WASHINGTON – It wasn’t so long ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin looked like the geopolitical kingpin of the Middle East. In recent weeks, though, Russia has absorbed two major setbacks: First, a falling out with Turkey over Syria, and second, the onset of a vicious oil price war with Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
It’s too soon to say that Putin is losing the Middle East, where geopolitics have become especially fluid and challenging. But these events remind us that some of Russia’s key relationships in the region are shallower and more transactional than they may appear. And that’s not just in the Middle East. Putin is sometimes seen as a master chess player, but his geopolitical approach is often shortsighted and, over the longer run, potentially counterproductive. In other words, his style of statecraft isn’t so different from U.S. President Donald Trump’s.
Over the past several years, Putin had built an impressive geopolitical position in the Middle East. He skillfully employed Russian air power, mercenaries and proxies to shift the course of the Syrian civil war. He developed productive relationships with committed American adversaries such as Iran, as well as longtime U.S. allies and partners such as Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Putin exploited perceived American weakness to portray Russia as a strong, decisive actor. He took advantage of the region’s instability to amass influence — or simply play the spoiler — at little cost.
Yet Putin’s Middle Eastern offensive has now come to a halt. The Syrian regime’s push into Idlib Province brought Russian-backed government troops into conflict with the Turkish military, which has occupied a swath of northern Syria and continues to support opposition groups there. The result was a military clash that killed more than 30 Turkish troops and a turn, by Turkey, back toward NATO and the U.S. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan requested that the U.S. deploy Patriot missiles on its southern frontier to protect against Russian and Syrian warplanes; Turkey sought consultations with NATO regarding the threat to its security.
Not long ago, Putin was driving a deep wedge in the U.S.-Turkey relationship by selling Ankara advanced antiaircraft weapons. Now he seems to be driving Erdogan back in the direction of Washington and Brussels.
Then came the rift with Saudi Arabia. Here, the trigger was geoeconomics more than geopolitics. After Russia refused a request by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to cut production in response to falling global demand, Saudi Arabia launched an all-out price war, ramping up production and offering discounts to Moscow’s customers in hopes of capturing market share. The rapid collapse of oil prices not only roiled the global economy, it also put Russia and Saudi Arabia on opposite sides of a struggle for global influence and soured Moscow’s relationship with a key Middle Eastern power.
So is Putin’s position in the region now collapsing? That goes too far. Russia is still the central player in a Syrian civil war that seems likely to drag on. That Moscow just brokered a cease-fire between the Turks and the Syrian regime confirms that role. Russia hasn’t lost the ability to influence events in Libya and other hot spots; it maintains positive relationships with countries from Iran to Jordan. It’s worth remembering that Russia has come back from rifts with regional powers before. It was less than five years ago that Ankara and Moscow nearly came to blows after Turkey shot down a Russian jet.
Yet the current imbroglios demonstrate something important about Russia’s relationships in the Middle East — how utterly transactional and, as a result, brittle, many of them are. It says something that Putin and the young Saudi prince can go from high-fiving at a Group of 20 meeting to fighting fiercely over market share. Russian-Saudi cooperation on oil had opened the door to a burgeoning diplomatic relationship and greater regional influence; the new economic conflict will introduce strains not just with Riyadh but other Middle Eastern exporters.
Likewise, recent events have surely underscored to Erdogan how unreliable his relationship with Moscow is, thereby reminding him that he still needs Washington and NATO, because he will otherwise find himself far more exposed when Turkish and Russian interests diverge. All this is arguably good news for the U.S. It offers an opportunity to begin repairing damaged relations with Turkey, which still commands crucial strategic real estate in an important part of the world, and perhaps to begin winning back some of the regional sway it has lost.
Putin’s setbacks also testify to a larger trend in his statecraft: Russian gains are often less sustainable, and costlier, than they seem. Over the last several years, Putin has aggressively used Russian power to advance immediate Russian interests, but in doing so, he has also courted long-term blowback.
Poisoning Russian emigres on the streets of the United Kingdom sends a message to critics; it also buys Moscow the diplomatic enmity of Britain and other Western powers. Grabbing Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine has strengthened Russia’s position in its near abroad; it has also resulted in economic isolation, diplomatic opprobrium and a downward spiral in relations with the West. Getting closer to China provides Moscow with diplomatic options today; it threatens to subordinate Russia to a larger power in the years to come. Russia’s wins are undoubtedly damaging to the international system, but they may eventually turn into losses for Moscow itself.
There’s an interesting parallel here to the foreign policy of Trump. The president likes to boast about his “victories” — renegotiating trade agreements through high-handed tactics, wringing additional money out of allies, slapping punitive tariffs on friends as well as competitors — while ignoring the damage, gradual but accumulating, this inflicts on the global position America built over decades. Mortgaging the future for short-term gains isn’t a winning strategy. But it’s an approach that Putin and Trump seem to have in common.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.