In 2020, Russia will reach new milestones in laying the foundation for a durable, long term presence in the Middle East.
As 2020 approaches, Russia is continuing the push to solidify its strategic presence in the Middle East. This campaign is a well-known but critical portion of Putin’s now decades-old and increasingly blatant mission to extend Moscow’s realm of influence and restore the near hegemonic status his country enjoyed at earlier times in recent history. While the next year is unlikely to usher in major changes in Putin’s grand strategy or position, it is likely to be a time during which Russia reaches new milestones on its quest to establish a durable, long term presence in the Middle East.
Recent developments in Egypt, Israel, and Syria (and sporadic events in other regional countries) have created an environment in which Russia has achieved a level of influence the likes of which it has not possessed in several decades. Accordingly, policy makers and investors should anticipate a ramping up of Russian dealmaking and interference in the region, factoring in the security risks that such actions will inevitably entail. What is critical to understand and account for now is that the impact of such interference is not designed to be felt exclusively in the short term: Russian actions are aimed at degrading the autonomy and governance of regional states over the course of future decades.
Egypt: Increased Dealmaking Will Likely Harm the United States and Allies
As we discussed earlier this year, Russia has been advancing its strategic foothold in Egypt aggressively since the Nasser era, but has intensified its efforts, both military and economic, since the Arab Spring swept the country, setting off a chain of events that eventually enabled President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to come to power in 2013. Next year, the first phase of a new Russian Industrial Zone (RIZ) is slated to open near Port Said and Russia is planning to begin delivery of 50 new MiG-35 fighter jets to Egypt, part of its largest ever arms deal in the post-Soviet area.
While these two events should not come as a surprise given the momentum that has been building between the two countries and Egypt’s long history of doing business with the highest bidder, they are prime illustrations of the types of maneuvers Putin will seek to increase. They have also attracted insufficient scrutiny from Western decision makers, both in political and economic spheres.
This reality makes 2020 a pivotal time for two reasons. First, Russia has effectively supplanted the United States as Egypt’s most influential non-Middle Eastern ally. As Moscow slowly but steadily confines Washington to the eastern border of the Sinai, there are significant consequences for US interests in the region:
- Achieving regional counterterrorism objectives becomes more complicated, especially with respect to intelligence sharing
- Vulnerabilities for US allies all around the Mediterranean and Red Seas increase with the proliferation of advanced Russian military technology
- Egypt’s relations with other long standing allies, particularly Israel, will become murkier, as the incentives for maintaining cooperation evolve
Accordingly, within the military and diplomatic realms, we will continue placing emphasis on the following issues in the Russia-Egypt relationship:
- The pace and substance of Russian arms sales to Egypt (and other regional states), specifically with respect to missile defense
- Sisi’s ability to balance equities between Russia and Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia
- Egypt’s growing role as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas
- Further actions to combat militants in the Sinai
2020 also has the potential to be a turning point for Egypt and Russia economically, vis-à-vis the forthcoming RIZ and other initiatives, including a Russian-developed nuclear power plant that is estimated to cost $21 billion. Though it is not scheduled to come on line until 2026, the power plant will in many ways serve as an important test case for Russia’s ability to become a top energy supplier to low and middle income nations in Africa.
Beyond Putin simply trying to expand Russia’s strategic footprint by increasing Egypt’s dependence, it is important to remember that the power plant and other large scale investments are rational: with Egypt’s economy predicted to outpace Russia’s by 2030, there is money to be made and strong growth potential if Russia stays for the long haul. Though Russia is not likely to outcompete China on the African continent, its presence does serve as a counterweight to China’s expansion and, at least in Egypt, is sufficient to capture a meaningful portion of infrastructure development spending.
This situation further solidifies Russia’s arc of influence, stretching from North Africa, across the western Mediterranean, to the Caucasus region. Western policy makers and investors must develop stronger mechanisms for maintaining leverage in the region as the economic landscape becomes increasingly Eastern in outlook, even if doing so necessitates abandoning long-standing methods of doing business.
Israel: Without a Significant Reset, Democracy Will Continue to Suffer
We last examined the relationship between Russia and Israel shortly after Israel’s April 2019 election. At that time, we highlighted several facets of the countries’ strategic relationship that will define dynamics for the foreseeable future. The most pressing of these is still the reality that, as the civil war in Syria continues to wind down, even if a formal end to the conflict remains elusive, the public justification for close military cooperation between Israel and Russia is diminishing.
Even if attacks by Hezbollah or other Iranian-backed militias along Israel’s northern border intensify, the nature of Israeli-Russian military cooperation in Syria should change: Russian and Israeli interests with respect to these groups are not the same and are distinct from each party’s interest in the outcome of the Syrian civil war. While allowing Iran to launch an all-encompassing assault on Israel from Syrian territory is not in Russia’s interests, turning a blind eye to persistent, relatively low level aggression concentrated on Israel’s north may actually bolster Russian objectives. Russia will maintain a strong military presence in Syria for decades, and Israeli leaders can, and certainly should, take advantage of the opportunity to keep a line of communication with Damascus open via cordial ties, but they must also be clear eyed about Moscow’s intentions.
Because Israel is far less vulnerable than its neighbors, militarily, economically, and with respect to governance, Russia is not able to take the same transactional approach it has, and will continue to employ, with other Middle Eastern countries to expand and solidify its realm of influence. As such, there are many signs that Russia is increasingly treating Israel like it treats the United States and other advanced Western democracies: Putin is focused on degrading the financial system and undermining Israel’s institutions by engaging in acts that further exploit divisions within the Israeli population. In the absence of urgent military issues, and with Israel increasingly occupied with containing the uptick in violence on both its northern border and border with Gaza, 2020 is shaping up to be a prime time for Russia to intensify its actions on less visible fronts.
The outcome of last April’s election proved to be far more complicated than even the most astute observers of Israeli politics predicted, but it is also a prime illustration of the type of political saga that Russia would be keen to see play out again and again in Israel. In the short term, over the course of the summer, Putin’s ally Netanyahu remained in power while tensions flared:
- Protests by Israelis of Ethiopian heritage shut down thoroughfares and reignited the contentious domestic conversation about race relations
- Netanyahu’s renewed attempts to woo right wing religious factions cast an ugly spotlight on the vulnerable status of women’s rights in Israel and the divide between secular and religious populations
- Conflict with Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza ticked up, with frequent rocket attacks and violence along the border fence
- The specter of confrontation with Iran loomed larger
- Domestic corruption scandals wore on, continuously garnering negative press for Netanyahu and his family
All of this coalesced into a symphony of distraction for Moscow. With the second round of the Netanyahu-Gantz electoral face off slated for September 17, Israel is very much at the same crossroads it faced in April, when Netanyahu won by a small margin but was unable to form a government. If Netanyahu loses, Israel’s political and military leadership, presumably operating under Prime Minister Gantz, will have the opportunity to reset relations with Moscow. Such an endeavor must include strategic planning on a timeline that matches or even outpaces Moscow’s, which will be a heavy lift in a country notorious for its last-minute, minimal planning culture. However, if Netanyahu prevails, Putin will maintain the competitive advantage he currently enjoys: as Israel lurches from one short term crisis to the next over the course of 2020 and beyond, its ability to effectively contain Russia’s regional strategy will decline.
Syria: Idlib Will Foretell What the Future Truly Holds for Assad
Syria has been Russia’s home away from home in the Middle East for decades, but the civil war that has gripped the country for nearly eight years has enabled Putin to entrench Russia on the Mediterranean with a degree of transparency and depth that was not previously available in the post-Soviet era. Now, as the civil war winds down, Russia’s military presence is firmly rooted and its influence over the Assad regime is absolute, to the extent that Damascus will serve as Russia’s regional headquarters through the middle of the 21st century, at a minimum. In this sense, in Syria, Russia has achieved the first goal in its Middle Eastern grand strategy: establishing geographic hegemony. In 2020, it will begin to implement the next strategic step: gaining control of economic (and other) resources and recouping the investments it made to prop up Assad.
How Russia approaches this has the potential to make 2020 a pivotal year in Syria because there is no established Russian playbook for how to proceed in a power sharing arrangement when the head of state lingers. In the past, as in Eastern European states after WWII or Afghanistan in the later part of the 20th century, the Soviet Union installed a friendly regime when it sought direct control over another country. The alternative was to treat a country like it treated Egypt during the mid-20th century, as an ally that could be plied with incentives.
Syria in 2020 presents a new scenario: while the Assad regime is certainly a friend of Putin’s, their interests do not align completely, and there are numerous instances in which the Assad regime has disregarded Russian military initiatives or guidance over the course of the past few years, raising questions about how much Russian influence will remain when the fighting concludes. For the first time in many years, there is a clear opportunity and real ability to remove Assad. For Western and other regional powers, the downside is that the power to do so rests solely with Putin.
It may take several years for Russia’s consolidation of political power to crystalize in Syria given that any move will require deliberate management of the various factions competing for influence in the country. However, in the upcoming months, the manner in which hostilities wind down will be indicative of what’s to come. For this reason, we are focused on what happens in Idlib, the last remaining anti-Assad rebel stronghold, where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are clustered, along with Sunni extremist factions. There is no doubt that Idlib will eventually fall back into Damascus’ orbit and when that happens, it will force Russia’s hand with respect to balancing equities between all of the powers that operate in the region. Though Russia and Turkey are currently at odds over the establishment of a safe zone in the northern part of the country, allowing such a zone may actually relieve part of the humanitarian and economic burden that will persist when fighting ends.
More challenging though, from Moscow’s perspective, will be what to do about lingering Sunni extremists. Despite posturing to the contrary, the Assad regime is incapable of containing them and, through the course of the civil war, exacerbated the extremist threat within its own (still partially intact) borders. By aligning with Assad, Putin has made Russian interests more susceptible to being targeted by such groups, and accordingly, has benefitted from recent US airstrikes against Sunni militants. How Moscow navigates between allowing Assad to claim victory after Idlib falls and protecting its own interests will say much about Assad’s future or whether Putin will be interviewing candidates for a regional governorship.
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Originally published at www.luminaegroup.com on September 13, 2019.