Russia's shuttle diplomacy around the Middle East projects is an attempt to project power as the US looks to re-calibrate its approach in the region.

Last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a four-day diplomatic tour of the Gulf, with visits to the heads of state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, in that order. 

The official diplomatic rationale of the trip was to strengthen trade ties, including energy and arm sales.

However, the timing of the visit, as the US recalibrates anew its policy to the Gulf, represents Moscow projecting its power in the region from one of relative strength. 

In terms of regional politics, Russia has demonstrated to the Gulf that it too has the power to dictate the fate of nations in the Middle East, such as Syria. Furthermore, Lavrov’s message is if the Gulf states and Iran were to reach a detente it could only occur through Russia as a third-party, a mediating role that the US cannot provide at this moment.  

Lavrov’s visit was not only to discuss military sales and security agreements, otherwise known as 'hard power', but to highlight Russia’s willingness to provide vaccines, an aspect of humanitarian 'soft power'.

Russia jockeying for power in the Middle East

Close to exactly 30 years ago, the USSR was a peripheral player during the 1990-1991 Gulf Crisis, essentially acquiescing to the US taking the lead in forming a multilateral alliance through the UN to eject Iraq from Kuwait. That effort required a massive, six-week air campaign, including American B-52s and stealth fighters, and a short ground war of 100 hours to do so.  

In the fall of 2015, the USSR’s successor, the Russian Federation, intervening with close to only 30 aircraft, in tandem with mercenaries and array of foreign militias, turned the tide of the Syrian civil war in favor of Bashar al Assad. This intervention undermined the Gulf’s support of the Syrian opposition, apparently placing Russia in the camp of Iran and Syria.

Lavrov’s visit, and the Gulf’s acceptance of it, is a demonstration of a Russian fait accompli and the Gulf's acquiescence to Assad’s victory, as well as Russia’s attempt to serve as a regional moderator rather than being associated with a single axis of allies.

Russia demonstrated its ability to determine outcomes in Syria, as well as its ability to deploy aircraft and mercenaries there and Libya. In other words, it is not only the US that has “boots on the ground” and air assets in the region. While the American presence is more extensive and expansive, Russia already has a relative advantage over the US. 

Biden will seek to recalibrate Gulf relations, opposed to Trump who unabashedly sided with Saudi Arabia. Russia is making its first foray into Gulf politics during the Biden administration’s first term, where its foreign policy team is still developing a nascent foreign policy to the region. It is too early to speak of a Biden doctrine, but Lavrov’s visit does represent the cohesion of a Putin doctrine. 

The Putin doctrine seeks the recognition from all Middle Eastern states that its presence in the region is on par with the US. The Putin doctrine does not to seek to place itself in one particular camp in the region, but project itself as a moderator and influencer. Only Russia can mediate between both Hezbollah and Israel, or between the Gulf states and Iran and Syria, not the US at this moment. 

Furthermore, this doctrine and Lavrov’s trip seek to demonstrate that it too can provide arms to the region, a considerable source of income for Russia, if the US withholds such equipment.

Russia is not only a provider of arms, but vaccines, situating Lavrov’s trip as part-and-parcel of a new vaccine diplomacy. 

Russia’s vaccine diplomacy

The emergence of Covid-19, close to exactly a year ago, led to a divergence between Russia and the Gulf states in OPEC, whereupon they could not agree on production quotas, leading to a sudden drop of the price-per-barrel of oil. The development of a Russian vaccine, however, offered Moscow a new opportunity as a result of the pandemic. 

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is among the three vaccines approved for use in the UAE. According to the Russian TASS news agency, the UAE has provided 3,000 volunteers for the clinical trials of the Sputnik Light vaccine, a newer version of Sputnik V, requiring only one inoculation instead of two. In the region, Bahrain, Iran, Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey have also acquired the Russian vaccine.

Russian foreign policy in the region has evolved substantially since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. By then the project of spreading Communism in the region had ended. 

Exactly two decades later, Russia took advantage of the Arab uprisings of 2011 to spread its influence from Libya to Syria. These uprisings, combined with the Iran deal of 2015, highlighted the vulnerabilities of the Gulf states. The confluence of these events allowed Russia to enhance its influence in a region, which for Moscow provides greater access to vital water ways and energy resources, while concurrently seeking to undermine the US’ position.  

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