Per Jönsson
Last updated: 23 November, 2013

Russia’s comeback in the Middle East

"As long as the US continues to waver under war fatigue and sick public finances, the Russian east wind may prevail over the west wind in the Middle East."

The east wind prevails over the west wind, said Mao Zedong triumphantly at the height of the Cold War. Today, the Mao quote is very much to the point when it comes to Russia’s remarkable comeback as an expansive Great Power in the Middle East.

It now seems like a diplomatic stroke of genius when the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov directly jumped on his American colleague John Kerry’s idea to make Syria destroy its chemical weapons. Russia gained two advantages: 1/ avoid being side-lined in the Syrian conflict if or when US president Barack Obama turned his threats of missile strikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities into action, 2/ the Assad regime got significantly more time in power, at least until the chemical weapons arsenal demonstrably is destroyed under the UN’s supervision.

Consequently, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has won support for its position regarding the ally Syria that foreign powers should never be allowed to intervene militarily to bring down a regime in another country. This is in line with the UN charter, which only allows violence in self-defence or after a decision by the Security Council (where Russia and China have used their veto three times during the Syria crisis). But it also means that Bashar Assad’s regime has free hands to continue to militarily crush the Syrian rebels no matter how catastrophic the consequences are for civilian Syrians.

“Putin has now made it clear that when Moscow says someone is their son of a bitch, they really mean it”

In reality, after the chemical weapons massacre in a Damascus suburb on 21 August this makes both Assad and Putin victors of the first leg of the almost three year long Syrian civil war. Assad, because with Russian and Iranian help he is able to stay in power despite the many predictions of the regime’s imminent fall – and because he has been given a respite until at least the first half of 2014. Putin, because Russia with its repeated vetoes in the Security Council and quick initiative on Syria’s chemical weapons demobilization has proven to be the only outside great power nowadays that is loyal to its allies in the Middle East.

“Putin has now made it clear that when Moscow says someone is their son of a bitch, they really mean it, in every way, and that the Kremlin will stand tough on his behalf. This is a message that will especially resonate in the Middle East, where perceptions of strength matter far more than the niceties of UN resolutions that will never be observed,” writes Tom Nichols and John Schindler of the US Naval War College and Boston University.

“From an Arab point of view, Putin stood by his allies and showed resolve and strength, while the US abandoned former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, supported the Muslim Brotherhood, neglected the Syrian opposition and killed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi even after Gaddafi acceded to US demands to give up his nuclear and non-conventional weapons program,” a senior member of the PLO’s Fatah told the Jerusalem Post.

The chemical weapons deal between the US, Russia and Syria this fall has turned out to be the first of a number of Russian advancements in the Middle East.

Most spectacular is Russia’s rapprochement to Egypt, or rather the new military regime’s courting of Moscow after four decades of frosty Egyptian-Russian relations. When the US limited its contacts with and in early October cut its military aid to Egypt after the military coup against the democratically elected Morsi government on 3 July, an intensive contact seeking between Cairo and Moscow was triggered. The army chief and Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi immediately declared that Egypt from now on would spread its weapons acquisitions to more countries, primarily in the “Eastern Camp” – Russia and China. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy noted after his premiere visit to Moscow that Egypt’s nowadays “turbulent” relationship with Washington means that the country’s must seek “new partners.”

Russia has clearly marked that it is more than willing to restart the military cooperation with Egypt, which was abruptly aborted just before the Israeli-Arab October War in 1973. This was clearly illustrated in November when Foreign Minister Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu made a historic two-day visit to Cairo, while the Russian navy’s flagship – the missile cruiser Varyag – berthed in Alexandria, the first Russian naval visit in Egypt since 1992. During the visit, Lavrov said that Russia is prepared to assist Egypt in all areas where it seeks cooperation, and that the two countries intend to form a close partnership, referring specifically to the “military and military-technical field”. To this al-Sisi responded that the two countries are now “starting a new era of constructive, fruitful cooperation on the military level” and that they have common goals in the Middle East.

Several Russian military delegations have visited Cairo during the fall, including the head of the military intelligence agency GRU, Vjatjeslav Kondrasjov, who received a request from Egyptian military to purchase advanced Mig-29 fighters and other new weapons systems as well as upgrading older Russian war materials. According to the Israeli website DEBKAfile (which is considered close to Israeli intelligence), Egypt also wants to buy the top modern mid-range missile SS-25, which can reach targets throughout the Middle East.

“In an astonishingly short period of time Russia and Egypt has begun a strategic rapprochement that reminds of Nasser’s and Chrusjtjov’s close alliance in the 1950s and 60s”

Kondrasjov is also said to have offered Egypt generous long-term credits for these weapons deals. An alternative form of financing could be that Saudi Arabia, which has enthusiastically supported the Egyptian military coup, pays for Russian weapons to Egypt for up to 15 billion dollars. This was suggested by the Saudi head of intelligence Bandar bin Sultan (most likely the kingdom’s highest operative foreign affairs decision maker) when he visited Putin in Moscow in July – but in exchange for that Russian let go of the Assad regime, which Putin of course was unwilling to do. Later, when the US’ acceptance of the chemical weapons agreement with Syria upset Riyadh to the degree that it passed on a seat in the Security Council, the discussion of a Saudi payment for Russian weapons to Egypt has once again been sparked – now with reference to that the Saudi royals no longer trust Obama’s US and therefore feel forced to improve its contacts with Moscow.

At the same time, several sources claim that Russia has made a push for permission to build a larger naval base in Egypt, primarily in Alexandria or Port Said. The Russian base in Syria’s Tartus (the only Russian naval station abroad) can’t harbour really large naval ships, and as Russia during 2013 has expanded its fleet to become the largest in the eastern and middle Mediterranean there is an acute need for a more capable “home port” in the region.

In an astonishingly short period of time Russia and Egypt has begun a strategic rapprochement that reminds of Nasser’s and Chrusjtjov’s close alliance in the 1950s and 60s. Another one of Russia’s former Arab friends, Iraq, is now flirting with Moscow after having been under American control since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. In mid-October the first weapon deliveries to Iraq was made under a 4.3 billion dollar contract that includes 30 Mi-28 attack helicopters and 42 units of the advanced air defence system Pantsir-S1. Since the US military left Iraq in the end of 2011, the Shia oriented regime under Nuri Maliki has increasingly allied itself with Tehran and Damascus, which contributes to the fact that Baghdad is now opening up to closer contacts with Moscow.

Consequently, Russia seems to be en route to create the Arab network of alliances that Soviet tied together during the Cold War. Even PLO can be on its way back to the Russian fold, judging from the fact that in late October its chairman Mahmoud Abbas was said to have entered an agreement with the Assad regime and promised to stop supporting the Syrian rebels. Even the US ally Jordan is beginning to glance eastwards; in November, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour received a Russian ministerial delegation and promised maximum economic and military cooperation, including the construction of a Russian made nuclear power plant.

Of course, the Middle East is not solely comprised of the Arab World. Since the end of the cold war, Moscow has strengthened its political, economic and military ties with Iran, where Putin in 2007 as the first Russian head of state since Stalin made a visit. But a certain degree of ambivalence characterises this relationship; Russia has supported the Security Council’s sanctions aimed at Iran’s nuclear programme, while they built the Islamic Republic’s only civil nuclear reactor in Bushehr. Russia has for a long time been supplying Iran with various weapons systems, but it hasn’t been willing to deliver the highly advanced surface-to-air missile S-300, which has angered the Tehran regime.

During 2013, Moscow’s contacts with Tehran have deepened. Foreign Minister Lavrov insists with increasing determination that Iran must be invited to participate at a second peace conference on Syria (“Geneva 2”). In September, Russia agreed to build a second nuclear reactor. And when the head of the Russian air force, General Viktor Bondarev, visited Tehran in October an Iranian purchase of the anti-ballistic missile system Antei-2500 was discussed, an option that is perhaps better suited for the Islamic Republic’s needs than S-300 since the system is designed to neutralise the kind of missiles that Israel can be expected to launch against Iranian nuclear facilities. During the visit, the Russian guests were presented with a copy of an American ScanEagle drone that Iran shot down in the Persian Gulf last year.

Perhaps the most surprising of Putin’s new initiatives in the Middle East is his noticeable upgrade of relations with Israel. In two respects, Russia and Israel have almost irreconcilable interests. One is Iran and its nuclear programme that Netanyahu’s government considers a threat to Israel’s very existence. The second issue is the Palestinians, whose demands on an own state is fiercely supported by Russia and which after the Six Days War in 1967 resulted – partly due to Soviet anti-Semitism – in Moscow cutting its diplomatic ties with Israel until the Soviet state collapsed in 1991.

“As long as the US continues to waver under war fatigue and sick public finances, the Russian east wind may prevail over the west wind”

Putin’s Russia, however, has a more multifaceted relation to the Jewish state. This is not least due to the fact that some one million Russian Jews have immigrated to Israel since the fall of the Soviet Union and that Putin (who is not an anti-Semite) sees a large value in maintaining contact with them, which is appreciated in Israel.

Another reason is the discovery of vast Israeli oil riches on shore and gas reserves in the easternmost Mediterranean during the 2000s. Russian energy companies have shown profound interest in these deposits – for example, state controlled Gazprom closed a 20 year agreement on buying Israeli gas in February 2013 and has bid on exploration right. When Putin visited Israel in December 2012 oil and natural gas were the major topics of discussion. A recurring conversation between the two countries recently has been about the desire for some kind of energy pact between Russia and Israel as well as Greece and Cyprus who (just as Syria and Lebanon) make legal claims on the large gas deposits in the Mediterranean.

Ironically, Russia and Israel also have a common interest of direct strategic nature – namely the Syrian civil war. Although Syria and Israel are still formally at war with each other, the Golan Heights has made up Israel’s least problematic border since the October War in 1973. And for the Israelis it would be a frightening scenario if extreme Islamic rebels bring down the secular Assad regime and establish a religious, anti-Zionist state right around the corner from Israel. This is feared by Russia as well, since there is a risk that it will inspire Islamist movements in Caucasus and Central Asia to rebel against Moscow. As long as Israel’s nemesis Hezbollah in Lebanon don’t gain too much from it, the Netanyahu government is (albeit relatively quietly) accordingly supporting Russia’s protection of its ally in Damascus.

This does not mean that we will see a purely strategic Russian-Israeli alliance. But Putin and Russia has shown a great deal of ambition and dexterity when it comes to tying strings in several directions in the Middle East: towards Sunni states (sometimes in conflict with each other), Shia Arabs (Iraq, Lebanon, Syria), Shia Persians in Iran, Jews and Christians. At least in the short and medium term this may prove a much more efficient means to create a new great power position in the Middle East than the one-sided reliance on military strength that has been disastrous for the US during the 21st century.

It is highly unlikely that Russia will be able to maintain a dominant position in the Middle East – or elsewhere – in the long run. For that, Putin’s Russian state is far too handicapped by future declining energy revenues and its self-destructive inner mechanisms. But during a limited epoch, at least as long as the US continues to waver under war fatigue and sick public finances, the Russian east wind may prevail over the west wind in the countries between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

ALSO READ: Did America lose control of the Middle East?