Russia’s Dangerous New Friends

How Moscow Is Partnering With the Axis of Resistance

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.

ENEMY OF MY ENEMY
Russian engagement with the axis of resistance is not a new phenomenon. The two sides have had political contacts for many years. Hamas delegations, for instance, have frequented Moscow since 2006. The Russian military has been working with Iran-backed militias since Moscow began its military intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, during which Russia coordinated its operations with Hezbollah. That same year, Moscow also established contacts with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization that brings together Iran-backed militias in Iraq. And at the same time, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and Syria created a quadrilateral intelligence center to coordinate the fight against the Islamic State (or ISIS), marking the beginning of intelligence sharing between Russia and the PMF (although the sharing was limited and had little effect).

Initially, Moscow shied away from providing these groups with systemic security assistance. But after invading Ukraine, Russia shed some of this caution. As Russia’s military focused its resources on Putin’s gambit in Ukraine, Moscow relinquished several key positions in central and eastern Syria to Iran-backed militias and to Hezbollah. According to reports by Reuters, Russia also ramped up intelligence sharing with Iran-backed militias and supplied Hezbollah with antiship missiles via Syria. In addition, it gave a green light for Iran to upgrade Syria’s air defenses. Such support has provided a major boost to these groups’ operational capabilities, enabling them to target U.S. interests in eastern Syria with increased frequency and precision.

For the axis, Russia’s patronage came at the perfect moment. After the 2020 assassination of the network’s founder, the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, the axis began steadily decentralizing, giving its members increased autonomy to seek out international partnerships. Almost all of them looked to Moscow for intensified engagement, hoping that the Kremlin’s recognition would provide them with an advantage on their respective domestic political turfs and, eventually, yield security assistance that could complement the support they obtain from Iran. This outreach, in turn, gave Russia a broader choice of prospective regional associates. The decentralization also made the axis more useful to Moscow by making the network more resilient—and therefore dangerous for Washington.

After October 7, the battlefield collusion between Russia and the axis reached yet another level. Russia has stepped up electronic jamming from its Khmeimim base in western Syria, disrupting Israel’s commercial air traffic. Russian pilots have resumed their air patrols along the Israeli-Syrian disengagement line in the Golan Heights, after a one-year hiatus. According to Iranian news outlets, Hezbollah struck Israel’s Meron air control base with Russian-made antitank guided missiles in January, suggesting that Moscow may be funneling arms to the militant group. And U.S. officials have warned that the Wagner paramilitary company—which the Russian Ministry of Defense is in the process of dismantling and rebranding—may provide air defense systems to Hezbollah in the coming months.

For the axis of resistance, Russia’s patronage came at the perfect moment.
Russia has combined this increase in military aid with more diplomatic and rhetorical assistance. Moscow has worked to deflect international criticism of Hamas onto the United States, arguing that Washington has dangerously monopolized the peace process and is therefore responsible for the renewed outbreak of violence in the Middle East. Moscow also defended the Houthis after the group unleashed drone and missile attacks on Israel and on international shipping in the Red Sea. And Russian diplomats have blamed the United States for the Houthis’ violence, arguing that the attacks are really provoked by what they call a U.S.-backed Israeli “slaughter” in Gaza. Along with China, Russia abstained from a UN Security Council resolution that called on the Houthis to stop attacking merchant and commercial vessels.

Russia’s relationship with the Houthis is, to be sure, complex. Moscow’s abstention allowed the resolution to pass, and some of the Houthi strikes have unintentionally hit ships carrying Russian oil. Should Houthi attacks prompt the closure of the Suez Canal, through which Russia sends most of its oil to India, the costs of Moscow’s exports could become prohibitive. But Russia did (unsuccessfully) try to squeeze several amendments into the security council proposal that would have deflected criticism of the Houthis. For the time being, the strikes have caused limited economic damage to Russia. And Moscow likely welcomes the disruption in global commerce. Although it might prompt inflation and supply-side shortages, Russia hopes that these consequences will harm Western societies above everyone else.

As a result, Moscow has not been bashful about helping the Houthis. Russia hosted their representatives at its foreign ministry in late January. In return, a Houthi official promised safe passage for Russian and Chinese ships transiting through the Red Sea. Other axis groups have also visited Moscow. Hamas representatives have twice traveled to Russia’s capital since October 7, where they enjoyed the opportunity to mingle with Iranian officials.

Russia’s actions raise concerns about its potential role in an expanding conflict between Israel and the axis, and especially one between Israel and Hezbollah. Though Russia does not want an all-out conflagration, which would likely engulf Syria and threaten Russian interests there, it will likely support Hezbollah if war happens. It could cause headaches for Israel’s defense planners, for example, by intensifying electronic jamming, which Russia has already ramped up since October 7—or announcing that it was “closing” Syria’s airspace. Russia would almost certainly avoid shooting down Israeli jets itself, but should Damascus engage Israeli aircraft with its arsenal of Russian-provided missile defense systems, aided by precise intelligence and electronic jamming from Russia, Moscow could maintain plausible deniability regarding any resulting incidents.

PEER PRESSURE
Moscow’s cooperation with the axis’s anti-American activism will not be unbounded. Russia remains heavily invested in its ties with Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have afforded the Kremlin important economic benefits but have a hostile relationship to axis members. Russia also wants to maintain a modicum of civility with Israel, which is host to a sizable Russian-speaking population and might offer Ukraine military support in the future. Russian-axis cooperation may also be constrained by the fact that, in the short term, the two parties have different goals. The Kremlin likely wants to tie down American resources in the Middle East, while the axis wants to oust U.S. forces.

But these obstacles will not stop the relationship from deepening. The different actors benefit from mutual support; in February, for instance, Ukrainian military intelligence officials claimed that Russians operating Iranian drones were being trained by Hezbollah commanders in Syria. Russia and the axis are united by their animosity toward the United States, which both parties want to cut down to size. And the actors’ long-term goals are aligned: once its war in Ukraine reaches a lower intensity, Moscow also wants the United States to be evicted from the Middle East. Russian officials have hailed Iraq’s push for a drawdown of U.S. troops in the country, and they continue to deride the American presence in Syria. They have warned that they will not permit the United States to dictate plans for the “day after” in Gaza and the wider region, suggesting that Russia will try to throw wrenches into any coming diplomatic efforts that would smell of American success or would seek to sideline the axis.

For the United States, stopping this scheming will not be easy. Washington lacks direct leverage over both Russia and Iranian-backed resistance groups—as indicated by its recent poor track record in using military strikes to deter further attacks by the Houthis and Iraqi militias. But Washington can start by seeking an urgent end to Israel’s war in Gaza. The longer the war lasts, the more it will afford Russia multiplying paths to back, and benefit from, an increasingly strong axis.

Russia highly values Gulf countries as economic partners, and so it may well be susceptible to pressure from them.
More important, the United States can engage in serious diplomatic efforts to settle the region’s metastasizing conflicts. Washington’s current focus on weakening Iran and cutting its support for the axis will not automatically disrupt the axis’s ties with Russia. That requires containing and weakening the groups themselves, and to do so, the United States must seriously reengage with the countries where axis groups operate to strengthen their formal state structures. The axis would not be so powerful if the Iraqi, Lebanese, and internationally recognized Yemeni governments were not so weak and disorganized.

Finally, Washington should encourage third parties to use their leverage with Moscow to minimize mutual assistance between the Kremlin and the axis. Since Russia highly values Gulf countries as economic partners, it may well be susceptible to pressure from them to dial down the most malign forms of its assistance to pro-Iran groups. These states are, at present, united with the axis in their indignation over Israel’s campaign in Gaza, and so they have not made applying such pressure a priority. But once the war ends, Washington will have an easier time gaining Gulf support.

To U.S. officials, pushing hard to break up the Russia-axis partnership may not seem like an urgent task. Washington, after all, is already consumed with stopping Russia’s efforts to subjugate Ukraine and containing the axis directly (as well as with competing against China in the Indo-Pacific). But the reality is that Washington cannot hope to address one problem without addressing the other. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has always been global in its intent and scope, reflecting Russia’s desire to undo the existing international order. Its patronage for the axis of resistance is part and parcel of that campaign. The axis aspires not just to kick the United States out of the Middle East but also to deal a body blow to a country it sees as an evil, imperialist empire. Moscow does not welcome the axis’s disruptive actions simply because they distract from Ukraine, and the axis is not pro-Russia purely because the Kremlin offers assistance. Rather, the two entities view each other as comrades-in-arms in a broader effort to weaken the West’s dominance. If Washington is serious about disrupting each one’s schemes, it must stop them from working together.

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