The Disrupting Stabilizer 

How Russia’s military, diplomatic, and economic roles in the Mediterranean have developed in recent years

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi attend a welcoming ceremony onboard guided missile cruiser Moskva at the Black Sea port of Sochi, August 12, 2014. Alexei Druzhinin/Reuters/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, Russia’s geopolitical position in the Mediterranean region has undergone a sweeping transformation. At the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s third term as president, the short-term outlook for Russia’s influence in the Mediterranean region was bleak. Having designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, Russia’s ability to engage with Tunisia’s Ennahda government and Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi faced institutional obstacles. To make matters worse, Russia lost $4 billion in arms contracts with Libya when Muammar Gaddafi perished in October 2011, while Moscow’s sole regional ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, was struggling for survival. 

Yet, in the following eight-year timespan, from 2012–2020, the story of Russia’s influence on the eastern Mediterranean has been one of almost unbridled ascendancy. The Russian-led Astana and Sochi peace processes dominate negotiations on Syria’s political future; Russia has established robust partnerships with Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey; and Moscow has featured prominently in negotiations on resolving Libya’s ongoing civil war. 

With Russia’s geopolitical standing in the Mediterranean arguably more pronounced than at any time since Egypt expelled its Soviet technical advisors in 1972, and more diplomatic partners in the region than the USSR could ever claim, the impact of Russia’s resurgence on the prosperity and stability of the Mediterranean region needs to be assessed. The paradox of Russia’s involvement in the Mediterranean region is that Moscow is genuinely interested in contributing to the stability of the Mediterranean, due to Soviet-inspired great power status ambitions and economic interests, but has often resorted to disruptive and destabilizing tactics to expand its regional influence. 

Russia’s dual role as a “disruptor” and a “stabilizer” shows the trajectory of Moscow’s economic, diplomatic, and security roles in the Mediterranean. The question then is whether Russia’s Mediterranean strategy has long-term sustainability in the face of assertions from other powers in the region. 

Russia’s Economic Interests
Although economic factors have often taken a backseat to Russia’s pursuit of diplomatic influence in the Middle East, Moscow’s power projection strategy in the Mediterranean has uncharacteristically large economic foundations. Turkey, for example, is Russia’s largest trading partner in the Middle East, with at least $25.2 billion in annual commercial transactions. But Russia also has $10 billion in annual trade with Egypt and $5 billion in annual trade with Israel, as well as considerable commercial relations with Greece that skirt around European Union (EU) sanctions. These commercial foundations are the natural succession of the Soviet Union’s prominent economic presence in the region during the Cold War. The Soviet presence revolved around economic development projects and grain exports, but Moscow has also gradually ensconced itself as a crucial supplier of the region’s energy needs. 

Since Russia began large-scale natural gas sales to Greece, it has become a major energy exporter to the Mediterranean region. Contracts in this sphere have proliferated in recent months, in spite of pricing uncertainties and the COVID-19 pandemic. On January 8, 2020, Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled TurkStream, a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Turkey that distributes supplies held by Russian natural gas company Gazprom. This gas pipeline will play a primary role in supplying the entirety of southeastern Europe, including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Private Russian gas producers such as Novatek supply liquefied natural gas to the Turkish market, and this division of responsibilities has established Moscow’s role as a leading guarantor of Turkey’s energy security.

In North Africa, Russia has combined investments in major gas companies with the supply of nuclear energy. On May 4, 2020, Algeria’s natural gas company Sonatrach signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a possible partnership with Russian oil giant Lukoil, and this deal expanded on the existing MOU between Sonatrach and Gazprom, which was signed in 2006. On April 19, 2020, Russian nuclear energy giant Rosatom signed a ten-year contract with Egypt to supply parts. Russia has cautiously avoided binding commitments to controversial energy sector projects, such as Turkey’s offshore drilling off Cyprus’s coast and Israel’s offshore energy reserves, because it wishes to maintain favorable relations with Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and Iran. Russia’s cautious approach aligns closely with its broader balancing strategy as it regularly engages with the leaders of all four countries and is viewed by each country as a vital stakeholder in Syria and Libya. Notwithstanding its noncommittal approach to the region’s most controversial deals, Russia is an indispensable force in Mediterranean energy markets. 

Although Russia’s standing as an economic power in the Mediterranean is indisputable, its approach to obtaining commercial deals reveals both the disruptive and stabilizing elements of its regional policy. On the disruptive side is Moscow’s willingness to leverage its influence in regional conflict zones to its commercial advantage. Its post-2015 military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria has primed Russian companies for preferential deals in Syria’s energy, housing construction, and petrochemical sectors once the war finally draws to a close. Similarly, Russia’s simultaneous supply of banknotes to eastern Libya, which is dominated by Libyan National Army chief Khalifa Haftar, and Russian oil company Rosneft’s stake in the National Oil Corporation controlled by Libya’s United Nations (UN)-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), has effectively made it complicit in funding both parties of the war. 

Although Russia’s economic activities in the Mediterranean region arguably contribute more to protracted conflicts than those of any other external power, it also plays a critical role in shoring up the region’s economic security. This dimension of Russian economic policy is a natural succession from Soviet-era power projection, when the USSR supplied extensive financial aid to conciliatory non-aligned states, such as Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, and bastions of Arab socialism, like Syria under Hafez Al-Assad and Algeria under Ahmed Ben Bella. 

As Russia lacks the ability to emulate the Soviet Union’s capital-intensive approach to economic engagement with the Mediterranean region, its contributions to regional economic security are based on exports of essential goods and investments in high-risk economic zones. Russia plays an understated role in maintaining food security in the Mediterranean region. Turkey and Egypt are the two largest purchasers of Russian wheat in the world and Russia’s supply of two hundred thousand tons of wheat to Syria in January 2019 prevented a humanitarian crisis triggered by a historically poor harvest. Meanwhile, Russia’s “suitcase trade”, which consists of its vendors reselling goods from Turkish bazaars, provides critical hard currency for Turkey’s informal economy, which helped ameliorate economic crises in Turkey throughout the 1990s. 

In addition to its transactional contributions to economic security in the Mediterranean, Russia has also taken major steps toward constructing a stable economic order in the region; it has supported the construction of free trade zones, which promote economic interdependence. In October 2019, Putin expressed support for a free trade zone between Egypt, Israel, and Russia, and believes that this zone will favorably contribute to peace in the Middle East. The Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union’s overtures to Israel, Syria, and Egypt could also help fuel interdependence in the future, even though at present its aspirations appear more expansive than its economic leverage. 

Moscow’s Evolving Diplomatic Role
Beyond its growing economic role, Russia’s prominent diplomatic presence in the Mediterranean is critical to its projection of great power status. Russia’s involvement in regional diplomacy has noteworthy parallels with the Soviet era. The Soviet Union staunchly resisted Western unilateralism in the region, such as the British and French campaign to secure control of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the 1986 U.S. air strikes on Libya. 

Russia’s condemnation of the extension of UN Resolution 1973 on Libya into a NATO-led regime change mission in 2011 and Moscow’s staunch opposition to UN sanctions against Assad in Syria reveal a pronounced continuity in Soviet policies. The USSR’s active role in protracted conflict resolution negotiations under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, which included its cosponsorship of the October 1991 Madrid peace talks on Israel–Palestine, has also repeated itself in Moscow’s leadership of the Astana peace negotiations in Syria and ad hoc diplomatic initiatives in Libya.  

Despite some parallels with Soviet status projection efforts, however, Russia’s current diplomatic profile in the Mediterranean region contrasts with the USSR’s approach. While the Soviet Union anchored its foreign policy around a select group of partners—such as Egypt prior to the mid-1970s, Algeria, Syria, and to a lesser extent, Libya—and was openly hostile toward Israel, the Putin administration has prioritized breadth over depth in its formation of partnerships. This policy of “strategic flexibility” mirrors Russia’s “friends with everyone, enemies of none” approach to Middle East diplomacy. In keeping with this policy, Russia has balanced favorable ties with regional adversaries, such as Israel and Syria; Egypt and Turkey; Greece and Turkey; and Morocco and Algeria. As a result, Russia has refrained from establishing close alliances with most countries in the region, with the exception of its military support for Syria, and can easily leverage its UN Security Council permanent membership status and its regional profile to insert itself as an arbiter in the region’s protracted conflicts. 

In spite of Russia’s emphasis on balancing, its diplomatic conduct reflects its dual role as both a disruptor and order-builder in the Mediterranean region. In keeping with its strategy of accruing influence through disruptive tactics, Russia has used diplomacy as a tool of hybrid warfare to advance its geopolitical interests at the expense of regional stability and human rights. Even though a federal solution—which granted Assad control over Damascus and Alawite-majority areas; the Kurds’ jurisdiction over northern Syria’s Rojava region; and the opposition control over its strongholds, like Homs and Idlib—might have resulted in greater stability in Syria, Moscow has consistently used its diplomatic clout to augment Assad’s hegemony. This trend is exemplified in Russia’s enthusiastic support for Syrian constitutional negotiations—which are viewed by the opposition as rubber stamps for Assad’s authority—and decision to broker a pact between the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian government forces in October 2019, which increased Damascus’ hegemony over northern Syria. The Kremlin’s leadership in the Astana peace talks is largely aimed at strengthening its partnership with Iran, mitigating tensions with Turkey, and complementing its military intervention in Syria rather than pursuing a lasting peace.  

Russia’s burgeoning diplomatic involvement in Libya follows a similar pattern. In the months leading up to Haftar’s April 2019 offensive on Tripoli, Russia appointed Lev Dengov (a close confidant of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov) as the head of Russia’s Contact Group on a Libyan conflict settlement and diplomatically engaged with representatives from all major factions of the conflict. 

On April 8, just days before the offensive began, Russia blocked a UN Security Council resolution which would have condemned Haftar and engaged with the GNA, in an effort to rapidly freeze the Libyan war when Haftar was in a position of strength. This gambit failed as Russian-brokered peace talks, which were supported by Turkey, collapsed in mid-January. Yet, Moscow continues to use diplomatic negotiations in Libya to advance its military ambitions. These include a long-standing interest in using the country’s deep water ports to expand Russia’s naval reach.  

Notwithstanding its largely self-serving diplomatic initiatives in Syria and Libya, Moscow has also actively supported arbitration efforts aimed at enhancing the stability of the Mediterranean’s fractious regional order. Russia has regularly contributed to international efforts to resolve the Palestinian–Israeli conflict; as recently as December 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the creation of a united Palestian state was essential for stability in the Mediterranean. To that end, Russia has hosted intra-Palestinian negotiations in Moscow to reduce tension between rival factions Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.

Russia has also supported UN-backed peace initiatives in the western Sahara, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has engaged closely with Moroccan officials on mitigating a potential conflict in this region. In spite of its strengthened relationship with Turkey, Russia has used its diplomatic clout to condemn Turkish expansionism in the Mediterranean by supporting Cyprus’s sovereignty, urging a deescalation of Greek–Turkish tensions, and opposing Turkey’s controversial maritime security deal with Libya in December 2019. Much like its order-building forays in the economic sphere, Russia’s diplomatic gambits often fail to match their grandiose rhetorical ambitions; but, Moscow still sees its diplomatic influence as critical to the stability of the Mediterranean region.  

The Three-Headed Security Pillar of Russia’s Power Projection
Since Russia’s military intervention in Syria began in September 2015, Moscow’s involvement in Mediterranean security has precipitously increased. Russia provided aerial and ground support for the Syrian army’s offensives on rebel-held territory, deployed private military contractors to Libya, and regularly engaged with France and Italy on transnational security threats emanating from the Mediterranean. Much like Russia’s economic and diplomatic efforts, its profile in the security sphere is a close adaptation of Soviet-era conduct. The first parallel between contemporary Russian and Soviet strategies on Mediterranean security is Russia’s major role as an arms vendor to the region. 

The Soviets supplied Egypt with the military infrastructure that it used in its wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973, was a major supplier of weaponry to Gaddafi’s Libya, and was the origin point for 90 percent of Syria’s arms during the 1970s and 1980s. The USSR’s arms sales to countries in the Mediterranean region were central to its status, but Moscow was occasionally criticized by its Arab partners for not supplying weapons of equal sophistication to those that the United States supplied to Israel. 

Even though Russia’s current Mediterranean strategy is more flexible than its Soviet predecessor, Moscow’s principal arms clients resemble those that it courted during the Cold War. In spite of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdowns on Syrian civilians, Russia upheld its arms deals signed with Syria from 2007–2011, which amounted to $4 billion. Russia’s continued supply of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to the Syrian army in the face of international condemnations of Assad’s conduct cemented its image as a crisis-proof arms vendor. 

Russian Ambassador to Algeria Igor Belayev noted in July 2018 that, despite its periodic reservations about the quality of Russian arms exports, Algeria accounts for half of Moscow’s weapons sales to Africa. In March 2019, Russia agreed to sell Egypt Su-35 fighter jets worth $2 billion. Yet, Putin has also been less concerned than his Soviet predecessors about using arms sales as a tool of geopolitical influence and has more freely pursued transactional contracts with NATO member countries. In recent years, Russia’s S-300 missile defense system has earned a prominent place in Greece’s military arsenal. Similarly, Turkey purchased Russia’s flagship S-400 missile defense system in July 2019, in spite of the credible threat of retaliatory sanctions from the United States. 

The second pillar of Russia’s Mediterranean security policy that resembles the Soviet past is its efforts to establish itself as a major littoral power in the region. The Soviet Union’s extensive array of naval bases in the Mediterranean—which included Tobruk and Tripoli in Libya; Alexandria and Marsa Matruh in Egypt; Bizerte and Sfax in Tunisia; and Latakia and Tartous in Syria—cemented its status as a military superpower in the Mediterranean region. Under Putin, Russia has sought to recapture this array of bases, but has so far only managed to secure Tartous in Syria and struggled to secure Benghazi in Libya as a second naval installation.  To compensate for these shortcomings, Russia has taken a proactive role participating in military drills in the Mediterranean Sea. The most notable example so far has been the “Arrow of Friendship” joint exercise with Egypt in November 2019. 

The twin role of Russia as a disruptor and stabilizer also readily extends to the sphere of Mediterranean security. Russia has staunchly supported authoritarianism and military-brokered transitions in the region in order to suppress pro-democracy movements and contain the spread of Islamic extremism. Although Russia claimed that it intervened militarily in Syria  to combat the Islamic State, more than 90 percent of airstrikes in late 2015 targeted moderate rebel forces (according to U.S. estimates) and Moscow has routinely used the “terrorist” designation when discussing moderate Syrian opposition forces. Similarly, Russian officials sounded the alarm on the mass emigration of Syrian extremists to Libya months before Turkey’s military intervention on the GNA’s behalf in early January gave these allegations some credence. The Kremlin has unofficially supported Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli as a counterterrorism measure. Russian officials have also equated pro-democracy movements, such as the Arab uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and 2019 peaceful protests in Algeria, with external interference, and regularly supported authoritarian rule as the antidote to destabilizing alleged “color revolutions” in the region. 

In tandem with these actions, which prop up unpopular or isolated authoritarian regimes, Russia has attempted to contribute constructively to Mediterranean security. By engaging with Lebanese officials at a bilateral level and inviting Lebanon as an observer state to the Astana negotiations, Russia has tried to develop plans to allow the return of refugees to Syria and prevent mass emigration to Turkey or Greece. In December 2019, Lavrov claimed that the Baghdad Information Center—set up in 2015 as part of a joint effort by Russia, Iran, Iraq, and the Syrian government to combat the Islamic State—had been effective in curbing cross-border terrorist attacks between Iraq and Syria, which pose a threat to the broader collective security of the Mediterranean. 

Yet, Moscow’s efforts to frame itself as a major player in Mediterranean security, which are especially evident in bilateral meetings between Russian and Italian officials, often are premised on exaggerations of its influence and historical memory, rather than tangible contributions on the ground. 

The Kremlin’s Extra-Regional Impact
Although it is unlikely to achieve a swift return to the Soviet Union’s superpower status in the Mediterranean, Russia’s diplomatic, economic, and military influence in the region is likely to continue expanding in the years to come. While the country’s official trade volume targets, like the $100 billion figure with Turkey, are often overly optimistic, growth in the 10–20 percent range per annum with major regional powers should not be ruled out. 

The absence of centralized leadership in Libya’s peace process and the spectacular failure of U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan for Israel and Palestine give Russia clear openings to expand its diplomatic influence in the region. The recent setback of Russia’s military intervention in Libya, which has included Wagner Group (a Russian paramilitary organization) mercenary withdrawals and the failure of its Pantsir-S1 systems to deter Turkish airstrikes, makes the immediate future of its security role the most parlous of its three spheres of influence in the Mediterranean. Yet, this outcome is likely a short-term setback rather than a terminal sea change, and Moscow’s combination of opportunistic acts of disruption and order-building initiatives is likely to continue in the months ahead. 

As Russia’s reputation in the Mediterranean region grows, its principal restraint could come from extra-regional powers rather than failed power projection gambits in the region. The willingness of historic U.S. partners, like Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria, to purchase Russian arms at the risk of retaliatory sanctions (mandated by the 2017 Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) has been met with alarm in the United States. The EU is similarly concerned that Russia will use economic incentives to exploit anti-EU sentiments in the western Balkans and Greece in order to deter EU expansion in Southeastern Europe and push Italy to further soften its position on sanctions against Russia. 

Yet, even in the extra-regional sphere, the narrative is not entirely one of external powers marginalizing Russia. While competition for contracts in Syria could create tensions between Russia and China going forward, Beijing remains a critical supporter of Russian assertiveness in the Mediterranean region. Russia’s willingness to invest in economic reconstruction initiatives in Syria and Libya and to encourage external investments into these conflict zones benefits China’s vision of integrating both countries into its Belt and Road Initiative. Divisions within Europe also benefit Russia, as France’s desire to contain Turkish influence in the eastern Mediterranean and alignment with Haftar in Libya enable Moscow’s goals, even though Paris is staunchly opposed to Assad’s retention of power in Syria. The United States’ growing strategic redirection toward containing China could also alleviate pressure on Russia’s freedom of action moving forward. 

Since the start of Putin’s third term in 2012, Russia has taken decisive steps  toward reviving its Soviet-era status as a major littoral power in the Mediterranean region. Russia’s military intervention in Syria, its S-400 deal with Turkey, the construction of TurkStream pipelines, and resurgence as a major player in Libya have been among the flagship symbols of Moscow’s rising power. As intra-European cleavages and growing U.S. indifference to core aspects of Mediterranean security create openings for new regional and great powers to rise, Russia could see its influence in the Mediterranean region rise precipitously in the foreseeable future.

Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy and Russia-Middle East relations. He is a regular contributor to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Institute, Foreign Policy and the Washington Post. On Twitter: @samramani2.

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