Lots of Arab countries that are fearful of Iran, and so they are not happy about Russian cooperation with that country. What we've seen, though, is that the Russians aren't necessarily concerned about whether they are happy. The way that the Russians typically operate is through balancing between adversaries.
When in the past Arab countries have not liked how Russia is cooperating with Iran, the Russian response has been: “OK, we'll sell you weapons and do other things with you too. You need to give us an incentive to work with you to limit what Iran is doing.” But now that the Ukraine war has been taking place, what we're seeing is that Russia is becoming more dependent on Iran for armed drones, military advisors, and perhaps even ballistic missiles for use in the war against Ukraine. Even the Chinese are not helping Russia like this. But Iran is. I can't help but feel that this means that Russia has to return the favour and lean more toward Iran than towards the Arab states.
Before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Russia seemed to be getting more influential in the Middle East. But now that Russia is devoting so much of its resources to the war in Ukraine, I think that questions have arisen just how active can Russia be in the Middle East. It has already been reported that they're drawing down air defence missile systems from Syria and that they may even be bringing back some of their armed forces from there. There is still a large Russian presence in Syria, but with the war in Ukraine, Moscow just cannot play as active a role in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. If Moscow had quickly won the war in Ukraine last year, then I think they would have seen a tremendously increased role for Russia in the Middle East. But that is not what happened. Even if Russia still does somehow win now, Russia is going to be a much more exhausted power that may not have the resources for involvement in the Middle East.
On the other hand, continued Arab cooperation with Russia despite their unhappiness with Moscow’s growing ties to Iran has allowed them to enhance their international role. Recently, we saw this in the UAE mediation effort leading to Moscow’s release of imprisoned American athlete Brittney Griner. The UAE not only played a very important diplomatic role in this, but it showed that it can be successful at manoeuvring between the US and Russia. Washington has been unhappy that the UAE is one of the many countries where Russia can still do business despite Western sanctions. But the UAE is so important to the West that the US really can't do an awful lot about this. And the recent role that the UAE played in bringing about the release of Brittney Griner has helped Washington see that the UAE’s still getting along with Russia can be useful for the US in some instances.
The UAE isn’t the only country not abiding by Western sanctions against Russia. Many other countries aren’t either, including India, other Arab countries, and even Israel. I think that what this shows is that in the Middle East, the war on Ukraine is just not the highest priority. For many Middle Eastern countries, concern about Iran is a much higher priority, and they're just acting on their interests by continuing to cooperate with Russia. I can understand why the United States does not like this, but I think this is simply the situation which it has to live with.
Still, if Russian dependence on Iran becomes so great that Moscow is unable to do anything to counter hostile Iranian actions in the Middle East, then Arab countries may come to question the value of their continued cooperation with Moscow. Instead of breaking with Russia, however, they are likely to respond by continuing or even increasing their cooperation with the United States.
About The Author
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_N_Katz