of Syria, a post that has secured Russia naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and an air base in Latakia.
But this is merely one aspect of a strategic plan. Without much fanfare Egypt and Russia signed a nuclear agreement, which along with a $2 billion arms deal, seals the return of Russia to Egypt for the first time in four decades. It also represents the eclipse of American preeminence.
In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Russia was forced out of the Middle East, but as a consequence of the P5+1 agreement and a precipitous U.S. retreat, it is the emerging strong horse in the region. In fact, the cost of the Egyptian Dabaa nuclear station will be borne by a Russian loan over 35 years, giving Russia a foothold in Egypt for the foreseeable future. Deals signed with Mr. Assad for the construction of two nuclear plants are also long-term arrangements.
Russian engagement is not driven only by military concerns, albeit the proximity of these Muslim nations to the southern tier of Russia where many Muslims reside should not be underestimated. As I see it, hard currency in Russia is derived from one primary source: natural gas. Russian President Vladimir Putin is aware of the natural gas veins discovered in the Mediterranean off the coast of Syria. He knows as well that a Turkish pipeline to be completed in 2017 will challenge the virtual monopoly Russia maintains in providing natural gas to Europe. Hence the tension with Turkey. It is not merely the question of toppling Mr. Assad as the Turks would like or keeping him in authority, but rather whether the natural gas monopoly can be sustained.
There is another dimension to this complicated picture. Mr. Putin has said in several interviews that the disassembling of the Soviet Union was “humiliating.” He has noted that empire and the glory of national destiny can be reacquired. This goal can be achieved in one way: undermining the dominant role of the United States on the global stage. In Mr. Obama, he has a willing and acquiescent partner.
Mr. Obama contends retreat is an appropriate stance since U.S. engagement either exacerbates an already difficult situation or forces a long-term commitment the nation is unwilling to endure. As a consequence, the U.S. involvement in the Middle East which served as a balance wheel — however precarious — has been dislodged leaving a vacuum in its place, a vacuum Mr. Putin has been pleased to fill. From Mr. Putin’s perspective, this is a major gift. A nation suffering from the effects of a stagnant economy, longevity rates declining, alcoholism on the rise and, despite claims to the contrary, a second-rate military, has been accorded the gift of empire and international standing. Russia has risen from despair to the height of Middle East power broker. From al Sisi to Netanyahu, from Khomeini to Salman, one meets with Mr. Putin to determine the fate of their respective nations.
While the United States has deployed 3500 Special Forces in the fight against ISIS, Russia has vowed to send 150,000 troops into the Middle East, albeit the mission of these troops isn’t clear. Most likely these troops will be deployed to assist Mr. Assad in the Syrian civil war, but based on international opinion after the Paris atrocities, Russia might build its global standing further by attacking ISIS strongholds.
On one matter there cannot be any error: Russia is in the ascendency throughout the region and the United States is in decline. When Mr. Obama said that “climate change is the great threat to the world” at a G-20 meeting, late show talk personalities in Egypt described his comment as “laughable.” In fact, the president’s name is a laugh line throughout the Middle East. If one of Mr. Putin’s goals was to humiliate the United States, that has been accomplished. Mr. Obama contends that his legacy will be the withdrawal of the United States from the convections of the region. What he won’t say, in fact doesn’t have to say, is that he has opened the door to a Russian In dominated area that has dangerous implications for the long term.
• Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.