IEMed (the European Institute of the Mediterranean) has published an article of mine in the Winter 2015/2016 issue of its journal, Afkar/Ideas, which is issued both in Spanish and in French. With the permission of IEMed, I am posting the original English version of the article here. Written before the dramatic deterioration of Russo-Turkish relations at the end of November 2015, I noted that Moscow has important reasons to pursue good relations with Ankara, but that their interests differ sharply over Syria.
Russia has several different geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean Sea basin. Some of these interests, though, conflict with one another. After reviewing what Russian geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean are and identifying in what ways they conflict with one another, this paper will discuss and assess Putin’s geopolitical strategy for advancing these conflicting goals.
A key Russian geopolitical interest in the Mediterranean is to maintain maritime access through the Turkish Straits in order for Russian naval and commercial vessels to easily transit between the Black Sea (which Russia borders) on the one hand and the Mediterranean and beyond on the other. The pursuit of this interest requires a stable Turkey that is able to ensure orderly passage through these straits as well as a Turkish government that is not hostile (and preferably, is friendly) toward Russia.
Another Russian goal is to promote Moscow’s economic interests in the region—especially in the petroleum sphere which the Russian economy is so heavily dependent on. Advancing this goal not only depends on market factors, but Russia’s image both as a reliable supplier and desirable partner for the region’s petroleum importing countries. In pursuing this goal, of course, Russia must compete with other petroleum producing countries either in the region (such as Algeria), already exporting significant amounts to it (such as Saudi Arabia), or potentially doing so (such as Iran). Yet even countries competing with Russia in the petroleum market (such as Algeria and Libya) can also provide investment opportunities for Russian firms.
In that Putin sees America, NATO, and even the EU as hostile toward Russia, he has seen undercutting each of these as an important Russian geopolitical interest. This can be pursued through supporting various actors (governments, political parties, public opinion) in the region that are also opposed to any or all of these to a greater or even lesser extent.
Yet another important Russian geopolitical interest is preventing the further rise of Sunni jihadist forces in the region that could threaten Russian interests as well as Russia itself. Putin has sought to work with any and all Mediterranean governments (as well as others active in the region) in pursuit of this goal, including Western democracies, secular Arab dictatorships (including Syria’s Assad regime), Shi’a forces (Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah), and even Israel.
As in Soviet times, Putin regards maintaining a permanent Russian military presence in the Mediterranean as an important geopolitical interest. Doing so can serve various purposes, including the specific goal of providing support for the Assad regime (Moscow’s beleaguered ally in Syria) to the more general one of projecting an image of Russia as a great power. And, of course, other unanticipated purposes can be pursued more easily in the region through Russia already having some military presence in the Mediterranean. Pursuit of this interest requires at least one government in the region willing and able to provide Russia with military facilities. Syria does this at present.
The problem with pursuing all these disparate geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean region, as was noted earlier, is that some of them conflict with others. Moscow’s strong support for the Assad regime in Syria, for example, conflicts with Moscow’s desire to build and maintain good relations with Turkey in particular when Ankara is calling for Assad to step down. Further, it is difficult for Moscow to maintain good relations (including in the economic realm) with European states which are members of NATO and the EU when they see Moscow supporting far right and far left political parties in them seeking to undercut European governments, these two institutions, and perhaps even democracy itself. Similarly, it is difficult for Moscow to build and sustain the trade relations it needs with the European countries in the region when Russian politico-military actions (whether through support for separatism in Ukraine or unauthorized military flights over many European countries) serve to reduce Russia’s attractiveness as an economic partner. Further, it is difficult for Moscow to persuade both European and Middle Eastern governments in the Mediterranean that they should join Russia in backing the Assad regime in order to thwart the forces of radical Islam when many on both sides of the Mediterranean see the actions of the Assad regime (and its external backers) as only serving to strengthen these forces.
Russia, of course, is not the only country pursuing contradictory geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean (or elsewhere). Indeed, the Mediterranean is a challenging environment not just because of its dual European and Middle Eastern natures (as well as tremendous differentiation within each), but also because Moscow perceives that Russia faces threats from both the European and the Middle Eastern sides of the Mediterranean.
Has Putin adopted an effective geopolitical strategy to deal with these challenges as well as Russia’s conflicting interests in the region? In order to address this question, it is important to understand what different geopolitical strategies are available for states pursuing conflicting interests.
One possibility is to devise an overarching strategy which manages to overcome the inherent contradictions in the foreign policy aims being sought and successfully pursues all of them more or less simultaneously. Another possibility is to make a determination that contradictory interests cannot successfully be pursued simultaneously, and that it is therefore necessary to prioritize among them by devising a strategy that pragmatically de-emphasizes what has been determined to be the less important or less achievable interests in order to successfully pursue the ones deemed to be more important and more achievable. A third possibility is to subordinate foreign policy interests to domestic political ones because even though pursuing contradictory geopolitical interests simultaneously may interfere with achieving some or even all of them, doing so may serve to advance what are a government’s (or just a leader’s) higher priority domestic political goals. A fourth possibility is not to consciously adopt an overarching, prioritizing, or domestically-oriented geopolitical strategy, but to pursue differing interests on a piecemeal, tactical basis as opportunities to do so arise.
Which of these approaches has Putin adopted? To some extent, all four. Just as Moscow pursues contradictory interests in the region, Putin has employed differing strategic approaches for doing so. The key to understanding the overall Russian geopolitical strategy that results from these differing strategic approaches is to understand how Putin prioritizes them, and when he tends to rely more on one than another.
Putin’s domestic concerns appear to underlie his overall geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean region. He sees the rise of Islamist forces on the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean as threatening to spill over into the Muslim regions of Russia. And he genuinely sees America, NATO, and the EU (concerns that are not limited to but definitely include the European side of the Mediterranean) as threatening to topple his rule via democracy promotion.
What to do about this dual threat from the Mediterranean is variously informed by the three other approaches. When he is more optimistic, Putin appears to pursue something of an overarching geopolitical strategy of working against the “threat” from the West on the one hand while simultaneously working with the West against Islamist forces on the other. This strategy is based on the assumption that whatever the West’s differences with Russia, the West sees the Islamist threat as an even greater problem, and thus should be willing to work with Russia against it. Further, it is especially the European countries of the Mediterranean plus Turkey (and even Israel) that Moscow believes understand this since the Islamist threat is a more immediate one for them. They, then, should act to persuade America and certain northern European countries that this is a far more serious problem than Russia. In other words, even though they may not like certain aspects of Russian foreign policy, “the logic of the situation” will propel not just America’s allies in the Mediterranean, but America itself to subordinate Western concerns about Russia to dealing with the common Islamist threat in that region. It was this logic that, despite sharp differences between Russia on the one hand and much of the West on the other over Ukraine, underlay Putin’s call to, “join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism,” in his September 28, 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly.
By contrast, it is when Putin is more pessimistic and sees the West as placing a higher priority on undermining Russia than on responding to the Islamist threat—or perhaps simply when the opportunity arises—that he pursues a more piecemeal, tactical approach toward the Mediterranean—especially vis-à-vis the European side and Turkey. Putin did not create right-wing and left-wing political parties such as the National Front in France, Podemos in Spain, the Northern League and Forza Italia in Italy, or SYRIZA and Golden Dawn in Greece which are hostile to America, NATO, and the European Union. Their political popularity as well as generally pro-Putin stance, though, present the opportunity for undercutting efforts by the U.S. and certain more anti-Russian European governments to increase sanctions against Russia, and even undermining both NATO and the EU, especially if—as in Greece—they become governing parties.
It is when Putin is in a more pragmatic mood, however, that he seems to pursue a geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean which prioritizes certain goals over other ones in the region. Further, in three recent instances in which he has made a choice between what Russian interests to pursue in the Mediterranean, Putin has adopted a pragmatic and not a confrontational geopolitical strategy.
For example, while Putin has frequently and loudly denounced the 2011 intervention in Libya against Qaddafi by certain Western and Arab states and vowed not to let something similar happen in Syria, Moscow has quietly established relatively good relations with the internationally recognized Libyan post-Qaddafi government based in Tobruk, with which it has revived various agreements that Moscow had previously reached with Qaddafi. Moscow is talking to the rival government based in Tripoli as well. In this case, Putin’s interest in restoring Russia’s business ties with Libya are more important to him than any inclination to remain aloof from the forces that ousted Moscow’s longstanding ally there.
In Egypt, as is well known, Putin supported the 2013 overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood leader, Morsi, by his top general, al-Sisi, and has taken advantage of the Obama administration’s disapproval of al-Sisi’s actions to improve Moscow’s ties with Cairo. But when Morsi was actually in power in 2012-13, Moscow had relatively good relations with him. Morsi met with Putin at the BRICS summits in South Africa in March 2013 and again in Sochi, Russia, in April 2013. During the latter, the two reportedly agreed that Russia would help Egypt with the construction of a nuclear reactor and the development of its uranium deposits. Thus, when actually faced with the question of how to deal with a Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Putin chose a highly pragmatic course of action.
Furthermore, when Greek Prime Minister Tsipras appealed to Putin for Russian economic support as a way of avoiding the strict bailout terms that Germany and the EU were insisting on to resolve the Greek debt crisis, Putin refused and urged Tsipras to reach an agreement with the EU instead. Putin apparently did not see the potential geopolitical benefits that Moscow might garner from Greece moving toward Russia and away from the EU and the US as being worth the certain economic burden that Moscow would have to bear in supporting Greece. In addition, the negative economic repercussions that Europe as a whole would have suffered from “Grexit” would have also hurt Russia which—despite Western sanctions—still prefers an economically stronger Europe which can afford to buy relatively more Russian petroleum to a weaker one that cannot. Thus, when it came to actually making a choice between furthering Russia’s economic interests on the one hand and weakening EU institutions politically, Putin pragmatically prioritized the former over the latter.
What this suggests is that while Putin is strongly supporting the Assad regime in Syria now, if it should fall, he will pragmatically try to establish good relations with the regime (or regimes, if the country fragments) that replace him if they are willing to work with Russia. Moscow, then, might be able to keep (or regain if it loses) its military facilities in a post-Assad Syria. And even if it cannot, Moscow might be able to establish new ones in Egypt, Cyprus, or Greece. Obviously, though, Putin would prefer not to have to make such pragmatic choices.
It makes an enormous difference to the countries of the Mediterranean, as well as outside ones active in the region, whether Putin pursues an overarching (and usually aggressive) strategy that pursues most or all of Russia’s geopolitical interests simultaneously; a tactical, piecemeal one in response to what it considers aggressive moves by the West (or just from the opportunity to do so) that can actually undermine Russia’s larger interests; or a prioritizing strategy that often favors pragmatic interests over more confrontational ones. If indeed, as was argued here, that it is Putin’s domestic priorities that underlie his overall geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean, then his variable perceptions of the intensity of the threats Russia faces either from the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean, the European side, or both will affect the strategies he pursues in response, the allies (even if only temporary) he sees as available to work against those threats, and above all, whether he does or does not have to pragmatically prioritize among Russia’s contradictory interests in the region.