Moscow — A week after concluding its combat mission in Syria, Russia's flagship Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier had one final mission in the Mediterranean. It was, perhaps, a mission for which the ship was most capable: impressing Third-World strongmen.
On Jan. 11, Russian news agencies reported that East Libyan general Khalifa Haftar was flown aboard the Kuznetsov for a personal tour from the ship's captain and a video conference with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. The publicized comments were vague and predictable.
"They discussed pressing issues in the fight against international terrorist groups in the Middle East," the Defense Ministry was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying. It was the latest evidence that Moscow is courting Haftar as part of a broader effort across the region.
In November, Haftar visited Moscow to meet with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Details of that meeting, too, were scant. But Haftar reportedly asked the Kremlin to assist him in fighting Islamic terrorists in Libya.
Moscow has yet to commit to the offer. Libya is, after all, still under a UN arms embargo. While the Security Council can approve the sale of weapons to the North African nation, weapons transfers can only be made to the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
That is not to say the Kremlin is not interested. Haftar is a major player in the ongoing struggle for Libya, and his strongman approach likely resonates with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A preference for Haftar would jibe with Moscow's logic in supporting Bashar Assad in Syria.
But Moscow's apparent support for the East Libyan commander reflects Russia's significant and growing financial interest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It is part of a broader, region-wide game of opportunity, says Russian foreign affairs expert Vladimir Frolov.
"In the long-term, Russia wants to reestablish the Soviet area of satellite control in the MENA region," Frolov says. "That would include 'pro-Russia' regimes in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq (though it's a long shot), Algeria and, to a lesser extent – Yemen."
But Iran is a different story, he says. "With Iran, Russia is competing for regional hegemony."
About the Money
The fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 was a significant loss for the Russian arms export industry. Estimates vary, but Russia was eying around $4 billion in arms sales to Gaddafi's government. It also was eying several big-ticket infrastructure and resource projects.
"The figure of $4 billion is only nominal," a Russian arms export official said in 2011. "The real lost revenue could top tens of billions of dollars."
In supporting Haftar, Russia could be looking to restore those contracts. This would bring much needed revenue into Russia's defense industry. Though in recent years firmly in second place on the export market, with annual turnovers in excess of $14.5 billion, exports have plateaued.
Looking beyond Libya, Moscow is engaging in a full-court press on the MENA arms market.
Egypt has been a high priority for Moscow's efforts. In 2014, the two signed a $3.5 billion arms package covering aircraft, missiles, and coastal defenses. The scope of Russia's sale to Egypt may be broader — the word in Moscow is that Russia has agreed to 46 MiG-29 aircraft.
There has not yet been any official confirmation of the Egyptian MiG deal.
An overview of Russian arms export data to the MENA region demonstrate the importance of the market for Moscow's defense industry. Although data has yet to be collated for 2016, the Stockholm Peace Reasearch Institute (SIPRI) shows heavy volumes since 2010.
Algeria is one of Russia's top five customers. Over the past five years, it has imported over $3.3 billion worth of Russian weapons. Egypt accounts for almost $1 billion over the same period, as does Iraq. Syria since 2010 has imported $1.2 billion.
While it is instructive to follow the money in understanding Russia's efforts in the Middle East, the arms sales serve a larger geopolitical purpose. They are part of a game for influence vis-à-vis the United States and, more recently, Iran.
Arms sales allow Moscow to buy favor with anti-Western governments, and tilt the course of MENA politics further in that direction. Through restored ties in the Middle East, Moscow is eying naval and air stations in Syria, Libya and Egypt, Frolov says.
But Russia is courting not only Soviet-era allies, but nations like Jordan and Israel. It is also selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Moscow hopes that its ties with U.S. allies in the region can provide additional support for Russian viewpoints in talks with the U.S.
This is particularly important for Moscow in Syria, which is the Kremlin's most important MENA battleground. Its September 2015 intervention has stabilized Assad, and Putin has won his game of chicken with Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
"The most important breakthrough for Moscow is Turkey and Ankara's falling out with the West," Frolov says. "Moscow's strategic objective, apart from a tactical partnership in Syria, is to 'Finlandize' Turkey as NATO's ally in the Black Sea – making it neutral in the event of war."
Moscow is now working to secure its gains in Syria. Whether or not the Kremlin can continue to back Assad effectively is an open question, one that depends on several factors beyond Putin's control. These are Iran, Turkey, and Putin's domestic audience, among others.
"Russia needs to enlist [and hold] support from at least two regional stakeholders in the Syrian conflict," says Maxim Suchkov, editor of Al-Monitor's Russia-Mideast coverage. "This might be Iran and Turkey. But this may prove easier said than done. Tehran is unhappy with Moscow's flexibility on Assad and its courting of [U.S. President] Trump. Ankara is suspicious of Moscow on the issue of autonomy for Syrian kurds."
But the ultimate consideration that will enable or limit Putin's regional ambitions rest at home. The Russian economy is in the lurch, and the hope of quick sanctions relief under Trump are fast fading in Moscow.
With presidential elections coming to Russia in 2018, the Kremlin will soon be forced to spend more and more of its attention on pressing matters at home.
While there is no doubt as to who will win, if he chooses to run, the Kremlin relies on significant electoral victories for its legitimacy.
"Until then, the sky is the limit," says Frolov.