Can Russia succeed where the West has failed, stabilising the Middle East and North Africa through some kind of Pax Russica?
The question might have sounded strange not so long ago, but in less than two years, a mix of decisive action, unwavering and often ruthless use of military power, and bold political-diplomatic manoeuvring have given Moscow new prominence on the global stage.
Russia has managed to regain, at least in part, its role as a powerful interlocutor, which it lost after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In the process, it has fostered relationships with key countries in the region and closed lucrative arms sales deals.
A new Russian-Iranian axis in Syria
In Syria, Russia’s air support to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces has rescued the regime from likely collapse.
It has dramatically changed the balance of power between forces on the ground, permitting a series of military advances epitomised by the regime’s reconquest of Aleppo in December 2016. The moderate opposition has been destroyed in the process.
Russia’s direct intervention, which has entailed joining forces with Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, which provides support to Assad’s forces on the ground, has led to an ongoing realignment of the regional powers involved in the conflict.
While the three countries certainly pursue diverging strategic objectives, this alliance of convenience has put them in the driver’s seat for the future of the conflict.
Ceasefire and uncertainties
After the fall of Aleppo, Russia, along with Turkey and to a lesser extent Iran, has intensified its diplomatic efforts to broker a cessation of hostilities between warring parties.
Together with Turkey, Russia sponsored the Astana Conference in January.
Invitations to this meeting reflected the new balance of forces after the Aleppo battle, as shown by the choice of non-jihadist military actors called to the talks with the regime’s representatives.
While no face-to-face negotiations took place, the warring sides have pledged to consolidate the ceasefire and to resume a political process in Geneva, which is due to start on February 23.
Russia may indeed want to end the conflict and contribute to stabilising Syria, as this would help it to solidify strategic gains in the country and beyond. Yet, many uncertainties stand in the way.
The Astana conference deepened the divisions between rebel armed groups in Syria, which may well lead to some of them being radicalised further.
Russia is facing difficulties in keeping the Assad forces and Hezbollah in check, as the continuing ceasefire violations show.
Besides, the long-term durability of the troika, formed with Turkey and Iran, may soon be put to the test, especially with wild card Donald Trump in the White House. Ankara is nervous about Moscow’s plans regarding Kurdish autonomy in Syria after the war, and had a lukewarm reaction to Trump’s proposal to establish safe zones.
Russia and Iran continue to have strategic and tactical differences. Tensions between Iran and the new US administration are already on the rise. Should the predicted US-Russia rapprochement materialise, how long would the Russia-Iran entente last?
Russian investment in the region
Russia’s activism has also begun to pay dividends in Libya. Russia chose to put its weight behind the Egypt-aligned general Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA), providing much advertised economic and military support.
Moscow’s backing has allowed Haftar to consolidate his position as an indispensable party into any workable political agreement. But it has also been a way for Moscow to increase its profile as a power-broker in the Libyan stalemate.
Such investment may have important returns in terms of political influence, geo-strategic and economic gains if Libya stabilises.
But Moscow’s efforts have not been limited to countries at war. It’s relationship with Egypt has been strengthened by Putin’s unconditional support towards Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
With Israel, Russia has tried to underline common interests and reinforce the existing partnership. Despite the major tensions that occurred in 2011-2015, especially over Syria, Moscow is now privileging pragmatic exchanges even with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This has yielded some results, as shown by the agreement on oil production cuts.
The image of a strong Russia
Moscow had set objectives and, so far, seems to have achieved them. In the face of poor economic performance and perceived Western confrontation in Ukraine and “the near abroad”, President Putin needed to counter political discontent at home.
Russia has managed to take advantage of the post-2011 chaos and transform it into opportunity.
It has expanded its naval base in Tartus, its only one in the Mediterranean Sea. It has also expanded its influence in the broader Middle East, and set the basis of what could become a new security order in the region.
This has largely been inspired by the objective to fight radicalisation and jihadism at Russia’s borders, as well as among its large Muslim populations in southern regions.
So far, Moscow’s policy has mostly been based on supporting strongmen, making deals with authoritarian countries, defending existing state structures and borders and striving to recreate stability and a (favourable) regional order.
However, despite the apparent successes that it has produced in the short run, it is unlikely to truly stabilise the region in the long term.
Russia lacks the economic means and the political will required to reach sustainable conflict resolution and durable stabilisation.
Russia also needs dialogue with the West to address the complexities of the MENA region and EU contribution to fund post-conflict reconstruction. However, increasing deterioration of relationships and the growing negative perception of Russia in Western capitals raise serious doubts about the viability of such cooperation.
If it does not tackle the root causes of violence and instability – like the weakening of states and their incapacity to ensure political inclusion, services, security and development to their citizens or the sectarianisation of political conflicts – any attempt to stabilise the region is doomed to fail in the long run.
Left unaddressed, these issues will inevitably cause new crises, making the idea of a Pax Russica illusory.