Russia’s military might, egarness to supply arms without conditions attached, growing diplomatic reach to almost all sides of the ongoing disputes, and reliability to save allies are some of the factors that could enable Russia to dominate regional landscape for a long time to come.
[Manish Rai | Oped Column Magazine]
Moscow is increasingly seen as a more reliable partner in the Middle East than the USA, particularly after the USA’s abandonment of its Kurdish allies has created doubt about USA’s commitment to its other regional allies.
During its recent withdrawal from the northeast Syria, the USA has either emptied or destroyed some military outposts and bases in the northeast Syria, which the Russian forces are now taking over. It seems that Russian forces are filling in the gaps that are left blank by the USA’s Syria-withdrawal as well as abandonment of Kurdish allies.
RUSSIAN EMPIRE, SOVIET UNION AND RUSSIAN FEDERATION
Czarist Russia had longstanding interests in the Middle East. Its successor, the Soviet Union (USSR), rapidly emerged as a critical player in the region after the Second World War and, more specifically, during the Cold War period when the Soviets were globally engaged in an intense contest with the West and, in particular, the USA.
But the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Moscow with very little influence and stature in the Middle East. Since then, this downfall always daunted Russian leadership that always craved for a greater role in the region.
Fast forward to 2011 and onward, the start of the (ongoing) Syrian civil war had provided Russia with a golden opportunity to enter more directly into the regional geopolitical scene. Accordingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin has exploited this opportunity to the maximum. With the courtesy of Russian forces’ involvement in the Syrian civil war, Moscow has now established itself as a major geopolitical player in the region and has positioned itself to continue to be a major player for a long time to come.
A number of factors could enable Russia to dominate regional landscape for a long time to come: Russia’s military might, egarness to supply arms to the regional countries without any condition attached, growing diplomatic reach to almost all sides of the ongoing disputes, and reliability to save allies [even the authoritarian leaders].
PROVEN MILITARY MIGHT
The weaponry and military equipment that Moscow has brought in the Syrian theatre from the very beginning hinted a clear Russian intent to stay in the country for longer period of time.
Russia has brought-in its best state-of-art defence-system like S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) anti-aircraft/missile system. In addition to SAMs and airspace control, Russia has also deployed the tactical ballistic and cruise missiles as well as advanced anti-ship missiles.
Russia has even sent its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, on the Mediterranean. The broader point conveyed with these deployments is that Moscow has used all the tools in its arsenal to project power and assert influence and will continue to do so.
ARMS SUPPLIER OF CHOICE
With the showcase of its military might in the Syrian theatre, Moscow has positioned itself as the ‘arms supplier of choice’ for the region.
Russia’s S-400 is now in great demand in the region. Turkey already acquired it and many other regional countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have shown interest for acquiring it.
Russia’s share in the regional arms market is gradually increasing, as it provides decent quality product at much cheaper price with no questions asked — as opposed to the USA’s military hardware that are very expensive and comes with lots of Do’s and Don’ts list. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why both Algeria and Egypt are acquiring arms worth billions of dollars from Russia.
In the diplomatic realm, Moscow now clearly wields greater effectiveness, having developed contacts with all parties and a distinctive ability to mediate, balance and help shape – rather than trying in vain to impose – outcomes.
Maintaining good relations with all sides has been the core of Russia’s Middle East strategy. Unlike the USA which has always divided the region into allies and foes, Russia has taken a pragmatic approach which is paying-off good dividends.
Among the big-powers, it is only Russia that has the ability at this point in time to interact with regional state and non-state actors from almost all sides of the ongoing disputes, including Iran, the Kurds, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE. Even Israel, which is a traditional USA ally, now looks for greater understanding with Moscow.
Russia has transformed the battlefield, saved its allies, and established itself as reliable partner which can always be banked upon.
Moscow presented itself as a reliable ally which believed in maintaining current status quo for traditional Middle Eastern leaders who fear change. Russia is now seen as an ally [or potential-ally] which would help without judging.
[The Syrian theatre alone has made Russia look-like an ally on which Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders like Bashar al-Assad may rely upon.]
- The USA had used the combination of both military and diplomatic tools to become – and remain for many decades – the dominant player in the region. Russia has been using the same mix but in its own creative way.
- For long, it has been Russia’s main geopolitical goal to create a ‘multipolar world’, replacing the USA-dominated ‘unipolar world order’. Russia’s actions in the Middle East is part of this greater geopolitical rivalry with the USA and its Western allies. Infact, the Middle East is probably the only region – outside the former USSR/Soviet-Union countries – where Russia has been the most successful in consolidating its influence at the USA’s expense.
- The USA’s eagerness to dis-engage itself from the Middle East’s regional conflicts as well as its ambiguous strategy and lack of foresight have created more room for Russia to expand its influence in the region.
- The [USA’s politicians] clearly lack a consensus about what are the USA’s goals and interests in the Middle East, let alone how best to secure them. On the otherhand, Russia appears to be returning to the Middle East to play a major role complemented by its clear-cut goals and determination.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.