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Putin’s diplomacy in the Middle East, ‘a winning strategy’

Mikhail Klimentyev, POOL, AFP | Russia’s Vladimir Putin (centre) and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (left), and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (right) in Latakia, Syria, on December 11, 2017

Russia’s Vladimir Putin, set to be re-elected for yet another presidential term on Sunday, has spent much of his latest six-year mandate trying to increase Moscow’s influence in the Middle East. Experts call it a winning diplomatic strategy.


Immensely popular at home, Putin is all but guaranteed victory in the Russian presidential election on March 18, a victory which would hand him a fourth term as the country’s most powerful man.

On the international stage, however, perceptions of the Russian leader are mixed. While the West views Putin with rising suspicion, not least because of Moscow’s recent annexation of Crimea in Ukraine and its staunch support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, he now counts a growing number of Middle Eastern nations among his allies, including Egypt, Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Arnaud Dubien, associate professor at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), about Russia’s diplomatic strategy in the Middle East.

FRANCE 24: What are your thoughts on Putin’s policies on the Middle East, where Russia is now a key player?

Arnaud Dubien: Putin's diplomacy is particularly successful in the Middle East, where Russia has many economic, energy and military interests. Today, Moscow plays a key role in the biggest foreign policy quagmire of our time: The Syrian crisis. The Russians are perceived by all regional and extra-regional players – friends and foes alike – as a key player in this issue, a role which Russia hasn’t held for decades.

In the past few years, Russia has significantly strengthened its influence and its positions in the region, from the east to the west, and from the north to the south. It’s important to note, for example, the dramatic improvement of its relations with Turkey, a NATO member to whom it sells arms, its [diplomatic] return to Egypt – an historic gateway to the region for the former USSR – and the Russian-Iranian rapprochement which doesn’t prevent Moscow from developing lucrative relations with Saudi Arabia.

How is this possible, given how complex and fragile the region is?

There are several factors behind this success. First of all, you have to give credit where credit is due, because Putin didn’t start from scratch in the region. The seeds for his success had been sown by former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, one of the country’s biggest Arabists. Since the mid-1990s, Primakov, while serving as foreign minister, managed to maintain and develop contacts in the region. Putin has enjoyed the fruits of his work, accomplished at a time when Russia was very weak internationally. He also relies on his diplomats’ very rare skills and knowledge of the region. But above all, Putin talks with everyone -- it’s the main feature of his diplomacy in the Middle East. Russia can discuss anything, openly, with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, while still maintaining very good relations with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

Are there other factors that have helped Putin?

The Russians have benefitted from the US's indecision and its extremely stark choices [in the Middle East] which have alienated it from other important countries in the region. Putin, who willingly presents himself as a protector of Christians in the Middle East, has not made the choice to bet on Shiites against Sunnis, or vice versa. It’s clever, but it can have its disadvantages too. If you look at what’s going on in Syria different regional actors are now making Russia face up to its contradictions.

Does Putin have the necessary resources for his ambitions in the region?

The political gains are very lucrative from an economic point of view for Russia, compared with the money and resources it has invested in the region. Although the costs for Syria haven’t been made public, they are estimated at €3-5 million per day. Moscow can cover these costs, and it's far less than the Americans spent in Afghanistan for example. Whether it's signing nuclear plant construction deals in Turkey and Egypt, or various arms and agriculture contracts, its a very attractive investment opportunity for Russia. Financially, nothing is preventing it from continuing in this way. It’s a calculated, winning strategy, where its great challenge will be to consolidate its achievements and stay [in the region].

How is Russia’s Syria policy, which is seen as uncompromising by the West, perceived by Russians?

The ordinary Russian is more interested in the situation in Ukraine, rather than the far-away conflicts in the Middle East. It should also be noted that Putin is known, even by his detractors, to be very constant and faithful in his alliances. He has been unwavering in his support for Assad, unlike the Americans who rightly or wrongly relinquished support for Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 – one of Russia’s few faithful allies in the region at the time. Russia has never been able to fully accept the ouster of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, a former USSR ally, and it remains a key event in Russian diplomacy today. It’s impossible to comprehend Putin’s uncompromising and rigid stance on Syria if we don’t also keep this event in mind. The regime change in Tripoli has impacted how Moscow perceives the West, and in particular how it views the US -- as a destabilising factor in the Middle East.

This piece was translated from the original in French


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