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patrick martin

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a signing ceremony in Moscow, March 21.MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/The New York Times

In the face of strong Western criticism and sanctions brought against Russia for its annexation of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin, increasingly popular at home, is looking for ways to expand his country's international clout. He doesn't have to go far to find them.

For decades, during the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union jostled for primacy in the Middle East, with U.S. allies such as Israel, Turkey and Iran facing off against the likes of Russian-supplied Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

The death of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the peace with Israel and the end of the Cold War laid that competition to rest, and the United States enjoyed pre-eminence in the region for several years.

Now, however, in the wake of what is perceived as weakness of the Obama administration and the mixed blessings of the so-called Arab Spring, Russia is back -- with a new agenda, as Mr. Putin seeks to carve out greater spheres of influence.

Here are five Middle East places to watch:

1. Egypt. It's been more than 40 years since Egypt's Anwar Sadat sent 20,000 Russian advisers packing and joined the ranks of U.S. allies. But with the overthrow last year of the Muslim Brotherhood administration of Mohammed Morsi, and Washington's coolness toward its military-backed replacement, Russia has sensed an opportunity.

As the United States froze military aid to Cairo and made Egypt's defence minister persona non grata, Moscow stepped in and offered Russian weaponry to its former client. In the past four months there have been three high-level Russian sales missions to Cairo.

Egypt's effective leader, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, may not want to enter into a formal agreement with Russia, but his country needs help and he may not be so choosy.

2. Syria. Covert Russian support for Syria kept the Bashar al-Assad regime alive when rebel forces scored their biggest successes during the three-year-long civil war. Even the vaunted chemical weapons deal Moscow negotiated with Washington, which saw Damascus agree to turn over its CW arsenal for destruction, is seen in the region as a triumph for Russia, in that it preserved a role for Mr. Assad in office.

Now that the United States and Russia are at odds over Crimea, watch for that deal to be put on hold – only half of the CW has been removed – and Russia to be much more overt in its arming of the regime.

3. Turkey. Ottoman Turkey was the curse of Russia in the first Crimean war (1853-56) and Moscow has no intention of letting the two sides become enemies again.

Already, Russia has declared that Crimea will have three official languages – Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar – the last being a concession to the displaced ethnically Turkic population, whose influential leadership resides in Turkey.

Turkey is a member of NATO, which disapproves of Russia's Crimea takeover. But as Russia moves to turn Crimea into an economic success story, watch for Moscow to offer Turkey highly favourable conditions for investing in economic opportunities in Crimea.

4. Iran. Russia already has laid the groundwork for good relations with Iran. It has kept trade alive between the two countries despite international sanctions and given Iranian oil an outlet. It also has supported Iran's client state, Syria, and has shown willingness to help Tehran develop nuclear power facilities.

Watch now to see if Russia becomes an obstacle in the six-power talks conducted with Iran to stem Tehran's nuclear weapons ambitions.

5. Israel. The Jewish state is one of the United States' oldest friends and allies in the Middle East, but Moscow perceives an opportunity to enhance Russian influence there.

Israelis are well aware that about ¼ of the six-million Jews who perished in the Holocaust were killed in Ukraine, and Moscow intends to drive home the point that extremists in Ukraine continue to preach anti-Semitism.

With U.S. President Barack Obama perceived by many in Israel as being anti-Israeli, Moscow hopes for some appreciation in its move to wrest Crimea from Kiev.

The one thing that might cement such support is if Russia chose to support Israel in pressuring Iran to end its nuclear weapons program.