Putin Wants to Keep the West’s Enemies Closer to Russia

Faisal Al Yafai

The most telling detail of this month’s landmark visit by Sudan’s president, Omar Al Bashir, to Damascus came before he had even landed, in the form of the Russian plane that brought him from Khartoum. Al Bashir’s visit to Bashar Al Assad marks the first time an Arab leader has visited the country since the start of the 2011 uprising. The signal was clear: the visit of Al Bashir, who is still the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, was something of a trial balloon, testing a potential re-entry of Syria into the Middle Eastern fold of nations, now that his brutal suppression of the uprising has broadly been successful.

From the Arab world’s perspective, that interpretation has merit. But Al Bashir’s trip to Damascus has more to do with Russia than it does with Syria – and more to do with Africa than with the Middle East.

To understand why Sudan’s president went to Damascus on a Russian plane, it is necessary to start somewhere else, beyond the Middle East, in the Horn of Africa.

In August, Russia’s foreign minister announced plans for a logistics center at an Eritrean port, the latest country to pursue links with countries on the Horn.

In the past few years, what was a largely ignored region has become enormously strategic. The US, China and France all have a military presence in the countries of the Horn. But as part of an assertive push by some Arab countries to create an “Arab backyard” and assert regional influence, the Horn has also become a staging ground for the ambitions of several powerful regional nations: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Qatar all have a presence there.

Russia is rather late to the region and only chose Eritrea after being rebuffed by Djibouti, which hosts the US’s largest African military base.

But Russia’s ambitions lie far beyond the Horn alone. Moscow is seeking to establish links with regimes beyond the Western orbit, offering them money, weapons or diplomatic protection, in return for political support. Eritrea fits into this pattern: when Russia started talks at the start of this year, Eritrea was frozen out of the international community, the subject of wide-ranging United Nations sanctions for nearly a decade. Only last month, after a summer of sudden rapprochements with neighbors, were the sanctions lifted.

Perhaps the best example of Russia’s strategy of building relations with the enemies of its enemies is the Central African Republic. In fact, Russian involvement in the CAR parallels its involvement in Syria.

The CAR has been in turmoil since 2013, when a rebel group overran the capital and pushed the president from power. Further elections were subsequently held, but the transition has not been smooth: around half the country’s population needs humanitarian assistance and around 20 percent of the country are internally displaced. As in Syria, the government only controls parts of the country, with the rest in the hands of armed groups.

Since last year, Russia has been involved in the conflict, diplomatically mediating between armed groups and deploying military trainers and weapons to the government. But, as in Syria, it is Russian private security contractors allied to the Kremlin that have raised eyebrows, in particular the shadowy Wagner Group, reportedly overseen by Russia’s GRU intelligence agency, which has been active in the CAR, as it has been inside Syria and in Ukraine.

Russia has also facilitated negotiations between Sudan, which shares a border with the CAR, and militias inside the CAR, drawing relations closer between the two. In fact, in one of those throwaway details that illuminates the wider landscape, Russia held a poetry competition in the CAR over the summer. The prize? A week’s stay at a holiday camp in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Russia’s strategy appears to be to build links with Western enemies while they are weak, and then gradually encourage them to re-enter international institutions.

Earlier this year, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov toured several African countries, seeking economic cooperation. In Zimbabwe, in particular, Lavrov was seeking further military cooperation, even as Harare is under US sanctions.

In Syria, of course, Russia has been ostensibly working under the auspices of the UN’s Geneva process, and is seeking a way for Syria to be accepted back into the international community, perhaps after cursory elections. Russia advocated the lifting of UN sanctions on Eritrea long before it happened. With the CAR, which is sanctioned by Western countries and has an arms ban in place, Moscow asked for an exception from the UN Security Council last year to deliver weapons shipments, which it received, and, in part because of that, France’s armed forces minister this month suggested the arms embargo on CAR ought to be completely lifted.

It is into this pattern that the Syria-Sudan trip fits. What at first appears to be Russia facilitating ties between two Arab countries actually has more to do with Russia’s own pan-regional ambitions. Vladimir Putin is less interested in keeping his Arab friends close than he is in keeping the enemies of the West closer.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.