As the war in Syria appears to wind down, the Kremlin is shifting its focus to rebuilding the country and reestablishing social order there based on Russia’s vision and interests. Importantly, Moscow is evidently transferring the responsibility for this effort down to the level of Russian regions (federal subjects). Moreover, it is trying to introduce a new public and economic diplomacy approach designed to smoothly reshape Russia’s heretofore mostly military presence in Syria. For this mission, the central government has selected three regions in particular: the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug–Yugra (Yugra), the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (Crimean Republic) and the federal city of Sevastopol.
Throughout 2017 and 2018, the Crimean occupying authorities notably intensified their relations with Syria. In April 2018, a huge delegation of 81 Syrian officials and entrepreneurs arrived in the Crimean Republic (which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in early 2014) to participate in the Yalta Economic Forum, which specifically featured a plenary session on “Development of the Syrian Economy” (Forumyalta.com, April 2018). The Crimean authorities considered the arrival of the Syrian delegation as evidence of Damascus’s recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea.
In addition, a Crimean delegation traveled to Latakia and signed a document making Yalta and Latakia sister cities. At the same time, the two sides called for more comprehensive cooperation between them (C-eho.info, April 21, 2018). In October 2018, a Crimean delegation headed by Sergei Aksyonov visited Syria and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was Aksyonov’s first foreign trip as leader of the republic. Furthermore, during 2018, Crimea exported 200,000 tons of grain to Syria, and 400,000 tons in 2017 (UAWire, December 30, 2018).
The Crimean Republic’s “Syrian Agenda” consists of the following objectives:
- To organize maritime connections between Crimean and Syrian ports. In the Crimean Republic, a logistical hub must be created, both for Russian products and for exports to Syria. In turn, Syria has asked for sufficient storage facilities for products like fruits and vegetables. For these purposes, Crimea and Syria established a joint shipping company in 2019 (1prime.ru, January 4).
- To secure phosphates for the Crimean Republic’s Titan chemical fertilizer production plant. Syrian phosphate facilities have not operated since 2014 (RIA Novosti, December 28, 2018). But extraction efforts resumed in recent years, after Russia gained control of the mines in Syria (Almodon.com, August 1, 2018). The Russian company Stroytransgaz, owned by Kremlin-linked billionaire Gennady Tymchenko, received the rights to operate these phosphate mines in 2017 (RBC, June 27, 2017);
- To found and operate a Crimean-Syrian Chamber of Commerce;
- To initiate a stable civil aviation connection between the Crimea Republic and Syria (Sana.sy, November 21, 2018);
- To help Crimea’s “sister” Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR, LPR) break their economic blockade and to become a logistical link between them and the external world;
- To receive Syrian students and pupils (“Artek” center);
- To deliver Ukrainian offshore drilling rigs (“nationalized” by Russia after the Crimean annexation) from the Black Sea to the Syrian shelf for the extraction of gas and oil. Recent studies have noted that extraction in the Black Sea is declining, thus encouraging the repositioning of these drilling rigs to other areas (Neftegaz.ru, December 30, 2018). In December 2018, Syria granted extraction rights to Russian oil companies for commercial hydrocarbon exploration and production, though details of the deal were never made public (Neftegaz.ru, December 14, 2018).
Beyond Crimea, the federal city of Sevastopol has engaged in its “own” negotiations with Syrian regions. In January 2019, a Sevastopol delegation visited Syria as part of a larger Russian delegation led by the head of the Russian Duma group for relations with the Syrian Parliament, Dmitry Sablin. At that time, the Sevastopol authorities signed a cooperation agreement with Tartus and met with President al-Assad, who promised to take part in the next Economic Forum in Yalta. The two sides agreed on Russia supplying construction materials and technologies, pharmaceuticals, crops and flour to Syria. In return, Syria will send fruits and vegetables (Sevastopol.su, January 15; Ruinformer.com, March 19). Moreover, the possibility of creating a Sevastopol–Tartus maritime link has been under discussion since last year (RBC, April 15, 2018).
Similarly, the Russian Yugra region and the Syrian province of Homs signed a cooperation agreement in early 2018 (Admhmao.ru, February 16, 2018). Accordingly, Yugra enterprises will be allowed to participate in the restoration of the Syrian economy, particularly in the development of the oil and refining industries (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, September 9, 2018). Yugra was the first Russia region to establish direct substate-level relations with Syria.
Vladimir Belik, a Russian member of parliament (MP) from Sevastopol, believes that, in the near future, Russia will send its first group of Russian tourists back to Tartus and Latakia (Riafan.ru, January 19). Additionally, the Russian Ministry of Transport is mulling the possibility of restoring travel tours to Syria (Russiatourism.ru, March 16, 2018). However, Sevastopol-based tour operators are quite skeptical of this idea, since a major part of the country is still a conflict zone (Sevastopol.su, January 20). Nevertheless, if the Russian state intervenes with a directive to conduct such tours (as is likely), Russian tourist agencies will be obliged to make it happen.
Against this backdrop, several considerations are worth keeping in mind:
First, geographical proximity is a crucial factor driving relations between Syria and occupied Crimea—the closest Russian region to the Middle East.
Second, the two proxy regimes on the Crimean peninsula are effectively serving Russia’s interests in the Middle East. It is too risky for the Kremlin to rely on the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk (which is already over capacity) because of sanctions, but the well-developed port infrastructure of Crimea encourages Moscow to use this “autonomous” region to engage in such sensitive tasks.
Third, the Kremlin has been building a network of frozen conflicts in its near abroad, with the strategy of eventually incorporating them into Russia. Yet, in Syria the approach is rather novel: Russia is presently encouraging these proxy regions to engage with Damascus, which has effectively become a Russian quasi-colony beyond the post-Soviet space The direct engagement by its federal subjects (including occupied Crimea) in Syria is thus a means to more thoroughly secure a Russian foothold in the Middle East.
Finally, thousands of Russian civil engineers, contractors and volunteers, as well as millions of tons of raw materials and enterprises may eventually arrive in Syria. The scale of this endeavor may reach levels of resource expenditure last seen during the Soviet period. As such, the importance of Crimea as the main logistical link between Russia and Syria is set to grow.