How key player Russia came from nowhere
President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey last week went largely unnoticed amid the growing tensions between the US and Iran, but it underlined Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East.
Putin visited Istanbul — after a surprise stop in Damascus — to officially open the 930km TurkStream pipeline, which transports gas from Anapa in southwest Russia, under the Black Sea to Turkey and farther into southeast Europe, avoiding Ukraine.
A week before the inauguration of TurkStream, with its annual capacity of 31.5 billion cubic meters of gas, Israel, Greece and Cyprus had signed an agreement to build their own pipeline to transport gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Greece and Europe. Unlike TurkStream or the Russo-German Nordstream venture, both of which are subject to US sanctions, the EastMed pipeline has Washington’s explicit endorsement. It was therefore an important time for Russia to mark territory in the eastern Mediterranean.
Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also took the opportunity to talk about Syria and Libya, where they are on opposite sides.
The need to discuss the former was obvious, with Putin supporting the Assad regime and Erdogan the opposition. The two presidents agreed on a new cease-fire in Idlib from Sunday. The regime offensive there, enabled by Russian airpower, has displaced more then 300,000 civilians who have headed north toward Turkey, which has already accommodated 3.6 million Syrian refugees and cannot take any more.
The humanitarian situation in Idlib may well deteriorate further despite the cease-fire, because last week at the UN Security Council China and Russia vetoed the extension of the UN’s cross-border aid mission into northeast Syria. A compromise of sorts was found by halving the border crossings to two and the duration of the scaled-down mission to six months. This means that close to one million people in northeast Syria could be cut off from humanitarian aid from next week.
Russia has emerged from nowhere as a key player on many fronts in the Middle East — and in the process has acquired a naval base at Tartus and an air base at Khmeimim.
Erdogan and Putin also agreed on a cease-fire in Libya, where Turkey is arming and sending troops to the UN-backed government of Fayez Al-Sarraj in Tripoli, while Russia supports his eastern rival, military strongman Khalifa Haftar.
Putin’s visit to Damascus and Istanbul underscored Russia’s growing political economic and military influence in the region. Despite their differences over regional conflicts, Putin is selling not only Russian gas to Erdogan, but also Russia’s S-400 air defense system, a deal that put a spanner in the works of Turkey’s relationship with both NATO and the US. It also came at considerable cost to Turkey’s defense and economy; it was kicked out of the US F-35 fighter jet program, for which its industries had produced more than 900 parts, and the Turkish air force will no longer receive the plane.
To export its gas, Russia uses all possible routes to circumvent Ukraine, whether under the Baltic or under the Black Sea. The latter is important to southeast Europe, because when Russia and Ukraine squabble over payment and the gas is cut off, Balkan cities such as Sarajevo literally freeze. Moscow also co-operates to balance oil markets, leading the 10 non-OPEC allies in the OPEC+agreement.
In other words, Russia has emerged from nowhere as a key player on many fronts in the Middle East — and in the process has acquired a naval base at Tartus and an air base at Khmeimim.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources