Russia’s Return to the Middle East
After the dissolution of the USSR, Russia disappeared from the Middle East and lost most of the influence it once had. However, with the military intervention in Syria in 2015, Russia came back on the scene, taking most of the world by surprise. Since then, Russia launched a diplomatic offensive to regain its influence in the region. What are its main strategies to do so, and how successful is Russia in its campaign to return to the region it was once ousted from?
Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Vladimir Putin
During the Cold War, the Middle East was one of the places of rivalry between the two competing superpowers. The Soviet Union began its quest for influence in the early 1950s and it managed to gain several quasi-allies and client states. In different eras of the Cold War, Russia managed to, although sometimes only temporarily, forge closer relations with Syria, Algeria, South Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Iraq and the Palestine Liberation Organization. However, it never really managed to match US influence in the region, as Americans built long-lasting alliances with Israel and Turkey, the region’s military powerhouses, along with states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco.
Russian influence began to wane in the 1970s, as Russia lost Egypt as its ally to the US, followed by a deterioration of relations with Iraq and the demise of South Yemen in the early 1990s. The final years of the Soviet Union were also marked by its Afghanistan campaign, which transformed from a plan of quick and efficient intervention into an extremely costly war. The financial and political losses which the USSR suffered in Afghanistan served as a reminder for leaders in Moscow, discouraging them from future Middle Eastern adventures.
After the dissolution of the USSR, Russian influence waned almost completely, and Russia de facto disappeared from the Middle East. Even though Russia managed to keep limited presence in certain key allied countries, the United States mostly replaced former Russian political, military, and economic presence in the region. Even though it managed to once again increase its arms exports to Arab countries again in the 2000s, its influence was still insignificant and the USA enjoyed a firm dominance in the region.
However, the situation changed with the Obama administration and its foreign policy pivot, which brought dramatic impairment to American influence in the Middle East. The public declaration of the US withdrawal from the Middle East, as well as public fatigue from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, portrayed the US as much less willing to engage in the region in the future. Rapprochement with Iran, support of regime change in Libya and distancing itself from its allies during the Arab Spring caused confusion among American allies in the region and brought uncertainty about the nature of its foreign policy in the Middle East. This uncertainty was further bolstered by the American incapability in Syria to follow up on its own declarations. The cumulative effect of these events caused severe damage to the credibility of American security guarantees and weakened its influence, enabling both local and foreign powers to engage more assertively in the region.
Filling the void
These concurrent factors created a power void and Russia was quick to fill it. However, its desire to return to the global geopolitical stage was not its only motivation for greater engagement in the Middle East. Even before the Syrian conflict fully escalated, Russia was taken aback by the quick fall of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, facilitated by Western-led intervention. From that point onward, Russia was keen on not letting more of its allies fall and determined to prevent future Western interventions. Thus, the deep-seated fear of letting the Libyan scenario repeat was equally strong motivation for the eventual engagement in the region.
Even though Russia was economically present in the Middle East, mostly focusing on arms export, its real return to the scene came in 2015. By launching its intervention in Syria, aimed at saving the exhausted regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia managed to establish a strong military presence in the region; but it also proved its willingness to militarily engage to protect its interests, as well as its resolve to protect its allies. It also found itself in a position controlling the future development of Syria. In the end, the intervention not only achieved its proclaimed goals but it also established Russia as a major power in the region and thereby shifted the existing balance of power.
To accompany its military campaign, Russia launched a region-wide diplomatic offensive. It put its resources into building close personal ties with state leaders, renewing connections from Soviet times, closing economic, energy and arms deals, and increasing military cooperation. The chosen strategy in doing so was rather sophisticated - instead of choosing sides, Russia managed to take up the role of an external mediator and power broker, a third party that everyone can and wants to talk to. It also fits into the region ideologically, as Putin, himself an autocrat, does not have to hold back when dealing with other autocrats. And based on profound understanding of the region’s politics, Russia managed to tailor a unique influence-building approach to every country, further increasing its effectiveness.
Money, Weapons and Politics
Growing Russian presence is especially visible in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and, to a certain extent, Saudi Arabia. Even though the initial background and default condition, methods, and success rate of Russian approaches to all these countries greatly differ, they represent a sample which might allow us to explore a broader pattern of Russian influence-building strategy in the Middle East.
One of the countries where this diplomatic offensive is very visible is a former key ally of the United States – Egypt. In the last few years, Russia managed to grow strong ties with Egypt, with political, economic, and military layers. Russia supposedly deployed its special forces to military bases Sidi Barani and Mersa Matruh in 2017 with the consent of the Egyptian army. Negotiations for further access to Egyptian air bases and the creation of a permanent Russian strategic base in Egypt are apparently underway. Furthermore, the two countries reinstated combined military exercises in 2015 for the first time since the Soviet era. Russia has also used Egypt’s bleak economic situation to close several economic and energy deals, which Egypt will gain from, but will also serve to bring both countries closer together. Most importantly, Russia will provide a $25 billion loan to Egypt for the construction of a nuclear plant, serviced by the Russian state company Rosatom, and invest $7 billion to a Russian Industrial Zone in East Port Said.
The Russian arms export to Egypt also increased and Egypt signed several major arms contracts since 2014. It bought S-300 SAM missiles, 50 Mig-29 fighter jets, a Tarantul-class corvette, and Ka-52 attack helicopters, making Russia a key supplier to the Egyptian army. Both countries also started to coordinate their actions in international politics. Russia is helping Egypt to stabilize the Egyptian-Libyan border by supporting the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar, and it supposedly even deployed its armed forces along the border with, and in, Libya. Egypt, on the other hand, started to support Assad’s regime in Syria, even providing the Syrian Army with training and advising. It also joined Moscow’s diplomatic efforts by voting for the Russian resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council and joining a Russian boycott of a UN SC meeting on Venezuela.
In Egypt, where the distribution of power is much more centralized, the key to success lied in swaying several high-positioned decision makers. Lebanon, on the other hand, is a country divided along sectarian and political lines, with highly fragmented divisions of power between different political parties, government institutions, competing families, foreign actors, and ethnic and religious groups. Acquiring influence in Lebanon requires alliance-building across the political spectrum while refraining from antagonizing any of the competing sides, and taking into account the interests and multilateral relations of all actors.
This requires a careful diplomatic approach and a complex strategy, based on deep understanding of the country’s political culture. Russia therefore nurtures contacts across political divisions and operates on different layers of the society. It managed to build close ties to the cabinet of Prime Minister Saad Hariri from the Sunni Future Movement, convincing Hariri into a major military cooperation deal. The deal included $1 billion arms deal, opening of Lebanese ports, airports, and naval bases to the Russian military, training of Lebanese military by Russian experts, and intense intelligence sharing. Although the deal was called off in the last minute because of intense US pressure on Lebanese government, it still brought to light Russia’s successes in nurturing ties in the highest levels of the government. However, Russian company Novatek still managed to close a contract with the Lebanese government on oil and gas exploration along the Lebanese coast. In addition, it’s actively expanding its soft power among the Christian community, most notably by presenting itself as a protector of Middle Eastern Christians, through a web of Russian state-funded NGOs working in Lebanon.
In the last few months, the Russian Ministry of Defense started its initiative to coordinate repatriation of Syrian refugees. Russia managed to facilitate guarantees for Syrians in Lebanon in the case of their return to their home country and mediates between both countries. This provided Russia with great leverage on the Lebanese political scene, which had been attempting for years to expel Syrians out of Lebanon. As Saad Hariri bluntly acknowledged: “Russia controls Syria. So we will deal with the Russians.”
Russia is also trying to create closer ties with a former adversary and, under the Trump Administration, an essential American regional partner – Saudi Arabia. Since 2017, both countries have started an ever-expanding energy cooperation. So far, deals regarding Saudi investments in Russian infrastructure, and Russian investments in the planned stock market launch of the Saudi state oil company were closed. Both countries also increasingly cooperate on controlling global oil prices and proclaimed intent to turn this into a permanent practice. Their energy cooperation has been accompanied by increasing arms trade: in 2017, Russia closed a major $3 billion arms deal, including Russian state of the art S-400 missile system technology.
Russian influence-building strategies are nevertheless still facing obstacles, most notably the American opposition to its efforts. Saudi Arabia and Israel still remain close allies of the United States and their relation with Russia is currently restrained by their commitments to the United States. In other countries, such as Turkey, Egypt or Lebanon, U.S. influence is dwindling and Russia is eager to use this opportunity. Evaluating Russia’s long-term goals in the Middle East remains difficult. However, judging by the scope of its efforts, we can assume that its Middle East foreign policy is of a long-term nature and its aims are broader than simple short-term gain of leverage to achieve concessions elsewhere.
The focus on Russian foreign policy is often limited to the European context. Looking at Russian efforts in the Middle East, however, we can see that Russian foreign policy ambitions are far broader than is generally assumed. Russian foreign policy also tends to be associated with blunt force and hard power, more than delicate diplomacy. However, Russia, unburdened with ethical limits, manages to navigate in the intricate environment of the Middle East with ease and is so far relatively successful in doing so. Lastly, judging by the scope of Russian endeavors across various parts and layers of the region, we can assume that its current engagement is of a long-term nature – and that Russia is there to stay.
About the author
Dominik Presl is an MPhil candidate in the Modern Middle Eastern Studies program at University of Oxford. His areas of interest include Russian foreign policy, international relations of the Levant region and applications of hybrid warfare in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This article is a summary of a broader research of Russian return to the Middle East following the Russian engagement in Syria, on which he worked as an intern at IIR earlier in 2018.
Further reading on the topic in our library:
POPESCU, Nicu - Russia's return to the Middle East - https://goo.gl/PBxGjx
KOZHANOV, Nikolay - Russian policy across the Middle East - https://goo.gl/9jdHYP
VASIL'JEV, Aleksej Michajlovič - Russia's Middle East policy - https://goo.gl/fVX7ME