Resurgent Russia is asserting itself in the Middle East as a big an important international player. The recent diplomacy that averted a U.S. strike on Syria underscored the extent to which Moscow’s steadfast support for its last remaining Arab ally has helped to solidify its role. Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world leader with the single biggest influence over the outcome of a raging war that is threatening the stability of the broader region. Meanwhile new alliances and old friendships are being revived reaching out to countries long regarded as being within the Western, predominantly US, sphere of influence. Egypt, Jordan and Iraq are exploring closer ties with Moscow at a time when the Obama administration fails to come up with clear-cut regional policy.
On October 16 Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s top media adviser said that that Baghdad had begun receiving arms from Russia under a historic $4.3-billion deal it signed last year but then scrapped amid corruption allegations. A review conducted, Baghdad had ultimately decided to keep the agreement. It makes Russia the Iraq’s second-largest arms supplier after the United States to herald its return to a lucrative Middle East market.
Iraqi officials announced at the start of the year that Baghdad had canceled the contract due to corruption allegations that were not spelled out. “We really did have suspicions about this contract,” the Iraqi government’s media adviser Ali al-Musawi told Russia’s RT state-run broadcaster. “But in the end the deal was signed. We have currently started the process of implementing one of the stages of this contract.” (1) The shopping list includes 40 MI-35 and Mi-28NE attack helicopters (4 rotary wing aircraft added as a bonus to make the deal really lucrative), as we’ll as 42 Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems. In case of helicopters, the number 40 justifies the creation of helicopter service center on Iraqi soil. Further discussions were also held about Iraq’s eventual acquisition of MiG-29 jets and heavy armored vehicles along with other weaponry. Musawi said Iraq was primarily interested in acquiring helicopters that could be used by the military to hunt down suspected rebels staging attacks across the war-torn country. Alexander Mikheyev, deputy general director at Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, said in late June that the helicopter contract also covers pilot and technical personnel training and the delivery of essential weapons systems. This is the first contract with Iraq under the package agreement, he added. (2)
By the end of last month it was reported that the northern Kurdistan regional government ordered 14 light helicopters from US MD Helicopters formally for local security forces and medical emergencies. Allegedly the rotary wing aircraft will join the inventory of Peshmerga armed formations. Unlike in the case of the US, Baghdad may not worry about Moscow, military cooperation with Iraqi Kurds is not on its agenda. Washington also looks disapprovingly at Iraq’s contacts with Iran, while Iraq felt small when its peace proposals on peaceful management of Syria’s conflict were ignored by Washington. Iraq’s Prime Minister put forward the detailed plan this August with no response from the US. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made two trips to Moscow in the past year and none to the United States.
According to RIA-Novosti news agency, on November 15 an official from Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport said Jordan is interested in locally assembling Russian-designed helicopters and anti-tank missile systems. “Our Jordanian colleagues have shown interest in setting up domestic assembly of portable Kornet anti-tank missile systems and several types of helicopters,” said Mikhail Zavaly, head of the Rosoboronexport delegation at the Dubai Air Show 2013. Russia’s Kornet-E system, produced for export, has a firing range of up to 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) and features semi-automatic laser-beam guidance with a thermal imaging site. The system, armed with missiles using dual warheads with shaped charges, is highly effective against tanks with reactive or explosive armor as well as against fortified buildings and helicopters. In May this year Jordan has already launched licensed production of Russian-designed Nashab RPG-32 portable rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which the Jordan Times (3) reports is superior to the RPGs that are currently used by the Jordanian armed forces. Jordan is manufacturing weapons as part of a joint venture with Russia. The plant, which manufactures RPG-32 Hashim launchers, is located about 20 kilometers northeast of Jordan’s capital, Amman. It has been built and equipped by the Jordanian side, whereas Russia’s Rosoboronexport is supplying components for the assembly of the grenade launchers and is overseeing the production process. (4)
On October 25 Jordan announced that it has selected Russian state-owned firm Rosatom as its preferred vendor to construct two 1,000-megawatt (MW) nuclear power plants at a site near Qusayr Amra, some 60 kilometres northeast of Amman and at the edge of the northern desert by 2022. As part of the decision, the government and the Russian firm have entered negotiations over electricity pricing in order to reach a final agreement and break ground on the reactors by 2015. Energy officials listed the safety track record of the firm’s AES92 VVER1000 reactor technology among the main advantages of the Russian bid, which beat out shortlisted French firm AREVA’s experimental ATMEA1 reactor and Canadian AECL’s CANDU technology.
No doubt financial arrangements played an important role. Under the proposal Rosatom has agreed to take on 49 per cent of the plants’ $10 billion construction and operation costs on a build-own-operate basis with the government shouldering the remaining 51 per cent and retaining a majority share in the plants.
The proposal mirrors a similar agreement struck by Rosatom and Turkey in 2010, under which the firm is set to construct four 1,000MW reactors at a $20 billion price tag.
Officials say the deal aims to help achieve energy independence in Jordan, which imports around 97 per cent of its energy needs at a cost of over one-fifth of the gross domestic product, and bring stability to a sector that has been impacted by ongoing disruptions in Egyptian gas.
Jordan has become the third Arab state to pursue peaceful nuclear energy, with the UAE set to build four reactors with a combined 5,600MW capacity by 2020 and Egypt reaffirming earlier this month its plans to establish a 1,000MW reactor by the end of the decade. (5)
On November 15 His Majesty King Abdullah and a visiting Russian Agriculture Minister Nikolai Fedorov stressed their commitment to boosting cooperation between the two countries and to maintain coordination and consultation vis-à-vis various regional issues of mutual concern. At a meeting with and the accompanying delegation, the King highlighted cooperation prospects and means to develop them in the various sectors, mainly agriculture, tourism, transport and energy as well as in economic fields. The minister is co-chairing the joint Jordanian-Russian Intergovernmental Commission’s meetings in Amman. Fedorov asserted Russia’s commitment to strengthening its relations with the Kingdom and to maintain coordination on all issues of mutual concern, stressing Russia’s willingness to support the Kingdom in the fields of energy, transport, agriculture, tourism and capacity building.
Commending the Kingdom’s track record, the Russian official expressed appreciation of Jordan’s progress in various areas and lauded the Kingdom’s position on different regional issues as well as His Majesty’s efforts to foster peace and stability.
During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Kingdom last year, Jordan and Russia signed an agreement to establish a joint Jordanian-Russian committee to activate cooperation between them. The two countries are also bound by several agreements on economic cooperation.
Jordanian officials held negotiations with the Russian delegation at the Planning and International Cooperation Ministry, and agreed to form a joint business committee to boost commercial and investment cooperation between the two countries.
Saif told reporters following the meeting that Jordan and Russia had signed a memorandum of understanding in the field of nuclear technology, adding that a Jordanian official delegation would visit Moscow early next year
The Russian minister indicated that the two sides also agreed to increase the inflow of Russian tourists seeking religious and medical tourism.
8 years ago President Putin said he was sorry the bilateral trade turnout was just over modest $50 million. It grew up to $426, 5 million in 2012.
Russian Foreign and Defense Minister Sergey Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu paid a visit to Egypt on November 13-15 for a two-day visit to discuss «the full spectrum» of ties between the two countries, including «military-technical cooperation». President Putin is expected to visit to Egypt pretty soon. The talks revealed Egypt is seeking to acquire fighter planes, air-defence systems and anti-tank missiles with 24 MiG-29 M2 fighters are at the top of the shopping list added to the Buk M2, Tor M2 and Pantsir- S1 short- to medium-range Russian defence systems.
Last month the US froze a sizable portion of the yearly $1.5 billion aid package as a sign of discontent with Egypt’s slow progress towards democracy. The step followed after the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets was suspended and biennial US-Egyptian military exercises were cancelled.
In Egypt, where the military-backed government has accused Washington of sympathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood, some protesters have hailed Putin as a potential diplomatic counterbalance to the United States. Pro-military demonstrators have even drawn parallels between the former KGB operative and their own strongman: During a July protest in the city of Alexandria, pro-military demonstrators unveiled a large poster of the Russian President wearing a naval uniform beside that of Army Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, bearing the inscription "Bye bye, America!"
The Russia-initiated breakthrough on Syria is followed by a host of tangible Middle East policy successes. No doubt it’s a feather in the Russian leadership’s hat, the country is strongly back in the region, its clout growing by leaps and bounds, while the US faces the music having lost its way in the regional maze of overlapping problems and complexities. No calls for revival of Cold War days competition, to the contrary joining together to get down to brass tacks will benefit all. The initiative on Syria proved the possibility and expediency of this approach.