President Putin puts the countdown of Russia's political system back to ‘Zero’ and continues promotion of long-term policy in the Middle East
By Ksenia Svetlova | July 14, 2020
President Putin strengthened his position by putting the countdown of the political system back to 'zero' with passage of the requisite amendments in the Russian constitution that now allow him to stay at the helm until 2036. Such a distant horizon allows Putin to focus on Russia's long-term foreign policy objectives. Russia is determined to continue to bolster its position in the Middle East, by establishing anchor points in the region that challenge the west. While Russia's economic challenges remain in place, in contrast with other rulers who are elected for a given period of time in office to realize their ambitions, Russia's leadership has the privilege to pursue its long-term strategy at a slower tempo, patiently but steadfastly. One should view Russian policy in the Middle East not necessarily from a here-and-now perspective, but rather as a part of the realization of long=term strategy.
Russia has been successful in maintaining its political alliance with Turkey and Iran in Syria, but it has not been successful in mobilizing capital for the Assad regime.
The understandings between Russia, and Turkey and Iran achieved two years ago in the framework of the "Astana Format" remain in place - the crowning achievement of the Putin-Erdogan-Rouhani triangle. Despite reports of a new military campaign that the Syrian Army is planning in the Idlib District (the last province left in the hands of the armed opponents of the Assad regime, including many jihadists), in the course of the meeting, President Putin hinted that he is now interested in stabilizing Syria and not in military adventures that could cause another border dispute between Syria, Turkey and Russia. The declaration that Russia views with gravity Israeli strikes on Syrian territory, branding them a "breach of Syrian sovereignty" is designed to calm the Iranians who accused Russia of giving Israel a "green light', while refraining from deploying the air defense systems Moscow supplied Syria with after the downing of the Russian reconnaissance plane in the fall of 2018 by mistake in the course of an Israeli incursion.
From Moscow's perspective, the supreme objective in Syria is to push out the Americans, who continue to hold a wide swath of oil-rich Syrian territory in the northeast of the country. Recently, the number of clashes between Russian and American forces in this area have grown. Gaining control of the oil wells in the northeast would be a lifeline for the Syrian regime, with tidy profit margins for Russian companies controlled by oligarchs loyal to Putin. New and old American sanctions don't leave Assad and Russia (Assad's primary backer) many options. The Syrian currency continues to free-fall, and according to UN figures, some 80 percent of Syrians now live under the poverty line. In order to stabilize Syria, Russia needs additional sources of revenue, broad international humanitarian aid and maximum cooperation between all three sides of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian triangle.
Egypt and Russia continue their strategic cooperation in Libya, against Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Russia continues to collaborate with Turkey in Syria, in Libya Moscow is aligned with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and France against Ankara and its allies. After Egypt threaten direct military intervention in Libya if the offensive of the Tripoli government against the forces of General Khalifa Haftar continues and should the city of Sirte (one of Haftar's strongholds) fall, Russia sent considerable military assistance to Haftar and accused Turkey of "criminal behavior" in Libya. Russia also adopted the Egyptian initiative for reconciliation in Libya (an initiative unacceptable to the Tripoli government and its primary patron - Turkey). It is clear that Russia has its own interests in Libya, but the partnership with Egypt is important because it constitutes an additional layer to warming relations between Cairo and Moscow, as well as a line for ongoing supply of Russian arms to Egypt.
At the same time, Russia reserves for itself the right to conduct interactions with other players in Libya, as it has always done, should its attempts to back Haftar against the Tripoli government fail. Russia is interested in regaining influence in Libya lost after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. It is interested in establishing maritime and land-based military bases on Libyan soil due to its proximity to Europe, and to profit from Libya's enormous oil fields.
Afghanistan: The objective – curtailing western influence and pushing the Americans out
Afghanistan is another significant arena for Russia, where Moscow is also operating to oust American forces. From Moscow's perspective, Afghanistan is part of Russia's 'back yard' of post-Soviet countries such as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The rise in the forces of ISIS and the spread of radical Islam in Afghanistan threatens the stability of the Muslim republics in the Russian Federation. Movers and shakers in the American media and the political arena were up in arms following reports that Russia had paid a bounty price to Taliban militants to murder American service personnel. While the United States debates whether President Trump knew of the intelligence reports or not, the real question is whether Russia's actions in Afghanistan are indeed achieving their objective - pushing America out of this important arena while enhancing Russian influence in Afghanistan. Thirty years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, this country has become increasingly important to Russia from a geopolitical standpoint. However, there is also a prestige issue: Restoring Russia's former glory - where Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and its pullout under fire and unattainable goals, remains an open sore on the timeline of contemporary Russian history.
Putin is not interested in repeating past mistakes, but rather to replicate on Afghan soil, the 'Syrian experience' that didn't cost Russia a fortune and has not exacted many casualties among Russian personnel. In order to achieve this objective, Russia is willing to make a deal with the Taliban, despite the fact that the organization continues to maintain ties with al-Qaeda, and one of its branches even cooperated with ISIS forces in battle. It is for this reason that the agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban with the assistance of Qatar was received so favorably in Russia - bestowing additional legitimacy to Moscow's efforts to build bridges with the Islamist organization and convince the Taliban that only Russia stands firm behind its allies (such as Bashar Assad in Syria, while one cannot depend on the Americans who abandon their allies -- the Kurds being a case in point).
The improvement in relations with the various sides in Afghanistan comes parallel to marked warming of relations between Moscow and Islamabad (a veteran ally of the United States in Asia). Russia's actions in regard to Afghanistan – and even perhaps Pakistan, are designed to challenge the United States and to bite off pieces of the geopolitical pie that were once the sole province of Washington.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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