By Ziad Akl
This paper will examine the perspective of political elites and regimes in Egypt, Libya and Syria that have either accepted or sought an alliance with Russia and grant access to its presence in the region.
Russia and Political Elites: A Post-Revolutionary Analysis
As mentioned before, the link between Russia and the ruling elites in the post-revolutionary phase in the region was a win-win situation. On the one hand, those elites were looking for the intervention of a strong international partner and, meanwhile, Russia was longing for allies within the region that met Russian criteria.
Therefore, for the aforementioned reasons, Egypt, Syria and Libya became the main playground for Russian politics there. There are similarities in the pattern of interaction that the Russian presence uses with the ruling elites in. Some specific interests and directions are common within all cases.
Conservatism is pivotal in the choice of the manner with which Russia builds its alliances in the Southern Mediterranean. Russia’s allies in the region are against progressive political transformations and, at the same time, pro-restoring an old political order that resets the results of the outcome of the Arab Spring.
The interaction with Russia with the region’s elites, specifically in Egypt, Syria and Libya, aims towards a dual purpose: bringing back the pre-Arab Spring political order and investing in political elites that will be political partners supporting Russian interests in the future.
Among the main dimensions that govern current Russian interests in the region is the clear hostility towards collective action and non-institutional political entities. In all cases, Russian support for ruling elites has been aligning with political directions and policies that tend to minimise the presence of non-institutional entities within public spheres.
Any presence or even mere signs of collective action within public spheres in the three countries is fought by the political elites that Russia is allied with and clearly supports.
In the three cases, there is a systematic process and a standard approach to deal with political opposition. It takes various forms depending on the context of each case but the purpose of the ruling elites of fighting the idea of political openness and collective action remains the same, albeit done differently in each case.
This is one of the points where joint political will plays an influential role in Russian presence in the region. Common interests contribute to that, of course, but by creating political willingness and policy decisions.
Within the course of analysis, these observations are very telling about the pattern of interaction that Russia adopts towards the region. First, Russia invests in countries that are facing transitions. The change in political elites and in the policy directions of regimes is one of the tools that Russia employs within its process of interaction with the area.
At the same time, transition creates a political willingness to restore stability and pre-transition environments, which is one of the common grounds between the political elites and Russia: “the stability discourse”.
Russia also uses the approach of flexibility within political tension to further instil its influence in the region. Once more, the analysis of the Russian presence in the region has to have a combination of Russian interests and regional political will.
Each of the three countries that interacted extensively with Russia has a very specific context for this interaction. Undoubtedly, no analysis can be made for the Russian role without pairing it with the directions of ruling elites and regional political wills.
Russia’s Repositioning in the Region and its Interactions with the West
Both motives and political will existed among elites in the Southern Mediterranean to approach Russia and expand their relations with it. Similarly, Russia had various motives and resilient political will to re-establish its position within a region where it was once much more influential.
International relations literature on this matter argues that Putin wants to resurrect a Russia that seeks global hegemony in a post-Western context.
However, through analysing motives and strategies of engagement on both sides, it appears that Russia’s expansion in relations in the Southern Mediterranean does not demonstrate a willingness for hegemonic power but rather an attempt to increase influence in a sensitive region in order to use that influence to bargain with other international powers.
In other words, Russia’s presence in the region is a tool that Moscow uses to regain its position among other international powers, not to dominate them in a hierarchical manner.
Russia does not possess the economic power to qualify as a hegemon but it certainly possesses a policy towards the region that guarantees its maximum interest in multiple fields.
Russia’s motives for re-engaging with the region included using its presence to expand its influence within the context of rising tensions with the US and the EU due to the Ukraine issue.
Conflicts in the region are of great importance to both the US and the EU; therefore, Russia’s active involvement in those conflicts and its ability to impact on the ground, specifically in Syria, forced both parties to reconsider their tensions with Russia and include it as an essential power within conflict settlement processes.
Therefore, analysing Russian presence in the Mediterranean also requires taking into consideration the three levels of interaction that this presence creates: Russian motives and actions, Western responses and interventions, and approaches and policies adopted by actors within the region.
Whether in Egypt, Syria or Libya, there are intertwined interests and multiple interventions from the West represented in the US, the EU and European states acting independently outside the framework of the union.
The extent of Russian influence in the region will rely heavily on Russia’s ability to reconcile those usually conflicting interests. On the other hand, the West is growing more aware of Russia’s aspirations for expansion but until now there has been no clear collective policy on how to deal with those aspirations.
Russia’s presence in the region is one of the tools that Moscow is using to try and influence how the West will design its future policies towards Russia.
Finally, in a region witnessing changes in political and military elites, international alliances are up for re-evaluation, and Moscow is capitalising on its presence to reintroduce itself to the new elites after this process of re-evaluation.
But Western powers are equally aware of that fact and are also engaging with the new elites to reframe old alliances. Therefore, interactions on those three levels will be very demonstrative of how Russian presence is shaping new power equations within the region.
Russian economic interests, either in military armament or investments in the energy sector, are also among the motives that reshaped Russia’s presence in the MENA region as a whole. Another factor for Russia to re-engage was the phase of shifting alliances
after the outcome of the Arab Spring, which in turn created an abundance of political opportunities within a vacuum of active international alliances. However, the motives and the pattern of interaction vary significantly from one to the other of the four cases mentioned earlier.
It is remarkable that Moscow has used different ways to reposition itself in the region and to access each country it tried to exercise influence upon, specifically in zones of conflict.
Domestic tension and transitional instability were among the main portals through which Russia entered the region in the past few years. The post-Arab Spring context has given Russia a platform in the region that it did not enjoy before.
In Egypt, Russia gained access through the lack of international support and the promising partnerships with the Egyptian state in investments in the energy sector and the military partnership and sale of arms.
In Libya, Russian interests are concerned with the post-conflict phase. Therefore, Russia’s choice to support Haftar in Libya has a lot to do with Russian aspirations to re-build and re-capacitate the Libyan National Army after the arms embargo is lifted as a result of political settlement.
In addition, Russia is also looking for possible interests in Libya’s energy sector. Syria is more of a political card (despite the fact that it acts as a zone of military influence) but the nexus between the Syrian case and the interests of Western countries in the region is much more significant than the military balances within zones of conflict.
Regional vulnerability is a main explanation that Russia uses to justify its presence within the Southern Mediterranean. In the cases of Egypt, Libya and Syria, Russia has capitalised on the notion of regional instability, and has filled spaces that other international powers have left vacant during that time.
This means that Russian presence within the region is not a mere fact of visions related to Russian opportunism but is rather an efficient utilisation of domestic conditions and a mutual political will that reflects deeper interests.
Hence, Russian presence in the region must be seen within the context of an overall political tension, and a vulnerable regional legitimacy that Russia did not have to do much to uphold.
Russian presence in the Southern Mediterranean was not only instigated by Russian opportunism to exercise a role within a politically changing scene, it was also motivated by desires of newly rising political elites to gain international allies.
The Southern Mediterranean witnessed a regional scene that knew lots of shifting alliances in the post-2011 period. Currently, regional and international alliances are very different from what they were in the period before 2011.
For example, the Libyan East, dominated by General Haftar and represented internationally through the Tobruk House of Representatives led by Aqila Saleh, is in a close alliance with both Egypt and the UAE, an alliance that is blessed and welcomed by Russia.
The Libyan West, on the other hand, through the Presidential Council and al-Sarraj, is allied with Italy above all other international actors.
Due to its fundamental interests in the Libyan West Italy gives the Presidential Council an umbrella of international support, which in turn makes the Presidential Council much more influential on the international level (specifically when it comes to the issue of legitimacy) compared to its actual on-the-ground influence in Tripoli.
Russia still interacts with the Libyan West and has hosted Fayez al-Sarraj more than once, but the Russian attitude in the region is non-confrontational.
In other words, Russia will not confront another international power in a struggle for influence but would rather wait for a moment of consensus between its policies and rising political elites in the region.
For Russia, the Syrian case is very different from the Egyptian or the Libyan one. While Russia is expanding influence in the region through Egypt and Libya, it is using Syria and its role in it in a completely different manner.
Syria is one of Russia’s main cards that it plays in its relation with the EU or the US. Russia has put itself in an alliance with the al-Assad regime, on political and military levels, which makes it impossible to speak of political resolution or settlement without the inclusion of Russia.
The Russian role in Syria is a tool to bring Russia back to its place in the region, and to possess influence that it could bargain with in its relations with the EU or the US.
However, these changes and that outcome are not a mere product of Russian strategy or foreign policy but a product of mutual interests between post-revolutionary political elites in the region and Russian aspirations for influence in the Southern Mediterranean.
The role of Russia in the region until this moment remains vague. Russia has signed agreements with Egypt and Syria, agreements that are supposed to extend the Russian presence through energy sector investments and military partnerships.
Egypt might be an exception because of the structural nature of alliances of political elites but the post-conflict phase in both Syria and Libya may not necessarily serve Russian goals and ambitions.
The role of Russia in the region is governed mainly by its interaction with political elites, and their offspring elites. But, at the same time, Russia knows how to intervene in the overall equation of regional and international alliances with various tools.
Ziad Akl – Senior Researcher, ACPSS – Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies.
Source: The Role of Russia in the Middle East and North Africa Region. Strategy or Opportunism?