The Ukraine War and Russia's Changing Middle East Diplomacy

Taisuke Abiru


Exploiting the inconsistency of US Middle East policy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, especially its clumsy response to the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, Russia engaged skillfully in a strategic competition with the United States in former Soviet bloc countries such as Georgia and Ukraine. Its "pragmatic and flexible" diplomacy enabled Russia to increase its presence also in the Middle East.

However, the outbreak and prolongation of the Russo-Ukrainian War (referred from here to as the "Ukraine war"), triggered by Russia's February 24, 2022 military invasion of Ukraine, is transforming Russia's Middle East diplomacy, previously considered "pragmatic and flexible."

This paper traces the post-9/11 strategic competition between Russia and the United States in the Middle East and some former Soviet bloc areas and examines how the Ukraine war is transforming Russia's Middle East diplomacy.

Russia's Attempted Strategic Deal with the US in Exchange for Post-9/11 "Counter-Terror" Cooperation

In the early years of his first-term administration, which began in May 2000, President Putin mentioned more than once the possibility of Russia joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).1 The opportunity to reveal Putin's strategic design came soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US mainland by the international terrorist organization Al Qaeda. Putin was one of several world leaders to have a phone conversation with US President George W. Bush immediately after "9/11." He offered an overture of every possible cooperation for the coming war on terror.

Putin attempted in one stroke to build a strategic partnership on equal footing with the United States through a deal from which Russia would obtain certain strategic concessions from the United States in exchange for cooperation in the war on terror in, among other places, Afghanistan.

According to William Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the current Biden administration and ex-US ambassador to Russia (2005-2008), at that time, Putin claimed in a roundabout way that the United States should respect Russia's special status in the former Soviet bloc countries by abandoning the idea of expanding NATO beyond the Baltic states.2

However, the United States did not consider Putin's claim. Many voices from the Bush administration and beyond asserted the so-called Bush Doctrine: "Promoting democratization and overthrowing dictatorships would eradicate the root causes of international terrorism, leading to a safer world. To this end, the United States should not hesitate to achieve regime change through unilateral military action." Following the invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq quite literally by force of arms in March-April 2003, without UN Security Council approval.3

The US-Russia "Reset" and the Iranian Nuclear Development Issue

In January 2005, in his inaugural address for his second term, President Bush stated:

The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world... So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.4

This was called the "Freedom Agenda." Just before this, from the end of 2003 to the end of 2004, the "color revolutions" erupted in the former Soviet bloc countries of Georgia and Ukraine. In Ukraine' "Orange Revolution," American NGOs affiliated with both the Republican and Democratic parties played proactive roles.5

In April 2008, at a NATO summit meeting held in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, the United States proposed that Ukraine and Georgia be granted a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a crucial process for Ukraine and Georgia's accession to NATO.

Before this proposal, there had been some disagreement within the Bush administration on whether the granting of MAPs to the two countries should be proposed at the NATO summit. Although Vice President Cheney and his staff favored the timing, Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Rice opposed it because the then US ambassador to Russia, Burns, provided the latter with information for them to oppose.6 In the end, President Bush agreed and decided in favor.7 Bush later recalled in his memoirs that he viewed NATO enlargement as a powerful tool to advance the Freedom Agenda.8

During the Bucharest NATO summit, however, German Chancellor Merkel strongly opposed granting MAPs to both countries. As a result, a vague agreement was reached by releasing a final document stating that NATO endorses the future admission of Ukraine and Georgia to the alliance without providing them with MAPs.9

Four months later, on August 7, 2008, the Georgia conflict broke out. It is widely believed that the Bucharest NATO summit was responsible, in part, for the conflict.10 As long as Georgia remained locked in a state of "frozen conflict" in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, its accession to NATO was unforeseeable. Therefore, Georgian President Saakashvili found no choice but to resolve it by force. The Russian military responded with a counterattack, which finished the conflict in just five days. On August 25 of the same year, the Russian government acknowledged the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

During the Georgian conflict, the Russian military used force across the borders for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Looking back, the conflict foreshadowed the Ukrainian crisis that would take place six years later in 2014. Russia demonstrated its willingness to prevent the former Soviet bloc countries from joining NATO by resorting to force, if necessary.

Although the Georgia conflict temporarily worsened US-Russia relations, it did not cause a decisive rupture in the bilateral relationship. On the contrary, the Obama administration, which took office in January 2009, proceeded to improve relations with Russia under the "Russian reset" policy. This was because close cooperation with Russia was indispensable for resolving the Iranian nuclear development issue through diplomatic efforts, which was becoming increasingly serious at that time.

As noted above, the United States successfully overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Yet, their failure in Iraq's post-war governance led to the US's long-term military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. The overthrow of Hussein in Iraq, a regional power with a strong military, disrupted the balance of power in the Middle East. The result was the emergence of Iran even in 2004 as a major regional power―a Shiite Muslim state boasting its influence in vast areas in the Middle East, ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran had embarked on a secret nuclear development program without the knowledge of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in addition to the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran under Russian support.11

The subsequent strategic competition between Russia and the United States over Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet bloc countries would be difficult to understand without considering the Iran factor. In 2005-2008, Russia consistently defended Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, due partly to its involvement in the Bushehr nuclear power plant construction, but as Iran rejected Russia's mediation proposal, it gradually moved its position closer to the United States through, for example, its voting on the UN Security Council resolutions. However, the outbreak of the Georgia conflict halted the move toward a US-Russia approach to the Iranian nuclear development issue. According to Burns, the chief objective of the "Russian reset" under the Obama administration was to resume this approach.12

The "Minsk 2 Agreement" and the "Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)"

A similar configuration is observable in the 2014 Ukrainian crisis and subsequent US-Russia relations. In February 2014, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych administration was toppled in the aftermath of the anti-government Maidan protests. Russia considered this as an illegitimate coup d'état and proceeded to annex Crimea in March and to engage in a military conflict in eastern Ukraine from April of the same year.

As a result, Russia's relations with the United States and European countries worsened dramatically, and Russia was subjected to massive economic sanctions. However, the Ukraine crisis reached a turning point on February 12, 2015, with the conclusion of the so-called "Minsk 2 agreement," a roadmap for a ceasefire and political settlement in eastern Ukraine, mediated by German Chancellor Merkel, who wanted to maintain cooperation with Russia in natural gas trade.13 Three months later, in May of the same year, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Russia (Sochi) for the first time since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.14

In the United States, before the conclusion of the Minsk 2 agreement, there were growing calls that the United States should provide Ukraine with lethal weapons.15 But President Obama opposed this and gave flank support to the Minsk 2 agreement brokered by Chancellor Merkel.16

On July 14 of the same year, two months after Kerry visited Sochi, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded between Iran, the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China + Germany), and the EU. In an interview that appeared in the New York Times on the same day, President Obama acknowledged that the agreement would not have been possible without cooperation from Russia.17

In this way, by skillfully exploiting the weakness of the United States related to the Iranian nuclear development issue, Russia was able to avoid a decisive deterioration of relations with the West, not only in the 2008 Georgia conflict but also in the 2014 Ukrainian crisis symbolized by the annexation of Crimea.

Russian Presence in the Middle East Increased by Its Military Intervention in the Syrian Civil War

On September 30, 2015, two and a half months after the conclusion of the JCPOA, Russia launched a military intervention in the Syrian civil war. At the time, the Assad regime was on the brink of collapse due to an offensive by Islamist anti-government forces. Russia, alongside Iran, strove to rebuild the Assad administration and to stabilize the situation in Syria. Russia began to project its presence across the Middle East.

In January 2019, the Brookings Institution released a report, "The New Geopolitics of the Middle East,"18 which argues that new geopolitical structures are emerging in the Middle East, identifying four regional countries―Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel―and two extra-regional countries―the United States and Russia―as states exerting significant influence in the Middle East. In the same report, Angela Stent, an eminent expert on US-Russian relations and professor at Georgetown University, described Russia's Middle East diplomacy as follows:

Russia's return to the Middle East after the withdrawal from the region that followed the Soviet collapse is one of Putin's major foreign policy achievements... Putin has taken advantage of the U.S. ambivalence about its future role in the region to re-assert Russia's influence there. Indeed, Russia has begun to replace the United States as the go-to player in this fractured region. Its intervention in Syria and support for Assad have enabled Putin to achieve one of his major goals—Russia's return to the global board of directors.

Russian policy is pragmatic and non-ideological, which gives it considerable flexibility. Russia has ties with all the major regional players, irrespective of their internal politics. Indeed, Russia is the only major power that talks to the Shiite states, the Sunni states, and to Israel. It has been able to establish cooperative ties with the region's main protagonists and antagonists: Israel and the Palestinians; Israel and Iran; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Turkey and the Kurds; both Libyan governments; and Hamas and Hezbollah... Russia is in the Middle East for the long haul. It is seeking to convert its decisive role in Syria—ensuring that Assad prevailed and stayed in power—to a broader role of regional power broker.

Russia cooperated with Iran in sustaining the Assad regime while striking a delicate balance in its relations with Iran and Israel by tolerating Israeli attacks on pro-Iranian militants in southern Syria.

The Prolonging Ukraine War and Russia's "Anti-Neocolonialist" Narrative

In the Ukraine war, which began with Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia's skillful Middle East diplomacy is being transformed, as Russia-Iran security cooperation is rapidly advancing to include Russia's procurement of Iran-made military drones. As per Fyodor Lukyanov, a top specialist in Russian foreign and security policy, Russia's diplomatic approach to the Middle East has undergone a qualitative shift.19

As a result of the Ukraine conflict, Russia's Middle East policy lost its unique quality (at the very least it was significantly weakened). Relations between Moscow and the West entered a phase of direct and undisguised antagonism, a real and acute Cold War. Moreover, Russia's relations with different nations and groups became dependent on their position and ties with the US... This change has had the strongest impact on our relations with Israel... After the start of the Ukraine conflict, the Israeli authorities criticized Moscow but tried to maintain a balance and did not directly participate in the anti-Russia sanctions coalition headed by Washington. However, the growing cooperation between Moscow and Iran, which the Kremlin needed to achieve its goals in Ukraine, put Israel in an increasingly difficult position.

Meanwhile, on October 7, 2023, Hamas, the Islamist organization in effective control of the Palestinian territory of Gaza, launched a surprise attack on Israel, causing the outbreak of the Gaza war. This event has made the Russia-Israel relationship more challenging, while it has allowed Russia to have the legitimacy of US diplomacy questioned among global South countries. Lukyanov analyzes this situation as follows:20

The Hamas attack and the outbreak of the war in Palestine in which the US and EU have unconditionally supported Israel, established the Jewish state as an integral part of the ‘Collective West', which Russia fiercely confronts. This has simplified the previously complex scheme (of relations) and provided less space for political maneuvering.

In the context of the Western coalition's attempts to ensure the political and economic blockade of Russia, Moscow needs the support of the part of the world (the majority) that now condemns Israel and treats the Palestinians with understanding. The position of the US is unpopular among the countries of the ‘Global South', and this opens up additional opportunities for Russia.

With the outbreak of the Gaza war, the international community, which had previously focused on the inhumane acts committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, began to turn its attention to the similarly inhumane acts by Israeli forces in Gaza. As the US-Russia relationship is dramatically deteriorating over the Ukraine war, the Biden administration is obliged to take a pro-Israel position, while Russia is distancing itself from Israel, making its pro-Palestinian position manifest. In so doing, Russia succeeds in amplifying the perception of "double standards of US diplomacy" that prevails among pro-Palestinian citizens in the global South, including the Middle East and Africa.

Russia has recently redefined the Ukraine war as "a struggle to end global Western domination," eager to spread this "anti-neocolonialist" narrative to global South countries that share a history of colonial rule by Western powers.21 The outbreak of the Gaza war has provided Russia with an excellent opportunity to this end.


As described above, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Russia has been taking advantage of the inconsistency of the US Middle East policy, related to the Iranian nuclear development issue and the Syrian civil war, to regain influence in former Soviet bloc countries such as Georgia and Ukraine. It also increases its presence across the Middle East, creating the circumstances that oblige the United States and European countries to half tolerate this situation.

Before the start of the Ukraine war, Russia maintained relations with all major regional players in the Middle East, regardless of their respective national political systems. Russia was the only superpower capable of dialogue with the Shiite countries, the Sunni countries, and Israel. Russia was able to establish cooperative relationships with major regional powers in conflict, or both of the conflicting parties such as Israel and Palestine, Israel and Iran, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Kurds, the two Libyan governments, and Hamas and Hezbollah.

Amid the prolonged Ukraine war, Russia is consolidating its military ties with Iran while worsening its relations with Israel. Consequently, Russia's "pragmatic and flexible" Middle East diplomacy is changing.

On the other hand, by distancing itself from Israel and clarifying its support for Palestine in the wake of the Gaza war, Russia succeeds in amplifying the perception of "double standards of US diplomacy," which prevails among pro-Palestine citizens in the global South, including the Middle East and Africa.

Russia intends to wage a long-haul fight against the West by spreading the "anti-neocolonialist" narrative to global South countries that the Ukraine war is a struggle to end global Western domination.

Many believe that Russia will nonetheless avoid severing its relationship with Israel.22 Yet, as long as Russia's conflict with the West over the Ukraine war continues, it will be hard for Russia to revive its "pragmatic and flexible" Middle East diplomacy.

(Senior Research Fellow, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

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