In March 2014, in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, then US President Barack Obama said that Russia was just a “regional power”. In three short years, the country has managed to emerge as an international player with strong influence across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Not only has the Kremlin shuffled cards in Egypt, Syria or Libya, it has also become a counterweight to the West in Cyprus and Greece, who have played the Russian card in their talks with Washington. Russia’s involvement in Syria was its first military intervention outside the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War.
When it comes to Cyprus, this Mediterranean island has maintained its defense connection with Moscow after the dissolution of the Soviet Union with the purchase of tanks and choppers in the 1990s. In 1997, Nicosia bought the S-300 long-range anti-aircraft defense system from Russia, triggering an international crisis. During the financial crisis of 2008-2009, special ties between the two capitals returned to the news and the possibility of a bailout put the possibility of some kind of deal with Russia.
In the nearby Greece, a potential bailout was also discussed by Athens and when Alexis Tsipras attended the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2015, he said that Europe had been living in the illusion of being “the hub of the Universe in the literal sense” while “newly emerging forces are coming to play a more vital role at the economic and geopolitical levels”, citing the examples of the cooperation between the BRICS countries and the Eurasian Union led by Russia. In Saint Petersburg, a Russian bailout was openly proposed by the Russian media but more than loans the Kremlin was offering an extension to the Turkish Stream pipeline – an alternative to the stalled Nabucco project.
Egypt has traditionally been an American ally but the 2013 Arab Spring put Washington in a difficult position and the coup d’état left relations between both countries in crisis. In 2014, Egypt was the second-biggest recipient by volume of US military aid in the world, receiving $1.3bn. But following the coup d’état, the White House imposed restrictions, allowing the shipment of spare parts but not new systems, though the restrictions were lifted again in 2015 as a response to the rise of jihadist violence in the Sinai Peninsula.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that President Sisi’s first visit to a non-Arab country post 2013 was to Russia and President Putin returned the visit two years later. Cairo’s new ties with the Kremlin include a package of agreements on defense and energy that resulted in the signing of weapons sales agreements. Russia also granted a credit to Egypt in November 2015 of $25bn to be repaid over 35 years for the building of a nuclear power station to be built by the company Rosatom in the north of the country and which should start operations in 2022.
Syria has always been a traditional Russian ally and with the international embargoes on Iran, Iraq and Libya, the country became the Russian defense industry’s leading client in the region. The contracts signed totaled $4bn in 2012. Moreover, the shipments of arms were made on a regular basis during the civil war through the use of a rather complex and opaque network of intermediary companies called ‘the Odessa network’. Russia’s subsequent intervention has contributed to the changing nature of the conflict between the Syrian regime and the opposition forces.
However, the reemergence of Russia as an international player has ultimately much more to do with the European Union’s many crises rather than the Kremlin’s actual strength. Moscow has managed to do numerous geopolitical advances, which were also made possible by the vacuum left by United States in the region.
‘Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean: a Counterweight to the West?’ – Analysis by Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB).