Russian Strides across the Mediterranean Reflect Diverse Interests

Thursday, May 16, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

For Putin watchers in the Middle East and the US trying to discern a core strategic thrust to Russian policy in the region, the information overload can be quite challenging. From gas pipelines transiting the former Balkans to signing agreements to build nuclear reactors in Africa, Russia is engaging in multidimensional efforts to both increase its leverage in targeted countries and subsequently decrease the value of close relations with the US.

However, its economic offensive is hampered by a lack of financial resources, which means that using credits to promote arms sales, energy infrastructure projects, and local regime support are draining an economy that can hardly meet its domestic needs. Russia’s economic expansiveness lacks the credibility of the Chinese version, which is better financed, appears less likely to be tied to political conditions, and is connected to a core belt and road initiative that is attractive to its clients.

The integration of political and economic objectives is also hampered by the continuing shift in political fortunes of one-time clients. As a recent blog put it, “…Putin clearly disapproves of the removal of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria under pressure from street protests; similarly, the Russian head of state opposes the ousting of his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir, by a military coup.” It goes on to point out that Russia lacks leverage to influence either crisis as well as events in Yemen and Palestine.

While Russia has made some statements about the conflict in Libya, its only interventions of note seem to favor General Haftar and his LNA, either by hosting him or blocking unfriendly resolutions in the UN Security Council. Increasingly pulled into disagreements with Iran, Syria, and Turkey over next steps in the Syrian conflict, Russia is floundering a bit as it has been unable to impose its will on any of the parties, despite continuing high level talks.

In Libya, the LNA and Haftar, as reported in Al Monitor, are regarded by Russia as important to resolving the Libyan crisis. Whatever concerns Moscow has regarding his offensive, they are submerged by the need to keep good relations with President Sisi in Egypt, a strong proponent of Haftar, as well as with those local forces that see Haftar as the key to Libya’s future. As the article observes, “What continues to guide its approach to the general is the fear of losing any relevance in the Libyan context if it [Russia] alienates Hifter (sic)…This is the reason why relatively symbolic diplomatic tricks, such as blocking the UNSC statement condemning Hifter, become an important message to the general. Russia sees no benefit in openly taking sides in Tripoli, but it will be ready to step in diplomatically to not allow the LNA’s defeat because it would ruin the East-West zero-sum confrontation.”

This perception, while opportunistic, carries risks that can upset Russia’s continued expansion of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean where it is confronting another wary and troubling possible partner, Turkey. The most immediate contentions focus on conflict zones in the west and east of the country. Although there seemed to be an agreement between the two to establish a demilitarized zone around Idlib in exchange for Russian influence in defanging the YPG Kurdish militia, Russia expected Turkey to have greater control over attacks by the HTS Islamic militants who were part of al-Qaeda; while Turkey wanted Moscow to push the YPG out of the remaining area in Aleppo province. Neither has happened.

These problems are further exacerbated by the Syrian regime’s opposition to agree on a joint constitutional committee with the opposition that would garner international support for some sort of forward movement by re-legitimizing the Assad regime’s place, albeit temporarily, in negotiations on the country’s future.

While Russia continues to discover how much success is possible in crafting a region-wide strategy, the US tries to maintain some remnants of skin in the game. In the most recent meeting between a senior US official, in this case Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and President Putin, “Pompeo said that he and Putin agreed on ways to move ahead with a long-delayed Syrian-led committee that will rewrite the constitution in hopes of a political end to the conflict.” Pompeo has been critical of Russia’s ambitions in the region and told reporters in advance of the meeting that “It’s not about ‘moving on.’ It’s about trying to find solutions, compromises, places where there are overlapping interests.”

Good luck with that, Mr. Secretary.