These days, Russian media are abuzz with their country’s growing influence in the Middle East and parts of North Africa (MENA) after the U.S. chose to pursue more isolationist policies, beginning under former President Barack Obama. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has diminished Russia’s role as a superpower having much say in MENA. Now, however, Russia feels it has turned its luck around. There is a noticeable euphoria and pride in the Russian press over the Kremlin’s ability to project its newfound leadership in the Arab speaking world.
Russians seem to believe that Europeans and Americans have failed in MENA, and only their country can be a positive force in that region. Some local observers point out that the Kremlin is not encumbered with a colonial past in MENA, which, in their mind, logically makes Russia more trustworthy and reliable than the Western powers. Therein lies their main belief: Russia is not encroaching on the national sovereignty of MENA countries, allegedly because it pursues primarily economic interests in the region, not occupation.
Exploiting energy resources alone in MENA holds huge promise for the Russian oil and gas industry, which has been carefully and patiently building its presence in the region for more than a decade.
By supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and having been directly involved in the Syrian war since 2015, Russia has improved its political standing in the region, a factor which it hopes will help advance its economic interests in the greater MENA region. Exploiting energy resources alone in MENA holds huge promise for the Russian oil and gas industry, which has been carefully and patiently building its presence in the region for more than a decade.
Indeed, Russia’s political victory in Syria has been instrumental in the Kremlin being able to tap into the hydrocarbon riches of the region. As insignificant as Syria’s oil sector may be, Assad’s agreement with Russia to have exclusive rights to rebuild his country’s oil and gas sector in 2018 underlies Moscow’s bigger economic ambitions in MENA.
If Russian oil companies gain control over the Syrian oil sector, their competitiveness could be improved in the greater Levant region (i.e. Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey), which has a potential to become a key regional oil hub in the future, according to some Russian observers. Moscow looks at Syria as a possible future oil pipeline bridge between the countries in the Arabian Gulf and Europe. But needless to say, that can only happen if the war ends and the country stabilizes.
Russian political observers believe that the Kurds in northeastern Syria will negotiate future oil deals with Russia, not the U.S.
Perhaps because of this calculation, Russia’s first deputy representative to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, demanded in November that the U.S. hand over its control of Syrian oil fields to Syria, particularly after President Donald Trump explicitly said that he would keep U.S. troops on the ground to guard oil fields in eastern Syria. Russian political observers believe that the Kurds in northeastern Syria will negotiate future oil deals with Russia, not the U.S. This appears particularly likely in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to pull American troops out of northeastern Syrian leaving the Kurds to fend for themselves.
Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian war and increasing presence in the region appears to have opened new opportunities for Russian energy companies in the region. For example, in December 2016, Russia’s oil major Rosneft bought a 30-percent stake in Zohr, Egypt’s largest natural gas field in the Mediterranean. Russia’s Rosatom is also building Egypt’s first nuclear power station, which it plans to launch by 2029. In 2018, Lebanon awarded two major natural gas blocks in the massive Leviathan oil and gas field off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to a big energy consortium, which includes Russia’s second-largest natural gas producer Novatek, France’s Total, and Italy’s ENI. Rosneft’s ambitions to profit from Libya’s oil sector has only been paused by the ongoing civil war in that country.
The big oil prize for Russia is Iraq. Russia considers Iraq indispensable for any superpower’s ambitions to increase hegemonic influence in the greater Middle East. Iraq is not only important for Russia because of its colossal oil reserves, but also because of its geographic location connecting the Middle East with the Southern Caucuses and the Arabian Peninsula.
Despite the war in Iraq, Russian oil companies have gained a solid foothold in that country. Lukoil is developing 85 percent of oil in Iraq’s West Qurna oil fields, where reserves are estimated at 13 billion barrels. Gazpromneft is drilling oil in Iraq’s Badr oilfield with estimated reserves of 3 billion barrels. In September 2019, Stroytransgaz, a Russian oil and gas engineering construction company that is currently under U.S. sanctions, signed a deal with Iraqi authorities to explore parts of Iraq’s western Anbar province—a region of the country with untapped hydrocarbon riches. Stroytransgaz also plans to build an oil pipeline from Iraq’s northern oil-rich Kirkuk region to Syria’s port of Tartus, which is under Russian control.
A big boost to Russia’s economic presence and political image in MENA has also been its growing clout in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) since 2014. Because of the weakening role of OPEC‘s global price setting power due to the rise of the U.S. shale oil industry, this organization has been closely partnering with Russia and other non-OPEC major oil producing countries to jointly control oil output and prices for the past five years.
By seeking the departure of American troops guarding Syrian oilfields, Moscow’s next plan is to help restore oil infrastructure in Syria, which it thinks would be important to OPEC since the cartel’s oil interests pass through the Syrian war zone. Russia’s role in rebuilding Syria’s energy infrastructure will solidify Moscow’s political image in the region, according to Russian analysts.
If it aims to fill the shoes of the U.S. as a superpower, Russia is an economic and military mosquito compared to the U.S.
While Russia celebrates its growing presence in MENA as a geostrategic and economic victory, it would be a mistake to overstate Russia’s role in the region in the future. If it aims to fill the shoes of the U.S. as a superpower, Russia is an economic and military mosquito compared to the U.S. Its puny and frail economy sets limitations on President Vladimir Putin’s ability to pursue his grand geopolitical ambitions.
In fact, Moscow’s alleged strength in MENA masks a big weakness. Its entanglement in the Syrian conflict designed to stand up to the West—a factor which has since propelled Moscow’s influence in the whole region—was prompted by escalating Western sanctions, persistent low global oil prices, and Russia’s own weakening economy. Moscow has not yet addressed the fundamental weaknesses of the country’s economy, which is still heavily dependent on oil exports and global commodity prices. It has not implemented meaningful economic or political reforms.
Lastly, MENA has many layers of deep-rooted conflicts that require complex diplomacy and economic resources. Moscow may not be equipped to deal with them, at least not for an extended period of time. Beset with its own serious domestic problems, involvement in longstanding conflicts in MENA may ultimately not necessarily be in Russia’s interests.