Following a decade of “near-absence” in the Middle East, Russia is once again asserting itself as it looks to sell arms to former Soviet-era clients while breaking into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) market.
“Moscow’s policies again have become markedly more active,” said Dimitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “During his presidency, Vladimir Putin made trips to the region and paid a visit to Tehran, the first one since Stalin’s wartime allied conference journey.
“However, Russia’s policies are not yet embedded within some overall strategy and are largely driven by a set of pragmatic considerations. Russia’s principal objectives are to advance its economic interests and to counter threats to Russia’s national security,” Trenin wrote in a paper for the Washington-based Century Foundation.
Yury Barmin, a UAE-based Russian political and military analyst, said the Russian approach to the Middle East can be described as a “wait and see approach.”
“From the Soviet mistakes in the past, Russia has learned not to get overly involved in conflicts in the region in order to alter the result in its favor,” he said.
However, Moscow voiced its protest against the US intervention in Iraq, quietly reacted to the NATO operation in Libya and showed limited support for recent strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he added.
“The Kremlin’s position, however, has been not to confront the West in the Middle East, even when Russia’s interests are at stake, because it knows from the past that in the long run, military involvement from outside has little chance for success.”
Barmin, however, insisted that it is wrong to say that Russia is playing it safe, because its alliances in the region suggest otherwise.
“Moscow siding with risky partners, such as Syria and Iran, means that Russia is thinking over a long-term period. Russia’s unequivocal support for [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad is dictated by the presence of its naval support facility in Tartus, which in the event of Assad staying in power would likely be transformed into a larger naval base.
“Today, the Russian goal in the Middle East is to regain the influence that the USSR once had. While the USA is having uneasy relations with MENA [Middle East and North Africa] countries, Russia is making attempts to capitalize on this fact and fill the vacuum left when the United States leaves,” he said.
According to Barmin, Russia’s influence is dictated by arms trading. Russia’s biggest and most reliable customer, Algeria, has acquired $7.5 billion worth of military hardware from Russia since 2006, including MiG-29 and Su-30 fighters, S-300 rocket systems and T-90 tanks, he said.
Recently, Russia signed deals worth more than $10 billion with Egypt and Iraq for aircraft, rockets and missile systems.
“Within individual countries, Russian influence [rests] almost entirely on its arms sales or military aid to allies in MENA,” Barmin said.
“Moscow’s entry point to the MENA market is through the former Soviet clients, such as Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Jordan,” he said. “In some of them, old Soviet types of hardware are still in active use, while others have replaced them with US equivalents in the ’90s when Russia disappeared from the international arena.”
However successful Russian arms exports are to MENA, the country will not be a dominant player unless it wins over the GCC market — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“This region never was a Soviet client and it was only in recent years that Russia managed to secure a share of the market with its BMP-3 that it sold to Kuwait and the UAE in the ’90s and Pantsir air defense systems to the UAE in the 2000s,” Barmin said. “These were the only major deals that Russia had in the GCC, but they did not transform into continuous cooperation until very recently when Russia and the UAE were reported in talks about selling Russian MiG jets to the Emiratis and about joint production of weapons.”
Within the GCC, Russia has been fostering close relationships with influential regional power brokers.
Continuous cooperation with countries such as the UAE on the Middle Eastern and North African situation, as well as further development of multifaceted cooperation in various fields, has been evident by high-profile visits by the deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, and the minister of economy and various other high-ranking military officials over the past year.
However, the GCC’s major arms importer, Saudi Arabia, is an unlikely client for Russia at this point, Barmin said. “Even though there were reports that Riyadh is willing to buy MiG jets, the conflict in Syria has significantly cooled down Russian-Saudi relationships,” he said.
Egypt appears to be one of Moscow’s largest customers. “Two major deals signed in 2014 worth over $6.5 billion for MiG-29Ms, Mi-35s, S-300VMs, mobile coastal defense missiles and submarines, as well as the opening of the Russian helicopter maintenance center in Egypt scheduled for 2015” are the most recent transactions, he said.
Iraq this month signed a contract worth $4.2 billion for Pantsir air defense systems and Mi-28NE attack helicopters, as well as 10 Su-25 ground attack jets worth $500 million in June to counter the Islamic State expansion.
Alexander Fomin, Russian chief of the Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation, said Moscow is seeking to strengthen military ties with Cairo after the cooling of relations between Egypt and Washington, which led to the freezing of some aspects of military cooperation between the two countries, according to Interfax news agency.
Anatoly Isaikin, the head of Rosoboronexport, the state agency for Russia’s defense-related products, said the value of arms orders had increased in spite of Western sanctions imposed on Moscow because of the crisis in Ukraine.
“Today our orders portfolio stands at $38.7 billion. This is one of the strongest figures Rosoboronexport has had in recent years,” he said, according to Interfax news agency.
Despite the Egyptian military being supplied by US equipment since 1979, a transition to Russian hardware is not being viewed as a major issue.
“Even those countries have generals in their armies who know how easy-to-integrate and cheap Russian weapons are,” Barmin said. “Moscow is bidding on this. Offering their clients modern hardware that is based on Soviet prototypes is often a winning argument for military officials, many of whom were trained in the Soviet Union.”
The forces, however, will need to be trained; training cooperation has already started.
“Both Iraqi and Egyptian forces have been trained in Russia before. Egypt trained its specialists in the Astrakhan region of Russia for the ZSU-23-4 ‘Shilka’ while Iraqi forces had been trained for the weapons they just got from Russia by specialists who came to Iraq to train pilots for the Su-25 jets,” he said. “Also, Iraqi forces visited Russia earlier this year to be trained for Pantsir air defense systems.” ■
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