Russia, ‘peace talks’, and the Middle East

An unlikely player rising to power

Isaac Kfir

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, The World

5 March 2019

In efforts to advance its national interests, Moscow has become more active in ‘peace talks’ while its clout in the Middle East only seems to be growing, Isaac Kfir writes.

An interesting theme is emerging with respect to Russia’s regional and global ambitions.

As the harbinger of many of the world’s conflicts, Russia has become more active in ‘peace talks’ as a means to reassert its place under the sun. This has been made possible because of Washington’s waning influence in and across the Middle East due to President Trump’s pursuit of a permanent destabilisation, transactional foreign policy.

Russia’s message is that Moscow will provide unequivocal support for sovereign and territorial integrity if that is what the actors want. And an apt comparison can be made between Russia’s stance in Syria with unequivocal support for Assad with their approach in Libya, where they are propping up General Khalifa Haftar. Key to Moscow’s engagement is a refusal to judge one’s human rights record or make demands for democratisation.

Moscow is interested in economic relations and political cooperation. Those interests resonate with many across the region, tired of western advocacy of the merits of democracy, respect for human rights, and other key issues.

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In early November 2018, Russia invited General Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, to meet with Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, head of the general staff of the Russian army. The meeting preceded an Italian peace initiative on Libya held in Palermo attended by Haftar, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Though the meeting came to nothing, the fact that President Putin had sent his prime minister proved symbolic. There were no senior Americans in attendance.

The Russians are interested in exploiting the vacuum that emerged with the toppling of Gadhafi, and they are keen to establish military bases in Libya to increase their visibility in the Mediterranean. Already, they have widespread access to the Syrian port of Tartus, which is currently Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean and which they are modernising to so that 11 warships can use the port at any one time.

In January 2017, Gerasimov visited Tobruk, which was also when Russian naval forces were conducting military sea drills. Russian naval ships had also at that time issued a warning to Libyan airplanes who were seen flying over Sirte.

On 9 November, Russia hosted a conference on Afghanistan in Moscow. It was attended by representatives from the Taliban, China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Countries that have a direct link to Afghanistan sent envoys, and though the Kabul government sent no representatives, several members of the government-appointed Peace Council did attend, including the former President Hamid Karzai.

The US had observer status in the talks. One has to wonder whether that meeting encouraged the Americans to agree to open new talks with the Taliban, who were being led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. In July 2018, President Trump had ordered his people to explore a new strategy vis-à-vis that included opening talks with the Taliban.

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On 20 November, Mikhail Bogdanov, President Putin’s Middle East envoy, who is also one of five Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited Baghdad. A few days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iraq’s newly appointed President Barham Salih met in Rome, leading to an extension of an official invitation for President Putin to visit Iraq in 2019.

President Putin is popular in Iraq, as Shi’ites appreciate his commitment to the Assad regime. His anti-Americanism endears him to many Sunni Iraqis as well.

The Russian state also had good relations with Iraqi Kurds, particularly the Barzani family, whose elders have spent time in Russia. Trade between Russia and Iraq is valued at around US $1.4 billion, up from US $900 million in 2016. Russian oil companies, Lukoil and Gazprom, operate in Southern Iraq, with the latter currently developing the Badra field from which the Iraqis are hoping to export natural gas.

The Russians are also becoming more involved in the conflict in Yemen. Their strategy is to win allies among the Houthis – described by Lavrov in 2017 as a radicalised movement – and the Yemenite government. President Mahdi al-Mashat has urged the Russians to help mediate the conflict.

In October, Bogdanov met with a Houthi delegation. Soon after Abdul Malik Arji, a member of the Houthi political bureau, spoke on Russian state television in favour of greater Russian engagement in mediating the conflict. Even the Southern Transitional Council, which is a Yemenite secessionist movement, seems interested in Russian mediation, as it views Russia as having no special relations with any of the principal actors. Russia has also supported the council’s inclusion in peace talks.

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It is obvious that the Russian strategy is bearing fruits in spaces where Moscow once had limited or negligible influence be it in Riyadh, Ankara, or Jerusalem. It now plays a greater role; after the Israelis shot down an Iranian drone, the Netanyahu’s first call was to Moscow, not Washington. The Russians have sold weapons to Turkey and Riyadh, two sectors that were historically closed to them.

One big question affecting the Middle East is the question of who can stymie growing Russian influence in the region. If it’s neither Washington nor Europe, which is currently too divided and occupied with internal matters, the likely answer is ‘no one’. The implications are that we should slowly come to terms and plan for a Middle East in which Moscow not only has great influence but is also a key player.

The implications for the Middle East are numerous. We are less likely to see movement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Netanyahu has solid relations with Presidents Putin and Trump. Russian influence in Egypt is likely to grow as President Sisi values Russian support and recognises the value of Russian tourism. Syria will remain firmly in the Russian camp, as will Iran, while Turkey is likely to gravitate even more towards Russia and away from the West as Erdogan seeks to keep power.

What the Russians and others need to consider is that, because Moscow is more likely to support the established authoritarian regimes, there is also a likelihood of an Arab Spring 2.0. As many within the Arab World vie for change, the question is how they will make change happen having seen the failure of their ‘uprising’ in 2010.

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