The Russian Federation has already won the war in Syria and is therefore the hegemonic power throughout the Middle East. Despite tensions at the beginning of the Syrian conflicts, Russia has maintained excellent relations with Turkey, the Second Armed Force of NATO and the strategic key to the link between the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Last September Turkey agreed to buy the Russian S-400 missile systems, an important break in the Western military and technological monopoly. Russia has also created a climate of cooperation between Turkey and Iran, another geopolitical novelty which means only one thing: NATO has been fragmented and defused throughout the current Middle East.
It should also be recalled that Russia’s Rosatom, a State-owned nuclear infrastructure company, is starting to build a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu, Southern Turkey, for an estimated cost of 20 billion US dollars.
The nuclear power station should be operational by the end of 2023.
The geopolitical trade-off between Turkey and Russia is once again evident: Turkey uses its special relationship with Russia to put pressure on NATO, while Russia uses its relations to slowly take Turkey out of the Atlantic Alliance’ strategic context.
It is also clear that the central point of Turkey’s geoeconomy is the necessary diversification of energy sources.
In fact, Turkey supported the Blue Stream project – completed in 2003 – and later has also accepted the TurkStream project, which will be completed in 2020. Turkey, however, already buys over 50% of its oil and gas from Russia.
Russia’s excellent mechanism to put pressure on the second Armed Force of the Atlantic Alliance, which seems to have some strategy towards the Russian Federation, but no clear position for the system of the Greater Middle East, ruined by the unlucky “Arab Springs” or by the Muslim Brotherhood’s rebellions against “tyrants”, often supported by the United States.
Another factor of possible conflict between Russia and Turkey, which has not occurred yet, is the Kurdish issue. Russia has always had good relations with Kurds, while notoriously Turkey does not want them to have any political autonomy.
In the Syrian Constitution project currently being worked out in Astana’s meetings, Kurds will have a great deal of autonomy, which obviously also serves Russia’s interest: a future Kurdish buffer State controlling the link between Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon, namely the Shite axis which avoids Kurds spreading outside their current Syrian borders and ultimately avoids the establishment of a Saudi-hegemonizedSunni bloc in the Central-Southern region of current Syria.
In his visit to Moscow of October 5 last, shortly before leaving his throne to his son Mohammed, also King Salman asked Russia to formally “put an end to Iran’s interference” in Syria, the theatre of all Middle East power flows and balances. He also signed 15 Memorandums of Understanding for Saudi Arabia’s investment in Russia, especially in the space, oil and military sectors, as well as for ever closer cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia to stabilize the oil price.
A primary strategic goal, especially for Russia, who has always entertained the idea of becoming an OPEC member, especially in the early years of this century.
Saudi Arabia, the US traditional strategic pole in the Middle East, is currently diversifying its international economic and political relations after realizing that the United States does not intend to stabilize the Middle East, but rather plans to divide and fragment it between the “democratic” countries and the others, in a value-based and moralistic geopolitics that will certainly lead to other disastrous and unnecessary wars.
Russia will now be in a position to use its regional power to accept- obviously in a partial way – the Saudi demands for Iran – namely Iran’s withdrawal from Syria and the end of the Iranian support to the Houthis in Yemen – so as to later divert Saudi Arabia from the United States and its naive strategy against generic “terrorism”.
Russia essentially intervened in Syria for two sets of reasons: firstly, to reach a regional hegemony to force the United States and the EU to make concessions in more vital areas for Russia, such as Ukraine.
Secondly, to demonstrate that it is a top-level strategic and military power- hence capable of influencing the US and NATO movements in the Middle East and making them marginal.
Both goals have been reached.
Currently Saudi Arabia wants to work together with Russia in Syria, thus defusing its jihadist groups, particularly Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, that already works jointly with the Turkish forces, but with a very clear aim: Saudi Arabia will stop supporting the Sunni jihadists against Assad if it is allowed to acquire a big share of works and investment for Syrian reconstruction.
Hence a balance of power enabling Russia to tip the balance between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, by possibly playing everyone against the others.
The problem lies in the fact that the Russian elite still reads Machiavelli’s works and follows his ideas, while the United States has currently developed an increasingly moralistic and value-based approach to foreign policy which, although not hypocritical, does not permit any realistic evaluation of the relations of power, which are what really matters in foreign policy.
Hence Russia’s bilateral relations with all the major Middle East players, so as to create a system in which Russia becomes an inevitable broker in both the national equilibria and the larger regional game.
The current crucial point for the various regional actors is basically the following: (a) cooperation for Syrian reconstruction, since no country can do so alone; (b) Turkey’s access to the Syrian border areas to wipe away the remaining jihadist groups that could infect Anatolia; c) to control, but not eliminate,the Iranian power in Syria by limiting and confining it to the South-Eastern region; d) to close the Kurdish area in the North, which is in nobody’s interest to strengthen.
Hence Russia interprets its Middle East strategy as autonomous from the Sunni-Shite clash and absolutely non-ideological – and this is exactly the Westerners’ mistake – while the Middle East is obviously central to Russian security, but equally irrelevant to the security of NATO which, however, has de factolost Turkey.
The crazy idea of repeating the Cold War with new NATO pressure on the Russian Western border enables the Russian Federation to operate smoothly – and almost without contrasts – in other regions.
Russia has always considered the US operation called “Arab Springs” not as a holistic project to bring unlikely “democracy” to the Arab-Islamic world, but as a differentiated phenomenon, to be assessed on a case-by-case basis depending on the country where the “Spring” took place.
The issue of the strategic link between Russia and Israel is even more complex.
Israel has always informed the Russian Federation of the fact that the Iranian presence in Syria is considered to be an existential threat to the Jewish State.
Furthermore, Israel has always tried to stop the US withdrawal from the Middle East, although leaving Russia free to play its game and then cry over the death of the US foreign policy in the oil system.
Doesthe United States believe that petrodollars are enough? Does the United States think that the next US oil autonomy will free it from Middle East commitments?
In any case, these are two fully unlikely hypotheses.
In fact, the military power reached by Russia with the Syrian operations has been largely built at the United States’ expense.
Israel was not satisfied with Russia’s acceptance of the 30-kilometer limit from the Golan border within which the Iranian forces and the Hezbollah have to stay, while Jordan welcomed the “de-escalation zone” in Southern Syria to allow the refugees’ return, but Israel is currently pressing both Russia and the United States.
Israel is pressing Russia to keep on controlling Iran within Syria. It is also pressing the United States to urge it to ensure a military presence in the Middle East, which it hasnow left completely to Russia.
Hence, from now on, no Middle East country will take the US commitments seriously.
All Middle East countries will always prefer to find an agreement with Russia.
Russia wants to use both Turkey and Iran as guarantors- on an equal footing – of the future Syrian stabilization.
Nevertheless Israel is a regional power in which the Russian Federation is very interested. The latter does not want to neglect Israel’s interestboth in its security northwards, against the Lebanon and the Golan Heights, and in the economic and military agreements with Russia, which are often already operational.
Russia takes Israel very seriously and probably wants to use it in the future Middle East theatre, when the power crystallization in Syria will lead Iran and Russia to a very likely clash.
Currently, in a Syrianot yet pacified, no one really wants a war with the Jewish State, not even Iran- and this implies that the Israeli military threats will always be taken very seriously.
The Russian Federation has an excellent exchange of intelligence with Jordan and the Jordanian operations in Syria suggest that also the Hashemite Kingdom is recalibrating its traditional relations with the United States and Great Britain, which no longer want entanglements in the oil area, so as to rethink – from Jordan – to closer relations with Russia.
Certainly King Abdallah participated in the establishment of the Islamic Military Alliance in Riyadh.
In fact, the basis for Jordanian security is the stability of its border with Iraq and Syria, which also influences its internal political stability to a large extent.
Hence Jordan’s cooperation with Russia or the United States concerns only its national interest in the containment of its borders.
In fact, since 1999 – the year of his crowning – King Abdallah has paid 16 visits to Russia.
Jordan has already bought the “Kornet” anti-tank systems and the portable “Igla” ground-air defensesystem from Russia, while the latter is already planning to manufacture the Russian RPGs in Jordan.
Probably Russia regards Jordan as an ideal broker with the entire Sunni world and – exactly upon Russia’s order -Jordan has sat at the Astana negotiating table.
Moreover Jordan is communicating its ideas on the Middle East also to the United States, by even mediating between the two global players.
Hence the more time goes by, the more Jordan will be essential to Russia, while the Syrian political and military situation is crystallizing.
As far as the Lebanon is concerned, Saad Hariri met with Putin on September 12-13, with a very clear agenda in mind: a) Russian weapons to support the Lebanese Armed Forces; b) investment for the expansion of the port of Tripoli; (c) the creation of a free economic zone in the North of Lebanon; (d) Russia’s involvement in the future exploitation of gas deposits off the Lebanese coast.
The Lebanon – inter alia – is also worried about the increasingly significant US military presence in Israel.
The American radar near Beersheba, which has been in operation since 2008, and the US presence which is increasing also in Jordan.
These are two factors causing anxiety to the Lebanon and its fragile equilibrium with the Hezbollah in the South.
Hence the Lebanon views and seeks – in Russia – a powerful ally against Israeli and US pressure from the South.
Certainly Russia still has to fully relinquish the typical logic of the Westerners, who have made their own mistakes by believing in a sort of “political engineering” in the various countries and in the always excessive relevance given to religious differences.
In the future, the Russian Federation in the Middle East will reason along these lines: 1) stabilization of all current borders; 2) slow replacement of its support with the old US support; 3) strategic continuity between the Greater Middle East and the Georgian and Ukrainian region; 4) Turkey’s gradual integration; 5) future negotiations with the United States when they cannot be marginal.
Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”
As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.
Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.
Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.
Bad, but Still a Strategy
If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.
In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.
The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.
Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today
Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans
The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.
“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.
The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.
It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.
“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.
Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.
According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.
Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.
“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.
According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.
Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”
FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.
China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears
The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.
What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.
As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.
In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.
What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.
Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.
Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.
Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.
Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.
In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.
However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.
Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.
Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.
The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.
Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today
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