On Friday, December 15, The Jamestown Foundation hosted the second workshop connected to the Russia in the Middle East special project, led jointly by the two Project Investigators—Dr. Theodore Karasik and Dr. Stephen Blank. Through a series of expert workshops, published papers and further planned briefings and events, the project aims to provide the basis and material for a multi-dimensional analysis of Russian strategy and tactics in the Middle East, bringing into sharp relief the depth and scope of Moscow’s strategy as well as its implications for US foreign policy.
The participants of Workshop 2 discussed a series of papers produced specially for this meeting, which focused on Russian tactics in the Middle East designed to achieve Moscow’s strategic goals. Four key tactics were identified and explored—the use and co-optation of minorities, financial deals, arms sales, and the media. Some of the major takeaways to come out of this second workshop include:
- Russia’s push into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is notable, but Moscow is not a global player. Russia acts as a regional country in MENA.
- Russia is using minorities, financial vehicles, arms sales, and media to advance its strategic interests in the region, but clear evidence of a coordinated approach across all those tactics is missing. In particular, the full impact of Russian media tactics in the Middle East is unclear. Who actually makes policy decisions in Russia regarding the Middle East—specifically on media—is another missing element.
- In line with its history as an imperial power, Russia’s ability to co-opt potential elites from minorities with whom it is interacting have remained central to its political behavior both at home and abroad. And it has expanded to create “trans-imperialist” linkages between members of Russia’s Islamic population and Middle Eastern elites—e.g., by the use of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov as an agent of Moscow in the Middle East. At the same time, Russia has sought expanded investment by Middle Eastern governments in projects aimed at benefiting Russia’s Muslims.
- Russia has already been observed trying to negotiate ethnic issues in Libya’s south, as well as key tribal and religious issues in Misrata.
- Moscow has used the Kurds in the past to conduct terrorist operations and could attempt this again if necessary. Playing ethnic politics with Kurds from many factions and groups has deep historical roots for Russia. The US, with only the Kurdish YPG to embrace, is on weak ground.
- Russia’s strategy to build a greater presence in the MENA region, and specifically the Persian Gulf, by using finance to influence geopolitics has become an integral part of Putin’s foreign policy.
- Russian financial tactics in MENA have many drivers, for example real business interests and Kremlin designs. Many of these interests aggregate to support Russia’s objectives. Thus, true investment figures are opaque.
- It appears that Arab allies are enabling Moscow and undermining Western sanctions against Russia, such as via finance agreements between Arab Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) and Russia’s own SWF, which is owned by Vnesheconombank (VEB)—an entity under US sanctions.
- Russia’s ability to print and distribute currency in warzones fills a void created by the West’s reluctance to do so. The impact of this tactic on local inflation is unknown and should be assessed.
- Russia uses its information warfare capability as a tactic, especially its RT Arabic and Sputnik news services, to advance Moscow’s foreign policy goals in the Middle East: to become a great power in the region; reduce the role of the United States; prop up allies such as Bashir al-Assad in Syria, and fight terrorism.
- Russia can surge its use of Arabic media to boost a pro-Kremlin view by boosting messaging and trolling via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
- In the Arab hyper-media environment, Moscow faces challenges common to all international media. The absence of attractive media content from other sources, especially from American and European sources, enhance its advantage. Still, measuring impact is not an exact science, and no one has yet been able to describe the size or breadth of this advantage effectively.
- For now, evidence suggests that while Russian media narratives are disseminated broadly in the region by traditional means and online, outside of Syria their impact has been somewhat limited.
- The Middle East and North Africa region has emerged in recent years as Moscow’s second most important arms market after Asia.
- Russian weapons platforms and armaments are typically more affordable than Western weaponry. Politically, Russian arms come with few political strings attached and thus are a good choice when a country wants to diversify away from the West, or signal such an intent.
- Moscow has made inroads with traditional clients such as Iran, Syria and Egypt, but also diversified toward countries closer to the West, such as countries in the Persian Gulf, as well as India, Morocco and Turkey. Russia’s use of this tool has gained it influence in the region in the context of Western disengagement.
- Russian arms sales probably produce smaller revenues than their cost to Russia; R&D costs, for example, are not covered by arms sales. These sales appear to benefit mostly powerful individuals around Putin, rather than the state exchequer.
- The US government, especially the US Treasury, need to take a close look at SWF activity between Russia and the Arab states for sanctions-busting issues and for potential financial illegalities.
- On the info-war front, America needs to strengthen its position by putting more emphasis on understanding impact and on the need for media content that is competitive with that produced by Russia.
All the papers from both the first and second workshop are now available on The Jamestown Foundation’s website (https://jamestown.org/
The Tactical Side of Russia’s Arms Sales to the Middle East
By Anna Borshchevskaya
Russia in the Middle East: A New Front in the Information War?
By Donald J. Jensen
Russia’s Financial Tactics in the Middle East
By Theodore Karasik
The third and final workshop in this series will be held in late January 2018, and its participants will explore trends and potential futures of Russian activities in the Middle East until 2025. Four key areas will be explored: Russia in Africa; Russia’s Energy Payoff or Payout; The Emergence of New Strategic Concepts and Operations; as well as The Nexus of the Russo-Islamic World.
In addition, the project leaders intend to hold a Congressional Briefing on this strategically important subject, followed by a monograph of the analytical findings and implications collected throughout the entire scope of the effort.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is currently a Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute, both located in Washington, DC. Dr. Karasik spent 2004 through 2016 in the GCC, the Middle East and Russia. For the past 30 years, Karasik worked for a number of US agencies involved in researching and analyzing defense acquisition, the use of military power, and religious-political issues across MENA and Eurasia, including the evolution of violent extremism and its financing.
Dr. Karasik was an Adjunct Lecturer at the Dubai School of Government, where he taught graduate-level international relations, and also an Adjunct Lecturer at University Wollongong Dubai, where he taught labor and migration. Karasik was a Senior Political Scientist in the International Policy and Security Group at RAND Corporation. From 2002 to 2003, he served as Director of Research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. He is a specialist in geopolitics and geo-economics for the MENA and Eurasia regions and frequently conducts studies and assessments of future security trajectories and military requirements.
Dr. Karasik received his PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in four fields: Russia, Middle East, Caucasus and an outside field in cultural anthropology, focusing on tribes and clans from Central Asia to East Africa. He also holds a CPhil and MA in History and International Relations from UCLA and Monterey Institute of International Studies, respectively. He wrote his PhD dissertation on military and humanitarian operations in the northern port city of Arkhangel’sk and their impact on political institutions during the Russian civil war.
Dr. Stephen Blank is an internationally recognized expert on Russian foreign and defense policies and international relations across the former Soviet Union. He is also a leading expert on European and Asian security, including energy issues. Since 2013, he has been a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, in Washington. From 1989 until 2013, he was a Professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Blank has been Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute since 1989. In 1998–2001, he was Douglas MacArthur Professor of Research at the War College. Dr. Blank’s MA and PhD are in Russian History from the University of Chicago. His BA is in History from the University of Pennsylvania.