International relations | The World

19 January 2018

From Damascus to Tobruk, Moscow is taking advantage of crises and Western distraction to regain a foothold across the Eastern Mediterranean, Isaac Kfir writes.

In an announcement probably missed by many, Egypt and Russia last month signed an agreement allowing Russian airplanes to use Egyptian air-bases and airspaces. The agreement provides the same rights to Egyptian planes in Russia, however it is likely that only the Russians would make use of it.

The deal comes on the back of other Russian activities in the region, and highlights that Russia is on its way to reassert itself in the Middle East.

During the same visit by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that brought about the airspace-sharing arrangement, it was also agreed that Russia and Egypt would be able to carry out counter-terrorism operations in the Sinai. This builds on a joint Egyptian and Russian counter-terrorism exercise known as Protectors of Friendship, which was carried out in September 2017 in Novorossiysk.

Two days later, a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin secured an agreement for Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation to build a nuclear power station in El-Dabaa, about 140 kilometres west of Alexandria. The plant will have four light-water reactors aimed at electricity production, with each reactor producing 1,200 megawatts of energy. Rosatom will also build a storage depot for the spent nuclear rods. It is estimated that the project will be concluded in 2028.

During his trip, Putin added that Russia’s federal security agency is prepared to remove the moratorium on flights between Moscow and Cairo, which it imposed following the shooting down of Metrojet Flight 9268 by the Islamic State in October 2015. The renewal of commercial flights is aimed at encouraging Russian tourism to Egypt.

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In August 2017, the US halted the transfer of US $95 million in aid to Egypt due to concerns over human rights. Within hours, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry cancelled his meeting with Jared Kushner, son-in-law of US President Trump, requiring the latter to call his Egyptian counterpart to emphasis Cairo’s importance to Washington.

All of these events underlie Putin’s ongoing, aggressive campaign to restore Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa.

Putin’s strategy has been to use crises to gain a foothold in the region. In the case of Cyprus, it was financial crisis. In the case of Syria, it was civil war. And in the case of Egypt, it was the broader crisis of the Trump presidency and America’s consequent lack of foreign policy focus.

The Russians are expanding their influence by showing no interest in a country’s human rights record (one can’t imagine Putin raising such an issue). Additionally, the Russians are also selling weapons at a reduced cost, as seen with the recent sale of advanced S-400 air defence missiles to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both important allies of the United States.

The gamble to support Bashir al-Assad has paid off, as not only will Assad survive but he will continue to govern Syria. This is a major accomplishment for Moscow, as it ensures Russia will continue to have access to Tartus and the air base near Latakia, giving it an important strategic placement in the Eastern Mediterranean. Supporting Assad also means that Russia will have a key role to play in the reconstruction of Syria, binding the Syrian elite, which will likely benefit from the injection of money, more closely to Moscow.

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Clearly, an arc of influence is discernible from along the Eastern Mediterranean (Turkey) as far as Libya. Here, Putin has cultivated relations with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, an ally of Egyptian President al-Sisi, and an opponent of the UN-backed Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj. This is very much a product of Moscow’s determination to cultivate relations with whoever will allow Russia in, and by extension, limit US influence.

There is a general perception that US policy in the Middle East is shambolic and that the Americans cannot be relied upon. As Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, points out, the US under Donald Trump has shifted from being “the principal preserver of order to a principal disrupter.”

Moreover, it has become clear that the way to get on Trump’s good side is to flatter his ego. Thus, when Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia on his first foreign tour, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh had his faced projected on the side of the building. He received 83 separate gifts, including a robe lined with cheetah fur and an artwork of himself. This may explain why he now has a good relationship with the Saudis, even though during the election campaign he was highly critical of them.

This perception of the United States helps the Russians, who make no promises. Instead, their focus is on politicking and furthering their national security interests – namely the expansion of Russian influence.

This is why Russia was willing to help a Libyan bank governor loyal to Field Marshal Haftar print approximately 4 billion Libyan dinars worth of banknotes, even while the International Monetary Fund is backing Sarraj, Haftar’s rival. Just to make things more interesting, there have also been reports Russia has deployed Special Forces in western Egypt along the border with Libya – the area that Haftar controls.

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Russia has chosen to become more involved in Libya for several reasons. First, it is buoyed by its success in Syria. Second, it was aghast with the way Britain, France and the United States exploited the UN mandate for a no-fly zone in the country to effectively instigate an end to the Qaddafi regime.

Third, Moscow possibly hopes that by engaging with the different actors in Libya, it could bring about an end to the chaos in the country. This would be a major diplomatic success, especially in light of the failed initiatives led by the UN and backed by the West.

Finally, by interacting both with Haftar and with Sarraj, who has also travelled to Moscow, Russia ensures a future role for itself in the country. This involvement is key for Putin, even if it means Libya ceases to exist as a unitary state (in fact this would probably benefit Moscow, as Haftar controls much of Libya’s oil refineries).

Since becoming president in 2000, Putin has held fast to the Machiavellian advice that states must always put their national interests above all else. Under his rule, Russia’s influence in the Middle East, North Africa and Central and Eastern Europe has grown substantially from where it was in the 1990s.

In sum, by 2018, Putin has managed to secure a permanent Russian presence in Syria; military access to Egypt; financial influence within the European Union, with Russian plutocrats controlling the Bank of Cyprus; and a solid stake in the future of Libya.

By investing in Egypt and Libya, Russia is now eyeing North Africa.

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