Putin's Red Sea doctrine shows his geopolitical prowess

Moscow remains determined to keep Washington in check wherever it can and to remind wider world powers of its ability to influence Iran

Putin's Red Sea doctrine shows his geopolitical prowess

As the Gaza war pulled the West’s geopolitical focus back to the Middle East, Russia benefited significantly and was able to make gains in Ukraine amid the chaos.

As attention shifted globally, there were also wider opportunities. Russia is boosting its presence in the Red Sea, where it is seeking a bigger role in the vital passageway critical to global commerce.

A US-led coalition is operating in the Red Sea to counter Houthi attacks on maritime vessels passing through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. India also operates in the Indian Ocean to secure the waterway that leads into the Red Sea.

For its part, Russia is trying to leverage its alliance with Iran, which backs the Houthis, to address both military and economic implications stemming from Houthi’s actions in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

It is also enhancing its political and economic ties with Gulf States—most notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In late March, Russia underscored its commitment by deploying two vessels from its Pacific Fleet to the Red Sea, a frigate and a cruiser.

Prior to their arrival, these ships conducted exercises in the Gulf of Aden to prepare for various potential threats, according to a statement from their command.

There has been some speculation that Russia's presence in the Red Sea might lead to a renewed dialogue and cooperation with the US—particularly in managing a critical global economic corridor.

Russia is boosting its presence in the Red Sea, where it is seeking a bigger role in the vital passageway critical to global commerce.

Broader doctrine

However, it's prudent to view this move as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's broader doctrine: to go wherever is needed to challenge US dominance globally.

The Houthi attacks on shipping—particularly vessels transporting goods to Israel—came as part of the campaign by Iran's so-called Axis of Resistance to support Gaza as Israel continues with its brutal offensive there.

For their part, Moscow and Beijing have reportedly secured an understanding with the Houthis to exempt Russian and Chinese commercial vessels from attacks in the Red Sea.

Furthermore, Russian and Chinese ships—carrying oil, gas, and other exports despite sanctions—navigate safely from the Black Sea to European destinations and Asian markets via the Sea of Japan.

In July 2022, Putin unveiled a new Russian naval doctrine, declaring US efforts to dominate the world's oceans as a threat to Russian national security, alongside NATO's expansion towards Russia's borders.

The doctrine emerged amid the Ukraine conflict. It was aimed at safeguarding Russia's influence in the Black Sea and its presence in Crimea after Ukrainian drone attacks on the Russian fleet. It also underscores Moscow's broader ambitions.

Expanding its naval capabilities into the Red Sea is an immediate response and part of a long-term strategy to enhance Russia's influence in the Middle East.

For years, the Kremlin has sought to establish a naval base in the region, akin to its facility in Tartous, Syria, on the Mediterranean coast.

Early last month, Sudan's Foreign Minister Ali Al-Sadiq Ali indicated that the country holds no significant reservations about hosting a Russian naval base on the Red Sea coast.

Discussions for this base—initiated before the outbreak of conflict in Sudan—are on hold, with Moscow awaiting the war's end to resume negotiations.

Expanding its naval capabilities into the Red Sea is part of a long-term strategy to boost Russia's regional influence.

Dual-purpose proposal

Since the onset of the conflict in Yemen and the subsequent Houthi control over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has introduced a proposal aimed at ensuring the security of the Red Sea while curbing Western and US dominance in the region.

This would be done through an international group to cover security and cooperation in the Gulf, including major international players such as Iran, Russia, China, the US, the European Union, and India, with other interested global parties participating as observers or associate members.

Russia's Foreign Ministry has been proactive over such proposals since 2016. Its diplomatic overtures have involved Arab states, Iran, Turkey, the five permanent United Nations Security Council members, the EU, the Arab League, and the BRICS nations.

Key provisions of the proposal include the advance notification of military exercises and flights, the sharing of observers, a prohibition against the permanent stationing of external forces within Gulf states, and the transparent exchange of information on military forces and arms acquisitions.

Additionally, it advocates for a phased dialogue to reduce foreign military presence in the region.

While Moscow publicly condemned the Houthi assaults on global shipping in the Red Sea, which began shortly after Israel's war on Gaza in October 2023, it abstained from voting in favour of a resolution that condemned the attacks in early January, alongside China, Algeria, and Mozambique. 

The abstention was driven by concerns that the US might leverage the resolution to increase its regional military presence.

Moscow's condemnation which fell short of backing the vote reflects its nuanced approach to navigating these complex geopolitical waters. It also shows the depth of its ties with Iran.

Russia wants to demonstrate to the world its ability to act as a mediator with Tehran, and influence the regional landscape while displaying its geopolitical prowess.

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