For all the Russia-related chatter coming from Washington of late, United States policy towards the Kremlin has been difficult to discern. But while much of official Washington and American media focus on the politically charged investigation of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Moscow isn’t standing still but rather capitalizing on the distraction. With all eyes on U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin is advancing his foreign policy agenda on multiple fronts, especially in the Middle East.
For Russians, the move makes sense. What was once hailed as a Putin-Trump bromance is now far from certain, and the possibility of a productive relaunch for bilateral relations seems increasingly unlikely. In response, Putin is looking elsewhere to solidify Russia’s place in the world order.
Russians remain confused and concerned about potential U.S. policy. Russians are confused by what they see as contradictory positions from the president himself and his top advisers on Russia-related issues. While President Trump has tweeted and commented publicly about his desire to improve relations with Moscow both before and after his inauguration, he has appointed top cabinet officials and advisers who do not appear to share that view. Moreover, following meetings with Ukrainian and European politicians, the president himself declared his commitment to keeping pressure on Russia until it stops occupying Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.
Moscow is toughening its own geopolitical position in regions where the U.S. and Russia have traditionally jockeyed for influence.
In their skepticism toward the likelihood of a new path forward with America, Russians note the consistently hawkish tone from both parties in Congress, whose attitudes Kremlin spokesmen have decried as “McCarthyist.” They recognize that under the current circumstances, the U.S. Senate is unlikely to confirm any Trump nominee perceived as supporting improved relations with Russia. Likewise, prominent executive branch appointees have spoken out sharply against Russia over the past two months, including U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who urged, “we should never trust Russia,” and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who poured cold water on the idea of U.S.-Russian military cooperation. Even the president appeared to reject an overture from Putin during their phone call in January, when Putin proposed to open discussions on a follow-up to the New START arms control agreement, and Trump dismissed it as a “bad deal” that favored Russia.
Given this, top Russian officials and analysts now assume that the Trump administration will be at best totally hemmed in on Russia policy, and will at worst come to agree with the hawkish bipartisan majority in Washington. Anticipating no further positive initiatives from the U.S. side, Moscow is toughening its own geopolitical position, especially in regions where the U.S. and Russia have traditionally jockeyed for influence. While Russia will keep up the pressure on its immediate neighbors, especially Ukraine, and may seek to shape favorable outcomes in the upcoming French and German elections, the Middle East looks increasingly like an open field for Russia’s foreign policy ambitions.
Thanks to Russia’s now 18-month-old military intervention in Syria, Syrian President Bashar Assad is firmly back in control of Aleppo and most of the country’s population centers. With Iran and Hezbollah providing ground forces and Russia supplying air support, Assad is poised to pursue his declared goal of regaining “every inch” of Syrian territory. Russia is now both a major military power broker and the indispensable facilitator for any future efforts to manage and contain the conflict diplomatically.
Recognizing the West’s indifferent response to the Libyan civil war, Russia has backed Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi loyalist turned dissident who lived for two decades in the United States and opposes Libya’s U.N.-backed government. With Russian support, Haftar and his military forces based in Libya’s east may be poised to take over the country and establish a military-led regime with close ties to its Russian patrons. Late last year, he traveled to Moscow for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and in January went aboard the Russian flagship Admiral Kuznetsov for a secure conference call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. If Haftar prevails, Moscow may be the geopolitical beneficiary of Washington’s failure to adequately prepare for post-Gaddafi Libya, which former U.S. President Barack Obama has called his “worst mistake.”
Moscow may be the beneficiary of Washington’s failure to adequately prepare for post-Gaddafi Libya.
Russia’s influence may be growing in the space between Libya and Syria as well ― the Egyptians have contracted with Russia’s state nuclear energy giant Rosatom to build a power plant at Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast.
Such a project suggests closer ties not only in the billions of dollars required to finance construction, but also in light of multi-year maintenance and security contracts to be provided by Russian firms. Russia also continues to expand arms sales with Egypt ― one of the world’s top arms markets and still a recipient of over $1 billion in U.S. security assistance. While Egypt is unlikely to downgrade ties with Washington, it clearly sees no disadvantage in cozying up to Moscow at the same time.
And as Egypt begins to strengthen its relationship with Moscow, Putin and his Russian military have not wasted any time in using the new friendship, with Russian special forces apparently operating out of a base in western Egypt, ostensibly to support operations in Libya.
Perhaps the most consequential cases to watch are Russia’s relations with the two non-Arab military powers in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and Israel, which are both longstanding U.S. allies. Despite the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in late 2015 and the murder of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara last December, Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have maintained an apparently close relationship. Russia has included Turkey in consultations on Syria, even while excluding the U.S., and it has carefully avoided provoking Turkey over the Kurdish question, while the U.S.-led coalition makes common cause with Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Russia’s relations with Israel remain fraught over the Palestinian issue and Russia’s ties with Iran, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Putin in Moscow this month, and the two reportedly speak regularly by phone. With both Russian and Israeli jets in the skies over Syria, direct dialogue is indispensable. But Israel also views close ties with Moscow as necessary to blunt further sales of sophisticated Russian weaponry to Iran, like the S-300 air defense systems that Moscow delivered late last year. For Russia, Israel is a source of investment and high technology unavailable from Europe thanks to sanctions, and with the added appeal of a large Russian-speaking population in Israel itself.
So while Americans muddle through the Trump-Russia investigations, Russians have abandoned hopes of a new “reset” and doubled down on their assertive role internationally. In the Middle East especially, Washington’s failure to develop a comprehensive policy for engaging, deterring and balancing Kremlin influence is likely to have lasting consequences. From Tripoli to Tehran, Russia’s military, political and economic clout is growing, raising the prospect for the first time in half a century that the United States will be forced play second fiddle to another world power in the Middle East.