As 2019 comes to close, Russian mercenaries are allegedly shifting the balance of forces in Libya, helping General Haftar to reignite his efforts to take Tripoli. Only a few weeks ago, Russia’s brokered ceasefire had successfully stopped Turkey’s advances in the Syrian northeast, pushing Kurdish forces away from the Turkish border and allowing the return of Bashar Al Assad’s forces to the region from where they had been absent since the beginning of the conflict. Similarly, in Idlib, Russia’s position will be essential to determine the course of the conflict.
In less than five years from the beginning of its airpower operations in Syria, Russia has become a major player in MENA conflicts. Through hard power, politico-military support and supply of arms to the region’s strongmen, as well as a continuous effort to promote an image of a credible and reliable partner for MENA governments, Russia has gradually filled the void left by diminishing US involvement and Europe’s de facto absence from the conflicts’ theaters. At the same time, it has kept open the channels of communication with other key parties and non-state players, in an attempt to project an image of committed and irreplaceable mediator.
Several factors explain Russia’s MENA strategy and its determination in pursuing it. First, the comeback to the region has been one of the main results and visible successes of Putin’s revanchism. Political-military achievements in the region have been seen and sold domestically as a response to the humiliations that the country had suffered after the demise of the Soviet Union – among which the partial retreat from the Mediterranean region, historically considered of strategic importance, figured high. The Kremlin has also used the MENA conflicts to re-establish the credibility of its military power and vindicate the failures of the 1990s, like the debacle in the first Chechen war. Military successes in Syria have fueled Russian patriotism and have constituted a distraction from the structural problems of the Russian political system and of its ailing economy.
Second, Russia’s policies to address conflicts in the MENA region have provided an opportunity for the Kremlin to return to shape great-power politics. It has used them to promote its realist vision of international relations in the new multipolar order, in clear opposition to the West. In Russian discourse, the recent chaos in the Middle East and North Africa has been the result of two decades of flawed Western policies and failed military interventions. Russian leaders argue that by attempting or succeeding to change regimes in the name of democracy (or the protection of civilians) in socio-economic and political contexts which they consider were not ripe for such transformations, the West has contributed to the erosion of national sovereignty, as well as to increasing state fragility and state failure in the region. In addition, Western policies would have fueled unending waves of popular discontent and contestation and spread radicalization and terrorism, which have an impact on broader international and Russia’s own security.
Thus, while Russia’s immediate justification for its interventions in the region has been the pursuit of its own anti-terrorism objectives, the Kremlin’s public diplomacy has also depicted them as necessary actions to stabilize the situation, in accordance with the will and interests of the states involved. The Kremlin views security and stability as top priorities for the region and draws on its experience of stabilization and authoritarian restoration at home and in the post-Soviet space, as in the Chechnya case.
As a consequence, Russia’s presence and influence will be used to shape a new regional order where the authority and power of the state is restored as an antidote to disorder and conflicts. In contrast with the liberal peace-building approaches implemented by the West in previous post-Cold-War conflicts, there seems to be no grand design for the MENA region and the approach will be step by step. The assumption seems to be that a new order will emerge naturally out of the conflict, rewarding strong political leaders and military players and consolidating their power and capacities. As shown in the case of Syria, the Astana process – involving those state and non-state actors who have demonstrated some capacity to establish and consolidate realities on the ground – constitutes a showcase of what Russia’s mediation and conflict resolution approaches should be. It is very likely that the Kremlin will try to replicate it in other theaters, most probably in Libya to begin with.
Third, strategic economic interests in energy and in support of the military-industrial complex have played an important role in shaping Russian policies. Economically, Russia has used the political capital gained in the region to consolidate its relationship with key countries there. One immediate objective has been to counter the negative economic effects of Western sanctions imposed on Ukraine, which coincided with the 2014 fall in oil price and had posed major challenges for the hydrocarbon dependent economy. Through energy diplomacy, cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the OPEC plus agreement, Russia managed to achieve a rebound in oil prices. But Russian activism in the MENA region has also pursued broader long-term objectives. Through strategic investment in new energy projects, like the exploitation of eastern Mediterranean gas fields, or energy transport infrastructure, Russia is trying to position itself as a determining actor in future energy supply. At the same time, Russia has signed economic agreements with countries in the region, concluded numerous billion-dollar arms sales contracts and has increased its market share in the growing and highly profitable MENA weapons market.
Russian efforts seem to be paying off. Through a combination of realism and opportunism, Moscow has already achieved a number of short-term objectives. However, its capacity to confirm its role as the guarantor of a new order in the region will be tested as the nature of challenges on the ground evolves, imposing a shift from the restoration of order and security to governance, reconstruction and the need to deal with possible new waves of violence stemming from the very policies Russia has pursued so far.