26 February 2019

Russia’s engagement in Middle East- Circumstantial actions or long-term strategy?

Claudiu Nebunu

Image source: Mediafax

Given the US’s recent actions which are suggesting a disengagement in the area, Russia could consolidate its central actor’s role in Middle East and North of Africa (MENA).

Hereof, it is to be expected Moscow to try to extend its influence also over some countries it had complicated relations with in the past. Isolating Qatar and killing the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, were like “gifts” to Putin, who immediately started to try to bring closer the US’s two important partners in the region. Russia’s engagement in Syria and its ulterior interreferences in the region are not simple coincidences or the result of a brilliant tactic, but the result of a Moscow’s coherent action strategy in MENA. The Russian influence projection in MENA at an effective level can lead to actually taking the control over all region’s energetic routes to Europe.   

What is Moscow’s plan?

Moscow is promoting a foreign policy based on two main aspects: satisfying the national interests and creating a global positive image, which makes Russia try to be present in different crisis management actions or conflicts’ mediation. MENA is the perfect region for such an approach, as it represents the meeting points of all global interests. Following this logic, besides the conflict in Syria, where it is directly involved, Russia has offered, without being asked, to mediate the conflicts from Yemen, Libya and, recently, Gulf’s region, aiming to use all these situations to improve its international image.

Besides attempting to reshape its foreign image, Moscow has a series of geopolitical interests. For example, the offer to mediate the conflict from Yemen, alongside the implicit support for the rebels and the harsh critics against Arab states’ actions backed by the US, which is supporting the legitime Yemenite government, it also wants to ensure the access to a maritime route which contributes to EU’s energetic security assurance.

As for the help offered to Doha’s regime, Russia actually wants the huge natural gases reserves Qatar has which, exported directly to EU, would allow the diversification of European states’ provision sources and the weakening of the Russian strategic leverage. Hence, it is really important for Moscow to have a constructive relation with Doha that could lead to Gazprom’s possible interference in developing – and then controlling – of the critical infrastructure for the Qatari gases transport.  

As well as for Yemen or Qatar, Russia already announced that it wants to mediate the conflict from Libya – a society characterized by strong clan and tribal connections, wherein two rival authorities (West – the Government of National Accord/ GNA, installed in Tripoli, and East – Representatives Chamber/ Parliament from Tobruk) are trying to impose their authority in the territory. Despite the mediation offer, Russia was not afraid to offer support to the Eastern camp, which is controlling country’s main hydrocarbons deposits and the exploitation and transport infrastructure.

Circumstantial actions or expansion strategy?

All these Russian manifestations of presence or influence are disclosing Moscow’s comprehensive approach, multi-dimensional commitment – military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic – throughout MENA region. 

This massive commitment has been developed during the years; hence it is a long-term process and no one expects it to end very soon. The examples listed in this article (without claiming to cover all methods Russia is committed in this region through) are suggesting Moscow’s flexibility in approaching local/regional actors, to reach its national interests. The implicit support offered to one of the parts of the conflict, even by delivering of armament, does not stop its processes to stand as a mediator in the same conflicts, in the attempt to reach its goals.

Although Russia’s actions aroused the attention of some high-officials from US’s military and political leaderships and determine the concern on Kremlin’s increasing influence in OMNA, from the maghrib countries to Iran and from Sudan and Yemen to Turkey, Washington is adopting a disengagement policy in the region.

Maybe Moscow’s manifestations are coming from an ineffective analysis of the interference ways, a wrong perspective of the Russian influence extension parameters, or even a certain reluctance from some military and political analysts and policy makers to accept the true dimension of this phenomenon.

However, despite the necessity to estimate the technical parameters of the phenomenon, hardly to be accurately made with the public available information and data, it becomes more and more clear that Russia’s actions to project/increase influence in MENA is not just the result of an opportunist approach, but part of a coherent strategy with relatively defined objectives. And this strategy is in line with Moscow’s authorities certainty that Russia cannot be pleased with less than a similar role to US’s one in the international policy.

What’s next?

The new center of power from Middle East created around the Russia-Turkey-Iran coalition became enough relevant to threaten the quite balanced environment in the region, which was, until now, ensured by the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance.

But the unpredictability of the American president, Donald Trump, and his unusual approaches in some complicated issues have left his allies, as well as his opponents, concerning about the uncertainty of the American policy future in the region. The scandal generated by the assassination of the Saudi journalist, in the Saudi Consulate from Istanbul, places Trump in an extremely difficult situation, especially if he wants to continue to use Saudi Arabia as the spearhead of Gulf states’ coalition across an eventual military action against Iran. It will be difficult to justify, from now on, a political and military alliance with the Saudi regime.

It remains to be seen if Trump’s promoted initiative to create a “Middle East Strategic Alliance/ MESA” or “Arabian NATO”, to include also Saudi Arabia (together with the other monarchies from the Cooperation Council from the Gulf/ CCG), Egypt and Jordan, in order to create a counterpoise for the Teheran regime, probably and/or for the Russian expansion, will be materialized. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the pro and against factors, however, despite some positive steps, alliance’s foundation is endangered, among others, by the divisions between the countries in the region and how CCG’ states are seeing the Iranian ascension in the Arabian world (not all the members of this possible Alliance perceive Iran as a threat. Iran is the main enemy for the regimes from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, but not for Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman).

On the other hand, after the messages of the American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and presidential counsellor, John Bolton, regarding the US pullout being a tactical, limited and conditioned one, it cannot be excluded the withdrawal from Middle East’s conflicts forefront to be a Washington’ deceptive strategy aimed to leave the responsibility on Russia, Turkey and Iran shoulders and to wait for the erosion of their images and resources. Hence, Russia will have to face some huge costs, material (war costs, reconstruction), but also related to image (assuming responsibility for the forthcoming atrocities), meanwhile the US will upkeep its sanctions and weakness policy on the Russian economy.

If none of the previous scenarios will be materialized, Moscow will take advantage on the situation and will capitalize on the achievements gained in Middle East, to consolidate its position in the area, but also to project its influence in North Africa and under-Saharan Africa. Russia’s concern for this continent is becoming more and more intensified, Moscow using its capabilities not just to increase its influence in Africa, but also to challenge the European countries by accessing the oil infrastructure and reserves in the area, and by directing migrants’ waves.

Creating some tense social situations in Europe by using the above-mentioned leverages could offer Moscow freedom of movement in making itself noticed, through some local sympathizing actors (for example, political groups), even by force if needed, in regional security matters.  Further on, the systematic use of multi-dimensional constraints, alongside with the influence campaigns against the West, can lead to Russia being accepted as global power.

In the place of epilogue

One of the most important stakes of Middle East’s main conflicts (Syria, Iraq, Libya) is getting the control over natural gases and oil exploitation, as well as over their transport infrastructure to beneficiaries. The one to prevail, it will be the one to shape the forthcoming strategies in the field and to chose the beneficiaries.

Even by imagining only it could be seen that the Russian presence/ influence projection in the Middle East and North Africa could ensure the Kremlin’ control over hydrocarbons’ main transit routes from these areas to Europe (not mentioning the Easter Europe routes, already controlled by it). Hence, besides their own resources or tankers or LNG/LPGs that may come from over the Atlantic, each oil barrel and each cubic meter of gas will pass through a faucet managed or commanded by a representative of the Russian state…

If Germany, with the support of France, has/ve ensured a convenient access to the Russian gas, it remains to be seen what the other European countries will do when Moscow will close the faucets?... or when it will redirect hydrocarbons to Asian markets, great fans of these resources?...