By Yeghia Tashjian
Greece, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all taken major steps, directly and through proxies, to advance their energy security and geopolitical interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia, which does not border the Mediterranean Sea but has a naval military base in Tartus (Syria), is exerting its influence around nearby countries, including Lebanon. Russia perceives Lebanon as part of the Syrian track, so Moscow will strive to continue playing in this field to capitalize on its influence after intervening in the Syrian conflict. One of Russia’s main goals in the Middle East is to expand its influence in the region and control the energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
In the last few years, Russia started playing a larger role in Lebanon following the defeat of ISIS and growing civil unrest in Syria. Russia is important in helping solve the Syrian refugee crisis since Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million Syrian refugees. For some Lebanese, Russia is seen as a force that can provide stability. Russia has also offered security and military coordination and investments in Lebanon’s underdeveloped energy sector. Russia has recently been showing greater interest in Lebanon’s domestic affairs, specifically when it comes to breaking the political deadlock between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.
During the past three months, Russian officials have held 14 public official meetings with Lebanese officials:
– On February 26 at the Center House, PM-designate Hariri received the Russian ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Rudakov. Both sides discussed Lebanon’s domestic politics and the obstacles in forming a government. During the meeting, Hariri handed the Russian ambassador a letter addressed to the Russian PM.
– On March 5, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon met a delegation from the Lebanese Forces Party.
– On March 9 during a working visit to Abu Dhabi, Russia’s FM Sergey Lavrov met the PM-designate Hariri. The two sides discussed regional issues, the need to consolidate international efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis peacefully, return of Syrian refugees and Lebanon’s political developments.
– On the same day, Mikhail Bogdanov, Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa and Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, received Amal Abou Zeid, adviser to the President of the Lebanese Republic on Russian affairs, and reaffirmed Moscow’s support to Lebanon.
– On March 16, the Hezbollah delegation visited Moscow and met Russian FM Lavrov.
– The same day, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Rudakov visited the Druze leader, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt and both sides discussed the latest developments in Lebanon.
– On March 17, Russian Ambassador Rudakov met Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement. They discussed the situation in Lebanon in the context of the difficulties that the government formation process is facing, regional developments and bilateral relations.
– On March 22, Rudakov visited Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s caretaker PM and discussed with him prospects for the production of the Russian vaccine “Sputnik V” in Lebanon.
– On March 27, Rudakov met with PM-designate Hariri to discuss the latest political developments and the general situation in Lebanon and the region, as well as bilateral relations between the two countries.
– On April 14, Lebanese PM-designate Hariri met with senior Russian officials in Moscow.
– On April 23, Rudakov visited the Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rai. They talked about the current situation in Lebanon and bilateral relations.
– On April 28, Russian ambassador in Beirut Rudakov met the PM-designate Hariri.
– On April 29, former Lebanese Foreign Minister and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (largest Christian parliamentary block) visited Moscow and met FM Lavrov.
– On May 18, Rudakov visited Lebanese President Aoun to discuss the prospects of developing bilateral relations. Rudakov conveyed to the President a verbal message from his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in which he expressed Russia’s support for Lebanon.
These activities hint that Russia has been playing an active role in Lebanon and views it as an extension of its regional policy towards Syria. This article will shed light on Russia’s hard and soft power activities in Lebanon, its energy security interests, bridging between different confessional groups and explore whether Moscow has long-term interests in the country.
Is it just about oil and gas?
Russia has entered the energy market in Lebanon through state-owned oil companies. In 2018, Lebanon’s Ministry of Energy and Water Resources signed an operations and service contract with the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft to rehabilitate, expand and operate oil storage facilities in the port city of Tripoli. Russia’s purchase of old oil storage is part of the Kremlin’s latest push to assert its influence across the eastern Mediterranean through energy deals. CEO Igor Sechin hoped for “the further expansion of cooperation with Lebanon and for the implementation of other potential projects in the oil and gas sector in this country.” Lebanon, which is suffering from a severe financial crisis, is in dire need of direct foreign investments in its underdeveloped energy sector and infrastructure.
In an interview with the Armenian Weekly, Lory Haytayan, an oil and gas expert in the East Mediterranean and the Middle East, argued that Russia is interested in “creating a strong presence in the region and controlling a pipeline from Iraq to Lebanon through Syria could be one way of creating an area of influence.” Haytayan also believes that Russia’s soft and hard power goes hand-in-hand as Moscow’s main interest in the eastern Mediterranean is not just related to having a military and naval presence, as seen in Syria and Libya, but also controlling the region’s vast energy resources. She explained that Rosneft has stakes in oil fields in Egypt and Iraq (Kirkuk and Iraqi Kurdistan) and Novatek has stakes in blocks in offshore Lebanon (block 4 and 9). For Haytayan, the major involvement will be in Syria where contracts were signed between the Syrian government and Russian energy firms. She added that Russia can facilitate a joint development agreement between Syria and Lebanon to share the resources in Lebanese blocks 1 and 2 and Syria’s block 1. This could be strategic for Russia, whereby investing in northern Lebanon can sideline Turkish influence in the area where Ankara has certain political leverage on the Lebanese Sunnis living in northern cities.
It is worth mentioning that in 2020 Novatek, Russia’s largest independent natural gas company, signed an offshore oil and gas exploration and production agreement with the Lebanese government. By entering the Lebanese energy market and sidelining US energy companies, Russia aims to play a leading role in the eastern Mediterranean gas sector, specifically in Lebanon and Syria. According to Haytayan, Russia may cooperate with Turkey to balance the French-Egyptian-Cyptic-Greek-Israeli axis. She argued that Moscow is more collaborative with Ankara in building the pipelines and using Turkey as a hub for its gas. If Russian companies continue expanding in the region (especially in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and maybe Iran), then we could envisage a forum similar to the Egypt-based East Mediterranean Gas Forum, but created and supported by Russia. Hence Russia could control the liquefied natural gas (LNG) resources in the region and help Turkey become a transit of LNG towards Europe.
Realizing Russia’s growing influence in the region, PM-designate Hariri traveled to Moscow in April to seek its help in building electric power stations and restoring the port in Beirut following the huge chemical explosion in August 2020. There is a need to build new power plants in Lebanon to overcome its electricity shortage, and Russia may provide assistance in this field. However, Russia has other plans for Lebanon when it comes to security and military coordination.
Lebanese-Russian Security Relations
In February 2018, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev signed a Lebanese-Russian military agreement, which entails a $1 billion credit line of an old Russian offer to provide the Lebanese Army with ammunition for free. However, under US pressure, the Lebanese government postponed its decision on the matter. To avoid embarrassment, back then the caretaker PM Hariri transferred the ammunition to the Internal Security Forces. Not surprisingly, Russia continued deepening its security and military ties with Lebanon as the staff of the Russian embassy in Beirut has increased during the past decade to include a relatively large military section.
The issue of the return of the Syrian refugees is another space for coordination between both countries. Russia has facilitated the return of thousands of Syrian refugees from Lebanon back to Syria, after receiving guarantees from the Syrian side. Russian military officials have played a role in the coordination process. Russians also played a key role in exempting returnees from military service and security vetting. Moreover, for many Lebanese politicians who oppose the Syrian state, Russia is an influential mediator capable of providing a backchannel between the Syrian and Lebanese authorities. Russia may help guarantee them a role in the expected fortune of Syria’s reconstruction.
In September 2015, the Russian military entered the conflict in support of President Bashar al Assad, reversing the course of the war. Hence then, Moscow’s relations with Syria and Hezbollah as a powerful non-state actor in Lebanon have been important in shaping Russia’s policy towards both countries. Hezbollah’s success on the ground in Syria has been noted by Moscow, which views it as a capable possible future partner in containing the US influence in these countries. Hezbollah has also strongly contributed to the survival of the Syrian government. While the Russians were providing air cover, Hezbollah and the Syrian army were cleansing Aleppo and parts of Idlib from the armed opposition groups. Experts have noted that Hezbollah gained better surveillance and reconnaissance skills, special operations tactics and appropriate use of drones when cooperating with the Russians in Syria. Though in the long term, it is unclear whether Russia would like to see Hezbollah’s role expanded or limited in post-conflict Syria.
Despite the fact that some may think Israel may view the possible Russian influence with concern, the Israel Defense Forces estimate that Russia’s interaction with Hezbollah decreases the latter’s likelihood of war with Israel in the near future, figuring that Russia’s dialogue with the group is likely to restrain its response to perceived Israeli airstrikes at a time when Hezbollah is playing a crucial role in the Syrian regime’s advance. This would be not an easy task for Moscow, where, as a newcomer to Lebanese politics, it has to balance its policies and search for partners in Lebanon.
Can Russia fit in the Lebanese complex sectarian system?
Moscow has long viewed Lebanon as both a geopolitically crucial landmark on the eastern Mediterranean and a country where the Christian minority who are well represented in public institutions can be cultivated like nowhere else in the Middle East. As seen in recent years, its ties with Lebanon have deepened even further as an extension of its Syria policy, including on the military level. Immediately after the Beirut blast, President Putin sent condolences to his Lebanese counterpart, along with humanitarian aid. Moreover, Russia’s political activism alongside cultural and educational exchange programs has increased in the country.
From a regional perspective, Moscow sees Lebanon as a vulnerability for Syria, given the social and economic interconnection between the two countries. Lebanon’s financial crisis has been directly linked to a further devaluation of the Syrian currency and vice-versa as Syria depends on US dollars, subsidized fuel, wheat and basic food items smuggled from Lebanon. This means that Moscow (to save its interests in Syria) must play a greater role in Lebanon as the situation worsens.
However, Russia is still a new player in Lebanon’s challenging and complex sectarian arena. Russia cannot rely on its old Soviet ties where the progressive leftist front headed by the Lebanese communists and Arab nationalists have been marginalized in Lebanon’s political life. To push its interests, Russia has to find new partners in Lebanon. For this, Moscow is employing its soft power policy, opening up new cultural centers in Lebanon. These 10 cultural centers are mostly active and well-received among the local population, as they enrich the art and performance scenes across the country, offering affordable music, dance and language classes, intellectual gatherings, book signings and conferences.
In addition to its relations with Hezbollah, Moscow is starting to strengthen its relations with the Greek Orthodox community. Starting in October 2017, meetings were held between representatives of the Lebanese Greek Orthodox community and church and political officials in Moscow. As an outcome of these meetings, a statement was released stressing the “coordination of cooperation with different social and political associations of Lebanon, including the Orthodox Gathering.” In March, Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Xreceived the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon to discuss the situation in Lebanon, Syria and future educational and cultural cooperation.
After the recent war in Artsakh, Russians may start building a bridge with another Christian community that has large Diasporan networks around the Middle East—the Armenians. On November 3, 2020, the head of the Armenian Parliamentary Bloc and the representative of Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Regional Committee MP Hagop Pakradouni visited the Russian embassy and met the newly-appointed ambassador. According to Aztag Daily, Pakradouni hoped Russia would stop the bloodshed and genocidal Turkish-Azerbaijani war against the Armenians of Artsakh. The MP also presented the role of the Lebanese-Armenian community and the political affiliation of the ARF in Lebanon. Armenians who feel threatened by Turkey’s growing influence in the Levant also can use their vast educational, cultural and even political networks to consolidate their political representation in Lebanon with future Russian support. Nasser Chararah has argued that Moscow, by building bridges with Leventian Orthodox Christians, is strengthening its support base and countering Western criticisms of its Syria policy. It is worth mentioning that Moscow has developed relations with different factions within the Druze community and may take similar steps in the future towards the Sunni community either by cooperating with Saudi Arabia or Turkey. Thus, Russian diplomacy towards Lebanon can be viewed as balanced and flexible.
Speaking about trade and investments, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Maronite politician, MP Gebran Bassil, while visiting Moscow, praised the Russian role in Lebanon and the broader region, stressing that both sides talked about the importance of founding a “Levantine market” comprising Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. Moreover, with the start of negotiations between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), regarding Iran’s possible membership in the Russian-led economic block in the future, other Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Syria and eventually Lebanon may think to join or have an especial relationship with the economic union that would facilitate trade and infrastructural development in the region.
To cement relations with Russia, both the President and PM-designate established regular contact with Moscow through their advisors. MP Amal Abou Zeid, President Aoun’s advisor on Russia’s affairs, is arguably the most influential player in Lebanese-Russian relations. He has been the main player in reviving Beirut’s relations with Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union. As a token of appreciation, in 2015 the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences granted him an honorary doctorate for his efforts in strengthening Lebanese-Russian relations. Hariri’s man in Moscow is his Russian affairs advisor George Sha‘ban, who attended all of Hariri’s meetings with President Putin. During Hariri’s last meeting with Russia’s FM Lavrov, the Russians called for “swift formation of an effective government of experts” which enjoys the support of the main political parties and sectarian factions.
At a time when minorities have suffered throughout the Middle East, leaders of some Christian communities in Lebanon, having felt the abandonment of the West, regard Russia as a potential “protector.” Meanwhile, Russia has continued in its attempts to establish durable political, economic, and cultural influence in Lebanon. It has started investing in Lebanon’s underdeveloped energy sector and building bridges between major Lebanese political actors and sectarian groups.
This should not surprise us. After Moscow’s military intervention in Syria in 2015, and later in Libya in 2017 through its proxy, its sudden intervention in the oil and gas competition in the eastern Mediterranean will make it a key player in any negotiations aimed at drawing the future map of the region. Hence, Lebanon’s future will be bound to the outcome of the competition or cooperation of major regional actors. Russia has now become one of the tough regional actors.
Yeghia Tashjian is a regional analyst and researcher. He has graduated from the American University of Beirut in Public Policy and International Affairs. He pursued his BA at Haigazian University in Political Science in 2013. He founded the New Eastern Politics forum/blog in 2010. He was a Research Assistant at the Armenian Diaspora Research Center at Haigazian University. Currently, he is the Regional Officer of Women in War, a gender-based think tank. He has participated in international conferences in Frankfurt, Vienna, Uppsala, New Delhi, and Yerevan, and presented various topics from minority rights to regional security issues. His thesis topic was on China’s geopolitical and energy security interests in Iran and the Persian Gulf. He is a contributor to the various local and regional newspapers and presenter of the “Turkey Today” program in Radio Voice of Van.