Russian Involvement in the Region Grows

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Views from the Region

News of Russian troops deployed in Egypt to assist the Libyan National Army has made clear what many already suspected: Russia is in the Middle East to stay. Many regional observers have received news of rising Russian influence in the region with a mixture of caution and curiosity. Some see such developments as a natural outcome of the instability wracking the Middle East. Others see an attempt to enhance Moscow’s longstanding interests in the region, suggesting that their military presence should not have been unexpected. Attitudes toward a more influential Kremlin appear to be softening even in Israel, where some commentators caution against a rash reaction to Russia’s growing presence and influence.

Haaretz’s Amos Harel Mar believes that Russia’s success in Syria has emboldened Moscow to expand into other theaters in the region, including Libya: “The Russian intervention, which began in September 2015 with several dozen warplanes being sent to Syria, turned the war right around…The success of the Shi’ite Muslim axis – which led Iran to support Assad’s regime – was ultimately based on the murderous air power deployed by the Russians. Both Tehran and Moscow benefitted from this. Russia reemerged on the world scene and re-imposed a dual-superpower international reality. … It positioned itself as the leader of the diplomatic process aimed at bringing about a cease-fire in Syria, and created new landscapes that are affecting the principal arena of its tussles with Washington, Eastern Europe … This week, it was reported that Russian commando teams have been sent to Western Egypt, … to help the Libyan National Army led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is fighting for control of Libya. The denials by all concerned are not convincing. Moscow is stretching a long military arm into places that could serve its interests – and Libya’s huge oil reserves are without doubt of interest to it.”

Micha’el Tanchum, in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, suggests that Russian involvement in Libya and elsewhere has important geostrategic implications for other countries in the region: “If Moscow acts to change the balance of power in Libya, as it did in Syria, it would create a Russian ring around the southern half of the eastern Mediterranean, entirely overturning the strategic calculus of every actor in the region…. Russia’s intervention in Syria demonstrated Moscow’s ability to act adroitly and decisively. As a result of its enhanced credibility in the region, Moscow was able to reestablish military ties with Egypt. A similarly successful intervention in Libya would further strengthen its position in the energy and security architectures of the eastern Mediterranean. By creating an arc of strategic partners across the southern half of the region, Moscow could entice Greece and the Republic of Cyprus to engage in greater cooperation…. A Russian intervention in support of Haftar would likely secure Moscow’s commercial energy interests in Libya. Beyond this limited objective, as each nation in the region recalibrates its strategic and commercial calculus, Moscow could find itself at the center of a new alignment in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Meanwhile, Al Arabiya’s Mashari Althaydi argues that, while Russia’s involvement in Libya may complicate the overall picture, it is inevitable given the instability in the region: “On the political front, there is a Tunisian-Algerian-European vision that believes it is a must to include parties in Tripoli and Fajr Libya – the Brotherhood and those with them – in power as it is not possible to eliminate them from the scene. Meanwhile, other parties, such as Egypt and Russia, think the focus should be on fighting armed fundamentalist groups via supporting the Tobruk parliament and the national army led by Haftar. This is why Haftar visited Russia. Egypt is indeed a partner in the efforts of this Libyan political dialogue and it has hosted a Libyan dialogue in Cairo. …What matters here is that it is normal for Russia to have some sort of security, intelligence and military role on the ground…Egypt is rightly worried about the situation in Libya and seeks to defeat evil there especially considering it is in a state of war against terrorist groups in Sinai and that ISIS is strengthening its presence in Sirte, al-Bayda and other areas. Russia is drowning in the waters and sands of the Middle East, which no one exits from the way they entered. In all fairness, what is happening in Arab and Islamic countries is what calls for all this intervention by others – whether this intervention is in our favor or against us.”

For Ibraham Nawar, there is nothing unusual about Russia’s foray into Middle Eastern politics. In a recent  Al Ahram op-ed, Nawar notes that Russia is likely to take advantage of the current opening in the region to achieve its longstanding interests: “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;… 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. …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 modernization in order to achieve sustainable status as a major global power.”

One issue that is likely to be impacted by this reassertion of Russian power is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shlomi Eldar, writing for Al Monitor, believes Moscow’s new stature will have a positive effect on the Palestinian population: “If and when a diplomatic agreement is worked out on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Palestinian public opinion will be less suspicious and more agreeable to compromise under Russian auspices and guarantees. … Russian involvement in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has an additional element of importance. Participants at the brainstorming session in Abbas’ office know that Trump has generated dramatic change not just in the administration’s attitude toward Israel, but also in U.S.-Russian relations. “This is the biggest change that has taken place, and it will have a dramatic impact on the whole world and undoubtedly on the Middle East and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, too,” the source said.…One thing is clear to the Palestinians: When Abbas travels to Moscow to meet Putin in two months, the Russian leader will already have a concrete plan for Israeli-Palestinian progress, formulated, more than likely, in coordination with the Trump administration.… Palestinians … are targeting the Russian president as the one who will sort out the mess in the region. After all, Putin is no longer just a bit player on the regional stage, and he could well get quite quickly the starring role.”

Judging from Micah Halpern’s recent Jerusalem Post op-ed on the topic, it may not just be the Palestinians welcoming a greater Russian presence. According to Halpern, it makes sense for the Israeli government to, at least for the time being, follow Russia’s lead: “Russian President Vladimir Putin is a world-class master when it comes to getting what he wants. He leaves nothing to chance. Putin has created a series of summits in Moscow with one goal in mind: to cement Russia’s role in the Middle East and to delineate the roles of other nations, insuring that there be no unintended conflict between parties… Israel and Russia need to keep on good terms to make certain the region does not spiral into crisis. … During both summits everyone agreed on ISIS and Syria. The two elephants in the room were US President Donald Trump and Iran. No one wants Iran in Syria. And Iran still supports Hezbollah and has significant troops and advisers there to defend Assad and keep him in power. Iranian and Hezbollah forces are the front line in Syria, keeping it from descending further in to crisis. While Iran and Hezbollah prevent Syria from being controlled by ISIS or al-Qaida, Russia is there to control and manage the situation. Putin and his Russia have the power. For now, Israel and Turkey are content to follow Russia. It’s the smart thing to do.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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