An assertive Russia in the Middle East suggests an eye on the post-Putin era

An assertive Russia in the Middle East suggests an eye on the post-Putin era

Following a well-choreographed act last weekend that landed him a record election victory, with more than 76 percent of the vote, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now preparing for his fourth, and final, term. By the end of it, in 2024, the former spy chief will have reached the age of 72 and become his country’s longest-serving leader since Stalin.

Russia pundits speculate there are ways he might work around the constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms. Putin could pick a loyalist to succeed him while taking on the presidency of the Duma, or transform the State Council into an executive organ. Still, there are important indicators these are indeed his final six years at the helm of the Russian state: Reports of intensifying behind-the-scenes rivalry between would-be successors, concern within powerful circles over a bleak future for the economy, and Putin’s own declaration that he has no intention of pushing for constitutional changes on presidential term limits.
This coming phase of power transition in Moscow raises many questions about what kind of policies are to be expected from Russia in the Middle East, in the next six years under Putin and beyond.

Upon Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, having served two terms between 2000 and 2008, Russia became an assertive and influential regional player to a degree unseen since the heyday of the Cold War. This has been enhanced by the strategic disarray of the US in the Middle East, often portrayed as cautiousness and disguised by the overhyped “pivot to Asia.” During the Obama administrations, Washington struck deals with Moscow on Syria, and Tehran over its nuclear program that, in practice, have largely worked in favor of the regional interests of Russia and the so-called axis of resistance.
Russia has been a key actor in Syria since August 2013, when it engineered a last-minute plan to dissuade the Obama administration from carrying out air strikes in retaliation against the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Two years later, Russian military intervention in support of desperate Assad-regime forces and pro-Iranian militias decisively changed the course of the conflict.
Despite regular reports of mistrust in Tehran over Moscow’s regional plans, the Russia-Iran alliance is alive and well. Both leaderships share a deep desire to oppose and roll back US regional influence and, following the nuclear deal, bilateral economic ties have blossomed.
At the same time, Moscow has improved its working relationship with Saudi Arabia. In October, King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit the Russian capital. A deal between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Putin on the sidelines on the G-20 meeting in China in September 2016 was apparently critical for last year’s deal between Russia and OPEC over oil-production cuts. Russia has also moved to take advantage of the opportunities provided by Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s ground-breaking reform program. During a visit by the crown prince to Moscow last year, Putin said Russian-Saudi economic exchanges had increased by 130 percent since the beginning of the year.

With the Russian president beginning what seems certain to be his final term, what does his past tell us about the likely direction of his country in the coming six years, in particular its plans for the Middle East.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

There have been serious differences with Turkey on Syria, which hit a historical low when a Russian attack aircraft was shot down by a Turkish fighter jet over the Turkey-Syria border. Despite this, the relatively short diplomatic crisis that followed has given way to a warming of ties. The bilateral relationship has been elevated to a new level on trade, energy and defense. Now, Istanbul often seems more strategically aligned with Moscow than with NATO.

Russian influence also extends to various other countries and crises scenarios, from Egypt and the conflict in Libya to the various Kurdish groups in the region.
So what is next for Russia in the Middle East?
“Putin’s Past Explains Russia’s Future,” to borrow the title from a recent piece on Russia published by Foreign Affairs magazine. The president, a former KGB operative and director, is not only a product of the Cold War era but also of the post-USSR failed transition under President Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s, which culminated in a deep financial crisis. For Russian nationalists, the enemy and culprits in both eras are the West and NATO.
Equally relevant to understanding Russia’s foreign policy are its domestic conditions, and Moscow’s Middle East policies are no exception. As various Russia experts wrote during the week leading up to Putin’s re-election, the projection of power often hides nervousness at home. The Soviet revivalism, the growing militarism — Russia spends a third of its budget on defense — and the anti-Western and bellicose rhetoric is also a strategy to unite the ranks and mask structural problems, such as a stagnant economy dependent on natural resources, and widespread corruption. In this sense, Russia’s military involvement in Syria and Ukraine are not that dissimilar.
What the future holds for Russia in the Middle East during and after what is likely to be Putin’s last presidential term will very much depend on what system it will transition to. Possible successors are still unknown yet a radical break with the recent past seems unlikely. The boiling tensions with the West are indicative of an aggressive and very active regional policy in the pipeline. How that will translate into action in Syria, where Russian plans have met various setbacks of late, is probably already occupying the minds of Moscow’s strategists.

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida
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