Putin’s Middle East gamble

Putin’s Middle East gamble

Since 2015 Russia has used the Syrian civil conflict as a platform to gain power within the Middle East. Engaging militarily and economically with the region, Russia has renewed its place in the global power structure and has invested in securing a share of the Middle East’s energy wealth.

Balancing the Enemies of my Enemy in the Middle East

Developing core relationships with Iran, Turkey, Israel, Syria, the Kurds, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Russia has situated itself as the only global power able to mediate the aggression between Israel and Iran. However, despite its recent success coordinating war efforts in Syria with Israel, Iran and Turkey, Russia has little experience in managing the sectarian and ideological tensions that encumber the region.

Historically, Russia has had to work with the enemies of its enemy; predominantly Iran and its Shia allies, due to the dominant presence of America within the region. Now thanks to the growing distrust towards the current American administration, Russia is considered the more stable peacemaker by many Middle East and North African (MENA) nations. All of whom are now looking at Russia to manage the tensions of their local partners and keep it from spilling over into a regional war.

Putin under Political Pressure?

That Russia is poised to reap billions of dollars as a reward for this endeavour is in no doubt.  Currently the Kremlin is reported to have spent  2.2 billion dollars on its Syria war effort. Russia’s energy and mining sectors have extended themselves deep into the Syrian oil and energy industries within the region thanks to exclusive development rights being granted in January this year.  Furthermore, with an estimated 200 to 500 billion dollars required to rebuild Syria and Russian business being given priority for the task, Syria is  the golden goose that keeps on giving to Russia.

However, the current political climate in Russia is becoming increasingly fractured thanks to changes undertaken by President Putin. Previously Russia was governed by what was termed the Putin Collective. Essentially a group of elite members of society represented by Putin, they  had, for the past 16 years, cooperated more or less to manage the vast Russian state through a variety of identity and patronage networks.

Since 2016 Putin has moved against many of his former cronies, who have been removed from power and replaced with individuals from Putin’s own networks. The result of this power play has been a growing sense of disquiet among those members of the “Putin Collective”, many of whom have invested billions in Putin’s Syrian gamble through their own companies like Rosneft, Stroytransgaz, Sapir, Novatek and Gazprom Neft and would be faced with huge losses if conflict occurred.

These losses and the tightening membership of the Putin Collective indicate that all is not well in the ranks of the governing Russian elite and any threat to other members of the collectives power and wealth will  create a significant revolt by the energy barons upon whom the Russian government relies for its global energy dominance.  Such a revolt would cause domestic difficulties for Putin who still has to manage these elites who worry that if Syria falls into chaos again they will also be at risk of significant financial loss which would destabilise their own power networks and, in turn the Kremlin.

The Putin Collective

Over the past few years there have been reports of significant infighting between the networks that form the Putin Collective. Known colloquially as the Siloviki Clans these networks have been manoeuvring around each other attempting to gain the biggest slice of power offered up by the state for the past decade or more.

In 2007 Mikhail Delyagin, the economic advisor to the former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, argued that:

The entire political system of Russia today is a struggle of various clans and groups fighting to see that Putin stays in power according to their scenario and not according to the scenario of their competitors.

While this internal jostling is rarely seen publicly, in 2007 when there was uncertainty over Putin’s hold on power, it did surface in a more aggressive manner. At the time the jostling for power was between the Federal Anti Narcotics Service head  Viktor Cherkesov, and  Putin’s powerful deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin. Two of Cherkesov’s men were killed by poison and left in the snow and then his second General Aleksandr Bulbov was in a tense standoff with Sechin’s FSB at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport prior to his arrest.

Currently there is another round of internal fighting underway. According to Russia watchers, prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev’s network is currently under attack from elites, including Putin, in an attempt to stop him from gathering power during Putin’s last legal term as President.

So far one of Medvedev’s elites, Ziyavudin Magomedov, has been arrested and accused of large-scale embezzlement of state funds in connection with energy projects and the construction of a World Cup stadium in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Given President Putin would have had to approve this arrest,  it is extremely unlikely that all is well in the top ranks of the Russian ruling elite. Given the recent arrests and removal of elites,  Putin is coming increasingly under fire.

The risks and the riches for Putin’s power

Caught in between these domestic and international struggles, Putin needs to keep Syria stable. To do so Russia will have to double down in Syria and Iran and invest more in the Russian military and economic effort to keep the peace.  Alternatively, it could simply do nothing and risk losing all its investment and long term strategies to dominate the oil and gas market in the Middle East. Given the probable risk this would cause members of the Collective to lose billions of dollars in investments, there is little chance this outcome will be considered a viable option.

Obviously the former scenario is the most feasible outcome for the Russian government and the Putin Collective, as this will enable the most development of its Middle Eastern assets.  To achieve this there will have to be a significant investment in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and cooperation with Israel. To this end we have seen Russia announce a 50 billion dollar investment in the Iranian oil and gas sector and initiate talks with Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Yet there is an obvious risk to this scenario for Russia.

Firstly, keeping peace in the Middle East will be a costly endeavour. Russia may have access to a significant amount of investment capital that it can utilise to buy itself stability but it is not unlimited. Russia’s economy has after all only started to regrow after the 2015-2017 recession, with a 1.8% growth estimated for 2018. However, in a region where there are long-term religious, political and sectarian divides as well as significant wealth,  dangling a carrot is not really a functioning policy. Thus to maintain stability and economic growth in the region and back home Russia will have to be prepared to spend big and maintain a large standing force within the Middle East over multiple countries.

The  risk with this policy is that at any time Russia or another actor could  inflame the instability in Syria and spread it across the region. In this scenario Russia will be at risk of taking heavy casualties both financially and militarily, stretching itself thin to keep control over its assets, which will force Putin on the back foot domestically among the Siloviki clans. To protect himself Putin will have to initiate some significant changes in the Russian government to solidify his control over the upper echelons and removing from power anyone who is not loyal to his agenda.

Furthermore, strong investment from Russia in countries that are key player in the Middle Eastern peace process will be crucial to the broader success of this plan; in particular  Syria, Iraq, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and Egypt.

About Author

Victoria Kelly-Clark

Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark is a GRI analyst who focuses on Central Asia and Russia. She received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University in 2011. She has lived in Central Asia and has an interest in the Middle East, Russia and its former Soviet territories. Her work is featured in The Vision Times, The Epoch Times and on her blog Central Asia and Beyond.