Russia is in domestic turmoil. The ruble has had a 35 percent drop in value. Population numbers have tumbled from 250 million to 140 million. Life expectancy rates are among the lowest in the world. Alcoholism is rampant. A general state of unease is ubiquitous.
Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive foreign policy marches on, perhaps as a distraction, but more likely to recapture the stature and influence of Russia on the world stage. Leaving aside the much-discussed aggression in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russian support for the Syrian regime has saved President Bashar Assad’s neck and improved his standing, despite opposition from Sunni nations that view him as a “client” of Iran. When President Obama drew his “red line” in the sand over Mr. Assad’s use of poison gas, the line disappeared as Russia filled the void and the United States acquiesced in Mr. Assad’s retention. With control of its base in Tartus, Russia has leverage over the entire eastern Mediterranean area.
Mr. Putin also envisions an opportunity to neutralize U.S. influence in the Middle East as Mr. Obama obsesses about withdrawal from the region. It was widely recognized by leaders in the area that the appearance of the aircraft carrier Kutuzov in 2012 meant Russia is ensconced as a Middle Eastern power, notwithstanding its loss of stature and influence in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Mr. Putin has been supplying Syria with a variety of conventional weapons from rockets to missiles. Russian advisers and intelligence experts have assisted in monitoring the military hardware and even assisting with precision strikes against Mr. Assad’s enemies. Assuming the civil war ends with Mr. Assad in power — as seems likely — Russia will be well compensated.
The Middle East is the second-largest market for Russian arms exports after Southeast Asia. Egypt recently signed a deal for $3 billion of Russian aircraft, and arms to Syria account for the equivalent of $4 billion. Yet this is only part of the economic story.
Russian companies have invested in gas and oil exploration in Syria to the tune of $20 billion. In addition, Soyuzneftegas signed a contract to explore the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast between Tartus and Baniyas for oil and gas reserves. Stroitransgag built a natural gas pipeline and processing plant close to Rakka; a plant that will produce 1.3 billion cubic meters of gas a year. Russian companies are engaged in developing a nuclear energy plant. Tupolev and Aviartar signed an agreement to provide three TV-2045 passenger planes to Syrian Air. The Russian company Sinara is building a hotel in Latakia. Others are involved in creating a wireless network infrastructure. The Russian are not only coming — they are there.
With tension arising in the relationship between Mr. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Russian presence in Syria represents an enhanced threat to Israel. The Shia axis of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah under the protection of Russia is a daunting prospect. Russian nuclear power plants in Syria could lead to enriched uranium and the possibility of nuclear weapons, even though Syria signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Moreover, Iran could transfer fissile material to its neighbor and vassal state should an agreement emerge in June that gives Iran a green light on further uranium enrichment.
Should Russia be willing to risk U.S. active concern by transferring nuclear weapons to Syria, any escalation scenario in regional war would be limited. It will be increasingly difficult for Israel to launch a surgical attack against Syria with Russia in the shadows of any dispute. Sophisticated new missiles in Syria’s hands can reach any population center in Israel and these warheads can be armed with chemical and biological capability.
Should Israel face the existential choice of having to invade an Iran with nuclear weapons or put its very survival at stake — the Hobson’s choice most analysts would prefer to ignore — Israel can expect to be attacked from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iran itself with Russia lurking in the desert sands. In anticipation of such a scenario, Israel has attempted to maintain friendly ties to Russia, albeit dependability is uncertain in a time of hostility.
However one thinks about the Middle East, Russia cannot be omitted from the narrative. The United States forced Russia out of the region, but as a result of bungled policies and uncertain options, invited it back in. For the time being, Mr. Putin has created a bridge to the Middle East that must be recognized and calculated. From a U.S. and Israeli perspective, this isn’t good news.
Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research. Radek Lakomy is a former Israeli SEAL and intelligence officer.