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Russland Premierminister Syrien Fayez Seraj & Außenminister Sergei Lawrow
Image: Reuters/S. Karpukhin

Russia's strategy in the Middle East

March 15, 2017

Russia is intensifying its political and military involvement in Libya as part of a new Middle East strategy, which has several objectives. Some of them benefit the region and others are mostly advantageous for Moscow.


The denial came promptly. No, Russia has not stationed special forces on the Egyptian-Libyan border. "There are no special forces in Sidi Barrani in Egypt," declared the Russian defense ministry in Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made a similar statement. He said that he had "no information" about Russian troops having been sent to Egypt. The contradictions go on. The news agency Reuters reported that a 22-member Russian special forces unit was at the military base there and that the US military has confirmed this.

However, it is undisputed that Russian involvement in Libya has intensified in recent weeks and months. Until the end of February in 2017, a few dozen armed staff members of a Russian security firm were in the areas controlled by Libyan General Khalifa Haftar's troops.

Without any democratic legitimacy, Haftar has taken it upon himself to fight the jihadist rebels, especially the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) terror organization. According to reports in the newspaper "Arab News," the owner of the firm has confirmed the presence of Russian mercenaries. However, he did not want to say who hired the men or where they were operating.

Libya's wielder of military power: General Khalifa Haftar
Libya's wielder of military power: General Khalifa HaftarImage: Reuters/M. Shemetov

A visit at the aircraft carrier

It is also well known that Haftar visited the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov when it was leaving the Syrian coast for Russia. According to media agencies, a video conference was held with the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu. Earlier this week, Haftar's advisor Abdelbaset Al-Basti met with Russian deputy minister of foreign affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov, in Moscow. Both of them agreed that it was necessary to establish a "collective dialogue with representatives of all political and tribal groups," stated the Russian defense ministry.

The involvement in Libya is an extension of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) policy, as presented in a strategy paper on Russian foreign policy in the autumn of 2016. It states that Moscow will continue to contribute to stability in the region and focus on the "political and diplomatic resolution of conflicts."

A new Middle East strategy

At the same time, the paper hints at an entirely new strategy in some regions of the world. "Today, at a time when the interdependence of people and states has increased significantly, attempts to establish security and stability on foreign territory have no future," the paper states. In other words, the days when a foreign power was able to shape another country's policies at its own discretion are now over.

Russia has drawn conclusions from its involvement in Syria, fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia does have very concrete ideas about politics for the future of the country. Yet this can only be done together with a partner, meaning Assad. Furthermore, there are other partners, like Iran or the Lebanese Hezbollah that has been backed by Iran. These alliances do not have to be lasting. The paper suggests that they are situational and temporary alliances that can also be disbanded once goals have been achieved.

Libyen Kämpfe in Sirte
The fight against terror: Libyan troops uncover and 'Islamic State' weapons cacheImage: Reuters/Stringer

Criticism of US Middle East policy

Russia has drawn conclusions from the US invasion in Iraq in 2003. The administration of George W. Bush went in without having found a local political partner who could help restructure the country. The post-war phase was accordingly chaotic. The impact of the intervention can still be felt today. Moscow has also criticized former President Barack Obama's Middle East policies. Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Duma's committee on international affairs, sees them as a failure and says, "the powerlessness and the lack of results are obvious."

It is clear that Moscow has learned from these mistakes. Foreign states should cooperate with strong regimes, no matter how ruthless they may be, Putin told "Newsweek" magazine when the new strategy paper was unveiled. Otherwise, the world would see the "destruction of state systems and the boom of terrorism."

Libyen zerstörter Transporter in Tripoli
A country in chaos: A destroyed van sits on the street in TripoliImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Turkia

A desire for global leadership

At the same time, however, Russia is striving to become a global leader after the collapse of the USSR. Moscow has been successful and can prove it. Newsweek reported that in the past two years, Putin has received leading politicians from Arab states a total of 25 times, which is, according to the magazine, five times more than Obama.

Russia's Syria involvement plays a substantial role in this result. That is where the country has tested its new strategy, says political analyst Randa Slim from Washington's Middle East Institute. The consequences are obvious. "Every political leader will now say, 'perhaps it is time to re-evaluate our relations with Russia.'"

It seems as though Russia has just begun working on its Middle East policy. According to a study conducted by the Texas-based think tank Stratfor, Libya is "just one element of Russia's far more comprehensive strategy of strengthening its ties to the southern Mediterranean region and establishing a realm of influence as in Soviet times."

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East
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