Since its pivotal intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, Russia has sought to position itself as a major player in the Middle East, establishing itself as a rare broker that is on good terms with all of the region's feuding powers.
Now Moscow has a fresh chance to solidify that reputation. Russian President Vladimir Putin will look to boost his country's standing in the Middle East following the Trump administration's decision to assassinate the Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani last week and Iran's missile attack against US air bases in Iraq on Tuesday, which have roiled the Middle East and pushed Iran and the United States to the brink of war. The escalating situation raises the stakes for Moscow's calculus in the region significantly, but it also provides Putin with new opportunities to achieve two of his long-standing goals: undermining US credibility and expanding Russia's footprint across the Middle East.
"Putin sees pushing back against US unilateralism as a personal mission and he is extremely opportunistic. He will therefore seek to capitalize on every opportunity he can to use the assassination of Suleimani and any ensuing instability to tarnish Washington's reputation in the region," said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank who previously served as deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.
The killing sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity from Moscow. In phone calls with his American, Iranian, Chinese, and Turkish counterparts, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned the killing and characterized it as a gross violation of international law. On Tuesday, Putin made an impromptu visit to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and shore up Moscow's patronage.
"The last thing Putin wants is to have to pick a side in the Middle East," said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington-based think tank. "His best card is as a mediator and I suspect they are in a wait-and-see mode now. If Russia does something major, it will be diplomatically." The killing of Quds Force leader Suleimani in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport on January 3 will likely stress test Moscow's ability to be a friend to all major players in the region.
On Wednesday, Putin traveled to Istanbul to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss escalating tensions in the Middle East. Despite not always seeing eye to eye on the future of the region, Erdogan and Putin have managed to cut deals in the past, such as when both leaders agreed to effectively carve up northeastern Syria last year following the Trump administration's unexpected withdrawal. On Saturday, Putin will welcome German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Moscow for talks about the crisis. Both Russia and Germany are among the countries that have sought to prop up the Iranian nuclear deal following the US withdrawal from the agreement in 2018.
The killing of the Quds Force leader Suleimani in a US drone strike at the Baghdad airport on Jan. 3 will likely stress test Moscow's ability to be a friend to all major players in the region. Russia and Iran have developed deep ties in recent years, working together in Syria to tilt the balance of power in favor of the Assad regime. Despite their shared interests, Moscow has simultaneously pursued deeper ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tehran's foes, as well as with other players across the region.
"Moscow is trying to play this role as a reliable and stable player in the Middle East and this certainly helps its cause," said Julia Sveshnikova, a Middle East expert and consultant at the PIR Center, a Moscow think tank. "But Moscow is also very concerned about this situation and will be looking to stay out of the fray as much as possible."
The Trump administration's decision to assassinate a high-ranking official caught many countries around the world off guard and undermined US credibility in the Middle East, an opening that Moscow will be looking to capitalize on. The Kremlin has long proven adept at exploiting crises around the world to advance its strategic objectives, from Ukraine to North Africa to Syria.
Washington has slapped Russia with sanctions for its intervention in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, but the Kremlin has long pointed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of US hypocrisy and will likely use Suleimani's killing and Trump's call to target Iranian cultural sites as further evidence of US overreach while furthering its own standing as a regional power broker.
While many of the United States' regional allies may privately welcome Suleimani's demise, many also feared that they may bear the brunt of Iran's retaliation. Those fears may have been allayed slightly as Iran responded to the killing of its general by firing over a dozen missiles at US military and coalition forces in Iraq. Early reports suggested that there were no US casualties, and both sides showed signs that they wanted to de-escalate the situation. US allies in the region may be breathing a sigh of relief, but if they conclude that Washington had left them exposed to Iranian retaliation, it could encourage a pivot toward Moscow for future mediation.