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Russian Influence in the Middle East. Economics, Energy, and Soft Power Perspective

As the United States’ standing in the Middle East has declined, Russia is attempting to reemerge as a major
regional player by filling the power vacuum and positioning itself as a mediator and strategic partner. In the
past, Russia has operated in the Middle East through traditional hard power strategies, supplying arms and
equipment in support of regional hard-liners. However, the Kremlin’s strategy has shifted in recent years
due to the new importance of rebuilding Russia’s reputation as a reliable ally. Seizing upon the opportunity
that rising mistrust of American motives has created, Moscow is increasingly using soft power strategies to
project influence throughout the Middle East. The successful exercise of soft power is a pivotal part of Putin’s
renewed quest for “derzhavnost,” or “great-powerness.”1 Achieving Putin’s goal of “great-powerness” requires
an extension of Russian influence via soft power mechanisms into the Middle East, where hard power alone
has been insufficient.
Through its activity in Syria, Russia has already gained prominence as a player in the Middle East. But the
current challenge facing Putin’s regime is how to convert this country-specific hard-power-induced standing
into broad, long-term political influence. In order to make this transition, Russia needs to convince its Middle
Eastern partners of its reliability and intentions, as well as win over the public. Soft power appears to be
the answer due to its unique ability to target both governments and the citizenry of multiple countries. In
Moscow’s dealings with Middle Eastern nations, we see how the hard coercive power on display in Syria is
being pursued in tandem with soft power initiatives in other countries. Since soft power does not impose the
same budgetary demands as hard power, it is a useful tool for the Kremlin, and has become a key aspect of
Russian policy in the Middle Eastern countries of Turkey and Egypt. As specific initiatives in these countries
show, Putin’s administration has embarked on a series of ambitious economic, trade, energy, cultural, and
media projects, all of which lend to achieving the goals of reshaping Russia’s image in the Middle East and
emerging as a newly dominant power.
This paper examines Russia’s myriad soft power initiatives that are aiming to regain influence in the Middle
East. It will consider how Moscow is capitalizing on the United States’ political withdrawal from the region
and the consequential soft power vacuum left behind. While American influence in Middle Eastern countries
is still substantial, Russia is quickly attempting to rebuild its reputation through a multi-sector, soft power
focused approach. This paper uses the case studies of Syria, Turkey, and Egypt to demonstrate how Moscow is
employing these various soft power campaigns to rebuild Russia’s reputation in the Middle East.

The Challenge of Russia’s Image in the Middle East

Since World War II, Russian interests in the Middle East have been marked by competition with the West, in
“a zero-sum competition for influence with the United States”2 that peaked in the Cold War. At this time, the
Kremlin viewed the Middle East as an area rife with potential for spreading Soviet influence and hoped to stave
off American control of the region. The countries that seemed most easily amenable to Soviet partnerships were
Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Algeria, because they showed a “socialist orientation” or “noncapitalist development
model” in the eyes of Soviet elites.3 Throughout the Cold War, Middle Eastern states’ relationship with the
Soviet Union fell distinctly into the “client-patron” dynamic, as the USSR supported them through loans and
infrastructure projects, reaping little economic payoff but hoping for political advantages in the larger conflict
with the West.

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