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Arm in arm: Russia swaps weapons for power

March 29, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt’s contender to the presidency and leader of the recent coup-d’etat, headed to Moscow in early February for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Al-Sisi’s visit to the Russian Federation, his first foreign visit since the coup, comes on the heels of a major foreign policy victory for the Kremlin in Geneva, where Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov invited Syrian rebel leader Ahmad Jarba to Moscow for peace talks, demonstrating that Russia is the only player in the Syrian conflict that can appeal to both sides.

As a result of Russia’s foreign policy victories in the Middle East, some within the international press have speculated that Russia is replacing America as the dominant player in the region. The National Interest, an American international affairs magazine, recently trumpeted Russia as a “Middle East energy superpower” while The American Interest noted that the Kremlin is now “a major power broker in the post-Arab Spring Middle East”.

Washington’s pivot toward East Asia has decreased America’s role in the region and Russia is aggressively pushing to fill the void with diplomatic overtures and weapons. But in spite of the headlines, the evidence for a long term Russian sphere of influence in the Middle East is lacking.

Weapons sales do not constitute a projection of power and influence unless they are contingent on adherence to treaties, assistance, concessions or other tangible benefits like military bases or economic ties. While America’s recent reduction of its military presence and assistance in the Middle East has opened up a market for Russian weapons, these new transactions resemble cash-for-goods exchanges more so than an increase of defensive or economic capabilities.

For example, Egypt is buying from Russia because American alternatives are not available to the military government. The EU has made similar policy decisions. While American military assistance was predicated on compliance with treaties as well as stability in the region and a general pro-US disposition that Mubarak was happy to maintain, Russian sales are unconditional exchanges of weapons for cash. Once the exchange is complete, Egypt is no more beholden to Russia than any other country. American assistance was more conditional.

Unlike Europe and Turkey, there is no oil pipeline that Russia can shut off, or a network of politicians loyal to Moscow as is the case in Eastern Europe. And if relations sour, China is waiting in the wings with its own arsenal for sale. In fact the Middle East remains remarkably free of Russian influence all things considered.

Some weapons transactions are inherently political. The ongoing spectacle of Turkey’s flirtations with Chinese missile systems is not about the lowest bid. The purchase of the Chinese FT-2000 systems has economic and political implications because the Turks have so many offers available to them.

The three major groups competing for the bid were NATO affiliated weapons manufacturers, Russia’s Rosoboronexport and the Chinese firm CPMIEC. A NATO affiliated purchase would have maintained the status quo and NATO compatibility, whereas the alternatives represented a technical and cooperative shift away from NATO’s unified defence systems and networks.

In other words Turkey will not be able to function as a full NATO ally with Chinese missiles. By choosing a Chinese system they signaled a move towards a competing defence network.

The Russian case shows that far less of these factors are present. With Syria as the exception, no other purchases are strategic and political in the way that the Chinese-Turkish deal is.

Russia recently concluded an arms deal with Egypt worth approximately $2 billion that was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, an Egyptian ally. And while the Saudi’s generosity is driven in part by their frustration over America’s diminishing role in the region and overture to Iran, the nature of the weapons, mostly Cold War era, and their likely impact is unremarkable.

The sale was unconditional and negotiations were brief. Russia exacted no concessions from Egypt, unlike when Russia supplied Egypt with weapons during the Cold War. Fifty years ago, Russian arms slowed Israeli expansion to the south. This time around, Russian weapons only fill a void left by America and do not alter the balance of power in the region.

In 2012, the Kremlin signed a $4 billion arms deal with Iraq which has been cited as yet another example of Russia’s increased influence in the region. But while such news bodes well for Russia’s domestic arms manufacturing industry, the deal was not announced with any concessions, bases or treaties.

While Lukoil, Russians second largest oil company, has moved back into oilfields it occupied prior to the war, so have many other multinationals. Meanwhile, in the Kurdish north of Iraq, other international firms are pumping oil to international markets while entirely circumventing the authority and coffers of Baghdad.

When America became Saudi Arabia’s weapons supplier, it was in tandem with Saudi Aramco, the national oil and natural gas company, having exclusive rights to the world’s largest proven oil reserves and massive development projects for American firms.

Russia’s weapons contracts in the Middle East are also underwhelming given that Moscow’s share of worldwide arms sales has decreased since the end of the Soviet Union. China’s rising international profile, on the other hand, is underpinned by an increasingly prominent role in the global arms market: Beijing recently pushed aside Great Britain to occupy the position of the world’s fifth largest arms exporter.

More than any other country, as the New York Times recently noted, Russia stands to lose from China’s newly acquired position as a global arms dealer. While China’s arms sales are mostly concentrated in East Asia, there is little reason to doubt that Moscow’s push for new markets is also intended to safeguard a corner of the world’s arms market from Beijing’s envious gaze.

The goods and services that are absent from Russia’s push into the Middle East are just as telling. During his meeting with Al-Sisi, Putin admitted that trade volume between the two countries was only $2.6 billion in 2013, a decrease of nearly $1 billion from the year before.

When American, English and Ottoman power influenced the region they did so as diverse economic powers. American hegemony was accompanied by firms such as Bechtel, Halliburton and international finance and retail organisations that built infrastructure and established business practices that endure. Of the other major non-Arab firms in the region, few are Russian and most of the newcomers are from Southeast Asia, China and Japan.

In addition to trade disparity, Russia’s increasing tension with its own Muslim population highlights a weakness in Russia’s policy in the region. Far from effectively utilising its Muslim population to interact with the Middle East, as the Soviet Union managed to do with state-sponsored muftiates during the Soviet period; Moscow’s Muslim-populated territories have become a liability to the Russian state.

Fears that the region is falling prey to foreign influence from the Middle East are well-founded: throughout the two decades since the fall of the of Soviet Union, radicals from the region have received religious training in Saudi Arabia and have drawn on funding from transnational terrorist financiers.

Even more revealing are leaked transcripts from a meeting last summer between Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan and Putin in which the Saudis offered to use their influence over jihadists in the North Caucasus to guarantee a peaceful Winter Olympics at Sochi in return for rapprochement.

Although Bin Sultan’s claims to have control over Caucasus jihadis are likely exaggerated, they highlight the perception shared by an increasingly nationalistic Russian populace that the North Caucasus is increasingly slipping out of the Kremlin’s grasp.

Just as disturbing are signs that ideologies and the resulting violence in the Caucasus are spreading slowly into Muslim Tatarstan, a traditionally moderate region in Russia’s heartland. Mounting fears of the penetration of Saudi-financed Wahhibism into mosques led the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies to host a conference on Saudi influence over the region’s Muslim population in December 2011, despite a boycott by the Tatarstan government.

The concerns, it turned out, were well-founded: several months later, Ildus Faizov, the region’s chief cleric and a critic of Salafism, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt as a bomb blew up his car. His assistant, Valiulla Yakupov, was not so lucky. He was gunned down outside his home. Such occurrences targeting moderate Muslim clerics have been followed by an increasing number of attacks on churches and arrests of jihadis attempting to encourage a North Caucasus-style insurgency in the oil-rich autonomous republic.

Despite its lack of substance, Russia’s pivot to the Near East is natural given the similarities of Russia’s regime and those of its client states. Both Russia and its new allies are authoritarian regimes run by elites that seek to maintain control through security services.

Furthermore, amidst rising protest movements in Moscow and St. Petersburg, a rapidly stagnating economy, the increasing ethnic tensions across Russia and a stubbornly resilient North Caucasus insurgency, Putin has definite reason to fear the further spread of unrest to Russia’s south. His regime may soon prove to be as unstable as those of the strongmen he courts.

The authors are research assistants in international relations at Koç University, Istanbul

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.