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A Bear in the Desert

Why did the Obama administration allow a Russian resurgence in the Middle East?

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By TOD LINDBERG
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For decades during the Cold War, U.S. policy sought to minimize the role of Moscow in the Middle East. As the Soviet Union weakened dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so too did its capacity to influence events there (and many other places besides). So matters have stood since. A pretty good question, then, is why on earth the Obama administration seems to be inviting a Russian resurgence in the Middle East.

Russia Today television interviews Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Russia Today television interviews Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.


The first-term Obama initiative to “reset” relations with Russia was probably worth a try. If a dose of conspicuous American respect could lead to progress with Russia on matters of mutual interest, all to the good. And indeed, the policy arguably bore certain limited fruit: an agreement that further reduces nuclear stockpiles (though not one without its critics); cooperation over Afghanistan; restraint in terms of Russian cooperation with Iran (specifically, Russia’s support for sanctions and its nondelivery of the advanced S-300 air defense system Tehran sought in order to complicate military options against its nuclear programs); an abstention on the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from the last gasp of Muammar Qaddafi’s effort to stay in power.

But Vladimir Putin’s Russia never really responded to the reset by opting for a constructive role in international politics. Since Putin emerged at the top of the post-Soviet political heap, Russian foreign policy, such as it is, has mainly seemed to be driven by a combined sense of nostalgia, grievance, and resentment​—​Russia with a chip on its shoulder over the loss of an empire and the supposed abuse inflicted upon it by the United States in its period of weakness.

Putin’s autocratic tendencies are of a piece with his posturing on behalf of a strong Russia. Has there ever been a world leader who so likes to be photographed bare-chested? Yet he has always seemed a little too insistent in delivering his message that Russia is back.

On the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, he proclaimed his country an energy superpower, as if this were some hitherto undiscovered category of greatness in international politics. Now, if there were such a thing as an energy superpower, Saudi Arabia would surely be one; but, of course, Saudi Arabia is anything but a superpower, notwithstanding its oil riches. And thanks to shale oil and gas in the United States as well as crumbling Russian energy infrastructure, it looks like it’s the United States that will be adding the significant new dimension of energy self-sufficiency to its already considerable national power.

Russia has its nuclear arsenal and the external security such a capability provides. It is, in some sense, untouchable even by greater U.S. power. Hence the skepticism with which Moscow greeted Obama’s proposal in his Berlin speech for further deep cuts in nuclear weapons. Yet the notion of a Russian “grand strategy” that the United States has anything to fret about has long been far-fetched. The biggest problems Russia causes are exactly where you would expect to find them: in countries bordering Russia in the old Soviet space and in countries that have ties with Moscow going back to their status as client-states during the Cold War.

Russia has been especially active where the United States and its allies have been divided or acted hesitantly ​—​a problem that did not begin with Obama. For example, NATO was divided at its 2008 summit on whether to extend an invitation to Russia’s neighbor Georgia to take the next step in its bid to join the alliance. It’s unclear whether doing so would actually have prevented Russia from responding to provocations in ethnically Russian breakaway Georgian regions in August of that year by sending in an invading force. Putin’s hatred for Georgia’s then-president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was personal and deep. But Germany’s insistence that Georgia receive something less than a definitive path to NATO membership was just an early example of an attempt to assuage Russian concerns that ended up backfiring. And even here, Putin lacked the will (or perhaps the capacity?) to send Russian tanks all the way to Tbilisi and “reunite” Georgia with Russia by force.

Western policy toward Ukraine has also been less than a model of coherence, as the United States and the European Union have swung from excessive optimism over the country’s future to self-defeating pessimism. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s future independence is not seriously in doubt. Russia seeks and maintains influence there, but influence has not crossed over into the kind of dominance the Soviet Union exerted over neighbors.

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