Amidst the Russian government reshuffle and constitutional revisions (see EDM, January 16, 20, 2020), the only international set of troubles that President Vladimir Putin had time to address in the last couple of weeks was the Middle East. He visited Syria and Turkey in the second week of January, set up a Moscow meeting of Libya’s warring parties, took part in the Berlin conference on the Libyan civil war and, on January 23, made a trip to Israel to attend the 75th anniversary ceremony of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. He does not have much to show for these efforts in terms of conflict management, but there is a distinct emphasis on connecting Middle Eastern issues with the agenda of forging new ties with European leaders.
Putin greeted German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow before traveling to Berlin, where he had meetings with the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen; moreover, he talked with French President Emmanuel Macron on the phone. The Kremlin does not expect the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to follow United States President Donald Trump’s instruction regarding expanding its role in the Middle East (“NATO-ME”), but it does expect to find rich opportunities to exploit disagreements between key European states, which are chronically unable to find common ground on the conflicts in this troubled neighborhood (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 14, 2020).
One of the main targets of this Russian divide-and-subjugate policy is Poland, seen by the Kremlin as a bitter adversary. Late last year, Putin launched an emotionally charged campaign of historical revisionism of World War II, seeking to absolve Russia of any wrongdoing in attacking Poland in 1939; that narrative finds much support among “patriotic” domestic audiences (Novaya Gazeta, January 15, 2020). Poland is so angered by this denial of war crimes that President Andrzej Duda refused to attend the Jerusalem meeting, where Putin was a guest of honor (RIA Novosti, January 20, 2020). Europeans expressed support for the Polish position, but they show a greater eagerness in continuing the conversation with Putin (RBC, January 15, 2020). For the Kremlin, portraying Poland as irrationally “Russo-phobic” is a useful step in advancing the plan to additionally isolate neighboring Belarus (a country whose regional importance Warsaw regularly raises within the EU). Russian has been increasingly pressuring Belarus in order to enforce deeper political integration between the two, quite possibly leading to a not-quite-friendly takeover (Rosbalt, January 21, 2020).
The ceremony in Jerusalem was intended to show broad international support for Israel, but in fact, many European states harbor ambivalent attitudes toward Israel’s policies, and Putin is keen to tap into these misgivings (Novaya Gazeta, January 24, 2020). Cutting his program short, he found time to make a side-trip to Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, January 23, 2020). Although Putin cultivates close relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he nevertheless delayed the decision on pardoning Naama Issachar, an Israeli tourist sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in Russia for drug trafficking. Apparently, Jerusalem’s pledge of a generous gift of historical real estate to the Russian Orthodox Church was not enough to sway the Kremlin leader (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 24, 2020).
Netanyahu used the occasion of the high-level gathering in Jerusalem to ostracize Iran, which was met with full support from US Vice President Michael Pence but not European leaders—and certainly not from Russia (RBC, January 23, 2020). Moscow even took the opportunity to criticize the European rebuke of Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment and to pretend that the conditions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, 2015) could still be observed (Kommersant, January 18, 2020). Russian experts predicted violent upheaval in the Middle East after the US missile strike, on January 3, that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and foresaw benefits for Moscow from playing a moderating role, but they now struggle to explain the de-escalation of tensions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 16, 2020). A major worry for the Kremlin is the rise of anti-government protests inside Iran, which proves that the US sanctions (to which Russia is also subjected) are having a powerful impact (Valdaiclub.com, January 20, 2020).
Another worry is the slackening of control over various pro-Iranian militia in Syria, which could turn to pursuing their parochial agendas and increasing cross-border attacks on Israel (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 22, 2020). Seeking to preempt possible destabilization, Russian forces have started testing the remaining US positions in order to encourage their full withdrawal and thus ensure access to eastern Syrian oil fields for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 23, 2020). Russia’s key goal is the capture of the rebel-held Idlib province, but Turkey persistently objects, frustrating the military-diplomatic maneuvers of Russia’s vainglorious Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Izvestia, January 20, 2020).
Moscow was taken by surprise by Turkey’s assertive move into the Libyan war to support the besieged government of Fayez al-Sarraj, but it is now exploring new space for political maneuvering, since it never committed fully to supporting the maverick “field marshal” Khalifa Haftar (Russiancouncil.ru, January 24, 2020; see EDM, January 23, 2020). Acute concerns in Europe, particularly in Italy, about the violent state failure in Libya look interesting to Moscow, which tries to portray its involvement as more constructive than it actually is (Kommersant, January 20, 2020). Russia’s stakes in Libya are much lower than in Syria, where it has found itself mired far deeper than Putin envisaged at the start of the intervention; consequently, he now prefers not to reflect on his multiple past orders for troop withdrawals. The Berlin conference probably confirmed his opinion that European states would never dare deploy a peacekeeping force to Libya and cannot invest meaningful resources in peacebuilding (RBC, January 20, 2020).
Moscow would have certainly preferred to engage substantially with Washington on the Middle East, but most opportunities so far explored have failed to yield tangible fruits. What attracts Russia to interactions with the Europeans is those states’ inability to agree on a coherent course of action or to provide support for the US course, which many of them consider too bullish and inconsiderate. By dispatching a few hundred mercenaries to Libya (see EDM, January 21, 2020) or by condemning the US execution of Soleimani, Moscow is able to garner attention in European capitals. Whether this attention will translate into a relaxation of sanctions—the goal the Kremlin pursues with every trick at its disposal—is a big issue for European unity. Putin acts on the assumption that this unity is damaged beyond repair, so the Europeans will have to repeatedly prove him wrong.