Russia Gaining Influence in Mediterranean

In early June, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Rwanda where he announced the Russian government’s intent to host a Russia-African Union summit next year. The announcement is a signal of Russian interest to get further involved diplomatically in African affairs. The summit indicates the Russian government’s desire to invest in Africa and cultivate relationships that ultimately boost its standing internationally.

Russians have a history of cooperation with many African countries, however, since the fall of the Soviet Union, involvement in Africa has effectively ended. Recent years have seen the Russians engaging more with Africa, especially in northern countries around the Mediterranean Sea, where the Russians are using military operations against various rebel or terror groups as leverage against the United States.

Russia’s relationship with Turkey will have the biggest impact on future affairs in the Middle East. Though not yet allies, the two governments appear to be improving ties. Despite the numerous setbacks, they have developed an energy alliance, and Turkey recently agreed to buy Russian air-defense systems to diversify their security strategy. There have been tensions though; Turkish F-16s downed a Russian aircraft after it entered Turkish airspace while conducting bombing runs in Syria and Turkey refuses to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Further complicating the relationship is Russia’s support for Turkey’s enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan staunchly opposed Assad’s regime, but he has since left Russia and Assad to conduct operations against rebel militias without strong objections.

Meanwhile, Erdogan must balance the demands of Russia with those of the U.S. and other NATO partners. Recent events have soured the U.S.-Turkish relationship, but the Trump administration recognizes the strategic value of a good relationship with Turkey to fight terror threats posed by Islamist groups. Likewise, Russia appears committed to making the relationship work to boost their influence in the Mediterranean and gain improved access to the Black Sea and Bosporus Strait. The U.S. has found a useful ally in Turkey, the region’s primary economic and military power, but it must weigh such geopolitical concerns with Turkey’s human rights abuses, persecution of the Kurds, and budding relationship with Russia.

Much has been reported of Russia’s military engagement in Syria, including recent airstrikes against Syrian rebel groups in Deraa. The area was jointly declared a ceasefire zone last year by the U.S., Russia, and Syria, but Assad ignored U.S. warnings and coordinated with Russia to recapture the territory. Russia recently ratified a deal with Syria to maintain a permanent presence at the Tartus naval base, Russia’s only foothold in the Mediterranean Sea. For this reason, Syria remains Russia’s closest ally in the region.

Russia has made recent inroads into Algeria as well. In February, Russia’s Lavrov met with Algerian officials to emphasize military cooperation between the two countries in the fight against terrorism. A Russian delivery of TOS-1A rocket launchers was sent to the Libyan border to prevent al-Qaeda and Islamic State extremists from establishing a stronghold in Libya and invading Algeria. For Russia, Algeria is a trading partner with a large amount of oil and metal resources. More importantly, an improved relationship between the two would strategically position the Russians between U.S. allies Morocco and Tunisia, give them greater access to the Mediterranean, and close the distance between Russia and Western Europe.

Since the brief intervention in Libya in 2011, the U.S. military has remained largely uninvolved in the ongoing Libyan conflict with the exception of occasional strikes on high-profile Islamic State and al-Qaeda targets. In the absence of U.S. involvement, Russia has steadily increased its covert support for Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar by providing intelligence and military advising to the Libyan army. Russia’s long term goal in Libya is to establish a new military and economic partner so the Russians can apply pressure on the U.S. and influence the region’s affairs.

Developments in Iraq and Afghanistan have diverted U.S. attention away from geopolitical concerns along the Mediterranean Sea. These, along with domestic political issues within the U.S., have allowed the Russian government to expand its influence in a strategic location. Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe and the Middle East reestablishes the Mediterranean and Black Seas as major strategic regions. Russia seeks additional security and trading partners between Turkey, Syria, Libya, and Algeria because having significant influence in those countries could minimize the West’s control of the region. At the moment, the U.S. continues to maintain ties with Turkey which is deemed a reliable counter to Russian influence. Unfortunately, close ties with Turkey jeopardize the alliance with the Kurds, who are stable, effective allies with the U.S. in its fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The U.S. faces a tough decision: choosing to align with a brutal authoritarian regime in Turkey or losing a major regional ally in the Middle East. Turkey’s continued progression into authoritarianism may leave the U.S. with only one choice.