In the 2000s, Moscow became disillusioned over its desire to become part of the extended Euro-Atlantic community: Its pleas to be treated as an equal by the United States did not impress Washington, and its demands that its national security interests be respected were ignored in the process of NATO enlargement. And so from the early 2010s, the Kremlin started charting a course that was clearly at odds with its earlier policies of Western integration.
With the Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, the breakout from the post-Cold War, Western-dominated order was complete. The takeover of Crimea and support for separatism in Donbass did not presage a policy of reconquering Eastern Europe, as many in the West feared, but it clearly set Ukraine and other former Soviet republics off limits to any future NATO enlargement. The security buffer was back. If the use of force in Ukraine, from the Kremlin’s standpoint, was essentially defensive, Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 was a risky gambit to decide geopolitical outcomes in the Middle East — a famously treacherous area for outsiders vacated by the Soviet Union at the time of the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Since then, the results of the military operation and diplomatic maneuvering have not only confounded early critics but also outdone even President Vladimir Putin’s own expectations.
Russia’s achievements in the Middle East go way beyond the success in Syria proper. Moscow benefits from flexible semi-alliances with Turkey and Iran, oil price arrangements with Saudi Arabia and newly revived military ties with Egypt. It is again a player of some consequence in Libya, a power to which many Lebanese look to help them hold their country together, and a would-be security broker between Iran and the Gulf States — all this while maintaining an intimate relationship with Israel.
Today, such a degree of involvement with the Middle East obviously stands out in the Russian foreign policy landscape. Tomorrow, this is unlikely to be an exception. Already for some time, Moscow, in parallel with Washington, has been pursuing a political settlement in Afghanistan. This requires maneuvering between Kabul and the Taliban; Pakistan and India; and China and the United States. Last month, Mr. Putin held court for 43 African leaders in Sochi; it was Russia’s first summit with a continent where Moscow advertises itself above all as a security partner.
The credibility of this claim is supported not only by the Syria experience but also by Russia’s political and material support for Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela, who is still holding on, despite being declared illegal almost a year ago by some 50 nations led by the United States. Cuba, again under pressure by the Trump administration, is strengthening its ties with Russia, as demonstrated by the recent twin visits to Havana by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and to Russia by President Miguel Diaz-Carnel. Besides Latin America’s leftist regimes, Moscow is reaching out to Brazil (a fellow BRICS member), Argentina and Mexico.