2020: A Fickle Year for Russia in the Region
By Ksenia Svetlova | January 17, 2021
The past year hasn't been easy for Russia globally or in the Middle-East: U.S. sanctions continued to stifle its economy; the landslide in the oil markets took its toll on state profits; the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shocked the world; and to top it all off, Democrats leader Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential elections, which means more tensions are on the cards for Russia-U.S. relations.
Russia is running into difficulties and obstacles on its way to realizing its policies: in Syria, Russia continued to dance its hesitant tango with Turkey with respect to Idlib province which remains for now in the hands of the opposition supported by Ankara. The ruling family has refused to carry out the necessary reforms, even the subtlest, to save their country's failing economy.
In Egypt, despite the strengthening relations with Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, and the two armies' joint maneuvers, the SU-35 deal is being threatened with U.S. sanctions and has not been carried out yet.
Among the very few rays of light is the agreement between Russia and Sudan for the establishment of a sea port, as well as the ongoing and close collaboration with Abu Dhabi (joint activity in Libya and Sudan). The relative improvement in relations with Saudi Arabia is also noteworthy after the oil price war that raged in March. Overall, these achievements were made possible both due to Washington's consent, and in light of Russia's persistent policy to continue establishing itself in the Middle East.
Syria: Between Assad and Erdogan
This year began with a meeting between Putin and Erdogan during the launching of the Turkstream Pipeline, and the Russian leader's surprise visit to Damascus. In light of the importance of its commercial and economic relations with Turkey, Russia continued complying with its agreement with Ankara regarding Idlib province. In fact, Russia froze the current state of affairs, allowing Russian-Turkish patrols to continue their joint activity. Tension rose high between Russian and Syrian leaderships, however, when the latter did not seem committed to the Russian attempts to advance the Constitutional Council, and continued to get closer to Iran. News of Moscow's attempt to replace Bashar el Assad were refuted, of course, but pressure continued to be exerted on the Assad family to fight corruption, and limit the activity of family members with close ties to Iran, ultimately leading to the downfall of Rami Makhlouf, Bashar's cousin.
Syria's economy continued to deteriorate this year, and the entry into force of the Caesar Act, broadening current sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime, has had a detrimental effect on it. As 2020 drew to a close, it was clear to all that, given the economic crisis in Lebanon and the ongoing stringent sanctions on Damascus, the Syrian regime was no longer able to provide even a basic quality of life for its citizens, and the long bread lines stretching for miles were obvious proof of it.
This severe economic crisis is detrimental to Russian interests in the long range because it increases local instability, as well as the possible uproar against Assad and his allies. This significant issue has no magical solution, and Russia is currently caught in a loop whereby it depends on Assad to continue on in Syria, while he is also responsible de facto for the long-term negative effect on its interests. Presidential elections are due to take place in Syria in 2021, and despite Moscow's criticism, they are expected to lead to no change. As a result, the economic and political crisis in Syria will only become more acute, and Russia will be forced to look for creative solutions in order to protect its assets there.
Egypt: Aircraft, wheat, and joint military exercises
The relations between Cairo and Moscow continued to tighten throughout 2020. Russia became the largest wheat supplier to Egypt, the Russian and Egyptian armies carried out several joint maneuvers in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, and work on the nuclear reactor at El Dabaa continued vigorously despite the Coronavirus crisis. Over the past year, Russian sources have announced that the deal for the SU-35 aircraft, on par with the American F-35, has been completed, but Egypt has yet to confirm. To date, the Russian jets have yet to reach their destination. The delay is due to Washington's objection to the deal, and its threat to impose sanctions. As the year ended, President Trump had even (falsely) accused Egypt of using U.S. foreign aid funds to purchase Russian weapons, but remained silent about the close ties forging between the two countries that share similar views on developments in Libya and Yemen, as well as on human rights.
It seems that the threat of imposing American sanctions will continue to hover over Egypt during President Biden's term in office each time it will express its interest in advanced Russian weaponry systems. Thus, some of these deals may never be executed to avoid risking the ongoing military aid and funds provided to Egypt by the U.S. administration to help it cope with the Coronavirus crisis. That being said, Biden's administration's criticism over the human rights situation in Egypt could lead Moscow and Cairo to become closer still in various areas.
The Persian Gulf: Activity on parallel routes
2020 has ended but the United States did not renew its veto on supplying weapons to Iran in light of its unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. The current state of affairs ostensibly leaves an opening for significant selling of Russian weapons to Iran; however, since Russia has strategic relations with Arab countries in the Gulf too, it is unlikely to supply Tehran with tiebreaking arms such as SU-35 aircraft or the S-400 air defense system at present.
Russia is collaborating closely with the U.A.E. in Libya and Sudan, where it plans to establish a second sea port outside its borders. It also has its eyes set on economic cooperation in areas such as energy and investments. Following a brief but harmful oil price war with Saudi Arabia, the two countries have settled their differences and are currently collaborating in OPEC to stabilize international oil markets. Although, in practice, the Gulf states' investments in Russia are much lower than promised, in the problematic climate caused by COVID-19, it is best not to risk losing them.
Russia is under no illusion when it comes to its partnership with the Arab Gulf states; it is well aware of the depth of their strategic relations with the United States. the most demonstrable evidence of it was obtained in September, when the U.A.E. and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords with Israel under American auspices. Russia's perspective is realistic – because it can make some progress in several important aspects of its policy with these countries that are considered America's loyal allies, it is willing to collaborate with Abu Dhabi in Sudan and Libya. Similar "grey area" collaborations are likely to continue throughout 2021, although the new U.S. administration may view them differently than the former Trump administration. Here too, much like with Egypt, Russia must strike the right balances to keep its allies happy on the one hand, while promoting human rights and keeping them away from Russia as much as possible on the other hand.
Israel: Tactical cooperation
The tactical cooperation between Israel and Russia regarding warfare on Syrian territory continued this year. Israeli attacks in Syrian airspace (according to foreign reports) were carried out with no Russian intervention. At this point, Russia is managing to have a reasonable relationship with all the actors in the Syrian theater, including Turkey, Israel, Hizballah, and the Kurds, as well as Assad's regime itself, of course. Nevertheless, the remark attributed to Russian Ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, in an interview for the Jerusalem Post, whereby "Israel destabilizes the Middle East more than Iran", shows that, outwardly, Russia is still conveying the message that it is complying with international law in general, and particularly with respect to the Palestinian issue.
Collaborating tactically with Moscow on its northern border is convenient for Israel, and will continue as long as both parties find it beneficial. The question is, what will happen if Syria plunges into chaos and things get out of control? Will Russia remain silent in the face of Israeli air strikes? At present there seems to be no change in its policy, but Israel would do well to prepare for the possibility that the current situation will not last much longer, for Russia could limit the scope of Israel's activities in Syria for reasons of its own.
To conclude, one could say that 2021 appears to be just as challenging for Russia globally and in the Middle East for two main reasons: moderation in the oil markets and the new U.S. administration; Russian interests in the Middle East remaining intact. Russia will continue to take steps toward gaining control over sea ports and access to warm water. It will also continue to combat Islamic terror that could cross over into its borders, and seek to control quarries and energy resources, as well as arms sales to the region. Israel is not the center of its policy in the Middle East, but should be aware that a change in direction is possible at any moment.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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