/ Published May 14, 2019
What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? by Dmitri Trenin. Polity Press, 2018, 144 pp.
It is a difficult task to clearly and concisely frame today's Middle East picture, yet it can be done. Russia’s revitalized activity in the Middle East has been met with interest, if not concern, creating a quagmire of international activity in the region. While this appears at first glance to be a new venture for Russia, author Dmitri Trenin explains in What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? that Russia is “not a newcomer to the region”; it has been an active actor in the region for centuries. However, one must pay special attention to its evolving strategy and increasing strategic success.
Trenin certainly has knowledge and experience in the area. He served over 20 years in the Russian military with roles ranging from a liaison officer in the external relations branch of the Group of Soviet Forces, to a member of the Russian delegation, to the US-Soviet nuclear arms talks in Geneva from 1985 to 1991. Trenin is currently the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. While these positions may color his perception of current and historical Russian power, he maintains a good deal of objectivity throughout the bulk of the book. His experience and knowledge permeate the book, providing valuable insight into many of Russia’s past strategic actions and objectives.
Trenin’s principal argument is that Russia’s recent involvement in Syria is not so much about Syria or even the Middle East but “the global order.” Emerging from the post‒Cold War drop in economic and military relevance, Russia seeks to position itself as a global power competing indirectly with United States hegemony. Trenin notes that Russia may not have a “grand strategy for the Middle East, but its return to the region is of strategic importance for itself and a significant international development.” Russia seeks to regain respect in the world not by directly confronting the United States but by proving its influence over the international political environment. He explains that this strategy appears to be working in Syria, where— against US expectations—Russia has begun to stabilize the situation and enforce its objectives and interests. The result is ripple effects throughout the rest of the Middle East and the world. As the author explains, Russia has shown that it can take a position on an issue in another country, stand behind it in the United Nations, and carry its strategy to fruition using diplomacy as well as military force. The success of this process has increased its credibility and adds credence to future Russian international objectives.
Trenin’s breakdown of the issues and influences integral to Russia’s strategy serves to provide an antithesis to the misperceptions of many US policy makers and the public. Russia’s involvement in the Middle East and Syria, in particular, is not for the defense of a staunch ally, nor is it entirely about showing military might. Instead, it is a carefully managed situation aimed at distancing Russia from the practices of the Soviet Union and showing the world that Russia will be a player in any international discussion.
Trenin supports his thesis by starting with history; working through current military, diplomacy, and trade issues; and eventually arriving at implications of current Russian objectives. The primary strength of Trenin’s argument lies in the conciseness with which he addresses the issue. Like the title, Trenin gets straight to the point without getting mired in any one area. This isn’t to say he passes over relevant issues. Beginning with the start of the last millennium, he hits the high points of the history of Russian investment and influence in the Middle East. He uses several cases as background to demonstrate the changing Russian ideology, eventually leading to the nuances of Russia’s current position in the region. Trenin explains, “Once a rigid zero-sum ideological and geopolitical player, Moscow has recently transformed itself into a paragon of pragmatism.” Concise sections break down relationships between other states and interest groups, as well as Russian stance on critical conflicts in the area, providing insight into the rationale for current Russian strategy. Finally, Trenin builds on the analysis of military strategy in the region by integrating the other aspects of Russia’s overall strategy: “Arms, energy—both fossil and nuclear—as well as grain and tourism are the key areas where Russia is a big player even now.”
Anyone wishing to establish a baseline for current Russian international strategy will surely find this book useful. The framework Trenin lays out will prove valuable for those interested in gaining insight into the subject or those integral to US policy with regard to the region or Russia. However, answers to specific, in-depth questions will have to be found elsewhere, as his book is simply not long enough to delve too deeply into any one issue. Understanding the thought process of Russia as one of the key players in the Middle East is vital for US strategy and cannot be overlooked. Trenin provides a starting point for that understanding and will undoubtedly elicit several substantive questions to investigate further and ultimately build a complete picture of what Russia is up to in the Middle East.
Maj Adam Wieser, USAF