Opportunistic Russian diplomacy played on both sides in the recent spat between Baghdad and the Kurds. Moscow soft-pedalled its criticism of Kurdish independence aspirations while investing $4 billion in Kurdish oilfields, and simultaneously ramping up its investment in oil infrastructure across other parts of Iraq. While clumsy and ineffective diplomacy by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson succeeded in annoying all parties, Russia played an immaculate hand and is consequently being courted by both sides, desperate for foreign investment.
As US sanctions piled up against Venezuela, Russian state oil company Rosneft moved in and made massive investments in oilfields in Trump’s own backyard — in addition to $10bn of financial assistance to bail out this hugely indebted nation. States such as Cuba, Turkey, Vietnam and Egypt, facing a variety of restrictions and punitive economic measures from the West, have all been embraced by Moscow. This mirrors intensive activity across Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Against a context of Western indifference, leaders see an active and assertive Russia, and beat a path to its door.
During Putin’s visit to Tehran last week, Ayatollah Khamenei praised Russian cooperation in Syria, while delivering a speech restating that America was Iran’s No. 1 enemy. As America piles sanctions back upon Tehran, Russian investment in Iranian oilfields offers a lifeline, promising to take this odd relationship to a whole new level.
Moscow cultivated relations with Iran and Hezbollah, while not burning its boats with Israel. Paradoxically, Tel Aviv relies on Russia even more thanks to its status in Syria. When the Russian Defense Minister visited Israel last month he mediated on Iran’s behalf concerning Syrian de-escalation zones. Such contacts allow Israel to relay messages to Tehran about unacceptable behaviour on its northern borders.
Russia has always been ruthlessly pragmatic in exploiting the weakness of its rivals. After the disintegration of the USSR, Russian politicians watched impotently as a triumphant West encroached on its areas of influence. In Putin’s mindset, Russia’s actions to aggressively dislodge Western assets around the world are simply payback.
Iranian money, weapons and mercenaries prevented Bashar Assad from losing power in Syria, but it was Russian airpower that allowed the regime to claw back territory. Russia now has a free hand to sideline lethargic UN-led peace efforts and impose its own regional blueprint. This powerbroker role illustrates how Syria was only Moscow’s first step toward a dominating Middle Eastern posture.
Putin’s investment is expected to pay off in lucrative contracts for rebuilding Syria, while proving that Moscow stands behind its allies. At the UN Security Council it offers cast-iron immunity from prosecution for war crimes. In comparison, America spent three years noisily declaring wholehearted support for the Kurds in the fight against Daesh, then turned a blind eye while Iran-backed militias forced them out of Kirkuk and thousands of kilometers of territory. It will take generations for the Kurds, and others, to forget how little American pledges of loyalty count for.
Russia is the world’s largest country by area, but it is also the most socially unequal of the developed economies, with 87 percent of national wealth in the hands of its richest 10 percent. It is 100 years since the Russian Revolution, but Putin can hardly celebrate a people’s uprising against autocratic leadership; nevertheless, his regime nostalgically looks back to the imperial pretentions of the USSR.
The concern should be to ensure that Russian influence occurs on the Arab world’s terms, so that Moscow does not inadvertently empower sectarian and extremist forces hostile to regional peace and security.
Like Iran, Russia buys geopolitical status by diverting oil wealth into risky foreign adventures, projecting influence more aggressively than wealthy but passive European states. Putin made few serious attempts to hide massive meddling in the US and European elections. Clandestine contacts with Trump’s campaign team were so clumsy that they appeared designed to be discovered. Such meddling undermines Western democratic institutions and exposes their vulnerabilities. Putin doesn’t mind being loathed by the West, but he craves fear and respect.
Moscow’s funding of far-right groups and exploitation of socially divisive narratives in its cyber warfare against the West are also disturbing. Russian cyber-trolls are now lobbying in favor of another Scottish independence referendum, presumably aspiring to throw the UK into new political chaos.
Western institutions appear incapable of focusing on one strategic priority at once, accelerating the deterioration in the international community’s collective ability to address global threats. This provides the perfect international playing field for Putin, expanding unchallenged even into arenas which weren’t historically Russophile.
Putin doesn’t believe in accountable governance and international justice. His global ideology is the law of the jungle, and he has a kindred spirit in Trump. At one time it appeared there could be consequences for Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria. Does anyone still believe this? While Russia is instinctively unsupportive of extremist Islamist entities, particularly after the Chechen conflict, shared tactical objectives with Iran, Hezbollah and Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi are dangerously destabilizing the regional balance of power.
We can chafe at Russian expansionism, but the fact is that Putin is doing what he has always done. He gets away with it because all other powers are absent from the field. Our concern is ensuring that Russian influence occurs on the terms of the Arab world, in harmony with higher national interests, so that Moscow doesn’t inadvertently empower sectarian and extremist forces hostile to regional peace and security.
Putin respects single-minded decisiveness and plain talking. Arab states should close ranks and interact with Moscow on a level playing field. Engagement from a position of strength is the best deterrence against those who would exploit our weaknesses.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.