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Have Russian Ambitions been Dented by Setbacks in Syria and Libya?

April hasn’t been a good month for Russia in the Middle East. In Libya, General Khalifa Haftar has been on the defensive following the UN-backed Tripoli government’s advances, including the capture of several cities as well as hitting Haftar’s armories and supply lines.

In Syria, Russia has expressed frustration with the regime and whether it is capable of managing the post-war situation in that country, with articles published by its former ambassador to Syria, Aleksandr Aksenenok, and regarding corruption levels and low approval ratings around President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrians haven’t taken the criticism lying down. They have responded by saying that Russian missile defense systems supplied to the country have been ineffective and “backward.” Meanwhile, in Libya, Haftar has proposed a ceasefire with the government, supposedly at the request of the Russians. But the offer was turned down by the government, who have Haftar on the run for the first time since the warlord began his current offensive against Tripoli a year ago.

The setbacks in the two Arab countries can be seen as undermining Russia’s ambition to be a key regional and global power. When compared to other emerging powers like China and India, Russia’s behavior over the past two decades has been closer to that of a spoiler than a supporter of the international system. It has sought to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, which in the case of the Middle East has been helped by its extremely fractured nature at both the state and regional level over the past decade.

Since the Arab uprisings began in 2011, states like Libya and Syria have seen splits between their governments and societies, eventually resulting in armed rebellions and war. At the regional level, the previous dominance of the U.S. has been undermined; its ability to contain conflict and manage events has been challenged, ceding space to other regional and extra-regional actors, like Russia.

In 2015 Russia shifted from providing diplomatic support to Syria to giving military assistance. As the regime steadily clawed back control of the country, Russia’s stature began to rise, along with the prospects of post-war reconstruction. Russia has aimed to rehabilitate the Syrian regime back into the international community, and in so doing, portray itself as an effective political mediator.

Russia sought to leverage its influence in the Syrian conflict to the wider region, including in Libya. Late last year, up to 200 Russian fighters with the paramilitary Wagner Group were reportedly ensconced with Haftar’s forces while financial resources had been sent to the eastern part of the country under Haftar’s control.

However, as recent developments in both Syria and Libya demonstrate, Russia is discovering the limits to its influence. As the recent and publicly expressed Russian commentary in Syria has shown, it is frustrated with its partner and its failure to live up to the image it wants to present. In Libya, its assistance over the past year has not proved sufficient for Haftar both to push back against the government as well as advance further and ensure complete control of the country.

At the same time, Russia’s adverse experiences in Syria and Libya aren’t the same. Of the two, the situation in Syria is arguably more problematic than that in Libya.

For one, Russia’s financial and military investments have been larger in Syria than in Libya. In spending terms, Russian contributions to the Syrian theatre have been estimated as high as $7 billion since 2011. By contrast, Russia is believed to have funded Haftar with up to $3 billion, which is far outweighed by UAE and Egyptian assistance, including in military equipment. The greater involvement by the two Arab states may have had a positive outcome and offset challenges to Russian credibility, most notably Haftar’s refusal to listen to the Russians and accept a ceasefire with the Tripoli government in January.

For another, Russia’s ability to influence the regime in Syria is becoming more limited, especially as the end of the war becomes more likely. That is reflected to some extent by its failure to effectively control efforts to recognize Syria’s armed forces as well as the Syrian regime’s search for other partners. They have included China as a potential reconstruction partner, as well as potentially several Gulf countries. In 2018 the UAE reopened its Syrian embassy while recently its leader contacted Assad to express solidarity and support over the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Libya, while the momentum seems to be with the government rather than with Haftar for now, it is not yet certain that the war is likely to be resolved conclusively yet. There is still time for Haftar’s foreign partners, including Russia, to provide additional support and for the warlord to rally. Should that happen then the war will continue and the balance of power may once again change.

In other words, the current situation in Libya is more fluid than it is in Syria. Given the difference between the two, what happens in Syria may therefore be more important for Russia than the present state of affairs in Libya. Russia has fewer options available to itself in Syria than in Libya. Despite its doubts about the regime, it is stuck with it as a partner, just as its control over the country is becoming more absolute and it is becoming less pliant. How Russia manages this post-war development may therefore reveal more about its capacity as an aspiring regional and global power than the current progress of the war in Libya.