Russia’s Dangerous New Friends

February 14, 2024
Hamidreza Azizi and Hanna Notte

The following is an excerpt from Foreign Affairs.

Since invading Ukraine in 2022, Russia has forged deep ties with Iran. Moscow—which joined a sanctions regime against Tehran in the 2010s in an effort to restrict its nuclear program—has begun diplomatically shielding the Islamic Republic and boosting its investment in the Iranian economy. Tehran, in turn, has provided substantial battlefield support to the Russian military, including drones. Both developments have received much international attention and provoked widespread fury.

But Russia is simultaneously building another set of relationships that, although more subtle, are no less significant. Over the past two years, Moscow has intensified its ties to the “axis of resistance”: the network of Iranian partners and proxies that stretches from Lebanon to Iraq. This axis, which includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Iraqi and Syrian militias, believes itself to be in confrontation with Israel and, by extension, the United States. It is a natural ally for the Kremlin.

The war in the Gaza Strip has earned the axis newfound support and prompted it to take military action against U.S. troops, Israeli forces, and international shipping. In doing so, it has given Russia new chances to weaken the United States and the United States’ allies. Moscow has seized these opportunities. After October 7, Russia stepped up its diplomatic support for Hamas and the Houthis, defending their actions before the United Nations and blaming their attacks on the United States. It has provided technical and logistical aid for the axis as it strikes Israeli soldiers. And there are worrisome signs that Russia might enable Hezbollah in a potential confrontation with Israel, perhaps through sophisticated electronic warfare.

Moscow is not the puppeteer controlling the axis, and its efforts to incite the network’s members into further pressuring the United States will be measured. Russia wants to maintain ties with the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, as well as with Israel, and so it cannot afford to offer Iranian-linked groups unlimited backing. But Russia will still egg the axis on, encouraging its anti-American designs and working to make its attacks more effective. Washington will therefore have to respond with its own intensive efforts to counter this influence. The United States must, in particular, try to end the war in Gaza. It must also try harder to calm tensions throughout the Middle East. And Washington needs to push third parties, particularly its Arab allies, to undercut the partnership between Russia and the axis of resistance. Otherwise, Russia, Iran, and the two states’ friends may well curtail the United States’ power across the entire region.

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