Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Russia’s Influence in the Middle East and Mediterranean (2016)

Russia's influence in the Middle East Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi and Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin pays a visit to Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi after an agreement was reached between the two presidents in order to build a nuclear power station in Dabaa city, in Cairo, Egypt, 10 February 2015. Photo Pan_Chaoyue Xinhua / eyevine

The Russia Federation, the political (and not the ideological) successor to the Soviet Union, has come a long way since the shaky days of the late President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. Since Vladimir Putin was re-elected president in 2012, this time for a six-year term, Russia has managed to reclaim some of its former power and reassert itself on the global stage.

In the Middle East, where Russia had lost much of its influence, Syria, Turkey and Egypt all illustrate this point. In 2011, calls from the United States for Hosni Mubarak to step down in Egypt, in what was then referred to as the Arab Spring, were welcomed by many as a sign of American support for freedom and democracy. However, after tens of millions of Egyptians staged nationwide demonstrations against Mohamed Morsi’s fledgling Muslim Brotherhood government in 2012, and the US extended only hesitant recognition of the new administration following General Abel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup in 2013, the widening gap between Washington and Cairo began to emerge.

Moscow’s realpolitik has made the most of Washington’s more problematic relationship with el-Sisi’s administration. Through a series of visits at the highest levels between Russia and Egypt, the two countries’ economic, military and political cooperation have been significantly enhanced. In 2014, the volume of trade between them amounted to $5.5 billion, an increase of 86% compared to 2013. In the same year, Russia supplied Egypt with four million tons of grain, 30% of the country’s annual grain requirements.

According to media reports, Russia has signed a deal to sell Egypt 12 Sukhoi Superjet 100s, 46 MiG-29 multi-role fighters and 46 Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopters. In addition, in November 2015, President el-Sisi approved his country’s first nuclear plant, to be built by Russia and financed by a $25 billion loan from Moscow. Three state visits to Russia by el-Sisi since he was elected in 2014 are an indication of the importance Egypt places on its ties with Russia.

Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, is also seeking to strengthen its ties with Russia. Ankara-Moscow relations, which cooled after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, began to warm again in the wake of the failed attempt to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party (Justice and Development Party) from power in July 2016. Amid confusing reports, the rumour that Russian intelligence may have alerted Erdogan to the plot gained currency, partly due to the Turkish leader’s rather hasty visit to Kremlin in the immediate aftermath of the botched military coup.

Ankara’s flirtation with Moscow reflects to a degree Turkey’s annoyance at the US’s refusal, thus far, to hand over Fethullah Gülen, a US-based cleric and the man blamed for the coup attempt, to Turkish authorities. Gülen denies the charges. This is not the first time that Ankara has warmed to Moscow, however. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Turkey’s relations with the USSR were sufficiently close that they may have facilitated its invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Yet considering its continuing Kurdish problem, not to mention its conflicting goals with Russia and Iran in Syria in opposing al-Assad’s regime, and its military dependence on US-based technology, Ankara will in all likelihood stay firm in its NATO commitments and will not venture into uncharted territory for the foreseeable future.

The Syrian crisis has exposed more than anything else the current state of international (dis)order. In fact the tragedy and its resolution, whenever that comes, may help shape and clarify the emerging roles and rules in West Asian politics and beyond. One thing is certain, however: Russia is definitely back in the game as a major player.

Although Syria was always considered to be in the Soviet (and now Russian) sphere of influence, Russia’s deployment of S-400 surface-to-air missiles, the most advanced anti-aircraft system it possesses, at its Khmeimim airbase near Latakia, has effectively introduced a new factor into the military strategies of competing powers in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. Russia’s increased military presence in western Syria since 2015 could also potentially limit the free flow of people, goods and arms across the border to Hezbollah in Lebanon; something the Iranian government cannot be pleased about but the Israelis must have welcomed. Now both Tehran and Tel Aviv have reason to ensure they remain in Moscow’s good books.

In August 2016, it was announced that Russia, for the first time ever, had used an Iranian airbase, Noje near the city of Hamedan in western Iran, for its aerial bombardment of Syrian targets. Russia’s Tupolev-22M3 long-range bombers and Sukhoi-34 strike fighters had used the Iranian military base for greater efficiency in their bombing raids in the war-torn country. The implications of that move could be far-reaching, as some of those flights reportedly require preparatory electronic surveillance of the surrounding areas, tens of kilometres beyond their take-off and landing locations.

That would translate into a license for electronic intelligence in a highly strategic zone. Such a concession to Russia by the Iranian establishment may be better understood in the light of Iran’s dependence on the Russian military for easy access to Hezbollah from western Syria. Both Iran and Russia, however, have now announced that the use of the Iranian airbase by the Russian air force has been suspended for the time being.

Overall, President Putin may feel justified in permitting himself a smile when reflecting on his foreign policy achievements in West Asia. Egypt has now moved closer to Russia and is prepared to further enhance its economic, military and political ties with Moscow. Turkey, a NATO member, appears to feel it could benefit from warmer relations with the Kremlin. And Syria, whatever shape or form a solution to the conflict there may take, has afforded Russia a direct military presence, and a firm foothold, in the eastern Mediterranean.