To understand Russia’s relationship with China and how it views the China-US rivalry in relation to Saudi Arabia, it is worth identifying and connecting several different topics, some of which appear unrelated or even contradictory. There is no room for sophistry.
Since February 2022, the system of Russian power has been turned upside down. A year after the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin still maintains a stable position in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The region reacted largely with restraint to the large-scale military conflict in central Europe, did not support sanctions against Russia, and did not sever ties with it.
The working assumption of Russian diplomats is that the Arab world respects force and understands Vladimir Putin’s wider struggle with the West. This viewpoint is surmised from recent off-stage conversations with Arab decision-makers, even though back in 2015 that viewpoint may not have accurately reflected Arab sentiment.
The effect of war
A great many states in the Mena region have remained silent about the course of war in Ukraine, in particular the lack of a swift Russian victory or even clear progress, and the effect of this perceived faltering on Russian foreign policy. Few of them now acknowledge that Moscow’s real return to the Middle East in 2015 – when it entered Syria - was due to events in Ukraine.
After the Minsk-II Agreement, which sought to calm tensions over east Ukraine, the Kremlin felt able to intervene in the civil war in Syria, to prove its military muscle on the international stage. It used the strength of battle-hardened mercenaries including Wagner paramilitaries that fought in the Ukrainian Donbas region in 2014.
Syria let the Kremlin play the role of ‘returning power’. It has let Moscow intensify contacts with key regional and extra-regional actors in an unprecedented way, play on the tensions of traditional allies, and intervene in other crises by expanding economic activity, for example, in Iraqi Kurdistan or Lebanon.