Late last month, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin posted a photograph on his Twitter feed of Santa Claus and a long line of Russian military personnel standing in front of a behemoth ballistic missile. The caption read: “We wish our friends from NATO a Happy New Year.”
The tone was more jaunty than threatening. Russia feels it can poke fun at NATO, the European Union and the United States, because, in its ongoing contest for global influence, an assertive Russia is enjoying a strong run against an American rival whose clout is shrinking as it retreats from places it once dominated—or, at least, contested—in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
At home, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity is threatened by public frustration with corruption and incompetence in his administration. An awakened civil society challenges the autocratic nature of his rule. And the upcoming Sochi Olympics have highlighted the security problems Russia faces from militant Islamism. But the Olympics, and the massive investment Russia has made to ensure they are spectacular, also demonstrate Putin’s desire to re-establish Russia as a powerful and respected global player.
Russia spent much of the first decade following the Soviet Union’s collapse shaken by economic instability, its global stature shrunken. Once the leader of an empire that was feared throughout the West, Russia was pitied and smirked at. That’s all changed in recent years.
Under Putin, Russia has benefited from an oil and gas boom at home, and it has avoided resource-heavy military committments abroad of the kind the U.S. has made in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has simultaneously tried to strengthen its international reach through other means, including diplomatic manoeuvring, and economic coercion and bribery. This has seen Russia reappearing in old Cold War battlegrounds of the Middle East. But its primary targets are the former Soviet bloc states of Central and Eastern Europe—above all, one once known by some as Little Russia: Ukraine.
Kyiv’s Independence Square, during the short, overcast days and long nights of last autumn, seemed caught in a time warp. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded in to protest a decision by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign an association agreement that would have integrated the country more closely with the European Union and, therefore, move it away from Russia. It was on this same square, almost 10 years ago, that similarly large pro-Western crowds launched the Orange Revolution in response to a presidential election they believed had been rigged in favour of Moscow’s preferred candidate: the very same Viktor Yanukovych. Back then, despite intensive Russian pressure, they prevailed. Their protests forced a re-vote won by the pro-Europe candidate, Viktor Yushchenko.
This time, the results are different. Yanukovych spurned Europe and accepted a $15-billion bailout from Russia. When demonstrations continued, his government enacted anti-protest laws—pushing the crowds to greater fury and bringing Ukraine to the edge of crisis. At last count, five activists have reportedly died. Dozens more have been injured. Police suffered casualties, too. One officer was shot some distance away from the main protest site in Kyiv. A nationalist group claimed responsibility. Other police were hurt as protesters pelted them with rocks from behind barricades of snow and burning tires. Protesters occupied several government buildings in Kyiv. Unrest has spread beyond the capital, with activists seizing administration buildings and forcing Yanukovych-appointed governors to resign.
Yanukovych responded by scrapping the anti-protest laws that triggered this most recent escalation and offering government posts to opposition leaders (which they declined). On Tuesday, he accepted the resignation of his prime minister and cabinet. But Yanukovych made no mention of the issue that drove people onto the streets in the first place: his rejection of an association agreement with the European Union in favour of tighter bonds with Russia.
Prolonged and intensified unrest may still force Yanukovych from office. It’s also possible that the winner of next year’s presidential election, should Yanukovych not earn a second term, will reverse some of his policies regarding Russia and Europe. For the time being, however, Ukraine has been pulled back into Moscow’s embrace, and Russia has expanded its footprint in Eastern Europe.
“Putin’s project for his third term is to reinforce what Russia calls a sphere of privileged interests in the former Soviet states,” says Angela Stent, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University. “Ukraine is the key country here.”
Jan Techau, director of the European centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Ukraine is part of a “contest” between Russia and the West for influence in Eastern Europe, but he says the struggle there is primarily a domestic one between Ukrainians who want their country to become more European, and those who want to stick close to Russia.
The West, he says, can and should influence the outcome of this debate. Several Western leaders, including Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, went to Kyiv to support the demonstrators last year. American President Barack Obama’s response was more muted. Techau says this caution was prudent: “The Americans have to be very careful that they don’t send a signal that raises expectations that they are then unable to fulfill.”
But Washington’s low profile during the tumult in Ukraine fits into a larger pattern of recent American disengagement from Europe and, especially, from parts of the continent most worried about a resurgent Russia. “In Central Europe, a lot of people say, ‘We know [George W.] Bush wasn’t a great president, but at least he was there for us,’” says Techau.
The former president was a strong backer of Ukrainian (and Georgian) membership in NATO. His secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, famously praised the “new Europe” of the Baltic States and other countries once under Soviet control. Bush planned to base components of a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, despite Russian objections. Obama scrapped these as part of his efforts to “reset” relations with Moscow. This decision caused much consternation then, and still rankles.
The United States recently announced the withdrawal of thousands of troops from Europe. But Techau says the sense among Central and Eastern Europeans that America is disengaging is as much about the Obama administration’s tone as it is troop levels or missile defence plans. “The biggest disappointment is the more or less utter disinterest of the President in the region. This is sending the signal—to those Central Europeans, particularly—that, if push comes to shove, this guy is not reliable. And this is something that makes them profoundly nervous.”
For Moscow, says Techau, “it is confirming the Russian interpretation of an exhausted, tired and overfed West that lacks the dedication to defend its own model.” Techau says Russia has responded with “probings”—sending warplanes to skirt Swedish airspace last spring, for example, or exerting pressure on countries that used to be part of the Soviet sphere to see how the West will react.
“This is not about an open military conflict. This is about how attractive is the Western model still to these countries, and how much opposition can Russia expect to its grip over these countries. I don’t think the Obama administration is aware of the creeping loss of influence that is there in Central and Eastern Europe.” Nor is it the only part of the world where this is happening.
Russia’s outreach efforts in the Middle East are less overt than in its Eastern European backyard. But Moscow has ambitions here, too. And America, reluctant to invest more lives and money in a region that has already cost it so much, and no longer convinced of its strategic importance, given the discovery of energy deposits elsewhere, is ceding ground.
Last November, Egypt hosted the Russian foreign and defence ministers. A Russian defence minister hadn’t made a formal visit to Egypt since the 1970s, when the U.S. first pried the country out of the Soviet orbit. America has been subsidizing Egypt with billions of dollars in mostly military aid ever since. That didn’t stop Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy from gushing over Cairo’s new old friend. “We want to give a new impetus to our relations, and return them to the same high level that used to exist with the Soviet Union,” he said.
The Russian visit to Egypt came at a time when Egypt’s relations with the U.S. were particularly chilly. Since the Arab Spring erupted three years ago, Obama has managed to alienate almost all factions in the country—most recently, supporters of the military coup that overthrew the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last summer. After the new regime engaged in a deadly crackdown on Morsi supporters, Obama halted the delivery of millions of dollars worth of U.S. military aid. Soon after, the Russians showed up amid rumours they were offering a weapons deal of their own.
“Russia has taken up opportunities where the United States, and the West in general, has been more absent,” says Stent, author of the recently published book, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century. “You see Russia coming back into the Middle East in a variety of different ways. It’s stepping into a vacuum that has been left by the Arab uprisings and what’s happened since.”
Unfortunately for the Egyptians, if an arms deal with Russia were inked, they would have to pay for the guns themselves. On the other hand, Russian support typically doesn’t come with conditions about human rights and good governance. “The Russians are never going to tell a government it should be more democratic. That does give them an advantage in an area where there aren’t too many democratic governments,” says Stent.
Walid Kazziha, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, says Russia is reviving a Cold War strategy of “moving to find allies behind Western lines.” The Egyptian government’s receptiveness depends on how things stand with Washington. “If the relationship becomes warmer, they wouldn’t feel they need the relationship with the Russians.”
Despite Egyptian Foreign Minister Fahmy’s professed desire for it, Kazziha says there is little chance Egypt’s ties to Russia will deepen to the level they were during Soviet times. America’s friendship is too lucrative; the Egyptian military now runs on American, not Russian, hardware; and, while Russia’s presence in the region is growing, it’s far from ready to take on the role of Egypt’s patron.
But Russia is also now operating on a less-contested playing field in the Middle East, leaving it more room to make an impact.
In November 2011, Obama announced a shift in American military strength from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, reiterated this commitment in November, pledging that, by 2020, a full 60 per cent of U.S. naval forces will be based in the Pacific.
This move is driven by Obama’s belief that America has overextended itself in the Middle East by fighting costly wars with few benefits—and by China’s growing military strength in the Pacific, which worries U.S. allies such as Taiwan and Japan. North Korea remains an ever-present threat.
To the Obama administration, these concerns make the Middle East comparatively less important, and less deserving of American financial and military resources, says Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.
“Why was [the Middle East] important in the past? It was important because of oil,” he says. “We have oil coming out of every nook and cranny. We are just not as dependent as we once were on the Middle East. And if we’re not, why do we need to spend so much effort pacifying a region where maybe they’re just going to have to fight it out themselves?”
The Russians, however, are keen to exploit space America is vacating. And it does have long-standing friends in the region. One of them, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is fighting for the survival of his regime. Russia is standing beside him.
Two years ago, with the uprising against Assad seeming to grow stronger, this steadfast support appeared futile and almost desperate. But since then, Assad’s regime—with help from Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah—has dug in and pushed back a rebellion that is now divided and saturated with Islamist extremists. The U.S. supported rebels in the Free Syrian Army, but later suspended its delivery of non-lethal military aid because it feared this material might end up in the hands of jihadists.
Last September, Obama was on the brink of taking military action against Assad, after America concluded regime forces had used chemical weapons against civilians. But Russia brokered an agreement that would have Assad give up his chemical stockpiles and avert American air strikes. In a deft and unexpected move, Russia not only saved Assad, it made itself an indispensible diplomatic player in the conflict.
America, by contrast, looked weak and incompetent. Its failure to take military action against Syria, coupled with striking an interim deal with Iran aimed at ending the country’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program, unsettled allies in the region—notably, Israel and Sunni Arab states opposed to Iran, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. “There are a lot of common interests between Israel and the moderate Arab camp,” says a senior Israel official. “You might even call it the alliance of those who are frustrated with the United States.”
Echoing these concerns, Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, told the Telegraph in December that America’s recent moves regarding Syria and Iran, along with the speed with which it turned on its long-standing ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt three years ago, have caused America’s partners in the Middle East to question the value of an alliance with the U.S. compared to Russia. “The Russians have proved they are reliable friends,” Khalifa said. “As a result, some states in the region have already started to look at developing more multilateral relations, rather than just relying on Washington.”
Katz, a specialist on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, scoffs at the crown prince’s implicit threat to cozy up to Russia. “If you want them for your friends, you’re more than welcome,” he says. “I don’t think Russia will do anything more than sell arms at full price.”
Russian policy in the Middle East is shaped by two main goals, says Katz. The first is making money. Here, Russia has had some recent success. Deliveries on a $4-billion arms deal with Iraq reportedly began last fall. The second, he says, is opposing Sunni Muslim extremism—in large part because of fears about Sunni extremist movements in its own North Caucasus region. This pushes Moscow into eclectic friendships. It has backed Shia Iran and Assad’s regime in Syria. But Putin has also moved Russia closer to Israel—where some one million citizens are of Russian descent, and where large numbers of Russian tourists visit every year. Putin has made a point of adding political weight to these informal ties. He visited Israel twice as president before Obama got there for the first time. During Putin’s second trip, in July 2012, a monument was unveiled in the seaside city of Netanya to Soviet soldiers who fought the Nazis during the Second World War.
A third goal must be added to Russia’s Middle East strategy: eroding American influence. Putin came of age as a KGB agent during the Cold War. Deep in his heart, the United States will always be a opponent.
But Katz cautions that Russia’s geopolitical goals in the Middle East are not revolutionary. While Moscow wants to take advantage of American missteps, “they also depend on the American-established security order in the region. Russia has become the arch-conservative power in the Middle East.”
Putin has, therefore, consistently opposed regime change—in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Unlike George Bush a decade ago, Putin doesn’t want to remake the Middle East. He does want Russia to play a bigger role in it. As America pulls back, it will.