By Farid Mirbagheri
The Russian Federation is gradually but surely reclaiming some of its lost influence in the world particularly in west Asia and north Africa. President Putin has exhibited a kind of forcefulness in foreign policy that is reminiscent of the old Soviet Union.
Turkey, Syria and Egypt all illustrate the point here. Eager to appear as a pro-freedom politician US President Obama did not hesitate to publicly and repeatedly call for the departure of Hosni Mubarak from Egyptian politics after 200,000 Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo and stayed out in protest for 18 days in 2011. Two years later, however, his deafening silence in the wake of millions of Egyptian protestors for Muslim Brotherhood President Mursi to step down somewhat belied his liberalist credentials. The US administration’s lukewarm and rather reluctant recognition of Abdul-Fatah Al-Sisi’s transitional government further widened the gap between Washington and Egypt.
Moscow’s realpolitik opportunism then kicked in. Since his election Egyptian President Al-Sisi has paid three state visits to Russia. Cooperation at all levels has been enhanced between the two capitals. In 2014, the volume of trade between them reached $5.5 billion, an increase of 86 per cent compared to 2013. In the same year Russia supplied Egypt with four million tons of grain, 30 per cent of the country’s annual need for grain. Reports in the media indicate Russia will be selling Egypt 12 Sukhoi Superjet 100, 46 Mig-29 Multi-role fighters and 46 Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopters. Furthermore, in November 2015 Egypt approved the building of the country’s first nuclear plant by Russia financed by a $25 billion loan from Moscow.
Turkey, the only Muslim member of Nato, has also been eager to mend ties with Russia. After the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet in November 2015 by Turkish armed forces, which brought the two countries relations to new low, a thaw is now clearly visible. The trigger for mending fences is rumoured to have been the Russian intelligence alerting President Erdogan to the coup attempt of last July. The Turkish president’s rather hasty visit to President Putin in the aftermath of the unsuccessful coup may have given some credence to those rumours.
Ankara’s displeasure with Washington is currently fuelled by the US hosting Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s main rival outside of Turkey and accused by Turkey of complicity in the botched coup, and refusing to hand him over to Turkish government. For his part Gulen flatly rejects all charges laid against him by Ankara. Erdogan therefore sees merit in playing on US sensitivities when flirting with Moscow. In the past Turkey also seems to have benefitted from playing this game when prior to 1974 it procured military hardware from the USSR that facilitated its invasion of Cyprus.
However, Ankara’s opposing goals with Russia over Syria, its continuing Kurdish issue and its heavy reliance on US military technology indicates that Turkey will remain firm in its Nato commitments for the foreseeable future.
The Kremlin’s tactful but aggressive policy in Syria has led to a further cementing of its influence in the country. Its deployment of S-400 surface-to-air missiles, the most advanced anti-aircraft hardware Russia possesses near Latakia in Syria, has significantly boosted Moscow’s strategic manoeuvrability in the country and eastern Mediterranean. Further, its military presence in eastern Syria since 2015 has given it extra leverage over the Iranian government for Russian military can now control the flow of people and arms between Syria and Hezbollah in south Lebanon; Iran may not be particularly pleased with that development but Israel must have welcomed it.
President Vladimir Putin may now feel content when reflecting on his country’s fortunes in west Asia and north Africa since the days of Boris Yeltsin. Egypt has taken decisive steps towards greater cooperation with Russia, Ankara is showing willingness to have closer ties with Moscow and Syria, with or without Assad regime, will to a large degree reflect Russian military, strategic and political interests.
Farid Mirbagheri is professor of international relations and holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia