By Steve Rosenberg
Remember five-year plans? They used to be popular around here.
Communist Russia reckoned that in five years, you could transform an economy.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has updated the idea. Over the last five years it’s not the economy the Kremlin has been expanding: it’s Moscow’s geo-political clout.
Think back to 2014.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Moscow – slapped with Western sanctions – looked isolated, a pariah state.
Western leaders queued up to criticise President Putin, confident that pressure on the Kremlin would change its behaviour. President Barack Obama dismissed Russia as a “regional power”. For a former superpower, that hurt.
Fast forward to 2019.
Today, Russia is pushing for global influence. It interfered in America’s presidential election on the side of Donald Trump, according to US intelligence; it’s seeking to boost its role in Africa and Latin America; and it’s also exploiting divisions within Europe.
Mediator in the Middle East
In the Middle East, the transformation is stark. Four years after Moscow launched its military operation in Syria, Russia is replacing America as the key player and power broker in the region.
In the space of just a few days, Vladimir Putin has spoken by phone to the Turkish president and invited him to Moscow; he had a phone call with the Israeli prime minister where they discussed “security issues”; he visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
It is a sign of Russia’s increasing active role in the Middle East.
This is how popular Russian tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets views the change:
“The current situation in the Middle East would have been unthinkable in the days of Henry Kissinger and his idea of ‘global geopolitical chess’. The oversized giant by the name of America lost its way in broad daylight… while Russian diplomacy is ahead of the game.
“Russia plays the role of the universal mediator and political broker, and none of the regional powers can ignore it.”
In Moscow, Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops away from the Syrian-Turkish border took foreign policy experts by surprise.
“There is a deep belief here that Americans are smart,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy analyst close to the Kremlin. “And that if Americans do something stupid, it’s not because it’s stupid, but because we don’t completely understand their grand design.
“For many Russians it’s difficult to believe Americans might do completely crazy things. But it turns out that they can.”
Syria: Why Russia wins
There are several ways in which Moscow benefits from the current situation in north-eastern Syria:
- Russia is President Assad’s chief backer, politically and militarily. The more territory Damascus reclaims, the better for Moscow
- In abandoning the Kurds, America’s reputation in the region as a reliable partner has been shattered. This allows Russia to portray itself – to all sides in the Middle East – as the only power broker and peacemaker in town. Russian military police are already patrolling a contact line between Syrian and Turkish forces. The implicit message: if you want peace in the Middle East, turn to Russia
- In recent years, Moscow has been trying to weaken Western alliances, primarily the EU and Nato, by exploiting disagreements between member states. Friction between Turkey and other Nato members over Syria plays into Russia’s hands, as Moscow seeks to drive a wedge within Nato. The US was already unhappy at Turkey buying Russian S-400 air defence systems.
When Moscow launched its military operation in Syria in 2015, the Kremlin claimed its priority was defeating international terrorism. But rebuilding Russia’s influence in the Middle East was a major consideration.
From its naval base in Tartus, Russia can project military power across the Mediterranean. Recent reports suggest Moscow is expanding its air base near Latakia.
Balance of power changing?
Russia’s increasing assertiveness on the world stage has coincided with a period of political introspection in the West.
“The US and European powers are much more inward-looking than a couple of years ago,” Fyodor Lukyanov believes. “What we see are Russian opponents, who tried to isolate Russia, in a state of considerable flux. In contrast, Russia demonstrated a high degree of resilience to outside pressure and skilful behaviour in the Middle East.”
Resilience and skill – certainly. Enhanced influence – for sure. But for a resurgent Russia, there are potential pitfalls.
This country is no economic superpower. Russia’s economy is fragile and further stagnation may limit Moscow’s global ambitions.
As for the Middle East, the region is complex, torn by division, mistrust and hatred. Russia may have emerged as the power broker. But it faces a daunting diplomatic balancing act if it to use its influence to restore peace.