As American influence fades, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has become the vital key to Middle East stability. Will a revived Russia bring peace?
Syria has become a “geopolitical Chernobyl,” according to former U.S. Army General David Petraeus in recent testimony to Congress. Syria has spawned a breeding ground for terror training and become a magnet for Sunni and Shiite conflict. The fallout, according to Petraeus, is that “almost every Middle Eastern country is now a battleground or a combatant in one or more wars,” thereby unleashing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
The Middle East is not only the birthplace of three major religions, but also the world’s primary source of energy. To this graveyard of armies and empires returns the Russian bear after a time of hibernation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has projected power into the region with his bold but limited military moves in Syria. He has achieved remarkable diplomatic leverage by entering the nearly five-year-old Syrian war to assist his longtime ally Bashar al-Assad.
The downing of Russian passenger and military aircraft will only intensify Russia’s military presence.
Confusion in a post-American Middle East
Since the U.S. departure from Iraq in 2011, conflict has multiplied, made worse by the American credibility chasm and abdication in the region.
Gulf Arab rulers, shell-shocked by the threat of ISIS, have shown disgust at America’s impulse to wash its hands of the region. The power vacuum has convinced key players in the Middle East—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even Israel—that Russia may now be the great power with which to cultivate good relations.
A decisive power broker emerges
Less than two years ago, President Putin was expelled from the G8 for annexing Crimea. But European leaders are now nervously finding that they need Putin’s cooperation to address Europe’s most pressing security issues.
The Russian leader has become unavoidable in efforts to address the turmoil that is jeopardizing Europe’s security—ISIS terrorism, the civil war in Syria and the resulting flood of migration.
“It is impossible to achieve peace without Russia involved,” Italian Premier Matteo Renzi stated (quoted in “Putin Takes Central Role in EU Crisis,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2, 2015).
A quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, strategic sands have shifted; and Putin has set himself up to be the region’s indispensable power broker. In building an arc of influence that extends from Afghanistan to the Eastern Mediterranean, Moscow is aligned to become a vital commercial and diplomatic partner. Having recently negotiated multibillion-dollar arms sales to Iran and Egypt and having sold nuclear reactors to Jordan and Egypt, Russia is also in discussions to build 16 reactors in Saudi Arabia.
Diplomatic outreach has also increased, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of six Sunni Arab states all making official visits to the Kremlin by the end of 2015.
Even in Afghanistan, where Red Army troops invaded in 1979 and triggered a bitter, eight-year anti-Soviet jihad, there is anticipation of military assistance to reverse gains by the Taliban. “The Kremlin’s muscular new foreign policy has raised hopes among Afghan politicians that Russia will come back to their country as a friendlier ally in the wake of the Western drawdown” (Margherita Stancati and Nathan Hodge, “Afghans Reach Out to Russia,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 26, 2015).
Russia’s historic fascination with the Middle East
Despite a string of setbacks and absences, Russia has always been interested in the Middle East. In its eternal quest for a warm water port and to expand its zone of influence, czarist Russia clashed with Persia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and with the British and Ottoman Empires in the Crimean War.
Imperial Russia, under a 1916 deal with Britain and France, was to have gained the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Bosporus strait after World War I. But the Russian government collapsed before victory could be achieved, leaving the carcass of the Ottoman Empire—and control of the Middle East—to be divided between Britain and France.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Soviet Union presented itself as the champion of anticolonialism. Russian arms proliferated in the region. However, the failure of Russian weaponry (provided to Arab states prior to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war) to defeat Israel (and its largely U.S.–supplied arsenal) was amplified by the massive technological edge the U.S. displayed over Saddam Hussein’s antiquated Soviet hardware in the Desert Storm campaign of 1991—the same year that the U.S.S.R. officially disintegrated.
This all led to Russia’s disappearance from the scene—for a time. But that time is over.
A Russian holy war
The drive by the Kremlin to again be a major player in the Middle East goes beyond purely national interest. Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church, a strong Putin ally, has taken a lead role, endorsing Moscow’s military incursion as part of “the special role our country has always played in the Middle East” and going as far as to call the air strikes in Syria against ISIS a “holy battle.”
“Russia’s ties to the region,” according to historian and Russian expert Simon Sebag Montefiore, “are rooted in its self-assigned role as the defender of Orthodox Christianity, which it claimed to inherit from the Byzantine Caesars after the fall of Constantinople in 1453—hence ‘czars.’ …
“The czars presented Moscow not just as a Third Rome, but also as a New Jerusalem, and protector of Christians in the Balkans and the Arab world … including the Holy Places of Jerusalem” (“Putin’s Imperial Adventure in Syria,” The New York Times, Oct. 9, 2015).
adventurism with a purpose
The intensity, duration and targeting of Russian strikes may allow Putin to manipulate the refugee pipeline as much as he has controlled the spigots of oil and natural gas pipelines to energy-starved Europe.
Many Russians agree with Putin’s 2005 lament that the implosion of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Putin, according to foreign affairs correspondent Brian Whitmore in The Atlantic, wants to “resurrect the glory of the Soviet victory in World War II … [and] bury the humiliation of the Soviet defeat in the Cold War” (“Will ISIS Force Russia and the West Together?” Nov. 19, 2015).
It will take a major effort to do so. Reeling and cash-strapped from plummeting oil prices, an array of international sanctions and kleptocratic state capitalism, Russia suffers declining life expectancy, alcoholism and demographic free fall. But on the back of Russia’s assertive intervention in Syria, Putin has been rewarded with high approval ratings.
According to a Wall Street Journal editorial on Oct. 2, 2015, “Mr. Putin is showing Russians their country has global influence again.” He’s also showing that “Russia is an ally to be trusted, in contrast to an America that abandoned Iraq in 2011 and won’t fight ISIS with conviction. His alliance with Iran gives him leverage throughout the Middle East, and his Syria play may even give him leverage with Europe over the Ukraine sanctions.”
With his lightning quick military deployment, Putin seemed to offer an alternative to divided European leaders: no war, no refugees. The intensity, duration and targeting of Russian strikes may allow Putin to manipulate the refugee pipeline as much as he has controlled the spigots of oil and natural gas pipelines to energy-starved Europe.
Clearly sensing that the power of the West is waning, “what Putin is doing in Syria is … testing the West,” says Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s a classic Kremlin approach. He did the same thing in Ukraine. He takes steps and he wants to see what’s the response” (quoted by Michael Petrou, “Vladimir Putin’s New World Order in the Middle East,” Maclean’s, Oct. 8, 2015).
In testing the West, Putin’s aim is to showcase America as a paper tiger with a drastically diminishing role and prestige in the Middle East.
“Together with Iran,” according to a Wall Street Journal article, Putin “shares the ultimate goal of pushing the U.S. out of the region. He wants to divide Europe, undermine the EU and destroy NATO. Creating havoc and uncertainty on NATO’s eastern borders, Mr. Putin wants to build naval and air bases in Syria to re-establish Russian power in the Mediterranean” (Jeffrey Gedmin and Gary Schmitt, “Beware Russian ‘Help’ in the Middle East,” Nov. 17, 2015).
Peace in the Middle East?
The toxic cocktail of Middle East conflict highlights mankind’s inability to discern and implement a true and lasting “way of peace” (Romans 3:17).
The Bible describes the Middle East as experiencing increased convulsions of violence in the near future. Horrific events yet on the horizon include a “great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21) and armies coming out of Europe to respond to provocation from the Middle East (Daniel 11:40-41).
Significantly, after this yet-to-emerge strong European army stamps down violence in the Middle East, its leadership will be troubled to hear “news from the east and the north” (Daniel 11:44). This may indicate another opportunistic attempt by Russia to reassert itself.
As we strive to obey Christ’s command to “watch and pray” and are sobered by prophesied end-time events drawing closer (Mark 13:33; Luke 21:36), we can be encouraged by the peace and reconciliation that will one day emanate from the Middle East (Micah 4:1-3).
The New Czar in a Simulated Democracy
Vladimir Putin was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1952, the only surviving child of doting parents who had endured the devastating Nazi siege that laid the city waste less than a decade earlier.
The unimaginable heroism and suffering of World War II (or the Great Patriotic War in Russian terminology) left an indelible impression on both the city and Putin. His father, a member of the dreaded secret police agency later transformed into the KGB, was severely disabled by injuries in close combat. His mother nearly died of starvation during the siege, once mistakenly being left in the snow with corpses to be buried.
Putin was indifferent in school, but the discipline of martial arts training focused him away from a hooligan street life. A famous Russian spy movie is credited with inspiring his career in the intelligence services. Assigned after university and law school to an insignificant KGB post in Dresden (East Germany at the time), Lt. Col. Putin was a devoted officer working in the shadows of a dying empire.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, Putin was left without a job; but he shrewdly found a different path to power.
Always enigmatic and difficult to decipher, Putin “made himself indispensable” to the mayor of St. Petersburg, according to biographer Steven Myers, as “a quiet, level-headed, but stern presence, working … tirelessly and with … ‘brute determination’” (The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, p. 62). As a “back stage person,” writes Myers, “whose greatest professional quality was his inconspicuousness,” Putin was spared the rampant political power struggles that destroyed other careers (p. 111).
In a little more than a decade, the former KGB officer was first elevated to the office of prime minister and then, following the ruthless suppression of the Chechen terrorist threat, gifted the presidency by an ailing Boris Yeltsin in 1999. Young and energetic, wearing European suits and fluent in a foreign language, Putin contrasted well to the stuffy image of previous leaders. He was seen by many Russians as one who could solve the country’s economic problems and shepherd it to a bright economic future.
Putin has never stopped being a KGB man, with a worldview of ruthless realism and inherent cynicism mixed with personal pride and patriotism. He sees himself, according to Myers, as the last one standing between order and chaos and “the living embodiment of Russia’s stability” (p. 247).
Putin’s cult of personality continues a long tradition that spans the czars and the Communist leaders. His steely charisma and absolute determination have made him the most formidable Russian potentate since another strongman who favored imposing strict order with an iron fist—Joseph Stalin.