The highly anticipated meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin took place on June 16, with issues regarding the Middle East forming part of the debate. With reassurances from both sides, the region can look forward to a new era of collaboration, rather than a return to Cold War-era bipolar realpolitik.
Both leaders praised progress achieved at the Geneva talks, the first such meeting since 2018. Some messaging was positive; while Biden noted that “Russia did not want a new Cold War,” Putin called Biden an experienced statesmen and said that the two “spoke the same language.”
A US-Russia Joint Statement on Strategic Stability released on the day of the meeting said that “even in periods of tension, we are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war” might suggest for the MENA region upcoming collaborations between the US and Russia.
As Carnegie Moscow Centre Director Dmitri Trenin suggested, “It seems that both leaders have acknowledged each other’s red lines, for example Putin’s on Ukraine, and Biden’s on cyber. As a bonus, Joe Biden has changed his rhetoric, calling Russia a ‘great power’ and Putin a ‘worthy’ opponent’.”
“It seems that both leaders have acknowledged each other’s red lines, for example Putin’s on Ukraine, and Biden’s on cyber. As a bonus, Joe Biden has changed his rhetoric, calling Russia a ‘great power’ and Putin a ‘worthy’ opponent," says @DmitriTrenin pic.twitter.com/EZxKxmSREI— Carnegie Russia (@CarnegieRussia) June 17, 2021
Expected collaborative efforts in the Middle East
On the crucial issues of Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, Biden stated that, “he [Putin] indicated that he is ready, I quote, to help on Afghanistan – I will not go into details now – and to help on Iran.” The latter concerns, in particular, ensuring that Iran “does not receive nuclear weapons.” The leaders also discuss “the urgent need to maintain and re-establish humanitarian corridors in Syria.” What does all of this mean to the region geopolitically, and Russia’s role in the region?
For example, efforts to resolve Israel-Palestinian violence are expected to depend on further collaboration between the so-called Middle East Quartet (the UN, US, EU, and Russia). Reaffirmation between the US and Russia of “the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” may similarly indicate a continuation of the Vienna talks on the Iranian nuclear deal known as the JCPOA, moving towards the US return to the deal and the implementation of the plan.
As expected, prior the meeting, Biden raised the issue of Syria with Putin, seeking the reauthorisation of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Turkish-Syria border. This is the only UN-supervised point of access for international aid and assistance, and the UN Security Council mandate for the crossing expires July 10. Last year, Russia abstained on the vote on the crossing. However, despite expectations both sides did not come to the consensus on this matter. This does not signal though that other discussions between Russia and the US about the future of Syria will not take place in the future.
Taken as a whole, these political moves reveal Russia’s substantial role in the MENA region, and its gradual recognition by Western counterparts as a potential partner rather than simply an antagonist. Russia has in recent years cemented its position either by military actions, such as in Syria and Libya, economic deals, including energy policy, arms and agriculture sales, or soft power diplomacy. This last is a multi-faceted approach, bringing together a pragmatic diplomacy of balancing opposite sides and adversaries; integration of Russian minorities into foreign policy to help build relations; launching the RT media outlet; and establishing the Russian diaspora agency, named the Rossotrudnichestvo Federal Agency, which operates Russian Centres for Science and Culture (RCSC) in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and in Palestinian areas. Biden’s acknowledgement reflects and confirms Russia’s long-term presence in the region by recognizing it as a great power there. The US, meanwhile, is seeking to normalize many of its relations in MENA, after several tense years and the unpredictability of the Trump administration.
The end of a bipolar world
Given this, should we expect MENA actors to be divided up into US-allies and Russia-allies, similar to the Cold War? This seems an unlikely historical recurrence. Firstly, as noted earlier, Biden said that “Russia did not want a new Cold War,” averting suggestions that bipolar world politics would return, or that either of the great powers sought such a level of political dominance over actors in the region.
Secondly, Russia’s approach is decidedly pragmatic, and relies on maintaining good relations with almost all the players in the region, even where they disagree with each other. It has allied with al-Assad and Iran, maintains relations with Turkey, is developing ever-closer relations with the GCC states, maintains relations with both Israel and Palestine, and takes a pragmatic response with several non-state regional actors, including Hamas, and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, even with its declining hegemonic role in the region, the US remains a central partner for its long-term allies, for geopolitical reasons, but also, and perhaps most importantly, for economic reasons. There is considerable interconnection between the US and MENA economies, especially with long-term US allies. For example, in 2020 alone, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, invested $12.8 billion in US equities as of the fourth quarter, including in Uber Technologies. In December 2020, Saudi Arabia was the 14th largest holder of US treasury securities, holding $136.4 billion.
By contrast, in 2017, the Russia-Saudi investment fund was established by RDIF (Russia’s Direct Investment Fund) and the PIF, with a total commitment of $6 billion to focus on projects to foster economic cooperation between the two nations. In other words, despite declines in diplomatic relations, which have been damaged by several factors, such as the Khashoggi case, economic interdependence, as argued by liberalist analysts, seems most relevant to stable relations between the US and its traditional partners, especially the GCC states.
Finally, the economic and political status of the MENA states themselves has shifted the balance. There simply is no bipolar world anymore, it instead being replaced by a multipolar model since other world players have risen in influence and economic power. This includes China, India, the European states, and the MENA region, to various degrees.
Consequently, the Geneva Summit may prove a turning point in relations between Russia and the US/West. Even though a commentator such as Alexander Baunov might call it “Putin’s New (Old) Russia Meets Biden’s New America,” this is not a return to an older status quo.
For the Middle East, we should not expect to see major changes at this point: Russia and the US will remain important players, but acknowledged within a larger multipolar great power competition – something Russia has been working on since 2007, but has only now have been acknowledged by its US counterpart.