On January 7, as Russia celebrated Christmas, President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to Damascus and met his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, before heading to Turkey, where he was set to launch TurkStream gas pipeline project.
This was Mr. Putin’s second visit to Syria since the start of almost nine-year long war and his first to the country’s capital.
Hours after the Putin-Assad meeting, Iran fired missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation to the killing of Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike. Then, the Ukrainian plane crashed near Tehran killing 176 people — Iran would later admit it was “unintentionally” shot down by its military. But, as the developments on U.S.-Iran escalation played in the background, Mr. Putin proceeded to Istanbul, where, with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he launched the TurkStream gas pipeline.
Halting military action in Libya
Speaking about the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the two leaders “spoke assertively in favour of resolving all the issues in the Persian Gulf and the region in general solely by peaceful means and in line with international law”. One of the major outcomes of the bilateral talks was a call to immediately stop military action in Libya and declare a ceasefire from midnight of January 12, showcasing Russia’s determination to push its agenda in the region.
Mr. Putin’s surprise visit to Damascus was important for the very same reason: with the assassination of Soleimani, Russia’s military had lost an important connection in Syria as it was the Iranian general who was responsible for coordinating all the pro-Iran forces there.
Experts believe both visits showcased Russia’s will to cement its positions in West Asia and North Africa region. This could also be seen as a sign to regional powers that Russia is a stable and reliable partner, unlike the U.S., which has yet again put the already-unstable region on the verge of a new war.
According to Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs of the Federation Council of Russia’s Parliament, the visits of Mr. Putin to Syria and Turkey were highly symbolic. “While they were planned following their own natural course, they have very clearly demonstrated once again that Russia, unlike the U.S., has its own creative and constructive programme of action in the region, devoid of emotions and conjuncture, aimed at strategic perspective and not at election cycles,” Mr. Kosachev wrote in his commentary in Rossiyskaya Gazeta .
“That is why Russia does not have a single irreconcilable enemy in this region, but instead is getting more and more partners. Iran, Iraq and Turkey, as well as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among them, as paradoxical as it may seem from Washington...,” he added.
Diversification of ties
Dmitry Suslov, an analyst at the Valdai Club think-tank agreed. “Tactically, the most important question now is how the ongoing crisis between the U.S. and Iran will affect the balance of power in the Middle East. It seems that it would lead to the weakening of the positions of both Iran and the United States and the strengthening of the positions of other players, and first of all, Russia and Turkey,” he said.
He added that by assassinating Soleimani, the U.S. had forced everyone in the region, including its own allies, to look up to other partners and try to diversify their military-political ties. He believed this could strengthen Russia’s position in the region as it could be seen as an alternative to the U.S., provided Moscow uses the opportunity smartly.
The challenge for Russia is to continue manoeuvring between the conflicting interests of its regional partners. So far it has been managing the task well, experts added.
This has implications for India as well as it could bring a new dimension to Indo-Russian cooperation, both in economic and military domains, believed Alexey Kupriyanov, Senior Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Russia is being vocal that it needs partners to restore life and infrastructure Syria and India could become such partner with Indian companies participating in the projects...,” Mr. Kupriyanov told The Hindu .
India and Russia could also expand their engagement in the northern and western parts of the Indian Ocean. Experts believe India could take advantage of Russia, its long-term privileged strategic partner, emerging as an important and predictable player in this region.
(Ksenia Kondratieva is a journalist based in Moscow)