Vladimir Putin can present the Kremlin’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean as one of the most spectacular and unquestionable personal foreign policy accomplishments.
Can one argue that Russia has a consistent and comprehensive strategic approach to the region? To forge and to sustain such an approach would be a challenging task for a number of reasons. First, the Eastern Mediterranean is simply too large and too diverse to have a ‘one size fits all’ pattern to multiple crises and conflicts here. Second, Russia’s capabilities in the region—especially in the economic domain and in soft power tools—are quite limited and do not allow Moscow to pursue a long-term strategy guided by a compelling comprehensive vision of the region’s future. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has no social and economic model that it could offer nations of the region to follow and imitate. Third, Russia’s approaches to specific countries in the Eastern Mediterranean reflect a complex interaction of various political, economic and other group interests in Moscow; the exact balance of these interests may fluctuate from one country to another and from one stage of the Russian engagement to another.
The art of balancing its foreign policy objectives, foreign policy tools and multiple regional partners in the Eastern Mediterranean requires a very calibrated and fine-tuned approach to every engagement in the region. So far, the Kremlin has managed to keep associated risks under control. Still, it faces quite a bumpy road ahead. A lot will depend on factors beyond Russia’s control—most importantly, on the regional security dynamics, on successes and failures of state building efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean and on the level and mode of engagement by the main non-regional actors like the US, the EU and China.
Strictly speaking, Russia is not an Eastern Mediterranean country. It does not have direct access to the Mediterranean Sea; its most important strategic and economic interests belong to other parts of the world, such as the North Atlantic or East Asia. However, for a long time Russia has been trying to make its presence in the region visible; this continuous interest goes back to at least the 18th century and it results from a variety of geopolitical, economic, strategic, religious and cultural reasons. Today Moscow arguably enjoys more visibility here than even the Soviet Union did at the peak of its global outreach. Moreover, Vladimir Putin can present the Kremlin’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean as one of the most spectacular and unquestionable personal foreign policy accomplishments.
Still, can one argue that Russia has a consistent and comprehensive strategic approach to the region? To forge and to sustain such an approach would be a challenging task for a number of reasons. First, the Eastern Mediterranean is simply too large and too diverse to have a ‘one size fits all’ pattern to multiple crises and conflicts here. Second, Russia’s capabilities in the region—especially in the economic domain and in soft power tools—are quite limited and do not allow Moscow to pursue a long-term strategy guided by a compelling comprehensive vision of the region’s future. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has no social and economic model that it could offer nations of the region to follow and imitate. Third, Russia’s approaches to specific countries in the Eastern Mediterranean reflect a complex interaction of various political, economic and other group interests in Moscow; the exact balance of these interests may fluctuate from one country to another and from one stage of the Russian engagement to another.
Keeping all these factors in mind, one could conclude that instead of trying to articulate an all-inclusive ‘Putin doctrine’ for the region, it would be appropriate to look at the Russian policy as an attempt to balance a number of diverging principles, goals, priorities and modes of engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean. In some cases, this balance turns out to be quite successful; in other cases, it leads to unforeseen complications and rising political risks. Let us outline some of the most important balancing dilemmas that contemporary Russian policies implicitly or explicitly contain.
Global vs Regional Priorities
The Kremlin’s approach to the region has always depended to a certain degree on Russia’s overall relations with the West; any significant ups or downs in these relations have produced direct and visible implications for the Russian posture in the Eastern Mediterranean. For example, it would not be an over-exaggeration to argue that the initial Russian military engagement in Syria in the autumn of 2015 had a significant ‘pedagogical’ dimension—after a spectacular Western failure in Libya and a less than impressive US performance in Iraq, Vladimir Putin clearly intended to teach the West how to ‘fix’ a MENA country. Particularly in the aftermath of the acute crisis in and around Ukraine, it was very important for the Kremlin to demonstrate that in the Eastern Mediterranean Russia could become not a part of the problem, but rather a part of the solution.
As it turned out, this initial plan did not work—neither in Syria, nor in Libya later on. The Russian political and especially military presence in the region very soon became yet another complicating factor in uneasy relations between Moscow and Western capitals. Therefore, the Kremlin’s balance of priorities gradually shifted from trying to forge a deal with global players to engaging regional actors—such as Damascus, Ankara, Tehran, Riyadh, Cairo, and so on. This shift of Russia’s priorities took place in parallel with a gradual decline of the US interest in the region and with mostly unsuccessful attempts by the EU to come up with a consolidated European approach to the Eastern Mediterranean. Apparently, today Moscow is not ready to jeopardise its numerous regional partnerships for the sake of better relations with the United States or the European Union. So far, such an approach turned out to be generally productive, but it might lose its efficiency if the West gets more focused on the region and invests more resources and political capital in eroding Russian partnerships (e.g. by incentivising Turkey to become a more disciplined member of the NATO Alliance).
Standing by Legitimacy vs Promoting Change
Russian leadership has traditionally taken a consistently legalistic approach to political developments in the world at large and in the Eastern Mediterranean region in particular. It has explicitly opposed any attempts at regime change, even if in the Kremlin they had many reservations about the regime in question. Russia did not welcome the Arab Spring in 2011, it denounced the violent overthrows of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Many Russian scholars believe that the events of the Arab Spring had a profound impact on Vladimir Putin’s thinking and triggered his decision to return to the Kremlin in 2012. Moscow later supported Bashar Assad in Syria arguing that he represented the only legitimate power in the country. Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the 15 July 2016 coup d’état attempt in his country.
However, this insistence on the principle of legitimacy has demonstrated its limitations. For instance, in Libya the Kremlin supported Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar though his legitimacy was clearly inferior to that of the Fayez al-Sarraj led Government of National Accord recognised by the United Nations. Neither did Moscow voice its concerns about the Taliban replacing the legitimate government in Kabul. It seems that the Kremlin applies its legalistic approach to primarily political leaders in the region capable of retaining not only a de jure, but also a de facto control over territories of their respective countries. In other words, Russia stands not so much for legitimacy per se, but rather for ‘order and stability’, which are perceived as the most important values and indispensable sources of regime legitimacy.
Supporting Secularism vs Islamism
In most cases, in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in other parts of the world, Russia prefers secular regimes to Islamists, even if the latter come to power through open and democratic elections. This preference might be rooted in the Kremlin’s own experience with Islamists in the Northern Caucasus and in other predominantly Muslim regions of the Russian Federation. There seems to be an instinctive fear of even moderate Islamism, not to mention its more fundamentalist and radical incarnations. Moscow was reluctant to take the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood off its list of terrorist organisations even after this movement had come to power in Cairo and its candidate Mohamed Morsi had become Egypt’s president. This is the same reluctance we now see regarding the possible formal delisting of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Still, there are important deviations from this general rule and even explicit exceptions from it. Sometimes, the Kremlin seems to care more about the declaratory statements of its partners in the region rather than their actual practice. For instance, in Libya Russia supported Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar partially because he positioned himself as a committed opponent of Islamism though he had Salafi units in his army and explicitly associated himself with various fundamentalist clergymen. Moreover, the Kremlin maintains open communication lines to Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon though both are Islamic fundamentalists. The Islamic Republic of Iran can hardly be qualified a secular state, etc. At the end of the day, the future of Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean will depend largely on the ability or inability of Moscow to reach out to moderate Islamic groups in the region.
Striving for Presence vs Control
The Russian leadership is fully aware of the fact that Russia’s economic, military and political resources that it can allocate to the Eastern Mediterranean are quite limited in comparison to what some other international actors, especially the United States and the European Union (but also China and even Gulf states), can bring to the region. Therefore, in most cases the Kremlin seeks a seat at the table, but it has no ambitions to chair the meeting unilaterally. This is the case with the Middle East Peace Process, where Russia remains one of the consistent champions of the Quartet format; this is also the case in Libya and in Afghanistan too. Participation rather than control gives Russia a say in many regional matters without imposing on Moscow the full responsibility for everything that happens in this or that corner of the region.
Syria stands out as a remarkable exception from the rule. Though Moscow must coordinate its military activities in this country with Tehran and Ankara within the multilateral Astana Process, in Syria the Kremlin is apparently looking for control rather than for mere presence. This mode of Russia’s operations is unique for its policies in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its efficiency is questionable: many experts in Russia argue that in practical terms Bashar Assad often manipulates the Kremlin, not the other way round. It is hard to imagine that Russia would try to impose its ‘control’ on any other Eastern Mediterranean state in the near future.
Favouring Geoeconomics vs Geopolitics
Though Russian leaders like to talk about their country as a global ‘security provider’, in most cases, Russia would like to see its engagement with the Eastern Mediterranean as economically profitable. Moscow has strong economic ties to Turkey, which at least partially explains a remarkable resilience of Russian-Turkish political relations despite a lot of important issues on which Moscow consistently disagrees with Ankara. Among Arab nations of the region, Russia focuses mostly on relatively wealthy countries like Iraq, Egypt and Algeria, that can become valuable consumers of Russia’s military hardware and agricultural exports or can offer lucrative opportunities to Russian energy and infrastructure companies. One can argue that the Russian engagement in Libya had geoeconomic considerations—Libya is a rich country capable of paying for its imports and development projects in hard cash.
Here Syria again stands out as a noticeable exception. Though Moscow tries very hard to get some economic returns on its political and military investments in this country, it seems that this goal is not easy to reach—particularly now with Damascus exposed to multiple US and EU economic sanctions. Experts assess the overall Russian annual spending in Syria at the level of $ 1-2 billion, which is not a prohibitively high cost for the Kremlin. Still, it would be difficult to imagine Russian involvement in Syria turning into an economically profitable project any time soon. Given the mounting social and economic problems at home and the Russian public focusing more and more on the domestic agenda, it seems logical that in the nearest future Russia will continue to prioritise its economic interests over geopolitical ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. This approach might make Moscow more receptive to potential partnerships with external players willing to shoulder Russia’s political and military engagement with economic and financial resources that the Kremlin does not have at its disposal.
Emphasising State vs “Private” Engagement
Russia is well-known for its highly statist approach to international relations. The Kremlin heavily relies on summit diplomacy, state- to-state agreements, intense interactions between bureaucrats representing various ministers and other governmental agencies. Non-state actors—both in the private and civil society sectors—are usually expected to follow state agreements and stay in line with state policies. This approach can be particularly efficient in dealing with authoritarian regimes trying to fully control both private business and civil society institutions. The downside of this approach is that quite often the state-to-state dimension remains much more advanced than any social and humanitarian interaction conducted at the level of non-state actors. Intense and multifaceted interactions between societies do not always compliment interactions at the top political levels.
However, recently Moscow has tried to diversify its kit of foreign policy instruments in the region, allowing private and semi-private groups and organisations to play a more visible and more autonomous role. Allegedly, in Libya the Russian leadership made a strategic decision to outsource a significant part of its activities in this country to private military companies (the so-called “Wagner Group”). Moscow allegedly applied a similar pattern, though on a smaller scale, in the North of Syria (Deir ez-Zor). This shift allows the Kremlin to distance itself from certain high-risk operations on the ground without losing the overall control over private groups’ operations. Prominent Islamic figures from Russia—the most visible is Ramzan Kadyrov from Chechnya—are now making strong statements about developments in the region and might even pursue their own policies in places like Syria or even Afghanistan. It is not clear to what extent these statements and politics are coordinated with the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Working with Everybody vs Taking Sides
One of the comparative advantages that Russia enjoys in the Eastern Mediterranean is its ability to maintain constructive relations with the opposite sides of regional conflicts: with Sunni and Shia, Iranians and Saudis, Israelis and Palestinians, Turks and Kurds, UAE and Qatar, and so on. Doing that, Moscow keeps its political investment portfolio diversified and hopes to benefit from any plausible outcome of the conflict in question. On top of that, this unique position allows Moscow to claim the role of an honest broker—at least, in some situations. It should also be noted that the Kremlin can always dig into a significant pool of highly qualified Russian experts on the region with a deep knowledge of various countries, ethnic and religious groups. This helps Moscow to avoid some of the blunders often committed by other overseas powers operating in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Nevertheless, the position of a mediator might be difficult to sustain when the conflict escalates, the fighting sides raise stakes and push Moscow for more assistance. For instance, the close partnership with Bashar Assad in Syria arguably jeopardised Russia’s long-term friendly relations with Syrian Kurds, and the Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria has become a major complicating factor in Russian-Israeli relations. Continued attempts to take an equidistant position might erode trust for Russia on both sides and might generate complaints and grievances about an alleged Russian inconsistency and even cynicism. However, the alternative—a firm and unconditional support of one side in the conflict (e.g. standing by Bashar Assad in Syria)—has a number of its own shortcomings and liabilities.
In summary, the art of balancing its foreign policy objectives, foreign policy tools and multiple regional partners in the Eastern Mediterranean requires a very calibrated and fine-tuned approach to every engagement in the region. So far, the Kremlin has managed to keep associated risks under control. Still, it faces quite a bumpy road ahead. A lot will depend on factors beyond Russia’s control—most importantly, on the regional security dynamics, on successes and failures of state building efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean and on the level and mode of engagement by the main non-regional actors like the US, the EU and China.
First published in the CIFE Report “The EU and the Eastern Mediterranean: The Multilateral Dialogue Option”.