Putin Is Sneaking Up on Europe From the South

The Kremlin understands that the best way to undermine the West is through its soft underbelly—the Middle East.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) and Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy Vladimir Korolev (L) watch a terrestrial globe while visiting Russia's Navy Headquarters during Navy Day in Saint Petersburg on July 30, 2017. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) and Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy Vladimir Korolev (L) watch a terrestrial globe while visiting Russia's Navy Headquarters during Navy Day in Saint Petersburg on July 30, 2017. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The first big battles between the U.S. military and the Wehrmacht during World War II were not actually in Europe. Between Nov. 8 and Nov. 10, 1942, the United States and allied forces landed in Algeria and Morocco. After defeating Vichy French forces, the armies proceeded east to Tunisia to take on the German forces in that country. Why North Africa? Allied military planners had determined that an invasion of France in 1942 was doomed to fail, so plans were made to attack Germany from—as Winston Churchill reportedly remarked—the “soft belly of the Mediterranean.” It was from Tunisia that the invasion of Italy and the long, bloody march to Berlin began.

Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin is a student of history, or maybe he likes maps, but whatever his hobby, he seems to understand geography quite well. The character of Moscow’s influence differs greatly from the old Soviet days when it was collecting client states (except for Russia’s ongoing deployment of force in Syria). But it has been effective—or effective enough—in drawing important allies away from the United States while presenting Russia as a competent, nonideological partner that shares interests with the regional players. Therein lies the central logic to Russia’s Middle East-Europe strategy: establish influence at Washington’s expense, weakening the U.S. position in the region, and in the process apply pressure on Europe via its weak underbelly—in this case to the south and southeast of the European Union.

Draw a line on a map from Moscow to Damascus and from the Syrian capital to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Everyone knows what happened in Syria: The Russians entered the conflict there to save an ally and have helped him prosecute a war that has produced millions of refugees, many of whom have made their way to Europe and left others banging on its gates. The effects on European politics have been profound, galvanizing a populist, nativist, and pro-Russian right at the expense of Europe’s postwar liberal consensus. While Syria is a well-known story, only a few in Washington seem to have noticed that since 2017, Russia has reportedly invested $4 billion in the Kurdish oil and gas sector. From Erbil extends the line of Russian influence and power to the east from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran.

That Moscow-Damascus-Erbil-Tehran line represents an important axis of Russian influence. But other Russia-dominated geographic lines are even more relevant for Europe.

One line starts in the Russian capital and proceeds due south to the Turkish capital, Ankara. Moscow has not exactly turned Turkey, but the combination of Syria, where Putin is the powerbroker; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s worldview; and the still changing nature of international politics after the Cold War, has made a Turkey-Russia partnership of sorts possible. The Turks are scheduled to receive Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system in July 2019, Turkey’s volume of trade with Russia is bigger than with the United States, and Erdogan recently identified Moscow—along with Beijing and Tehran—as an alternative to Washington. All of this has stoked (mostly overblown) fears within the Washington policy community about “losing Turkey,” but for the Europeans who are connected to Ankara through the flow of goods and services and who regard Anatolia as a buffer between them and Moscow, burgeoning Turkey-Russia ties are a problem.

Start again, but this time cross the Mediterranean and stop at Cairo, make a sharp left and extend the line to Benghazi. That is the third axis. The Russians, with their uncompromising position regarding the threat of Islamism, offer high-tech weaponry—and a no-questions-asked policy on human rights—and for Egypt’s leaders that’s an appealing alternative to the United States. Egypt has been a critical component of the existing regional political order, which has favored the exercise of U.S. power in the Middle East for at least three decades.

Rather than reversing Henry Kissinger’s 1970s-era Westward flip of the Egyptians, Moscow has pushed and pulled in places where Americans and Egyptians have been at loggerheads. This can’t make European leaders very comfortable. About 10 percent of world trade—much of it going to and from Europe—passes through the Suez Canal. Egypt’s ties to Russia also raise the prospect that for the first time in a long time, U.S. and European navies may not be able to operate totally unimpeded in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Libya is the most intriguing and revealing of all of Moscow’s plays in the region. It is unclear how deeply involved they are in the eastern part of the country, but the Russians are certainly aligned with the Egyptians and Emiratis in opposition to any political settlement that includes an Islamist component to a new government in Tripoli. The would-be Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar has met with Russian officials several times, and in 2017 Putin (not coincidentally) deployed a small Russian force to an air base in western Egypt about 60 miles from the Libyan border. Publicly, the Russians have counseled compromise among Libyan political forces, but the Europeans suspect that Moscow supports Haftar.

Libya might seem a stretch for Putin, who, it is often said, has limited resources to expend on foreign policy. Why bother? Well, underneath eastern Libya is one of the world’s largest reserves of light, sweet crude oil and the fifth-largest reserves of natural gas in Africa. The bulk of Libya’s oil and gas exports go to Europe. It would be strategically remiss of Putin not to become involved in Libya, a place from which Russia can potentially influence energy supplies to Europe. It seems to be a pretty good bet that this has crossed the Russian president’s mind.

Only last year, Russia experts were dismissing the country’s intervention in Syria, its information campaign in Europe, and the annexation of Crimea as little more than a nuisance. It should be clear by now, however, that Moscow’s return to the Middle East beyond Syria is about something much bigger—just take a look at the map.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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