Vladimir Putin’s return to power in Russia in 2012 signified a dramatic change in the country’s foreign policy and military strategy. Scrapping the achievements of the Dmitry Medvedev era in the Kremlin, which was characterised by a thaw in relations with the West, Putin opted for a more aggressive approach to positioning the country in the international arena. Experts still argue what prompted this review of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, but the developments that likely had a major impact on Putin’s policy planning in 2012 included the war with Georgia in 2008, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) infamous military campaign in Libya, which brought down Russia’s long-time ally Muammar Qaddafi.
Contours of the new policy approach to the region started emerging when Russia updated two of its key documents, the ‘Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation’ and the ‘Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation’, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. This served as de facto justification for the Russian military campaign in Syria and the Concept became the first official document to elucidate the country’s ambition to play a bigger role in the MENA region. In the three years that divide the two concepts, Putin’s approach to foreign policy evolved and became increasingly securitised. (The word ‘terrorism’ features fifteen times in the 2013 Concept and thirty-five in the 2016 edition.) The Foreign Policy Concept also spells out the Russian president’s growing ambition to deal with instability at its origin, before it reaches Russian borders.
The rationale behind Russia’s re-emergence as a leading power in the Middle East was of a defensive nature and largely reactive. The uprisings in the region were a painful reminder of the Colour Revolutions that broke out across several post-Soviet states in the first half of the 2000s, and, according to the Kremlin, led to the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution in Ukraine. Putin himself believes that the MENA uprisings were a continuation of those Colour Revolutions and that both were foreign-instigated. A wave of revolutions across Eurasia convinced the Russian leadership that the possible domino effect of regime change would eventually target Russia. It is not coincidental that the Russian president likens Colour Revolutions and the MENA uprisings, and often makes no distinction between them. Commenting on anti-corruption protests in Russia in March 2017, he went as far as to call them ‘an instrument of the Arab Spring’.
A gradual withdrawal of the USA from the Middle East under Barack Obama meant that the region’s ‘policeman’ was no longer interested in maintaining order there, which arguably presented Moscow with numerous security challenges. Russia’s re-emergence in the Middle East happened, to a large extent, to fill some of the void left by the retreating Obama. In some cases it was effortless, such as in Egypt, where the US decision to cut aid to Cairo in 2013 led to the emergence of a budding Russia-Egypt alliance. In other contexts, most prominently in Syria, Russia had to invest significant diplomatic and military resources to marginalise the USA in the war and the peace process. What started out as an attempt to replace the USA where it was no longer interested in playing a leading role transformed into an ambition to challenge the USA even where it had no intention of retreating, for instance, in the Gulf region.
Russia’s return to the Middle East differs from the Soviet experience. Today, Moscow is extending its reach without the baggage of Soviet ideology. The idea of using its arms exports to the Middle East in the ideological struggle against the West evaporated when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) disintegrated and was replaced with the idea of making a profit for the cash-strapped budget. The Kremlin hopes to support its geopolitical claims with a strong pragmatic dimension.
In the Middle East, Moscow seeks to reinforce its influence there as well as offset the burden upon the Russian federal budget associated with the expenses of the Syrian campaign. Following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, Russia has used arms deals to reach out to Cold War-era allies in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria to consolidate a new power balance. During the Cold War, Wynfred Joshua and Stephen P. Gilbert wrote that as more countries became recipients of Soviet military aid programmes, there was a tendency for them to become greater political allies of the Soviet Union.
With Putin declaring victory over the Islamic State group (IS) during his December 2017 visit to Syria, Russia is faced with numerous opportunities and challenges. Its military operation in Syria may have put Russia back on the radar in the Middle East, and has solidified its position in the region. As Putin eyed re-election as president early March 2018, foreign policy achievements, chiefly in the MENA region, figured prominently in his election rhetoric.
An effect of Russia’s assertive foreign policy has become an expectation from regional partners and opponents alike that Moscow will be active in the Middle East. However, the hard power that brought Russia to prominence in the region will not be helpful to support long-term influence there, and could, in fact, produce a negative impact for Russia’s international standing. As a result, during his next term in office, Putin will be faced with a challenge to depart from hard power, his preferred modus operandi, to embrace a spectrum of other tools that will help make Russia’s presence in the region lasting and sustainable.
From Status Quo disruptor to Status Quo creator
New Military Positioning
In the next few years, due to Russia’s gains in Syria, Moscow will be recalibrating its military position in the wider region. The most significant of its gains has to do with the establishment of permanent military bases in Syria. In December 2017, the Russian parliament approved the agreements with the Syrian government leasing the Tartus and Hmeymim bases to Russia for forty-nine years with an automatic twenty-five-year extension.
The establishment of a permanent military presence in Syria fits with Russia’s strategy to acquire air and naval supremacy in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, and signals the restoration of the Soviet strategy toward the region. From 1967 until the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet 5th Squadron operated in the Mediterranean, despite Moscow having no permanent bases in the region. In 2013, the Russian president made a decision to revive a perpetual naval presence there and ordered the establishment of the Mediterranean Task Force (MTF) within the Black Sea Fleet.
Russia has developed what some analysts call an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Mediterranean. Along with the deployment of the S-400 air-defence system to Syria in November 2015 (and to Crimea, in August 2016), the Russian naval group in the eastern Mediterranean is equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles and P-800 Onyx anti-ship missiles, which create an added advantage against a potential enemy. given its security problems, which affect the whole international community.
Russia is increasing its military cooperation with Cairo, a partner with which Moscow had a strong partnership under Gamal Abdel Nasser and now with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Military-technical cooperation between the two countries is on the rise. More importantly, this cooperation now extends to annual joint naval drills as Russia looks for additional access to Egypt’s military infrastructure. Moreover, in order to simultaneously boost its Libya portfolio, Russia reportedly boosted the frequency of its use of Egyptian facilities at the border with Libya, including the port of Marsa Matrouh and the base at Sidi Barrani, once used by the Soviet Union. Moscow may now wish to revive, and even expand, this type of relationship.
At the same time, Russia has been increasingly looking at warm-water ports in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the 2000s. Moscow has significantly stepped up diplomatic engagement with each of these states over the past twenty years since the Soviet collapse. Moreover, in 2006, the two governments signed Algeria’s largest post-Cold War arms deal, amounting to $7.5 billion. Moreover, the two countries signed an agreement on counter terrorism cooperation in 2016, and have held two rounds of consultations on stepping up joint countering of violent extremism in North Africa and setting up regular exchanges of intelligence on extremist groups. The issue of Western Sahara is the kind of political leverage that Russia could use in order to position itself as a go-to mediator for Morocco.
Military presence in the Mediterranean may be only the first step in Moscow’s ambitious naval expansion. With the MTF deployed to the Mediterranean in 2013, Russia also started demonstrating a keen interest in the Red Sea, sending its warships there for drills as well as to project power. It is yet to be seen how Russia feels about setting up such a base so soon after acquiring a permanent military foothold in the Mediterranean. But proposals like this are indicative of how local powers perceive Russia’s growing role in the region.
It is in Russia’s long-term interest to continue expanding its military capabilities in the Mediterranean to support existing bases in Syria, linking its northern and Black Sea fleets’ operations in the Atlantic, as well as to obtain more leverage against NATO. Given failed Soviet attempts to set up a military presence in Egypt and Libya, Russia may finally revisit this idea.
Channelling growing military clout toward political sustainability
The key challenges facing Russia in the next few years concern how to convert gains made in Syria into sustainable political influence in the wider region. Military power projected by Moscow in the Syrian conflict and, by extension, its political clout, have allowed it to be recognised as a leading external power in the Middle East. Once the fighting dies down, however, Moscow will have a hard time maintaining its relevance in the region at the same level.
Without ways to project political power in the Middle East, Russian military forces there will be irrelevant. The bottom line is that hard power is a crisis management tool but not an agenda setting one. Moscow’s military clout in the region has reached the level at which it guarantees Russia presence in the Middle East, but it does not guarantee long-term political influence.
For Russia to replace the United States as the guarantor of security in the Middle East, it needs to demonstrate a long-term commitment to the region. But if Putin looks to preserve his country’s influence in the region, he will need to come up with ways to engage partners that would convince them of Russia’s resolve. With the Middle East not being the most strategically important region to Moscow, Putin will need to decide exactly how much influence he actually wants to project in the region. Maintaining the image of a great power in the Middle East will require Russia to invest diplomatically and financially in the resolution of other crises, such as the Libyan war and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. However, these investments will chiefly concern maintaining stability in the region and will not yield fast returns.
Finally, Russia will need to set a long-term agenda for the Middle East. Moscow’s Middle East strategy has thus far been characterised by short-termism, with its actions being largely reactive and most decisions ad hoc. This was evidenced by the fact that Russia’s bid on Iran’s ground forces as the main fighting force in Syria later led to multiple attempts by Tehran to hijack international agreements on the ground and undermine Moscow’s mediation attempts. According to him, the mechanism should include the Arab countries as well as Turkey, Iran and Israel. The collective security system must consist of three tracks or ‘baskets’: security, economy and humanitarian cooperation. Disarmament in the Middle East should become a starting point for the discussion on a regional security system. The first steps in this direction could be the creation of demilitarised zones, the prohibition of destabilising accumulations of conventional weapons (including anti-missile weapons), and a balanced reduction of armed forces by the main military powers in the region and neighbouring countries.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September 2015, when he announced the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria, Putin proposed creating a global anti-IS coalition ‘similar to the anti-Hitler’ alliance. The proposal, which he has voiced several times in the course of the Russian operation in Syria, pointedly feeds into the idea of creating a regional security system. The viability of a regional anti-IS alliance was demonstrated when Turkey, Iran and Russia partnered to implement de-escalation zones in Syria. Egypt and Jordan played a distinct role in the negotiation process on the creation of de-escalation zones and their implementation, and Putin may try to institutionalise what looks a lot like a regional anti-extremist alliance. An anti-terrorist alliance that could later transform into a collective security system seems to be one of the few areas in which Russia is willing to commit resources, based both on Russia’s domestic security concerns and its foreign policy calculations.
Old and New Partners
With Russia’s military position gradually readjusting as a result of the Syrian conflict, its partnerships night also eventually undergo a broader rethink. Russia will need to find a way to reach out to Sunni Arab powers and win their trust, which was undermined by Russia’s perceived alliance with the Shi'a in the Syrian conflict. According to Pew Research, as of mid-2017, only 28 per cent of people in the Middle East expressed confidence in Russia and Putin’s foreign policy, and only 35 per cent had a favourable view of Russia. The process of reconstruction in Syria also means that Russia and Iran will have to shoulder a heavy financial burden if they want to continue to play a leading political role in the country; neither, however, is capable of doing that. Consequently, Russia has asked world powers, to chip in, which will require a significant draw-down in Iran’s political role in Syria.
While Russia’s relationship with Iran is set to become rockier, there is no guarantee that Moscow’s ties with Sunni powers, specifically Saudi Arabia, will transform into a real partnership. The visit of the Saudi king, Salman, to Moscow in October 2017 may have indicated a positive dynamic in bilateral relations, but it was largely prompted by the Saudi domestic dynamic rather than a genuine desire to reach out to Moscow. The biggest achievement that Moscow and Riyadh can boast about is that they managed to compartmentalise their relations, as demonstrated by the oil deal reached by Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in November 2016, despite the ongoing Syria crisis.
Dichotomy Between Stability and Managed Democracy
Experts who had argued that authoritarianism in the Middle East would maintain stability and keep extremism at bay were proven wrong by the events of the Arab uprisings.
In Turkey, the July 2016 attempted coup was used by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as an excuse to crack down not only on suspected plotters, but also on wider circles critical of the government’s policies. Western powers rebuked Erdoğan over his suspension of the rule of law and mass detentions – but Russia pointedly did not. Putin was the one world leader who called Erdoğan to tell him Moscow supported his campaign to root out dissent, which the Turkish president described as ‘anti-constitutional’. All this occurred just weeks after Erdoğan’s late June apology to Russia for the November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 jet over Syria, and it shows how masterfully Putin uses authoritarian movements to his own political benefit.
Egypt is experiencing a similar wave of authoritarianism, with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi cracking down on dissent that is not necessarily associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. That government campaign is happening against the backdrop of economic instability, currency devaluation and increased poverty rates. However, the army’s grip on power and full control over the public sphere give a semblance of stability. Sisi’s fight to eradicate extremism in the Sinai and his crackdown on dissent find support in Moscow, as reflected in official statements from the Kremlin. Egypt reemerged as Russia’s key partner in the Middle East, including in crucial spheres of military-technical cooperation. The two countries signed a protocol on military cooperation in March 2015, significantly ramped up joint military exercises, and are looking to green light an agreement that would allow Russian military aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and infrastructure.
A combination of factors bolstered Russia’s commitment to intervention in Syria. First, geopolitically, the fall of Asad would mean humiliation for Russia, his main global ally, and would deprive Moscow of a springboard to the rest of the Middle East. Second, from a pragmatic standpoint, Syria’s proximity to Russia, coupled with its becoming a training camp for jihadists from the former Soviet Union, meant that the civil war there was becoming a national security issue for Moscow. Hence, Putin undertook this risky affair albeit with no guaranteed outcome.
Syria, however, gives one a skewed idea as to how Russia’s strategy toward the region may look in the future. The military campaign in Syria cost Russia $484 million, according to Putin, These costs have been offset by returns on arms contracts and the existing budget for drills. This sum is manageable for the federal budget, even despite low oil prices. Russia’s defence spending has been continuously growing from 2010; its share in the GDP increased from 3.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent in 2016. Syria was the reason that the Ministry of Defense managed to secure a larger budget until 2016, but it is also the reason that Moscow now looks for ways to cut the overinflated defence expenses. This indicates that the Syria operation is an exceptional affair that Russia is unlikely to repeat elsewhere in the Middle East due to geopolitical risks as well as financial costs that are already too high.
With the focus previously exclusively on Syria, the Russian foreign policy agenda toward the Middle East appears highly securitised. Meanwhile, the military and intelligence circles took charge over policy making towards the region. Despite a wide range of goals that Moscow pursues in Syria, the distinct focus on security issues stoked fears over Russia seeking a military foothold in the Middle East by US officials.
While Syria is a special case, Libya might provide more insight into how Russia will position itself vis-à-vis conflicts in the Middle East in the future. Following the fall of its partner Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Moscow did not show much interest in the Libyan conflict, essentially leaving it to NATO to deal with. At the same time, Libya was a convenient case to revert to in order to lambaste the West each time Russia felt its interests in the Middle East were ignored.
Russia re-emerged on the Libya scene pronouncing no specific agenda and making incoherent statements about the desired endgame as the Libyan civil war erupted. In 2016, following Haftar’s visit to Moscow, the international community was convinced that the Kremlin was looking at Libya within the context of where it would continue to project military power once the conflict in Syria is over. The Russian ambassador to Libya, Ivan Molotkov, publicly spoke of a possible delivery of Russian weapons to the government in Tobruq. Many experts predicted a Russian military operation in the country and looked for signs of a military build-up, but those predictions were repeatedly proven wrong.
This approach worked, and Russia became a go-to power for various parties to the Libyan conflict. Moscow hosted representatives of the Tripoli government as well as representatives from Misrata, the two major power centres in Libya. More importantly, Russia facilitated direct talks between Tripoli and the Touareg and Tobu tribes in November 2017, the first such talks between these parties, given the fact that the tribes had not sided with any party yet. This marks the emergence of a fundamentally new approach to conflict resolution in Russia. Hypothetically, Russian military aid and diplomatic support for Haftar could have resulted in the capture of Tripoli by his Libyan National Army, marking the end of the Libyan Political Agreement. Moscow, however, made a U-turn away from Haftar and opted for a more balanced position towards the settlement of the conflict, which helped it be recognised as a key power broker by all sides in this conflict.
The ‘strategic equidistance’’ approach that Russia adopted in Libya is something Putin might explore further in the future. There are numerous signs that Russia will attempt to become a referee and power broker in other contexts in the Middle East as well. One example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Russia did not issue harsh criticism of either the USA or Israel. The Russian Foreign Ministry limited its response to ‘serious concern’.
Russia’s relatively calm reaction to Trump’s move and Israel’s policies toward Palestine can be explained by Moscow’s growing ambition to play a bigger role in the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia intensified its diplomacy with Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2016, when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited both in an attempt to bridge their differences. Later, in January 2017, Russia hosted all major Palestinian political organisations, Saudi Arabia pursued a similar charm offensive, which culminated in King Salman’s visit to Russia.
As Syria gradually falls from the top of Russia’s political agenda in the Middle East over the next years, Moscow will look for new ways to stay relevant in the region. Russia’s permanent military bases in Syria have the potential to change the power balance in the Mediterranean. Moscow has created a heavily guarded perimeter in the eastern Mediterranean by deploying air defence capabilities to Syria, complementing its permanent naval force in those waters. Together, these deployments and growing capabilities will become a challenge for NATO as Moscow spreads its presence into the alliance’s naval underbelly in the Mediterranean. Russia is also expanding military cooperation with Egypt and the future government in Libya, and is expanding its naval presence in the Red Sea.
Politically, however, hard power will produce fewer benefits for Moscow, at higher costs, which is why the Russian government will need to discover new ways to remain relevant in the regional arena. Having used Syria to rebuild its image as a regional power, Russia is faced with the challenge of how to balance its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of which is a true ally for Moscow. In order to forge stronger regional alliances, Putin might revisit the idea of a global anti-terrorist coalition, which feeds into the concept of a regional system of collective security widely discussed by Russian policymakers.
Trying to insert itself in regional politics in the post-Syria era, Russia is likely to rebrand its image in the Middle East and position itself as a regional referee in an attempt to offset the negative impact of the Syrian conflict for its image. Being a regional referee, however, does not necessarily translate into being a supporter of democracy. The legacy of the MENA uprisings and Russia’s own experience with democratic movements led Putin to believe that authoritarian stability may help the Middle East overcome its security problems. And Russia’s military campaign in Syria has further crystallised this notion for the Kremlin.
* Yuri Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, covering the Middle East and North Africa, and Moscow’s policy towards the region
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