Local articulation of general interests
Russia’s return as playmaker in the MENA region is a matter of consensus, albeit a lively debate exists on the Moscow’s main interests in the region and its strategy to pursue them. With this article we attempt to give a small contribution to such debate.
The first focus are Russia’s interests in the region, according to Moscow’s own definition of its role and objectives in the international arena in the 2013 and 2016 Foreign Policy Concepts (FPCs), which offer “an important insight into how Russia views an international environment that has changed considerably since 2008”.
The articulation of Russia’s key interests is followed by - accepting the conventional definition of strategy as the “art of employing all […] resources [....] to achieve the objects of war” and extending its meaning to the political domain - is a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis of the toolkit available to Russia.
Finally, the article reviews post-2012 Russian activities in the region, in order to evaluate the coherence of the strategy looking at Russia’s ability to pursue its aims with its available resources.
After the sudden absence of Moscow from Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the 90s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Yeltsin’s foreign policy vector mostly oriented towards the West, purposely excluding the so-called ‘developing world’, Russia returned to the region in the 2000s under Putin’s Presidency. Russia attempted to build friendly relationships and cultural dialogue with MENA countries -viewing a close connection between the domestic threat of Islamist terrorism in Chechnya and Dagestan and the state of its relations with the ‘Muslim world’- and pursued new trade relations by expanding the arms exports to accumulate capital domestically.
In the 2000s, Russia’s interests in the region took shape: it had new relations, as with Israel or Saudi Arabia for example, a strategic partnership with Iran, a friendly one relationship with Turkey, and maintained close cooperation with Syria and finally reactivating military collaboration with Algeria. In the MENA region, Russia’s main general interests increasingly intersected: security, economic modernization, control of energy transit to the EU market, and rebuilding Russia’s status as a major power.
However, only after 2012 did Russia become an important actor in the region. The year 2011 did not change the existing interests, but their salience and the way they were framed. Before 2012 - despite the role of the 2001 US ABM Treaty withdrawal, the 2003 Iraq invasion, and the 2004 US threats to Iran in prioritizing Russian efforts to reinforce Moscow’s status in a multipolar global arena, - as expressed in Putin’s Munich speech of 2007- the main objective of Russian foreign policy remained economic modernization. As underlined by Tsygankov in his work on Soviet and Russian Foreign Policy, Moscow preferred pragmatically not to alienate its western partners, unless in contrast with vital interests. It was indeed in no condition to sustain the costs of economic and political isolation.
The same priorities were pursued under Medvedev’s presidency, with the attempt to combine Russian modernization and the re-acquisition of a Great Power role in the international arena, through a new phase of direct cooperation with Washington. Finding a corresponding goodwill in Washington under the newly inaugurated Obama administration, in 2009 the famous US-Russia relations reset was kicked-off.
The reset, albeit modest in its result, had a fundamental effect for the MENA region. Moscow’s vote in favour of the UNSC resolution 1970 condemning Libyan government for the violence on the civilian population and the even more important abstention on the resolution 1973, which practically allowed a NATO enforced no-flight zone on Libya - quickly escalated into a military operation aimed at a regime change in the country – must be understood as an attempt to signal Russian goodwill for cooperation on fundamental international affairs issues.
Russia agreed to a resolution intended to allow the international community to impose a no-fly zone functional to bring to an end the violence against the civilians. It became a military operation directed to overthrow Gaddafi. After his death, the operation was declared over, but the violence against the civilians and the war however continued. The ones that destroyed the Libyan army and government structure left the country in a chaotic civil war with greater consequences for the entire region.
From the perspective of several sectors of the security and defence apparatus, in particular close to the then Prime Minister Putin, allowing an intervention in good faith and renouncing any Russian leverage has been a fundamental error.
After the 2011 Libyan intervention, Russian authorities came to be convinced that their interests had to be tackled through direct involvement in the international affairs that concern them, even at the cost of worsening relations with the West. The multipolar world described in Munich had to be fought for.
The rationalization of the 2011 trauma produced the 2013 FPC, from which the 2016 one is derived. They define three main objectives:
The Reinforcement of Russian sovereignty and its integrity;
Economic, social and technological development;
And finally, the active pursuing of a multi-polar international order in which Russia enjoys a central role.
The apparatus and societal interests supporting Putin believe the state should have enough strength to pursue its interests abroad and create domestic conditions for modernization. However, on one hand it brings the risk of isolation and expensive confrontations with the West, but on the other the full emergence of a multipolar world would allow Russia to bring together the first and the second objectives, as it could pragmatically pursue its interests negotiating the rules case by case. The objectives are seen in a strategic order where, for the first time, security comes first, multipolarism second, and modernization third. This general vision articulates itself in specific interests and strategies in various areas of the world. Interests in the MENA region have been reframed and pursued according to this trinitary dialectic vision.
Before 2012 Moscow had mostly made its way in the MENA through energy cooperation and investments, trade relations, arms exports and military cooperation and using its diplomatic weight. With the more active role played in Syria since 2012, military force also became part of its toolkit.
Russia’s military export capability is an important strength as it produces strategic dependency and paves the way for further forms of military cooperation. Russian energy dependency, a weakness in other arenas, allows in MENA to find common grounds with oil and gas producing countries. Furthermore, energy is one of the few fields in which Russian multi-nationals such as Gazprom and Rosneft are able to provide strategic investments and technology to MENA partners that lack both, such as Iraq and Libya. Russian diplomatic weight, thanks to the permanent UNSC seat and the involvement in relevant diplomatic formats, constitutes an additional strength, as it can be used by MENA countries to balance US power, creating new opportunities for Russian involvement. Finally, the military emerged as a strength in 2015, with the Syrian intervention being a showcase for Russia’s military capabilities and military-industrial complex, bolstering its reputation in the region. It is indeed the first Russian intervention beyond the post-Soviet space, as well as the first demonstration of its capacity to perform an American-style intervention mostly based on air power.
However, Russia suffers from several structural weaknesses. Its stagnating economy lacks capital for FDIs that MENA countries require for their own development. A condition worsened by the economic pressure of falling oil prices and sanctions, which also limit the employability of its military force outside the former USSR, not allowing for further enduring security commitments. Finally, the need for its own FDIs and technologies that need to come from the West restrict the realistic margins of maneuver available to Moscow.
The MENA region offers several opportunities. Firstly, alternative sources of FDI, thanks to the Gulf Petro-Monarchies. Furthermore, the peculiar mix of energy richness and economic weakness in North Africa, Iraq, as well as the Turkish energy hunger and the isolation of Iran allow Russia to play a key role through strategic energy partnerships, consolidating its role and leverage vis-à-vis the EU. The political configuration of the region, with emerging regional powers, a general disillusionment with Washington, internal divisions in the GCC etc. allow Russia to insert itself among the contenders, increasing its political weight and prestige. Finally, the Syrian intervention, relationship with Syria and further engagement with Gulf countries are factors that could potentially increase Russian control on domestic Islamist terrorist phenomenon.
At the same time Russia’s interests in the region are threatened by extensive US presence, Saudi’s primacy in the oil market, Iran’s own ambitions and the reluctance of countries like Algeria and Qatar to cooperate in the gas sector which seen as a strategic area due to the worldwide trend towards an energy tradition that will make the less polluting natural gas increasingly important in the global market. The current situation creates mutual interests with key players in the region, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. Russia, however, is incapable of being hegemonic since it lacks the assets regional partners crave the most, namely capital for FDIs and strategic security guarantees –in the Persian Gulf –, for which they still look towards Washington, using Russia as a bargaining chip in their bilateral relations with US.
A coherent strategy?
After 2012, Russia -profiting from the new political situation and US inconsistencies- developed ties even beyond its traditional partners. Moscow closed economic deals where it had been substantially absent, like in Morocco and Tunisia, increasing the trade turnout, with a Russian surplus, with both of them. In 2016 it signed with Rabat a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’, several sectorial agreements and a MoU on cooperation in the training of Russian imams by Morocco, famous for its moderate Islam, with clear domestic security implications. The 2014 sanctions made MENA more crucial economically not only as export markets, but also as an alternative source of FDIs. Already in 2011 Russia created the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which attracted investments from GCC countries. Its post-2014 efforts to attract even more investments succeeded. Energy and pipeline diplomacy has received a new impulse due to the new conditions in the region. Stakes in oil and gas fields, investments in energy transit have been accompanied by a closer cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the OPEC+ format, albeit Russia, conscious of its incapacity to sustain an oil war on the long term, preferred to cooperate with its potential energy competitors, trying, when possible, to focus on common interests in a quest to increase its influence in the global oil market. The OPEC+ seemed to come to an end in March 2020, with the start of an undeclared oil price war between the Saudis and the Russians, however, with the recent agreement on the 8th of April that followed Canadian and US threats of tariffs on crude oil imports, it has been officially reestablished. The current situation, with Iran and Venezuela out of the market, a divided GCC, and the challenge of the US shale oil produced a mutual interest exploited by both Riyadh and Moscow.
Its relationship with Iran allows Moscow on one hand to successfully work with Tehran and its proxies in Syria, while, through the ‘oil for goods’ program, increase its salience in the energy market. Russia also keeps Iran politically dependent, due to its UNSC seat and its role in Syria and in the JCPOA, by being able to potentially limit Iranian ambitions, reassuring Israel and the ‘Sunni front’. Insecurity in the MENA region offered an opportunity to Rosoboronexport. In 2017, MENA constituted 50% of Russian exports’ destination. The cooling-down of relations between US and Egypt after Al Sisi’s coup in 2013, created the conditions for Moscow’s economic, political and military comeback. After the worsening of the relationship between Turkey and its NATO allies that followed the 2016 attempted coup, Russia enriched its relationship with Ankara with military cooperation and coordination in Syria. Finally, Russia skillfully deployed its resources to acquire a role in every open issue, as in Libya, where it offered military cooperation and training to the LNA, while keeping friendly relations with GNA.
In a nutshell, Russia’s key interests in the region are:
limiting fertile terrains for international terrorism;
obtaining prominence in the energy diplomacy of the region;
reaching new export markets and sources of FDI;
acquiring a key political role in a globally strategic region, thereby advancing the emergence of a multipolar international order.
Moscow pursued a coherent strategy with its broader aims, its regional specific interests and available tools. Russia has maximized its potentialities, avoided overstretching, and focused primarily on economic deals, energy cooperation and an arms trade that created mutual interests and dependency, without linking these dossiers to potentially conflicting ones. Russian effort is proportional to its regional interests’ functionality to its broader global aims. The Syrian military intervention happened when Russia’s domestic security were seriously at stake, due to geographical proximity and the rise of a multipolar order was in itself at stake, as the fall of Assad would have demonstrated the unreliability of Moscow as an ally and power broker, confirming the US and its allies as the only credible actors in the Mediterranean space. Russia kept itself rather detached in Libya, pursuing a pragmatic approach which allowed it to keep good relations with both warring factions, increase its arms export thanks to positive relations and agreements with the more military active (the LNA), and add a dossier of common interest with the greatest military and economic power of North Africa, Egypt. Where margins of action were reduced as in the Maghreb, it mostly focused on trade and cultural cooperation, still keeping an eye on the issues of security and economic modernization, as the effort to close new trade agreements with Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria and the MoU with Rabat over the education of imams demonstrate.
 Monaghan A., The new Russian Foreign Policy Concept: Evolving in continuity, (Chatam House, London), 2013, 2.
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