Are Russia and the Balkans in the Middle East
New hegemon in the Middle East?
Will Russia be able to massively expand its influence in the Middle East if the US pulls out of the region? Hardly - Russia's role in the region is clearly overestimated, says Shlomo Ben-Ami. A comment from EURACTIV's media partner IPG.
The collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago also marked the decline of its once formidable presence in the Middle East. However, as the US is pulling out of the region, Russia is now pushing for a combination of military force, arms deals, strategic partnerships and the use of soft power to resume the old Soviet position there. However, the Russian success is clearly overestimated.
Russia's advance in the field of soft power is definitely impressive. As early as 2012, President Vladimir Putin emphasized the need to expand Russia's “global presence, especially in those countries where a significant part of the population speaks or understands Russian.” At a conference in Moscow recently, Putin made it clear that especially Israel is on that list.
As part of this effort, Russia established a federal agency for foreign contacts calledRossotrudnichestvowhich opened centers for science and culture in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia. It also became the Arab service of the state-funded international television news channelRT expanded. Heard with 6.3 million viewers monthly in six Arabic-speaking countries - Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab EmiratesRT Arabic now one of the leading news networks in the Middle East.
As part of its efforts to fill the vacuum created by the US withdrawal from the region, Russia is trying to differentiate itself from the long-standing hegemon of the Middle East by establishing itself not as an imperial power but as an agent of cultural progress. "Exporting education and culture will help promote Russian goods, services and ideas," Putin declared in 2012. "That will not be achieved with weapons and enforced political regimes."
This message did not fail to have its effect. Last year, only 35 percent of young Arabs (between 18 and 24 years of age) considered the United States an ally, compared with 63 percent two years earlier. Although Russia has not overtaken the US in this regard, 20 percent of respondents said Russia was their "best friend" outside of the Middle East and North Africa.
However, Russia is likely to disappoint its fans in the Middle East, not least in its role as a regional peace broker. After the failure of the American peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban - and almost 30 years after the end of the decades-long Soviet occupation of the country - the Kremlin stepped in to mediate the talks between the Taliban and representatives of other Afghan groups.
However, the Middle East - a region of diverse conflicts due to religious, ethnic, political, historical and strategic factors - has repeatedly worn down the commitment of foreign actors. There is little reason to believe that Russia, which has never shown particular tendencies towards long-term peacebuilding, will be able to broker, let alone secure lasting peace deals.
Russia's diplomatic weaknesses are clearly evident in Syria. With the use of hard power it was possible to decide the civil war in favor of the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad and it became clear how the strategic use of unrestricted military force - think of the complete destruction of Aleppo - can change everything.
Since then, however, Russia has been embroiled in local rivalries between Syria and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey and the Kurds, and between Israel and Iran. Although Russia managed to maintain dialogue with different sides through a policy of neutrality, it will not be able to create a new regional order.
Currently, Syria is Russia's only client in the Middle East. But not least because of the continuing sanctions from the West, Russia was unable to capitalize on its position, even in Syria. In addition, Russia and its partner in Syria, Iran, disagree on their respective strategic goals. Russia wants a stable Syria where it can gain a foothold as part of Russia's overarching strategy to reverse the Cold War defeat. The fact that Iran is using Syria as an arena to wage its conflict with Israel undermines that goal.
Incidentally, Russia is facing countries that are essentially something like swing states that are ready to cooperate with the power that makes them the best offer. Think of Egypt, which has become a major buyer of Russian arms and a strategic ally in Libya, where both countries, in disregard of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, support the Libyan national army under Khalifa Haftar. But Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is far from establishing Russia as its top ally. Rather, he uses this relationship to strengthen his position against the influence of the USA.
Saudi Arabia must coordinate its oil activities with Russia to accommodate the increase in energy production in the US. And undoubtedly there was concern about US President Donald Trump's betrayal of the Kurds in Syria, who, like the Saudis, were loyal American allies. But the idea that Saudi Arabia would turn its back on the US is absurd. Recalling the value the kingdom attaches to US engagement in the region, following America's withdrawal from northern Syria, Saudi Arabia agreed to fund the deployment of a US contingent to keep Iran in check.
Israel too has no choice but to coordinate with Russia in Syria, where it has attacked Iranian military facilities. However, there is no incentive or no way to give up your unique relationship with the United States.
With regard to Turkey, the top representative of the Turkish defense industry, Ismail Demir, recently stated that his country has "allied relations" with both Russia and the US. In truth, however, Turkey will not sacrifice its NATO membership, no matter how many Russian S-400 missiles it buys.
The US may withdraw from the Middle East militarily, but it has not left the region. America has a massive armed presence in the Gulf and benefits from a long history of popular cultural imperialism that the incipient Russian soft power offensive simply cannot keep up with.
Russia may be able to show its influence indefinitely. However, given an economy the size of South Korea and military capabilities that cannot compete with that of the US, the necessary instruments are lacking to act as the undisputed hegemon. If the US decides to resume leadership in democracy and peace, Russia will not hold a candle to them.
Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Israeli Foreign Minister and Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
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