Why Russia is back as a major geopolitical player in the Middle East

The conclusion reached by Russia is that Americans and Europeans lack strategic vision.
December 17, 2017
Russia has taken advantage of the vacuum in US policy since the “Arab spring”

Not for decades has there been such public hand-wringing over Russia’s inten­tions in Syria, Libya and the Mediterranean. European and American media keep reminding that Russia’s moves are evidence of aggressive policies, similar to Russian military actions in Ukraine and Crimea.

Ethan Chorin, a former US diplomat, in “Russia Strategic Waiting Game in Libya” said this is “hyperbole.” While Russia has taken advantage of the vacuum in US policy since the “Arab spring” to maintain and increase its geographical status, its policy remains “selective and opportun­istic.”

It has neither the resources nor the desire to incur responsibilities other than limited in Syria and not at all in Libya for the foresee­able future, Chorin said in his work included in “War in Peace­time, Russia’s Strategy on NATO’s Eastern and Southern Flanks,” published by the CIDOB & Insti­tute for Statecraft and edited by this author and Nicolas de Pedro.

In the forthcoming “What is Russia up to in the Middle East,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, offers a lucid explanation for what he sees as Russian caution. West­ern enthusiasm for promoting democracy in the region “led to suspicions in and around the Kremlin that Western-funded Russian NGOs might try to bring about a ‘Russian spring.’”

The mass protests in Moscow in 2010-11 challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin more than anything since his rising to power in 2000. Russian experts were, from the start, “sceptical that upheavals in Arab countries would actually lead to democratic transformation as hoped for in the West,” Trenin wrote. They feared an “Islamist winter” and felt many American and Europe­an analysts were “no more than hapless sorcerer’s apprentices,” he said.

Western observers who kept their heads cool in 2011 remem­bered the enthusiasm with which many in the United States and United Kingdom — but not France — had greeted the US invasion of Iraq. We know that it was under­taken for the wrong reason, failed to drain the swamp where terror­ists were bred and, in destroying a key secular state between the Gulf and the Levant, unleashed an unprecedented wave of Is­lamic sectarianism and terrorism. It also fuelled Iran’s ambitions in the region.

Russia was astonished that the United States did little to support Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. More importantly, it failed to form a comprehensive partnership with the West in Libya and was left out of decision-making process after it abstained from vetoing UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorised “all neces­sary means” to protect civilians. Western behaviour resulted in “effectively foreclosing that route for the future,” Trenin wrote.

Though having no seat on the Security Council, Algeria, a major regional power, was furious its warnings about the chaos to come in Libya and the Sahel went unheeded, especially in France.

The conclusion reached by Rus­sia that Americans and Europe­ans lack strategic vision and fail to foresee even the immediate consequences of their actions had an immediate effect in Syria.

Trenin explained that “with [US President Barack] Obama winning a second term and [Syr­ian President Bashar] Assad still in power in Damascus, the Krem­lin was ready for a fresh attempt at a political settlement.”

Russia’s suggestion of “a Day­ton a deux” did not convince the Americans who wanted Moscow’s cooperation in dislodging Assad “for a fee, such as US consent to Russia keeping its facility in Tartus and continuing to supply arms to the new Syrian regime,” Trenin wrote.

There was no deal and what followed in Syria was an offen­sive, preventative move. Rus­sia’s objective was to halt the fall of the regime and to keep the estimated 7,000 battle-hardened jihadist fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics from returning to their countries of origin. Killing them in Syria made more sense.

Operating in Syria allowed the Russian armed forces to combat-test new weapons systems and the two countries became mili­tary allies in the full sense of the term.

Another overlooked reason for Russia to play hardball in Syria, Chorin wrote, was Assad’s willingness “to block the efforts of the Gulf emirate Qatar to build a natural gas pipeline through the country to supply Europe, which would have undermined Russia’s market power in Europe and un­dermined Russian leverage over Europe in defending its actions in Ukraine.”

He pointed out that the same strategic interests exist in Libya but to a much lesser degree. Qatar tried for years to get Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to relent on investment in the country’s gas industry so it could undercut the Russian position in the European gas market.

Libya supplies Europe with natural gas from large offshore deposits through Green Stream pipeline, which has a capacity of 11 billion cubic metres a year. However, like Assad, Qaddafi said no. Russia would like to recoup the losses on its tens of billions of dol­lars’ worth of arms and oil and infrastruc­ture contracts it signed with Qaddafi.

The result is that Russia is back as a major geopolitical player and a capable military actor in the Middle East. The United States’ absence in the region is driving old enemies together and creat­ing new dangers.

Both authors note the costs of Russian intervention in Syria, of which the Kremlin is aware, and the country’s poor economic position, which do not support an expansionist policy.

Putin may desire to remain vis­ible and flex Russian muscles but there are economic limits to the game. He is an influence dealer in the south-eastern Mediter­ranean, more than any Russian leader in a generation. He aims to push back the spread of hard-line radical Islamist groups. He would like to sell Russian weapons. If the West opts for a policy of strict containment in Libya, who will blame Russia for doing deals with whomever remains?

As Europe and the United States watch their influence in the world decline, they will have to pay more heed to what Russia and middle-ranking, but region­ally important, powers such as Algeria, which has a strong vested interest in the stability of southern rim Mediterranean and the Sahel, think.

In the midterm, Chorin said, it is more likely than not that the United States will follow a strict policy of containment towards Libya. If that happens, Russia will say “We told you so,” while attempting to shape whatever remains in Libya to its advantage. Algeria will do the same.

The sooner Europe wakes to a situation that is quite different from what it was at the turn of the century, the better.