On June 23, 2023, the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, staged a rebellion against the Russian government. As tensions between Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the Russian Ministry of Defense intensified, residents of Rostov-on-Don confronted new warlord masters on the morning of June 24. Prigozhin named himself the new head of Russia’s southern district military command, threatening to advance his military troops to Moscow if the Russian Ministry did not oust its defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and commander-in-chief, Valery Gerasimov. Later that day, Wagner rebels initiated moves towards Moscow, encountering bombs and helicopter attacks. However, following negotiations with Belarus’s president, Prigozhin and his troops abandoned their plans for a coup and returned to eastern Ukraine. Although he did not follow through with his pursuits, Prigozhin had posed the most significant challenge to Putin’s authority since the beginning of his presidency in 2000.
Wagner’s efforts pose threats beyond Russia, extending its implications to the Middle East and North Africa. On June 27, the United States imposed new sanctions against Russia’s Wagner Group. These sanctions target entities operating in the Middle East and North Africa for their supposed ties to the paramilitary company. Among those impacted was an industrial goods distributor based in Dubai, Industrial Resources General Trading. The United States additionally accused Wagner of providing Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces with missiles two months before the coup attempt.
For analyses of the significance of the events of June 23 in the Middle East and North Africa:
- The Middle East Institute: “How the rumble in Russia reverberates around the Middle East” – This timely article examines what “an actual collapse” of Putin-led Russia could mean for different countries in the Middle East, including Iran, Syria, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
- Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “Wagner vs. Russia’s Defense Ministry in the Middle East” – This brief analysis unveils the Wagner coup attempt’s implications for the Middle East, particularly Syria and Libya.
- Al-Monitor: “From UAE to Sudan: US targets Middle East entities for Wagner ties” – This article explores the newly imposed US sanctions in the UAE and Sudan for their ties to the Wagner Group.
- Middle East Eye: “What the Wagner Group’s insurrection means for the Middle East and Africa”
- CNN: “Evidence emerges of Russia’s Wagner arming militia leader battling Sudan’s army” – This article exposes Sudan’s ties to Wagner, a relationship that has received more attention following Wagner’s coup attempt.
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Is the Blossoming Relationship Between Russia and the UAE Doomed?” – This online text examines UAE’s response to Western sanctions against Russia. Although published in April 2023, this article remains relevant following newly US-imposed sanctions on UAE-based companies for their ties to Wagner.
Examining Russian relations with three Middle Eastern countries, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia is imperative to comprehend the implications of the coup attempt on June 23 on the region.
Russia & Syria
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Russia has remained a firm ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. It defended Assad against foreign and domestic targets. In September 2015, Russia led a series of air strikes against Syrian opposition forces. Russia’s staunch support for the regime enabled Assad and his supporters to levy control over most Syrian cities.
However, this alliance between Syria and Russia extends far before the Civil War. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union was Syria’s primary military backer. While the two countries eventually loosened their ties after the end of the Cold War, Russia and Syria soon strengthened their relationship following their individual conflicts with the United States during the 2000s.
Since Wagner’s rebellion on June 2023, Russian forces have raided the organization’s various offices in Syria. On June 26, Bashar al-Assad met with Russia’s deputy foreign ministry Sergey Vershinin to ensure the group’s forces did not leave the country without the MOD’s consent.
On July 11, 2023, Russia vetoed extending a UN security council mandate controlling aid delivery through Bab al-Hawa, the last remaining portal for humanitarian assistance in Syria. This cross-border corridor transfers deliveries from Turkey to Idlib, which the de-facto opposition, the National Salvation Government, controls. Russia and its Syrian allies claim that the aid solely assists those occupying Idlib. They prefer that humanitarian assistance passes through Damascus. However, humanitarian groups fear that this would strengthen the authority of the Syrian regime and prevent aid from reaching vulnerable populations.
- The Swedish Institute of International Affairs: “From Cold War to Civil War: 75 Years of Russian-Syrian Relations”
- Al Jazeera: “What has Russia gained from five years of fighting in Syria?”
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Moscow’s Original “Special Operation”: Why Russia is Staying in Syria”
- The Washington Post: “The battle in Syria that looms behind Wagner’s rebellion”
- The Washington Post: “Russia’s Ukraine war builds on tactics it used in Syria, experts say”
- Reuters: “On Syrian frontline, Russia’s war on Ukraine evokes painful memories”
- The New York Times: “How a 4-Hour Battle Between Russian Mercenaries and U.S. Commandos Unfolded in Syria” – This article published in 2018 analyzes a firefight involving the US, Russia, and pro-Syrian government forces.
- Institute for the Study of War: “Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria”
- Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “Russia’s Strategic Success in Syria and the Future of Moscow’s Middle East Policy”
- PBS Frontline: “11 Years into the Syrian Conflict, Explore its Evolution, Toll & Putin’s Role”
- The Guardian: “Russian veto on aid lifeline to Syria could bring ‘catastrophe’ for millions”
Documentaries and Videos:
- Russie, le laboratoire syrien, directed by Edith Bouvier, 2022 – This documentary examines the war in Ukraine by tracing Russia’s intervention in Syria.
- The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “The Future of Putin’s War in Syria” – This virtual policy forum features three regional experts as they examine what Russia’s six-year intervention in Syria reveals about its foreign policy.
- Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence by Anna Borshchevskaya (November 2021)
- The Russian Military Intervention in Syria by Ohannes Geukjian (February 2022)
- Operation Aleppo: Russia’s War in Syria by Tim Ripley (April 2018)
Russia & Iran
Iran’s geographic proximity made it of strategic significance to Russia. As Russia seeks to build economic ties with the Middle East and North Africa, Iran is a “key transit country.” During Iran’s 1979 revolution, the Islamic theocracy sought to weaken its ties with the atheist Soviet Union. However, in recent years, Iran has realized the strategic implications of a partnership with their Eastern European neighbor. Since assuming the presidency, Vladimir Putin has sought to strengthen Russia’s relations with Iran. The two countries have since collaborated in military interventions in Syria. The War in Ukraine further influenced Russia’s view of its relations with Iran as the Islamic theocracy provided it with military supplies.
- The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “Iranian Reactions to the Wagner Standoff in Russia”
- Foreign Policy: “Iran and Russia Are Closer Than Ever Before”
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Russia and Iran: Historic Mistrust and Contemporary Partnership”
- Foreign Affairs: “Axis of Convenience: Why Iran’s Partnership with Russia Endures”
- United States Institute of Peace: “Iran and Russia” – This text offers a historical guide to Iranian-Russian relations.
- Politico: “New U.S. intelligence shows Russia’s deepening defense ties with Iran”
- Al Jazeera: “What’s behind Iran and Russia’s efforts to link banking systems?”
- Al Jazeera: “Russia-Ukraine updates: US warns of expanding Iran, Russia ties”
- New York Times: “Russia and Iran Put on a Show of Unity — Against the U.S.”
- The Middle East Institute: “Can the West Stop Russian-Iranian Convergence?”
Documentaries and Videos:
- Sky News: “Ukraine War: Is Iran Helping Russia?” – This short video explores geopolitics and Iran’s involvement in the Ukraine War.
- TheInfographicsShow: “Why Iran is Helping Russia” – This video offers a concise overview of relations between Iran and Russia and its significance today.
- WION: “Iran helping Russia build drone factory”
- Sky News: “Daily Podcast: The secret Iranian Russian arms deal”
- The Middle East Institute: “Russia’s War on Ukraine: Iran’s Growing Role and the Nuclear Threat”
- Russia–Iran Relations Since the End of the Cold War by Eric D. Moore (May 2017)
Russia & Saudi Arabia
One factor primarily defines relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia: oil. Although rivalry once shaped the relationship between the two countries, they realized the strategic benefits a partnership may offer. As Russia strengthens its ties with countries across the Middle East, an alliance with Saudi Arabia only makes sense. In 2016, OPEC+’s oil production arrangement enabled Russia to intensify its relations with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly Saudi Arabia. In the wake of the war in Ukraine, Saudi Arabia refused to condemn Russia’s violent advances in Ukraine.
- New York Times: “Russia and Saudi Arabia’s Oil Partnership Shows Strain”
- Wilson Center: “The OPEC+ Puzzle: Why Russian-Saudi Cooperation Starts – and Stops – with Oil Prices
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “What’s Driving Russia’s Opportunistic Inroads With Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs”
- The Middle East Institute: “Saudi-Russian Relations: 1979-2009”
- Al Jazeera: “How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938”
- NPR: “Oil, human rights, security: Here’s what’s in store for U.S.-Gulf relations in 2023”
- The Intercept: “Saudi-Russia Collusion is Driving Up Gas Prices — and Worsening Ukraine Crisis”
- Al Jazeera: “The Russia-Ukraine war and the view from Saudi Arabia”
- Center for Strategic and International Studies: “OPEC Has a Russia Problem”
Documentaries and Videos:
- Wilson Center: “Saudi Arabia and Oil: Between the United States and Russia” – This panel examines the changes in Saudi Arabian foreign policy, particularly as its loyalties shift from the US to Russia.
- TLDR News Global: “Why Saudi Arabia and Russia Have Fallen Out” – This short video explores Russian-Saudi relations, examining what led to its eventual downfall.
- Atlantic Council: “The Russian-Saudi oil war: $15 per barrel?” – This panel discusses the energy war between Russia and Saudi Arabia following their alliance to increase oil prices.