Russia in the Middle East in the Coronavirus Age: Between Opportunities and a Glass Ceiling
By Ksenia Svetlova | April 17, 2020
The year 2020 has put troublesome challenges before Russia as it seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East. Up until now, Moscow has made many achievements, both thanks to a pointed and clear strategy vis-à-vis the region, and due to the lack of such a strategy by other players. Russia views the Middle East as a both convenient and natural environment for its operations: The region is close to its borders and sensitive from a strategic and international perspective.
Even in the Coronavirus age, Moscow has no intention to give up the gains it has achieved to date. At the same time, limitations that exist in the economic and diplomatic realm continue to curtain and delay further advancement. New factors have emerged, such as the outbreak of the virus and the turmoil in oil markets.
To what extent will global events impact on Russia’s ambitions in the Middle East?
First of all, one can only appraise the degree of success of Russia in the Middle Eastern arena when benchmarked with to the objectives Moscow has set for itself. Five years ago President Vladimir Putin decided to introduce Russian forces in Syria, and since then has succeeded in returning control of most Syrian territory that were occupied by various Opposition elements, to his protégé Bashar Assad.
Back in 2015 there was only one Russian naval base in Syria, in the port city of Tartous. Today, Russia has an additional two airbases in Syria -- the largest of five near Homs, north of Damascus, and a helicopter base in the vicinity of Kamishli in northeastern Syria on Syrian-Turkish border. Only a few months ago Russia decided to invest $.5 B in Tartous to transform the port into a hub for Russian activity in the Mediterranean where up to recently Russia lacked a presence. Even now, the Russian army continues to train and carry out military exercises on the Syrian coast and in Lebanon, and this presence has great geopolitical and military significance Russia has positioned itself at the center of the Syrian conflict, a position that has broad global ramifications (such as the refugee issue), and thus Russia has transformed itself into a significant regional player who can not be ignored.
In recent years, Russia has even succeeded in enhancing its position in the diplomatic arena and to establish good ties with all the players in the Middle East, from Hezbollah which has become a Russian ally in Syria, to Israel—situated on the other side of the Syrian border, in essence, transforming Russia into a ‘neighbor’ of Israel.
This state of affairs contributes to Russia’s abilities to take advantage of various players and move them in directions favorable to Russia on the Middle East chessboard. Once the ideological barrier from the Soviet era was removed with the collapse of the USSR, it became apparent that Russian could be a pragmatic player able to conduct a network of quite successful ties with even the most difficult of actors in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood is defined in Russia as an outlawed terrorist organization, yet Hamas—an inseparable appendage of the Muslim Brotherhood—is viewed in Russian eyes as a legitimate movement which represents a sizable segment of the Palestinian people.
Thanks to this ability, Russia has succeeded in mobilizing traditionally rival regional entities to serve its own objectives in Syria. An outstanding example of such is Iranians and Turks who hold opposing positions regarding Syria, but Russia successfully orchestrated both parties participating in the ‘Astana Process’. Such flexibility and ability to take advantage of existing disputes and tensions between western allies, has assisted Russia pinpoint situations where it can drive a wedge between such partners, as occurred in the case of Turkey, whose relationship with NATO which has hit a shoal.
Through flexibility and pragmatism Russia has also tried to move closer to countries considered traditional allies of the United States. It is highly questionable that anyone in Moscow entertained expectations that countries such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates or Egypt would suddenly give up their long and fruitful ties with Washington and change sides. But Russia has succeed in gaining from these countries exactly what it, indeed, has sought: Expansion of economic and diplomatic ties, and of course—arms deals for Russian weaponry, a nifty contribution to Russian coffers. While the United States was focusing on diplomatic processes designed to withdraw from Syria, to remove its forces from Iraq and so forth, Russia was plotting long-range processes.
Russia’s greatest constraint is its economic limitations. Its economy is not large, and competition with economic giants such as the United States and China is simply a non-starter and totally unrealistic. Russia has, however, succeeded in moving closer to Egypt, and even invested in a nuclear power plant that Moscow is building there, and Russia sells Egypt advanced weaponry. But Cairo as well, like Riyadh and others, is not interested in switching allies. It only wants to “diversify” its ties. This logic is very lucrative for Russia, and for the present, it is questionable whether Russia has made it its objective to try and totally push the United States out of the Middle East.
Consequently, there are two significant global challenges in the Coronavirus age that are coupled together: The outbreak of the virus has caused economic decline and a drop in demands for energy sources, a phenomenon that was bound to be damaging to Russia, just as this has harmed almost all oil producing nations. But, it is questionable whether this will shake Russia’s standing in the Middle East. Russia has not invested any great effort in its operations in Syria, except for enlarging the Tartous harbor (which in return, is likely to enhance its status in Syria and the region). Russia does not extend economic aid to countries that are considered its protégés in the Middle East. Even Syria has yet to receive any significant assistance in its struggle with the Coronavirus (in part because the Syria regime has claimed there are no Corona cases in its territory…). Due to the pandemic, Russia will now have to extend assistance to many of its own citizens, but apparently Moscow planned for hard times ahead, and piled up reserves ‘for a rainy day’ that it can how spend relatively freely.
As for the war with Saudi Arabia over oil prices, it seems Russia has not lost a lot Oil prices in any case were dropping due to overproduction and low demand and relations with Saudi Arabia will soon revert to the same pointy where they were. They are two nations with very different geopolitical objectives, but see potential in collaborating in a number of areas. The first test case of this is the departure of the first shipments of Russian wheat that left Black Sea ports a few days ago, headed for Saudi Arabia. If the first shipment will pass Saudi inspection without problems, it will give a green light for continuing supply of Russian grain. The message is clear: that the relationship has returned to a win-win solution where both sides profit, while in the meantime, the United States has been the one profiting from the rift between the two.
Russia continues its operations in Syria, allowing it to advance its hold and increase its influence in the country; Russia will continue to be an influential element on Israeli security, since Israel’s freedom of action for in Syrian airspace hinges today primarily on Russia. Russia will continue to project its influence on Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
It is possible that the scope of arms sales will dip in the near future because countries in the region will need to deal with serious domestic challenges, but regional conflicts are not going to disappear from the region’s landscape, and one can expect that Russian arms sales will be renewed further down the road.
In other words, a number of ‘glass ceilings’ will put limitations on the scale of Russian activity in the region for the time being. While other challenges are liable to delay Russia’s progress in achieving its objectives in the region, such ‘impediments’ will not block Moscow’s actions and its drive to enhance its influence in the region.
 The monitoring body working to enforce the ceasefire in Syria, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 passed in December 2015
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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