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The Bear in the Desert: Russian Influence in the Middle East

Between the fall of the Soviet Union and the Syrian civil war, Russian foreign policy remained largely non-existent in the Middle East. The resulting humiliation following the invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, coupled with the collapse of the Soviet empire confirmed the absence of Russian influence in the region. However, recent overtures from the Kremlin have repositioned Russia as a central player, heavily sculpting the dynamics of the region.

Russian foreign policy has dramatically changed its priorities, expanding forcefully into the Middle East and North Africa in light of President Vladimir Putin’s desire to re-establish Russia as a “great power” on the international stage. Indeed, Russia has adopted a multifaceted approach to its Middle Eastern strategy, challenging the influence of the West and the United States in the process.

One such issue Moscow is particularly unwavering on is its opposition to western backed humanitarian intervention. Since the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya, the Kremlin views western interference in sovereign states with suspicious eyes. Moscow believes the intervention (under the direction of the UN’s ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine) was nothing more than a trojan horse disguising western desires to pursue regime change. R2P stipulates that if the state cannot or will not protect its own people it falls under the international community to intervene on its behalf. Moscow believes this is merely concealing the Wests ambitions to promote liberal values around the world. To this end, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov detailed Moscow would “never allow the Security Council to authorise anything similar to what happened in Libya.”

Similarly, Putin determined “that democracy, the rule of law and human rights are all little more than contrivances that allows the West to control weaker nations.” Rightly or wrongly, Russia is convinced the West wishes to infiltrate countries which do not observe liberal international norms and alter them accordingly. Moreover, the fall of Gaddafi and his regime deprived Russia not only of political influence, but also vital trade arteries surrounding defence. In its quest to become a great power, losing authority to the West is obviously a great hinderance to such a goal.

In a bid to prevent further loss of prestige, Russia has taken steps to quell western attempts to promote regime change and overthrow surrounding illiberal states. On a number of occasions Moscow has blocked UN action in Syria - from a ceasefire in Ghouta to cross border aid deliveries. The Kremlin has remained adamant that it will counteract any attempts from the West to adopt a Libyan mindset and promote western friendly regime change.

Moreover, from September 2015, Moscow has dramatically escalated its military presence in the region, supporting Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, while Russia holds material interests within Syria including a number of defence contracts as well as rights to explore potential oil fields, Moscow’s support for Damascus is somewhat more profound.

Indeed, Middle East analyst Aleksei Malashenko argues Moscow’s longstanding relationship with Damascus marks the ‘last remnant of Soviet politics in the Middle East’. In other words, Russia is protecting its “great power” self-perception. If Assad falls, this identity will be lost in the Middle East. Losing sway to western-backed rebels will be a disaster for Russia’s mission to re-establish itself as a world power.

To combat growing western intrusion in the Middle East, Moscow not only maintains a military footing in Syria, but also attempts to alter international norms in regard to regime change. Countering western liberal internationalist principles which advocate democracy, freedom of speech etc, Moscow promotes an alternative; ‘sovereign democracy’. Putin has spearheaded this concept particularly, which advances the primacy of sovereignty and argues that if political change is to occur, it must manifest within a state’s own borders and under the control of the central organs of power. In its pursuit for prestige on the world stage, the Kremlin not only disputes the validity of western ideals, but also seeks to promote its own.

In pursuit of its ideological ambitions, Russia has explored new trade venues and investment. Since its action in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Moscow has been forced to adapt and diversify its trade relations to enlarge its economy while avoiding succumbing to western-imposed sanctions. In light of this, Moscow has particularly focused its attention on defence contracts and arms deals in the region.

Since the Arab Spring, Russia has lost over $10 billion worth of defence contracts in the Middle East. Replacing these sources of revenue are of vital importance. Such is the case that Russia has sold over $4 billion worth of arms to Syria since 2012 while exporting advanced weapons systems to Egypt. Moreover, in 2016, Russia made the controversial leap of providing Iran with sophisticated S-300 air defence missile systems, much to the displeasure of the White House.

Moscow has also expanded its dealings in the region through energy. Since December 2016, Russia’s state-owned oil enterprise Rosneft noticeably increased its presence in Egypt, acquiring a 35% share in the largest natural gas project off the Egyptian coast. In addition, Russia now accounts for 63% of natural gas in Turkey through the ‘Blue Stream’ gas export line. Similarly, Russia solidified a number of contracts to construct 8 new nuclear reactors in Iran, the first to be erected at the Bushehr power plant. Indeed, Moscow has expanded its relationship with Tehran as one of the first countries to return to the Islamic Republic since sanctions were raised in 2015 and 2016. Clearly, Russia is pursuing a number of opportunities to expand its economic influence in the Middle East.

Finally, Russia holds a number of security concerns in the Middle East, chief of which is the threat posed by Islamic extremist groups. Towards the end of 2015, between 5,000 and 7,000 individuals from Russia and surrounding states joined ISIS, and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. The sheer number of Russian speaking fighters in the Middle East frightens Moscow. The Kremlin wishes to contain the Syrian conflict, fearing the conflict may stretch beyond its borders if Assad falls. The result would have direct consequences within Russia territory. Moscow aims to prevent transnational Islamist groups establishing themselves with likeminded organisations within the North Caucasus region. This position is well founded. In June 2015, a number of jihadist organisations within Chechnya and Dagestan swore allegiance to ISIS. As tensions surrounding the North Caucasus are already high, containing such a catalyst for conflict is a primary concern for Moscow.

Interestingly, Russia’s security concerns in the Middle East also stem directly from worries within government. Indeed, the promotion of regime change within the region threatens the stability of the Putin administration. Moscow’s actions to quell unrest in Syria is a result of grassroot political disgruntlement in Russia. Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov protested interventions, arguing the furthering of colour revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen served only to “advance their strategic interests (the West) by removing undesirable political regimes.” Moscow fears this method would be employed to topple the Russian government and its allies. Russia’s presence in Syria serves to prevent such an event from transpiring. Indeed, a report published by the Levada Centre found 38% of Russians believed the so-called “Egypt scenario” likely to happen in Russia, while a Public Opinion Foundation found 49% of Russians were “prepared to participate in protest demonstrations”. In fact, protests sparked in Russia in 2011-2012 due to issues including “electoral vote rigging, and a general dissatisfaction with the corrupt and authoritarian nature of Russian politics.” For the Kremlin, securitising against both radical Islamic groups and domestic political unrest is paramount if Russia is to establish itself as a so-called “great power.”

Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East is no doubt multifaceted. Moscow has been throwing its weight around, embarking on a quest to reassert itself as a stout opponent to the powers of the West. While it would be an exaggeration to say this the Cold War 2.0, Russia is no doubt becoming more assertive in international politics. This is unlikely to stop and the West needs to explore strategies to contend with rising eastern powers without funding proxy wars in the Middle East. However, as mentioned above, diplomatic options are limited as both the West and Russia have differing understandings on how world politics should be managed, particularly on issues surrounding humanitarian intervention and regime change. Nevertheless, the balance of power is changing, and Russia is on the rise.

By Daniel Mountain

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