Russia’s Complex Relationships in the Middle East


J. Carlisle Larsen

As refugees flood out of war-torn Syria, Russian fighter jets have been moving in. Not unlike the United States, Russia, too, has a long and complicated relationship with countries in the Middle East. These are political relationships that often raise questions over who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.” Now a plane full of Russian civilians has broken up over Egypt, and the militant group ISIS is taking responsibility. Though it’s unclear how the plane broke up in flight, it serves as a spotlight on the complexity of Russia’s strange relationships far from home.

Wayne State University history professor Aaron Retish specializes in Soviet and Russian politics and joins Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson. Here are a few highlights from their conversation:

  • Long Relationship: Retish says Russia’s relationship with Syria isn’t new. “It goes back to the ‘70s when the Soviets provided weapons to Syria,” he says. “There are actually a lot of Russians living in Syria, so the relationship with Syria is very strong.”
  • Proxy War: Henderson and Retish discuss the possibility of a proxy war between the United States and Russia as both countries pursue their own interests in the Middle East. Both countries say they don’t want a proxy-war, says Retish, but planes from both countries flying over the same region. ”So there you have the contours of a proxy-war.” 
  • Plane Crash: It’s unclear how and why the recent Russian airliner broke up over Egypt. But Russian officials say it wasn’t ISIS bringing down the plane. “The Russian state quickly said this was in no way a terrorist act, so they’re clearly worried about that,” says Retish. ”If this is a terrorist attack that would be devastating to the Russian state because that’s what people fear… and they’re worried about a drawn-out presence in the Middle East.”


Image credit: J. Carlisle Larsen

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