Russia is rising from beneath the debris of its humiliating defeat in the Cold War. The country that was once the centre of an empire and fell apart without a single bullet being fired is now trying to come back to centre-stage.
Russia does not give up easily, and history may reward it this time. It may turn against the major “sea powers” in favour of the “land powers”. If it does so, say hello to China, Iran, Russia and perhaps Egypt and Saudi Arabia as major powers. Even so, the major sea powers that enjoy air supremacy and hard and soft power capabilities today will definitely stay in the game.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has successfully reinvented the Russian dream. He has helped his country to rise to become a major power once again, doing so through a new foreign policy approach that is clearly different from the old days when ideology decided the foreign policy of the former USSR.
Putin’s foreign policy is based on clearly defined national interests. He has also learnt how to exploit the weakness of his opponents in the West, and he is paying them back for what they did to his country without a bullet being fired. Perhaps he has gone too far on that road, however, as he has been accused of meddling in last year’s US presidential elections and the upcoming French elections and re-connecting with old friends in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
Russia has fought wars in order to regain its dignity, for example in Georgia in 2008. In Ukraine, this resulted in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Now there is the larger game of the Syrian Civil War. The Russians have never stopped defending their interests in Syria, and they have supported Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad militarily, economically and diplomatically. But they kept their support within limits until the time came when this support went beyond those limits.
The Russian military intervention in Syria came in October 2015. Apparently, a decision had been taken not to let Al-Assad fall, presumably because Syria hosts the last warm-water naval base for the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean at Tartous. The Russians will not let this go voluntarily. Their intervention in Syria aborted the proposal to set up a no-fly zone in the north of the country, established a strong position against groups supported by some Arab Gulf states, and diverted pressure away from Al-Assad. The latter is now accepted even by Turkey as part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Russia has a long history in the Middle East, but as a Eurasian power it was never able to accommodate its interests there without encountering trouble with major sea powers, mainly Britain and France and the US. Some historians argue that the then Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov, and not the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and Georges Picot, was the driving force behind the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. After the Russians signed a separate peace agreement with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk in 1918, the zone of the former Ottoman Empire assigned to Russia was left untouched or taken away by the other powers.
It was Russian Tsar Nicolas I in 1853 who coined the expression the “sick man of Europe” to describe the Ottoman Empire, setting out the Russian ambition to partition it. It was the Russian fleet of Tsar Alexander II that in January 1878 besieged the Ottoman capital Constantinople, only to be stopped from taking it by the British who saved the “sick man” from death at that time.
It was Russia, now part of the USSR, which supported former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser against the British in the 1950s, only to lose the country to the Americans less than 20 years later. Russia also supported former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, losing him too to the Americans in 2003. The Americans then lost Iraq to Iran soon afterwards.
It was Russia that supported the Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) in the 1970s, only to lose it to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, supported by the Saudis, in the 1990s. The Russians also saw their investments wasted in Algeria and Libya.
Yet, whatever the US analyst Francis Fukuyama famously said in the 1990s with the collapse of the former USSR, Russia and with it history, is now back. Russia is back in the Middle East, equipped with the lessons of history and with an arsenal of hard and soft power. This time round, the Russians are eager to undo the mistakes of history.
SMART DIPLOMACY: One of the new Russian sources of power is quality diplomacy.
It is without doubt that Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has gained experience and become more skilled in the art of smart diplomacy. He has been channelling this expertise to colleagues throughout the Russian Foreign Ministry. A very important skill that he has gained is how to become a deal-maker under Putin’s leadership.
In 2013, at the height of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis Moscow managed to convince Al-Assad and the then US president Barack Obama that it would take responsibility for dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, eliminating the American option of bombarding Damascus.
Throughout the 5+1group negotiations between Iran and world’s major powers on the country’s nuclear programme, Moscow was actively engaged to defuse tensions that could have led to more complications. Lavrov was a hands-on player during the talks, reassuring the Iranians, convincing the Americans, and tempting reluctant others to come forward to agree to the deal. The Russians with the help of the Chinese made huge efforts to save the 5+1 negotiations and contributed to their successful end.
In Syria, the Russians are trying to play a win-win game. They are giving each party something to satisfy it. In the meantime, they are trying not to upset the Americans. The Russians know they have the upper hand, and from there they are exercising an elegant type of leadership that attracts all adversaries.
The latest example was the deal they struck for the town of Manbij, creating a buffer zone between the Turks and the Kurds by inviting the Syrian army to take up position between them and thus making everyone happy. In Turkey, where Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan was preparing his army to take on the Kurds in Manbij, the situation was reversed as Prime Minister Binali Yildirim took a soft stand on the issue, denying that Turkey would fight its way to Manbij without close coordination with the Americans and Russians.
When it comes to the question of exerting pressure on Al-Assad, the Russians say gently and rightly that this is an “internal” issue and it is for Syrians to decide on Al-Assad’s fate and not any foreign power. In the meantime, their relentless military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group and Jaish Al-Fath, or (Jabhat Fath Al-Sham), has not stopped.
In order to implement this Russian smart diplomacy, Lavrov has not been alone, and his ministry has been leading a group of ambitious and skilled diplomats, most of them speaking Arabic fluently. The most important Russian diplomat in the region is Sergei Kirpichenko, the Russian ambassador to Cairo, who is perhaps the most knowledgeable foreign diplomat in the Middle East today. He came to Cairo from Damascus, and having served in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Libya he knows the region inside out. He is not as easy to get on with as the late Yevgeny Primakov, and is close in character to Lavrov and the late Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. He is clear, sharp and serious – a genuine Russian diplomat.
Russian diplomatic gains in other regions of the world are also adding to the credibility of its foreign policy in the Middle East. As the Russians are engaged in daily military operations against terrorist groups and making gains in the region, they have shown their military to be able to carry out missions of this sort. In a short period of time, the Russian military has managed to develop light weapons systems and tactics suitable for the fight against militias or non-government military formations. The war in Syria has given them the chance to test new weapons, and it will help to increase their export of these weapons worldwide.
As a result, through an intelligent combination of hard and soft power the Russians are achieving considerable gains in Syria. They have defended the existence of their naval base in Tartous and added to it a new airbase. They have weakened groups such as IS and Jaish Al-Fath, and they have restricted the ability of the US air force to fly freely over Syria, thus providing air protection to Al-Assad forces on the ground.
They have aborted plans to enforce a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Above all, they have forced the Americans and their allies to drop the idea of removing Al-Assad as a pre-condition to any political settlement in Syria. What we see developing on the ground in Syria is Russian strategy, with Russia in control.
NATIONAL INTERESTS: Russia is not back in the Middle East just to fill the vacuum of power resulting from the seeming retreat of the US, however. Russia is back to defend its national interests and its allies in the region.
Although it is difficult to get a clear sense of all Russia’s national interests in the region, the following at least can be identified: Economic expansion, including trade and investment; promoting oil and gas interests and achieving stability in the markets; military cooperation, including arms sales; fighting international terrorism; contributing to the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians; keeping NATO as far as possible from Russian borders; and reaching warm water and establishing a permanent and solid presence on the Mediterranean Sea.
Russia has a golden opportunity to re-establish its influence in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, in addition to Iran, Iraq and Syria. If it manages to do so, it will be the first time in history that the Russians have achieved such an expansion in the region. However, this will not be easy either to achieve or to maintain, as Russia is performing under heavy pitfalls and structural defects.
The Russians now have a dominant position in Syria, and they will be tempted to expand their role in the region. The US has in the last few days beefed up its troops in Syria and may become more involved as the partition of Syria becomes imminent. Other major powers see the Russian role as worrying. Britain, Germany and Italy have their eyes open. Italy is already involved in Libya, and an expanding Russian role there may cause friction.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent visit to the Gulf and meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders in Manama in December marked a British comeback to this area. Germany is not far behind: German chancellor Angela Merkel’s visits to Egypt and Tunisia in March were an indication that Germany is willing to develop its own foreign policy in the Middle East. These developments are clear signals that the Russians may become exposed to losing the privileged status they now enjoy.
Russia is not solid either. It lacks many supports to its power, and it seems to be rising only in terms of army power and not at sea. Russia is rising with the support of its smart diplomacy, cyber-warfare and the status it inherited from the Second World War as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But it also has its weaknesses and must go through a lengthy process of modernisation in order to achieve sustainable status as a major global power.
The two most urgent and perhaps most difficult tasks ahead of it are to modernise its political system and economy. It is hard to believe that a country with the resources of Russia contributes only three per cent to world GDP, with more than 60 per cent of its exports being oil and gas. The economy will not be able to pay for the military if this continues, and the political system will come under immense pressure for reform.
Such a situation may lead to chaos. It is also worrying that the political system in Russia is reliant on one man – Vladimir Putin. If he disappears, Russia will most probably go down without him.
The writer is former senior political affairs officer at the UNDPA.