The pandemic may change Russia’s calculus in the Middle East

The COVID-19 crisis may lead to domestic instability in Russia which may force it to limit its presence in the region.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin talks on the phone before a government meeting on the COVID-19 outbreak at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on April 13, 2020 [Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin]

Over the past two weeks, the spread of COVID-19 in Russia has accelerated. The country currently has more than 18,000 officially registered cases and 148 deaths. Although these numbers are well below what is being announced in European countries like Spain, Italy and the UK, the outbreak appears to be still in its early phase and has the potential to expand to a much higher level.

Although the Kremlin is trying to project international soft power by sending medical supplies and staff to Italy and Serbia, and selling equipment to the United States, there are increasing concerns that the situation in the country will worsen quickly and will have severe political and economic consequences. Already, many government hospitals in the capital, Moscow, have reached capacity and are not able to care for all patients streaming to their emergency units.

This will certainly affect the country’s foreign policy initiatives, and more specifically, its projection of power in the Middle East.

A looming economic crisis

The outlook on the Russian economy was not good even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. As the impact of the global downturn is still being evaluated, the prognoses for the country are getting grimmer.

In late March, Standard & Poor estimated that Russia’s economy is likely to shrink by 0.8 percent this year, while in April, Fitch said it expected this number to go up to 1.4 percent. The Russian government itself projects that in the worst-case scenario its GDP would contract by as much as 10 percent.

Although the Russian Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov claimed that the government is ready to tackle the effects of the pandemic, he also pointed out that the “prosperous times” for the Russian economy are over, as the country is unlikely to see again the high oil revenues it enjoyed during the 2000s.

The recent OPEC+ deal was touted as a success across the Russian state-run media, but it will not be enough to boost oil prices and prevent this year’s recession. Furthermore, due to some technical challenges Russia may struggle to fulfil its obligations of cutting oil output.

Future economic recovery will also likely be inhibited by Russia’s inability to borrow abroad due to the Western sanctions. During the G20 video-summit on March 26, President Vladimir Putin proposed a moratorium on sanctions related to essential goods. A few days later, Russia put forward a proposal on easing unilateral sanctions at the UN, which was rebuked by Western countries and met with fierce opposition from Ukraine.

In March, Putin told TASS news agency that according to some estimates, the country had lost as much as $50bn because of foreign sanctions. The number, however, may be much higher, according to Bloomberg. 

A staunch supporter of fiscal conservatism, Putin is unlikely to follow the path of many Western nations and allocate funds accumulated during the oil boom to help small businesses or provide a safety net for the general population.

In his latest address, the Russian president announced rather meagre support for small private companies, including a six-month deferment on social security payments and some taxes, and ordered the government to draft an additional relief programme.

A potential surge of unemployment combined with the decline of real wages for the sixth consecutive year will likely stir more social discontent in Russia. Putin’s approval and trust ratings have already been falling since his last re-election in 2018, and the recent announcement of constitutional amendments that would allow him to stay in power past 2024 have caused public polarisation.

A March poll by the Levada Centre, the independent pollster, found that Russians are divided on the proposed changes: 47 percent opposing and 48 percent supporting it. Further economic hardship will likely translate into more political polarisation that could spill into opposition street protests, as has happened in the past.

Reconsidering foreign policy

Growing domestic socioeconomic and political crises could force the Kremlin to reconsider its foreign policy as well, which itself has been driven by domestic considerations of potential political instability.

One of the regions where Russian soft and hard power has been on the offensive since 2015 has been the Middle East.

Many consider Russia’s intervention in Syria to be an attempt to force the West into negotiating on Ukraine and lifting the sanctions, which have crippled the Russian economy and caused social discontent. But today, almost five years after Russian troops were deployed in Syria and helped the Assad regime turn the tide in the civil war, Moscow does not seem any closer to reconciliation with the West.

Thus, its objectives and long-term plan for its presence in the region remain unclear.

True, Moscow’s projection of hard power and the vacuum left by the US in the Middle East have helped it regain some positions in Arab capitals and allowed it to shake off international isolation, but that has not necessarily impressed the Russian citizenry.

Polls are consistently showing growing fatigue among the Russian public with the Kremlin’s “foreign policy adventures”. According to an August 2019 poll by Public Opinion Foundation, 42 percent of Russians see the country’s foreign policy as successful, down from 60 percent in 2017; 27 percent consider it a failure, up from 17 in 2017. Just 10 percent see the war in Syria as a “success”.

A May 2019 poll showed that 55 percent of Russians want the Russian army to withdraw from Syria; 37 percent fear that Syria could become Russia’s “new Afghanistan” – the Soviet Union was bogged down helping a friendly regime in Kabul fight off a rebellion for 10 years in which hundreds of thousands were killed, including more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers, before withdrawing without a victory.

Amid a major health and economic crisis, it is likely that support for foreign ventures would slump even lower. 

At the same time, Russia’s successes so far do not appear guaranteed and are vulnerable to spoilers. The escalation in Idlib earlier this year demonstrated the growing tensions between Iran and Russia in Syria. Both are vying for influence over Damascus, which tries to play them against each other.

Although Moscow succeeded in striking a deal with Ankara and reining in the regime forces, despite Iranian opposition, it did face challenges in doing so. Some reports have even suggested that apart from Iran, the UAE too sought to undermine the deal by trying to bribe the Assad regime into renewing its offensive.

In the absence of significant economic benefit from the war, Russia’s inability to bankroll the reconstruction and the stalled peace process may eventually freeze the conflict, confining Russian strategic interests to the Latakia region.

Last year, the Kremlin’s growing engagement in the Libyan conflict seemed to be further expand its power play in the region. Nonetheless, recent developments have demonstrated that its role has its limits. In January, Moscow failed to compel the Libyan General Khalifa Haftar to sign a ceasefire with the UN-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli. 

Likewise, Russia’s charm offensive in the Gulf, which was accompanied by high-level visits over the past three years, has seemingly reached its limits. Many of the multibillion-dollar contracts which were promised during official meetings never materialised.

With the collapse of oil prices, Gulf monarchies will likely increase levels of fiscal conservatism and resort to greater caution in their foreign spending. Thus, massive investments in Russian assets are unlikely in the near future.

All of this may push Russia to reconsider its presence in the region. Although it will remain an influential regional player, it will probably be forced to scale down its involvement militarily, politically and economically. This will mean freezing its involvement in Syria to a few strategic assets, while retaining sway over the Assad regime, maintaining some role in the Libyan conflict, but not expanding it, and recalibrating its engagement with the Gulf. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.