Analysis of Russia’s interests in the Middle East traditionally focuses on its leading role in the ongoing conflict in Syria, the sole nation outside of the former USSR in which it maintains a military base. After a prolonged hiatus following the fall of the USSR – during which time the US all but held a monopoly on the use of its veto on the Palestinian Question – Russia appears to have recently rediscovered its own capacity to block intervention at the UN. This decade alone, it has blocked action in Syria 8 times.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be furtively sowing seeds in the region beyond long-time ally Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, as part of a wider scheme to assert Russian presence and – no doubt – to challenge what for decades has typically been a playground for US foreign policy. Notably against the backdrop of the current US administration’s receding foreign policy emphasis, the way is clear for increased Russian dominance in the Middle East and the former KGB strongman has wasted little time in maximising on this.
The first of three major civil war zones in the Middle East – Syria – is perhaps the most obvious example of Russian intervention. Alongside the oft-cited Tartus base in Syria, which was established under Hafez Al-Assad almost half a century ago, in 2015 Russia developed the Khmeimim airbase in the port city of Latakia, complete with a state-of-the-art S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile system capable of reaching areas of Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, as well as Cyprus. Originally a launching point for Russian aircraft in Syria, in October 2016 Russia signed a deal with the Syrian government allowing Moscow to use the Khmeimim air base in Syria indefinitely. In essence, this paves the way for another permanent Russian base – this time for an air force – to supplement up to 11 warships, including nuclear-powered ships, at Tartus.
These bases serve a dual purpose: while on the one hand they are designed to rebuff NATO power just to the north in Turkey, on the other, they serve as symbols of Russian might to Middle East nations and the wider world. According to Russian defence leader Andrei Krasov, the bases indicate that “Russia is strengthening its position in the Middle East as a peacemaker and as a guarantor of global security.”
In another Arab war zone – Libya – Russia has also recently been cementing its position. In January 2017, Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar was welcomed aboard passing Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, following which reports circulated of an estimated $2bn arms deal to the strongman Libyan House of Representatives ally. Russia seems to have chosen a horse to back in the Libyan race for power, the first in a series of moves that could see them gain access to North Africa; an anonymous Algerian military source claimed that in 2010, “the Russians asked Algeria for access to Mers el-Kebir naval base near Oran but back then we said no. Now they can get access through the Libyan coast.”
In the third major regional civil conflict zone, too, Russia appears to be calculating the strategy of its foray. Deposed Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in August 2016 extended an invitation to Russia to assist in its civil war and Russia appears to have stepped up its mediation efforts in recent months within the UN framework as well as – potentially – without. This could springboard off a resumption of the former USSR naval base on Yemen’s Socotra Island, which it maintained until until the reunification of USSR satellite state South Yemen with the north in 1990. Russia has toyed with this idea for almost a decade: in 2008, Russian MP Sergey Mironov referred to the possibility “of using Yemen ports not only for visits by Russian warships, but also for more strategic goals.”
Russia’s ties to Iran are also well-documented; Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took a leading role in brokering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under which international sanctions on the nation-outcast would be eased, and Russia has provided raw materials to Iranian Nuclear Power Production for years. Only in January this year, Russia delivered 116 metric tons of natural uranium. Militarily, too, Iran has welcomed Russia with open arms, issuing carte blanche permission for Russian fighters to use its Nojeh Air Base.
Further south, in Egypt, the Arab Spring has presented a golden opportunity to revive the former relationship held between the two nations in the 1950s under Gamal Abdel Nasser. US reservations – and suspension of military aid – in the wake of the Sisi takeover from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 left a void that Russia has been eager to fill – arms deals worth $3.5bn, frequent bilateral strategy meetings between Sisi and Putin, and an increasing rapprochement of thinking on issues of Syria and Libya. Moreover, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all reported to be in discussions to purchase their own S-400 Triumf systems.
Juxtaposed with this are the actions of the US, which seems primarily distracted by brinkmanship in North Korea and its borderline isolationist America First policy. The US had its fingers burnt in Yemen with the death of 30 civilians and a US Navy SEAL as a result of a fruitless mission and the Trump administration has announced intentions to fold USAID into the State Department and severely curtail its budget. Even on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, where the US has led efforts since Jimmy Carter, the US has indicated it is not committed to a two-state solution, positing that “if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, [Trump is] happy with the [solution] they like the best.” It is undeniable that in terms of US foreign policy, Trump will be the bear to Obama’s bull, winding down where his predecessor ramped up.
Russia has already made significant moves to plant flags and pivot existing power into meaningful growth. While few of the examples presented above point to an established Russian hegemony across the Middle East, one can only wonder whether it is a matter of time before Putin’s voracious appetite for expanding Russian hard power beyond his borders results in a modern day domino effect.