Friday, 6 March 2015

Putin's Middle Eastern empire

          If some people, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, were tempted to sit back thinking that the Cold War was done and dusted, they have had to think again.  For Russia’s President Vladimir Putin makes little attempt to counter the world’s growing conviction that he aims to restore, as far as he is able, the dominant position on the world scene once occupied by the USSR.  As Putin put it in a speech to the Russian parliament in 2005 – a speech which accurately presages more recent developments: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster … Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”

            To implement his strategic objective, Putin uses the old Soviet Union’s tried and tested formula of mixing force with influence.  The ruthless crushing of the Chechnya rebellion, for example, was intended to serve as an example to other constituent parts of the Russian Federation that might harbour dreams of independence.  More recently, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, swiftly followed by the Russian-supported military uprising in eastern Ukraine, was a further signal that Putin is now set on a course of affirming, and indeed enlarging, what he perceives to be Russia’s essential interests.  He regards NATO’s extension into the now-independent states of the old USSR as a major provocation.

“I am sure Putin wants to destroy our alliance,” said the commander of the US army in Europe, General Frederick “Ben” Hodges recently, “not by attacking it, but by splintering it.”  Speaking to military and political leaders in Berlin, he warned that Russia could seek to test the alliance by using against a NATO member the sort of “ambiguous” warfare seen in eastern Ukraine.

Putin has so far confined the use of force to the European theatre.  As regards the expansion of Russian influence, it is perhaps in the Middle East that he has been most assiduous.  Only a few weeks ago Putin agreed to “restructure” the €2.5 billion bailout loan that Russia gave Cyprus in 2011 in other words, to reduce the interest rate and postpone repayment.  In return, Russian warships will be permitted to dock in Cypriot ports. This will lead to the extraordinary situation of Cyprus very shortly becoming a military hub for both Britain and Russia.

The base in Cyprus will strengthen Russia’s naval presence in the Mediterranean.  Under a long-standing agreement Russia had operated a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, but with no end of the civil war in sight, acquiring an alternative to Tartus makes good sense.

Just as important for Putin is the political advantage of the new agreement.  He regards the EU with no less suspicion than he views NATO, and to counter the harsh economic sanctions that the EU is imposing because of Putin’s Ukraine adventure, he is seeking every opportunity to exploit cracks in Europe’s unity. His recent visit to Hungary to complete a natural gas supply deal is one example; the Cyprus agreement is another. Sputnik, Russia’s government-sponsored media organization, gleefully declared: “Russia Signs Military Deal with EU Member State.” As commentator Paul J Saunders points out, Sputnik is telling Europeans: “You may think you can isolate us, but you can’t even keep your own members from hosting Russian military forces.”

Historically, Russian influence has been strong in Syria; today it is stronger than ever. Early in 2012, Putin firmly supported President Bashar Assad in the civil conflict raging in Syria, and continued to supply large quantities of arms.  When Assad used chemical weapons against his opponents regardless of the hundreds of collateral civilian casualties,  Putin managed to avert any military response by the West by persuading Assad to dismantle and dispose of his chemical armoury.  Since then Russia has vetoed four Security Council resolutions that would have condemned Assad's government for its conduct of the war, imposed sanctions or referred it to the International Criminal Court.

Putin’s support of Assad’s Syria has inevitably drawn him closer to Iran, its devoted ally.  A new intergovernmental agreement between Russia and Iran on “long term and multifaceted” military cooperation was signed last January.  The deal underlined the two countries’ joint opposition to US foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond.  Five years ago, Putin called off the sale of air-defence missiles to Iran following American and Israeli protests. In February it emerged that the deal is back on the table.According to Iran's IRNA state news agency the deal is an "outstanding event." Iran's Defence Minister, Hossein Dehghan, declared: "As two neighbours, Iran and Russia have common viewpoints toward political, regional and global issues."

         That was more of a hope than a reality, for Putin by no means shares Iran’s declared intention to eliminate Israel. On the contrary, he seems intent on expanding Russian influence in the Jewish state. One example is the 20-year deal signed recently between a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom and Levant Marketing Corporation, allowing for the exclusive purchase by Russia of three million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas from Israel‘s Tamar offshore gas field.

Nor is Egypt any friend of Iran, or of Syria either, but Putin has been actively building influence in that neck of the Middle Eastern woods as well.  Early in February he received a hero’s welcome when he visited Cairo – recognition of his support for President Fattah el-Sisi at a time when Washington had been punishing the new Egyptian government for overthrowing the corrupt, albeit democratically elected, Muslim Brotherhood.  The visit was used to announce Russia’s agreement to cooperate in building a nuclear power plant in Egypt, and to underline existing military and strategic collaboration.

But all is not plain sailing for Putin. Saudi Arabia’s continued willingness to endure the collapse in oil prices is inflicting enormous pressure on Russia’s economy, and the country’s dire economic situation looks increasingly likely to limit Putin’s influence in the Middle East.  Nevertheless Putin will retain one of his most important sources of influence — his veto power in the UN Security Council – and his willingness to use it, and also to absorb Western sanctions, will work in his favour.

Will the strength of Putin’s political will compensate for the weakness of the Russian economy?  As columnist Paul J Saunders points out, there is a complex equation in play. Political will enhances power and influence by establishing credibility; at the same time a collapsing economy undermines it. How the equation resolves itself will determine how effective Putin eventually is in establishing a sustainable sphere of influence in the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 March 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 March 2015:

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