Russia tries to edge out Europe and US in MENA

Russia’s renewed presence in the Middle East and Africa has many governments pondering what the Kremlin’s rising influence may produce.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 17, at the end of the 3-day state visit to Russia. Sisi’s prize for the journey — his fourth to Russia since taking office in 2014 — was what officials described as a strategic cooperation treaty designed to increase trade, military and other ties between the two countries.

Sisi lauded his conversations with Putin as extremely productive. They open, he said, a “new chapter” of the bilateral relationship. Putin said the two men discussed expanding arms sales and military ties. He emphasised that Russian and Egyptian paratroopers were conducting joint military manoeuvres in Egypt even as he and Sisi spoke.

Russia’s deepening relationship with Egypt is another manifestation of a process that has been under way under Putin’s leadership. Simply put, it is this: the re-emergence of Russia as a counterweight to Europe and America in the Middle East and Africa.

The process has historical antecedents. During the post-second world war era pretty much to the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow played a significant role in the global decolonisation process.

From Algeria to Vietnam, the Soviet Union supplied weaponry to former colonial states fighting for independence. It did so under the socialist rubric of support for “wars of national liberation.” In Africa, Moscow became involved in proxy wars in several countries, including Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique. It helped independence movements fight Western colonial powers.

Now that it is the Russian Federation, it is slowly renewing its support in those post-colonial regions, notably the Middle East and Africa, albeit in a more constrained fashion.

Russia is supplying everything from advanced anti-aircraft systems to training and even mercenary “boots on the ground.” From Syria to Zimbabwe, the contributions have both complicated local conditions and confounded the influence of globalists.

The most prominent example is the Syrian civil war. Direct Russian military intervention began in September 2015, after an official request for military aid from the Syrian government. The assistance proved to be a game changer. For the last three years, Russia’s help has allowed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to stay in power. This, despite the regional political tempest unleashed by the “Arab spring” as well as covert support being provided to rebels who could bring about the Western desire for regime change in Syria.

Perhaps the most significant tactical shift caused by Russian military assistance is in arms supplies. Its S-300 and S-400 missile defence systems are being supplied to Syria, Iran and Turkey, all of which are worried about aerial assaults from the US-equipped Israeli Defence Forces.

Unsurprisingly, the Israeli government has strongly protested the provision of S-300 systems to Syria and Iran. NATO expressed concern about the deployment of an S-400 system by alliance member Turkey. Even before Sisi met with Putin on October 17, Cairo had signed multibillion-dollar deals to purchase Russian military weapons, including warplanes.

Beyond the Middle East and the Maghreb, geopolitics has been a substantial driver of Russian policy in Africa. Since Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, a move that generated much international opprobrium, Russia has signed at least 19 military cooperation deals with sub-Saharan African countries and increased efforts to broaden its economic and diplomatic partnerships there.

A notable example of Russia’s rising African military footprint began late last year in the Central African Republic (CAR). The country had descended into conflict in 2013 after militants overthrew the government, unleashing a civil war.

CAR’s government pleaded for international assistance to fight the militias. Russia responded not only with armaments shipments but “contractors” as well, mercenaries from various private paramilitary organisations, including the Wagner Group. Estimates of the Russian mercenary presence in CAR number in the hundreds.

Russia’s renewed presence in the Middle East and Africa has many governments pondering what the Kremlin’s rising influence may produce. For Russia, it is about ensuring stability. Others are not so sure.

John C.K. Daly is a Washington-based specialist on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.