This Emerging Insights paper analyses Moscow’s ambitions for its ‘pivot to the East’, assesses its progress and evaluates the impact of the Indo-Pacific concept on Russian strategy.
Russia’s ‘turn to the East’ (povorot na vostok) has been underway for around a decade. Before 2014, the ‘Pivot’ was principally concerned with exploiting the rapid economic growth in Asia. But events in 2014 gave it a more explicit geopolitical rationale. As relations with the Euro-Atlantic community deteriorated following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in southeastern Ukraine, Moscow’s need to diversify its foreign relations became urgent. The Pivot was suddenly as much away from the West as it was towards the Asia-Pacific. The Russian leadership emphasised the importance of using the Pivot to both improve Russia’s geopolitical position and stimulate the development of Russia’s Far East (RFE) and other resource-rich regions, such as Siberia and the Arctic.
Russia’s cautious accommodation of the Taliban shows it will likely combine diplomacy with deterrence in the coming months.
Since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul on 15 August, Russia has cautiously accommodated the Taliban’s seizure of power. Diplomats, such as Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov and President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, have praised the Taliban’s contributions to security in Kabul and the struggle against Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K). While Russia has no immediate plans to afford diplomatic recognition to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Putin recently stated that Moscow will engage with the Taliban as soon as it ‘enters the family of civilized people’.
With Russia increasing its efforts to divert the transit of natural gas via the new TurkStream corridor, the Black Sea’s littoral states must take coordinated action to reduce energy supply risks.
Ukraine’s Crimea Platform, an international platform launched last month to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence, is designed to return international attention to Russia’s unlawful seizing of the peninsula in 2014 and the human rights abuses perpetrated by the occupying authorities.
Syrian government forces have stepped up their attacks against Idlib, causing civilian casualties as Russian warplanes continue to raid different areas of northwestern Syria on an almost daily basis.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Sept. 7 that “a woman succumbed to her wounds sustained in artillery shelling carried out by the Syrian regime forces on al-Dabbit neighborhood in Idlib city. One of the fired shells also targeted a swimming pool and park located on the outskirts of the eastern city of Idlib, killing two and wounding five others.”
The Russian-brokered cease-fire agreement is evidence of Moscow’s complex positioning in southwest Syria.
On the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 31, a cease-fire agreement was reached between the so-called “reconciled rebels” in the rebel-held city of Daraa al-Balad and the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The agreement provides for government forces to lift the monthslong siege on the city, which in recent days has been attacked and shelled by Assad’s forces in an attempt to take control of it.
The terms of the agreement allow the Russian military police and a security committee linked to the Syrian regime to travel to the area to consolidate the cease-fire.
At the same time, the new demands of the Assad regime, put forward on Friday, Sept. 3, which may have been put forward under pressure from Iran, may again aggravate the situation.
Representatives of the regime demanded the complete surrender of weapons, the establishment of security checkpoints in residential areas and a mass search of houses. The opposition has rejected these conditions and insists on the evacuation of the settlement to Turkey or Jordan.
Nevertheless, it can be assumed that Russia will continue its efforts to preserve the status quo, since for Moscow this is also largely a matter of prestige.
Following a military operation in the country’s southwest against local opposition groups in the summer of 2018, Russia agreed to grant these rebels, mainly from the Southern Front, a special status. Agreements that the armed opposition units could remain and would not be completely disarmed were reached — even before the start of the 2018 offensive — during consultations with the participation of Russian, American, Jordanian and Israeli diplomats in Amman. The presence of opposition forces in this region, albeit in a reduced format, created a kind of buffer zone along the border with Israel and Jordan. The decisive word in the management of this region began to belong not to Damascus or its Iranian allies, but to Russia, which did not allow the deployment of Iranian proxy forces along the borders with Israel.
Russia was able to implement this decision and defend it before Damascus, despite serious opposition from the Assad regime. Subsequently, the Syrian authorities have repeatedly tried to regain control of these areas in order to then transfer them to pro-Iranian formations, but each time this was prevented by Russia. Therefore, over the past three years the position of these rebel-held enclaves has practically remained unchanged.
According to the latest agreement, not only the Syrian flag but also the Russian flag was raised over the city. Also in Daraa al-Balad, while regime security offices reopened and other government agencies will resume, Russian police will also be present and monitor their activities.
In addition, the forces of the 8th brigade of the 5th assault corps, formed by Russia from among the reconciled rebels, entered this enclave along with the Russian military. This is of particular importance, since this brigade, which has the unofficial name Liwa Usud al-Harb, is only formally linked to the Syrian armed forces. Representatives of the Damascus government have called it a “bandit formation” and expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that Russia was creating such units from Syrian opposition fighters. The brigade repeatedly came into conflict with government forces, preventing them from entering the areas of its control and not allowing repression and cleansing there. Also, fighters of the 8th brigade participated in attacks in May of this year on the offices of the security services, where they freed detainees.
At the same time, although Moscow managed to impose its own agenda in the end, the current agreements with Damascus were not easy to come by.
On the one hand, Assad put pressure on the Russian command about the need to continue military operations in Idlib. However, for the Russian military the beginning of new military campaigns — whether in the Syrian northwest or northeast — is extremely risky due to the threat of a direct military clash with Turkey or the United States, whose armed forces are present in these regions.
Then Damascus tried to transfer operations to the south of Syria in order to demonstrate that it does not intend to interrupt the “liberation of Syria to the last inch” campaign that was proclaimed by Assad. But here, too, the Syrian regime could not find Russian support. The Russian military did not help government forces to launch an offensive against Daraa al-Balad. On the contrary, each time Moscow tried to force the parties to sit down at the negotiating table.
At the same time, Assad also had personal motives to retake control of these enclaves in the south of the country since their residents refused to participate in his re-election in May 2021 or to open polling stations. This, of course, greatly complicated Moscow’s argument in support of preserving the special status for these areas.
Yet while settlements controlled by the 8th brigade (where elections were also not held) were under the direct protection of Russia, for others whose status was not fully settled — including Daraa al-Balad — Russian security guarantees in full were not distributed. These other areas were targeted for attacks by Bashar’s brother and the commander of the 4th division of the Syrian army, Maher al-Assad, in June of this year.
Moscow’s intransigence to Damascus was also affected by the need for the Kremlin to demonstrate its ability to be faithful to its obligations to other countries in the region — namely Jordan and Israel. Therefore, for Russia it was also a matter of prestige.
In this context, an important role was played by the visit of Jordanian King Abdullah II to Moscow on Aug. 23 and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin, where one of the main topics of discussion was the situation in Daraa al-Balad. Some sources claim that following the summit talks, Russia and Jordan agreed on the need to resolve the conflict between the southerners and government forces trying to pacify them, primarily by resolving the humanitarian crisis. According to this information, Amman is ready to provide appropriate economic assistance to the areas that formally returned to the control of Damascus in 2018 but actually retained their autonomy.
Moreover, Moscow would not want to risk its relations with Israel. Russia faces uncertainty about how to build interaction with the new Israeli government. In the event that the regions of southern Syria are transferred under the full control of Assad, pro-Iranian formations will immediately appear, which in fact are the real force behind the operation in Daraa. This will lead to a new aggravation in the region and attacks by the IDF on the positions of pro-Iranian forces near their borders. Russia, of course, would not like to open a new page in relations with Israel on this note.
The US and the EU should not buy Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fake pro-Western posture (such as when he offered to run the Kabul airport, then fled) or his fake anti-radicalism (such as when he is courting the Afghan terrorists). Erdogan’s strategy, as a member of NATO, is clearly to bolster Russia’s and China’s plans for the future of Afghanistan.
Iran, for its part, seems to be hoping to hit two birds with one stone: by systematically facilitating the journey of illegal Afghans to Turkey and toward Greece, it might destabilize both Turkey and Europe.
In June 2021, southern Syria once again dominated the headlines when the regime laid siege to the Daraa al-Balad area of Daraa city. A few days after the monthlong siege, an agreement to end the escalation collapsed and the Syrian army’s Fourth Division spearheaded a major military push in the area. Intense clashes broke out as groups of unreconciled rebels violently repelled the advancement of Syrian military forces. Armed confrontations spread into eastern and western Daraa amid heavy bombardment via missiles, artillery, and mortar shells, marking the deadliest and most intense fighting in Syria’s south-west since the conclusion of the 2018 “reconciliation” agreements.
Local and external actors expected Russia to intervene and mitigate hostilities. Such expectations were based on a record of rapid interventions, whereby Moscow had managed to resolve localized conflicts and prevented the eruption of large-scale armed clashes in Daraa over the past three years. In the case of Daraa al-Balad, however, Russia was slow to intervene and showed an extraordinary reluctance to end armed violence, broker serious negotiations, and enforce a final agreement. Despite the catastrophic humanitarian implications it has on the exhausted local population, this delay seems to be warranted.
On Sunday at dawn, pro-Iranian factions targeted the besieged neighborhoods of the city of Daraa, southern Syria, with artillery and missile shells, causing massive damage to people’s houses, while Russia bombards Idleb in the North.
The factions targeted the neighborhoods of Daraa al-Balad, Tariq al-Sad, and the nearby IDP camps with more than 50 surface-to-surface missiles. The bombing left material damage and cut most of the roads, without any casualties reported, local sources told North Press.
Russian forces moved into an opposition enclave in the Syrian city of Deraa on Tuesday to try to avert an army assault on a stronghold that has defied state authority since it was retaken three years ago, witnesses, residents, and army sources said.
Their entry brought a halt to shelling by pro-Iranian army units who have encircled the enclave, where protests first erupted in 2011, and had attempted to storm the area on Monday in the latest drive to force former rebels to surrender.
His Majesty King Abdullah held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Moscow, covering the deep-rooted bilateral relations, as well as the latest regional and international developments.
The talks, attended by HRH Prince Ali, addressed bolstering ties between the two countries and peoples, and stepping up cooperation across various fields, according to a Royal Court statement.