Russia and the Middle East: Putin's Balancing Act

Speaker: Professor Mark Katz

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has established good relations with most of the major actors in the Middle East--including many that are at odds with one another. In addition to cooperating closely with traditionally anti-American actors such as Iran, the Assad regime, and Hezbollah, Putin also cooperates with traditionally pro-American governments such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states (including Qatar), and even Israel. While Turkish-Russian relations underwent a tumultuous period in 2015-16 following the Turkish shoot down of a Russian military aircraft in the vicinity of the Syrian-Turkish border, Moscow-Ankara ties have undergone a remarkable revival since mid-2016 and are in much better shape than Turkey's relations with America and Europe--despite Russia's good relations with various Kurdish actors). Indeed, Putin has good relations with all the major actors in the Middle East except for jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS (which do not get along with anyone, including each other). And while Putin's relations with America and the West are tense in Ukraine and Europe more generally, he has sought to cooperate with America and the West to some degree in the Middle East.

Putin's success can be attributed to several factors, including his own diplomatic initiatives, inconsistent American policy, and the desire of regional actors to work with Russia for various reasons of their own. But while Putin has succeeded in balancing among Middle Eastern rivals up to now, the increasing conflicts between some of them may make this more difficult in future. The possibility of Russian-American clashes in Syria is also a growing concern. George Mason University Professor and current Fulbright Scholar at SOAS Mark N. Katz will discuss these issues as well as share highlights from the 19-20 February 2018 Valdai Club conference in Moscow on Russia and the Middle East that he will have just returned from.

About Professor Katz: Mark N. Katz (Ph.D., MIT) is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. He has written primarily about Moscow’s relations with the Middle East (especially the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula) for over 35 years. During 2017, he was a visiting scholar first at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (January-March), and then at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki (April-September). Currently, he is a Fulbright Scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.