AS US President Donald Trump continues to alienate himself from some of his country’s allies as a result of many controversial decisions, most recent of which is the transfer of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Russian President Vladimir Putin has secured diplomatic victory during the week with his whirlwind Middle East tour that brought him to Syria, Egypt and Turkey.
Syria was the subject of a proxy war between the West and Russia. Putin stood by President Bashar al-Assad, whom the US and its allies wanted deposed. The anti-government rebels were fractured, lacking popular support, while al-Assad’s forces were more disciplined and had the overt backing of the Russian military.
It was of no help to the West that some of the rebel forces had links to terrorist groups, making Russia’s involvement a better alternative. Putin, speaking before his troops in Khmeimim air base near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, declared victory: “In two years, the Russian armed forces, together with the Syrian Army have defeated the most combat-capable group of international terrorists.” The presence of President al-Assad symbolized the acceptance of Putin as a patron extraordinaire of Syria.
Egypt receives the second largest US military aid in the Middle East next to Israel and had no direct commercial flights to Russia after the fatal 2015 bombing that killed 224 Russian vacationers in a plane over the Sinai Peninsula. But as Putin landed in Cairo, he was warmly welcomed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The talks focused on boosting airport security and resuming air travel, as well as the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. But noteworthy was the proposal to allow the Russian air force to use Egypt’s airbases.
What seemed difficult was mending fences with Turkey since the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey and the shooting down a Russian fighter jet. With Donald Trump’s controversial recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shared the same view that Trump’s move could escalate tension in the region. Then there was the offer of Russia to sell military hardware to the NATO-member nation.
Russia under Putin has maintained its grip and influence in most of Eastern Europe, and its current diplomatic drive has made it into an important player in the Middle East. Russia is no longer the military might it was during the Cold War but like China, which is expanding its influence, the key to being a world leader is economic power.
The Chinese advance in Africa and Asia is unstoppable, so the Middle East seems the logical target for Russia. And should the conflicts in the region continue to rise, diplomatic relations could translate to more sales in military hardware, and that too is good for Russia’s economy.