Beirut: Among the presidents, prime ministers, kings and princes who have travelled to Moscow over the past year to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin are some of the United States’ closest allies, who once might have been expected to devote their travel time to Washington.
There’s a new power rising in the Middle East, and it needs to be wooed. Three decades after the Soviet Union collapsed and the US emerged as the undisputed superpower in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia is back. Russia is stepping into the vacuum left by the disengagement of the Obama administration and the unpredictability of the Trump one to challenge the US’ dominant role in the region.
MOSCOW TO THE RESCUE
At the centre of it all is Putin. Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria has given Putin perhaps the single biggest boost, burnishing his credentials as a decisive and effective leader who delivers what he set out to achieve: the survival of President Bashar Al Assad. It also positioned Putin at the nexus of the Middle East’s overlapping conflicts, leveraging Russia’s influence far beyond Syria’s borders.
PUTIN, THE ‘PROBLEM SOLVER’
Apart from Syria, Russia has shown little inclination to wade into most of the region’s myriad conflicts. But Putin has welcomed anyone who wants to visit, making Moscow a must-stop destination for leaders with a problem to solve. The meetings are providing Putin with new levers of influence.
THE IRAN-ISRAEL ANGLE
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken 11 times on the phone with Putin over the past year and only three times with Trump. Netanyahu has visited Moscow four times in the past year. He’s visited Washington twice since Trump became president. It’s unclear whether the rapport between Putin and Netanyahu will survive building tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria and also Lebanon, where Hezbollah militia has expanded its influence.
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RUSSIA AND LEBANON
Lebanon came under intense US pressure earlier this year to rebuff a $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) arms deal offered by Russia that would have ended a decades-old US and western monopoly on supplying aid to the Lebanese army, according to a Lebanese government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Late last month, however, Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri accepted a donation of “millions of Kalashnikov bullets” from Russia, which will be given to the internal security forces, his office said.
PROJECTING POWER IN THE MEDITERRANEAN
Russia has secured long-term basing rights for its forces in Syria, including an expanded naval base at Tartus, giving Russia its strongest presence ever in the Mediterranean.
Moscow has also been extending its reach into Egypt, a US ally since the 1970s. In neighbouring Libya, Russian military officials have established a close relationship with the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar while signing oil deals with the UN-backed Libyan government, potentially positioning Moscow to play a role in any future peace settlement among Libya’s warring parties.
Elsewhere, Russia’s role has largely focused on business deals, which serve the dual purpose of compensating for the impact of US and European sanctions on Russia and cementing its role as a regional influencer, said Carole Nakhle, an energy expert at Britain’s Surrey University.
Russian companies have signed billions of dollars worth of deals in oil and gas ventures in markets as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Iraqi Kurdistan. Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom has contracts to build nuclear reactors in five Middle Eastern countries.
Russia has boasted of a surge in regional sales of its weapons, newly tried and tested on the Syrian battlefield. Yet even as the US maintains a vast economic, military and technological advantage over Russia, increasingly it is Russia that is seen as the go-to power for a region consumed by crises and unsure of Washington’s reliability, said Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“Russia has managed to create the perception in the Middle East that it is more powerful, more capable and more relevant than the US,” he said.
“It’s not how much power you have. It’s how you use it. ”