By Dr. Theodore Karasik
Now that the Arab Spring—the series of revolts sweeping through the MENA region—is reaching into mid-summer, it is important to look at how Russia is responding and reacting to the unfolding events in her close partners Libya and Syria and what may happen next.
Clearly, Russia is deeply interested in how the revolts unfold and what happens to Moscow’s influence in the region. Although Russia’s relationship in the Middle East is nothing compared to the days of the Soviet Union, Moscow still plays a critical role through the Kremlin’s permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council and membership in the Middle East Quartet. Publically, the Kremlin remains suspicious of Western political dominance of the United States and her allies. Russia has important and lucrative relationships in energy and weapons in the region, notably with Libya and Syria.
Russia sees the NATO operation in Libya as the start of NATO’s southward enlargement just as Moscow viewed NATO’s expansion into Poland and the Baltic states over the past twenty years. In June 2011, Russia Ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin stated that the conflict has “a domestic nature,” adding that the involvement of third countries could pose a threat to security in the region. He described the situation in the North African country as “a civil war complicated with contradictions between tribes.” Moscow stated that it was ready to assist in negotiations to reach a peaceful agreement. The Russian president’s special representative to the region, Mikhail Margelov, who is a former KGB Arabic translator for TASS during the Soviet period and now the Russian president’s Special Representative for Africa, met with Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmudi and Foreign Minister Abdul Ati Al-Obeidi. The Russian policy position is that consultations with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s people is a necessary step towards a settlement. Margelov, who has met with Gaddafi’s opponents as well, said they want the current ruler to step down and his family to withdraw from the system of economic decision-making. Margelov argued that the Libyan opposition can accept the prospect of Gaddafi’s residing in Libya after resignation due to their “tradition of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
The Un-NATO and Syria
As the military stalemate in Libya and the diplomatic uncertainty over condemning Syria’s actions has created an opportunity for Russia to present itself to the Middle East as the “Un-NATO.” This moniker seeks to show that the Kremlin is standing far away from U.S. and NATO viewpoints about what is happening in Libya and to Syria. Specifically, the slow moving yet spreading violence in Syria is causing great concern for Moscow and thus the Kremlin is seeking entry into the region in a new guise. For the Kremlin, Syria in particular was a Soviet client and most of its arms are of Russian origin. Moscow also wants to maintain the image as a non-interventionist major power in order to be able to guarantee and advance Russia’s economic interests in the region. Right now, being the power that stands against outside intervention in Syria (as well as Libya) fits that personality.
With a doubt, Moscow’s reasons of non-intervention in Syria are similar to its opposition to NATO’s operation in Libya. In June 2011, Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Alexander Pankin stated that “The main thing in our view, is that the current situation in Syria, despite an increase in tension and confrontation, does not present a threat to international peace and security. One cannot disregard the fact that the violence does not all originate from one side. A real threat to regional security, in our view, could arise from outside interference in Syria’s domestic situation, including attempts to push ready-made solutions or taking of sides.”
Already Moscow is trying to prevent the UN from acting against the Assad regime in Syria, and is urging Assad to make reforms that would keep him in power rather than simply resorting to force, which further provokes Western opposition and increases pressure for a robust unilateral Western response. Since Syria is a long-term client and major arms buyer for Russia, Assad’s brutality and the consequent rise in Western pressure potentially undermines another Russian partner. From the Russian point of view, this action furthers the process of unilateral U.S. and Western consolidation of the Middle East (potentially under democratic auspices) that would spill over into Russian territories.
The recent burning of Russian flags, along with Iranian and Hizbollah flags, most certainly shows how much the protesters look down on Russia’s Un-NATO policy. Specifically, anti-Russian signs are also appearing addressed to the Russian leadership that freedom is necessary. These anti-Russian acts occurred at practically the same time protesters threw roses at the US Ambassador in Hama. These acts must be a huge shock to the Kremlin since probably the last time Russian flags were burned were either in Ukraine, Georgia, or Kyrgyzstan, and if one wants to go back to Soviet days, Afghanistan. These events must be shocking to the Moscow because Russia is being lumped together with Iran and Hizbollah in the minds of the anti-Assad protesters while the U.S. is seen with great respect.
Impact on Russia’s Interests
There are a number of different concerns and ramifications that the Kremlin must face up to. First, Russia’s foreign policy establishment is starting to look like a combat zone, as the country’s top officials give seemingly conflicting signals about where Moscow stands amid the upheaval sweeping Libya and Syria. Russian leaders are working to protect Moscow’s strategic goals in the region. But in the process, apparent policy differences are appearing into public view, with some analysts favoring closer diplomatic association with the West, and others pushing for Russia to disregard Western views and be more assertive in protecting the Kremlin’s interests (the re-emergence of yet another Westernizers versus Slavophiles debate). This debate will clearly test Russian President Dmitri Mevedev’s re-election campaign in early 2012.
Second, the Kremlin sees the potential collapse of the old order in Libya and Syria as a “win” for the West. In addition, the rise of possible Islamic regimes, who view Russia as a target, also is capturing the imagination of Russian analysts and policymakers alike. There is already talk in Russia of releasing the Northern Caucasus states to govern on their own (primarily Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya) and this move by the Kremlin may attract the attention of Islamists who may come to power in Libya and Syria. These Islamists, though not violence (i.e. affiliated with Chechen rebels or an al-Qaeda branch, may find new linkages with brethren in the Northern Caucasus. One only has to look at the large Circassian community in Syria that may seek to renew and strengthen ties with their near neighbors to the north.
Finally is the impact on Russia’s arm industry. Russia could lose up to 10 billion dollars in arms sales between Libya and Syria. The fall of Gadhafi would put an end to plans to sell at least $4 billion worth of weapons over the next five years. Russian sources note that the biggest loss will be that of the Libyan market. Russia’s deals with Syria may also be affected hugely and the Kremlin must contemplate a “reset” of it arms control sales in order to maintain high profits. This means Rosoboronexport, Russia’s arms trade company, will seek to sell more weapons to clients in other parts of the Middle East, specifically the Gulf Cooperation Council states. In Syria, the entire Russian effort to refurbish the port of Tartus could be a complete loss. The Kremlin wanted the base to accommodate heavy warships after 2012 but this may not occur given the ongoing political situation in Syria. This potential fact that Russia may lose Tartus would set back the Kremlin’s goals to have a naval base in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Overall, the advances of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East seen in the 2007-2010 period are likely to be altered significantly. In the GCC, Russia’s attempts to create a “North-South corridor” between the Gulf region and Russia will be affected by a renewed push by the Kremlin to anchor more closely with the GCC states as Libya and Syria transform. Russia will need to get even closer to Qatar and the UAE with any new Libyan government because of Doha’s and Abu Dhabi’s close relations with the Libyan rebels . Yet, the actual gap characterized by the lack of mutual understanding and the very cautious approach between Russia and the GCC states will need to be re- justified, as market conditions and political realities show a new landscape.
Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director, R&D, INEGMA