"Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest ... We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored." This was part of Vladimir Putin’s speech before the Duma, in August 1999.
Less than a month after the appointment of retired US Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor in Donald Trump’s administration, Flynn resigned—or, rather, was forced to resign.
The reason behind this sudden resignation was a leaked phone call, in which Flynn spoke with Russian ambassador in Washington Sergey Kislyak during the Obama administration. During the leaked call, Flynn could be heard assuring Kislyak that Obama’s sanctions on Russia would be lifted soon under the new president’s regime.
This case is one among many that describes the new ties between Russia and the US after Trump assumed his position in the White House. Reports confirmed that this close relationship indicated mutual interests between Trump and Putin, as well as “trump cards” held by Russians against Trump; piracy, prostitution, and other scandals, thereby forcing Trump to play along with Russian interests.
This new US/Trumpian reality lead to the regression of Washington’s dominance over the Middle East, to be replaced by Moscow, and restoring the latter’s status as a great power. In turn, the US fear of Russia became more pronounced during this period.
How Did This Happen?
Over the past few years, Russia returned to several points of contestation in the Middle East, thus assuming the role of final decision-maker. The Russians formed new alliances, with a long and diverse roster of allies that included states with long-standing political enmities. Everyone gathered at the same table due to their mutual interests with Russia.
The Kremlin, which is driven by interests, is also driven by the dream of restoring Russia’s golden era; toward geopolitical aspirations that stretch back not only to the Soviet era, but to Czarist rule. While Washington disappointed its allies by backing out of several Middle Eastern conflicts, the Russians led a more powerful, persistent, and clear pattern, attracting old and current allies, as well as the enemies of the US at the same time.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow Fyodor Lukyanov said: “The Middle East is a way to showcase that the period of Russia’s absence from the international scene as a first-rate state has ended.” Meanwhile, Newsweek pointed out that the Russian President has received 25 visits from leaders of Middle Eastern states, which is five more presidential visits than Obama.
Many other Middle Eastern leaders, like Erdogan, are in consensus over the importance of Russia’s role over the past few years. Moreover, others, like Rouhani, have struck several deals worth billions of dollars with Moscow, against the backdrop of Russia’s direct and indirect military involvement in conflicts like Syria and Libya. Moreover, it has singularly drawn together its alliances with Iran and Israel, support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and its relations with the West.
The Man in the Spotlight
Since the early nineties, Russia had to make peace with geographic retraction, due to the fall of the Soviet Union. There remained only the longing for a resurgence to political power. Such dreams, when the conditions are ripe to achieve them, are a driving force verging on hysteria. This is how experts explained Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East.
Others focus on the personality of Putin himself. Born during the Russian golden age, when its dominance began in Afghanistan and extended to the Arctic Ocean, and from the Alpine River to the Sea of Japan, he witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union as a KGB officer.
In a profile in the The Guardian, Putin’s true rise to dominance is traced back to when he moved to Moscow to head the KGB. The president at the time, Boris Yeltsin, was impressed, appointing him as prime minister in 1999. The next year, Putin became president.
As disappointment grows among traditional US allies, Russia comes to the fore as a more tenacious power
Russia: the dark horse of the Middle East
Putin wasted no time in launching his attempts to restore Russia’s dominance to Soviet-era status. He battled the Chechen rebels, chased out the Russian opposition, interfered in Ukraine, and clashed with the West.
He paid close attention to Ministry of Defence’s budget, allocating to it a percentage of the gross national product surpassing any other major country’s defence budget, despite the financial problems miring the Russian economy. When the opportunity came in the Middle East, the president assumed Czar-like status, restoring Russian dominance over several countries struck by conflicts.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a report in 2014: “Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is motivated by two broad strategic objectives: challenging U.S. dominance in world affairs and aiding the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in its fight against Islamist radicals, deemed Russia’s deadliest enemies.”
Syria is considered a main client of the Russian arms industry, and one of the few geopolitical positions it had retained since the Soviet era. Syria also hosts more than 2,500 Russian extremists involved in the fight against the regime, amid the danger of their return to Russia.
The Russian position on the Syrian conflict changed within few years, from attempting to have a national Syrian dialogue holding Assad to more accountability, to direct militarily intervention.
This intervention costs Russia an estimated $4 million daily.
However, Russia does not consider this a waste, according to Foreign Affairs report. The cost of rebuilding Syria is estimated at $200 billion, funded by Russia, North Korea, China, and Iran. This is in addition to gas and oil drilling at sea, that Moscow launched after a $90 million agreement with the Syrian Ministry of Petroleum.
Russian interests in Syria vary between economic, political, and strategic interests, and it is evident that Moscow has dominated the Syrian conflict, rather than Washington.
Talks about the Russian role in Libya have sparked again, especially after Khalifa Haftar’s visit to a Russian military base.
Russia has intensified efforts to support Haftar through agreements and investments worth tens of billions of dollars, in the energy and arms industries dating back to Gaddafi’s era. Russia intends to maintain, or even expand, these investments during this period.
Russia has maintained close ties in Libya, particularly amid the ousted Libyan leader Gaddafi’s increased hostility toward the US. Russia provided him with financial and military aid. The Mediterranean crossing allowed Russia to build a military and political front with Arabic and African countries that surrounded the European Union, and were rich with oil and natural resources.
According to a Business Insider report, among Russia’s attempts to restore dominance was its continued commitment to the survival of Gaddafi’s regime through the use of power of veto against NATO intervention in the conflict. After fall of Gaddafi, Haftar arose as a great option for Russia, since he was keen on fighting Islamists, controlling oil fields, and continuing the arms deals.
Recently, there has been increasing discussion of Russia’s arming of the Popular Mobilization Force, and the investments incentives the Iraqi government has granted to Russian companies.
Iraqi relations with Russia go back many years, dating back to Iraq’s close ties with the Soviet Union, against their weak ties with Western countries. After 2003, Russia focused on Iraq, out of fear over its oil and business interests.
Though Russia rejected the military intervention in Iraq back in 2003, it nonetheless embraced the lawlessness that took effect in the aftermath, and the decline in US dominance over Iraq, allowing it to position itself there, and protecting Russia’s security from terror threats that could reach Russia, Iran and the region in general.
Iraq was thus motivated to build closer ties with Russia. In 2014, Iraq was the second largest Russian arms exporter, following India. In 2012, a $4.2 billion arms deal took place between Russia and Baghdad.
Moreover, Russian interests are also growing in Yemen, in light of close ties between Moscow and Tehran, creating a power duo amid US retraction. Added to this are high-cost business agreements, as well as investments between Moscow and Tehran.
Yet, Russia’s alliance with Iran have not prevented it from building strong mutual interest relations with Israel, despite Israel’s historical alliance with the US.
Further, though Turkish-Russian relations have witnessed several periods of tension, they are predominantly marked by mutual interests; the Syrian conflict, particularly after Erdogan’s declining confidence in US politics.
As for Egypt, Kremlin and Sisi have reinforced ties, despite Egypt being a conventional ally to Washington. Discussions have kicked off regarding building a Russian military base in Egypt, as well as agreements and mutual support.
Commenting on these relations, Fellow at the Center for Science and Security Studies at King's College London Dina Esfandiary said: “Iranians feel that Russians are deceiving them, and that they are not going to commit to their promises.”
“No other country is capable of doing what Russia is doing,” said Elena Suponina, the Director of the Middle East and Asia Center in Moscow.
This reality may indeed prevent Moscow from having any “true friends,” according to Esfandiary. “Iran is unlikely to become Russia’s soul mate, and the most Moscow and Tehran can hope for is a pragmatic relationship based on the two countries’ interests,” said Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“Strategy is defined here as the art of creating power,” according to Sir Lawrence Freedman. It is this type of strategy that Russia is placing its bets on, while Trump grapples with the challenge of reclaiming the status of the US as the largest single regional power, according to the Washington Post.