Russia is rapidly expanding its footprint in the Middle East as it seeks to assert itself as a dominant player in the region. Today, it has several military bases in Syria; it has signed lucrative business and military deals with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran; it has bought shares in oil and gas in the Mediterranean; and—as the only actor that has relations with almost everyone—it is proving to be the go-to mediator for the conflicts across the region. And now Lebanon is in Moscow’s crosshairs.
Bilateral agreements and trade deals over the last couple of years demonstrate that both Lebanon and Russia are working to forge a closer alliance. While many agree the groundwork has been laid, what is still lacking is the political will towards greater formal cooperation on the Lebanese side. But with the formation of a new government and a changing landscape in the region, Lebanon’s political, business, and religious communities are now looking to Russia as a more willing and suitable partner with whom to work, especially in light of mounting U.S. pressure on Lebanon’s political and economic systems.
A more expansive Russian role in Lebanon today would prove to be significant for both states, and for Russia’s imprint in the Middle East. Russia is looking to cement its sphere of influence in the region, with Syria as its epicenter, and it views Lebanon, a smaller state whose eastern and northern borders Syria nearly surrounds, as a natural extension of that effort. Furthermore, for Russia’s Lebanese partners, Russia’s rise as a vigorous rival to the United States, European Union, and China suggests opportunities for an uncomplicated infusion into the Lebanese economy, an economy that is in desperate need of a boost as the latter powers retreat from engaging with the country. For Lebanon’s ruling majority—which today consists of Hezbollah and its local pro-Damascus allies—a close relationship with Russia would mean reduced dependence on the United States, and therefore a significant shift in regional dynamics.
Laying the Groundwork
The Lebanese government has already taken steps to bolster the country’s relationship with Russia. Lebanon’s trade and economy minister, Raed Khoury, told Russia’s Sputnik news site last year that he wanted to boost Lebanon’s trade with Russia threefold to some $1.5 billion within the next two to three years by increasing agricultural exports, signing bilateral agreements within the pharmaceuticals industry, and increasing mutual investment in the banking sector. A few days later, a cooperation agreement between the two states that focused on removing obstacles in trade was signed.
Other bilateral agreements are also being forged, including one on educational and cultural exchanges and another on combating illegal drug smuggling and criminal activity, that latter of which is expected to be ratified after the government formation process has been completed.
For those within the pro-Damascus axis, Russia’s close ties with the Syrian government and Assad’s allies Hezbollah has transitioned into a close working relationship with Hezbollah and its local allies in Lebanon, who now hold the majority in the newly elected parliament.
Those within the business community in Lebanon see Russia as a conduit to economic investment in Syria as the country gears up for reconstruction, given Russia’s de facto role as mediator for Assad’s government and the outside world. For those within the anti-Syrian government axis, Russia provides them with a link to Damascus without having to deal directly with the Syrian government; this month both right-wing Christian parties, Kata’eb and the Lebanese Forces, have called on Russia to mediate between the Lebanese government and the Syrian government to facilitate the return of refugees to Syria, and Saad Hariri, the current prime minister of Lebanon, is now actively working with a Russian delegation on a joint committee to facilitate their return.
Those within the business community in Lebanon see Russia as a conduit to economic investment in Syria as the country gears up for reconstruction…
Lebanon’s political establishment and tycoons aren’t the only ones with a growing investment in Russia. There are, too, those within the minority sects who view Russia as a protector during a period where minorities are being targeted and driven out the region—which these sects claim is a direct result of U.S. foreign policy actions in the region. While in the past Russia has largely remained on the sidelines with respect to sectarian issues in Lebanon, in recent years it has positioned itself as a partner and ally of the eastern sects (the Christian sects rooted in the East, such as the Orthodox, Melkites, Assyrians and Maronites, as opposed to those who originated in the West, such as the Protestants, Evangelicals, and Roman Catholics), even taking on the role as mediator between the different Christian sects. For the eastern sects, Russia is seen as a natural ally in the face of America’s Evangelical Christians, who are viewed suspiciously for their close relationship with Israel.
“The Russians are working on multiple fronts in Lebanon,” a former MP from the March 14 coalition, the alliance that brought Prime Minister Hariri to power, told The Century Foundation. “They are stepping into a void that has been left by the Americans.”
Historically, influence over Lebanon has been shared between different regional and international stakeholders: largely the United States, Saudi Arabia and France. But where these traditional guarantors are today weighing out the costs and benefits of continued investment in Lebanon in light of regional and domestic shifts—or have simply shifted their attention elsewhere—Russia sees this as an opportunity to step up and fill the vacuum they are leaving behind.
Changes in a Traditional Sphere of Influence
For decades the United States has worked hard to keep Lebanon within its sphere, an investment so deep that it deployed Marines to Lebanon’s shores twice, once in 1958 and then again in 1982. It has entrenched itself in Lebanon’s educational, scientific, health, social, and cultural institutions: some of Lebanon’s most prestigious institutions are United States-affiliated, including the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese American University, and the American University Hospital. Last year, America broke ground for its new $1 billion embassy compound, a huge amount to spend on a massive complex in a country of only approximately five million people, and it also continues to be one of the largest donors in military aid to the Lebanese security forces—$1.7 billion since 2007. It has also embedded dozens of U.S. military officers within Lebanese security forces to help train and equip them.
For the United States, these efforts to maintain a strong foothold in Lebanon have been largely in the interest of attempting to offset Hezbollah’s power and what the United States sees as expanding Iranian influence in the country. But as Hezbollah’s local allies gain more power and the party continues its close working relationship with Lebanon’s security forces, there are now heated debates in Washington over whether Lebanon is a “lost cause” and whether American investment is costly and ineffective, or whether the United States should continue its efforts to build a stronger state that can eventually “absorb’ Hezbollah’s power—whereby, in theory, strong institutions, a centralised state and a strong army will reduce dependence on Hezbollah as a military force and as an organisation that provides welfare services in areas where the state is lacking.
…as Hezbollah’s local allies gain more power and the party continues its close working relationship with Lebanon’s security forces, there are now heated debates in Washington over whether Lebanon is a “lost cause” and whether American investment is costly and ineffective…
On the ground in Beirut, America’s local allies say this uncertainty on what the United States should do with their Lebanon relations is further exacerbated by the “pro-Hezbollah, anti-Israel” rhetoric coming from leading political figures, including the president, the army chief, and the head of general security.
“The Americans don’t like to hear this, that the Lebanese army chief and the president will fight ‘the Zionists,’” said a Lebanese source close to the United States in Lebanon. “Or that the security agencies are working closely with Hezbollah.”
Yet as the U.S. administration mulls whether to expand and enforce tougher sanctions on Hezbollah that could include political affiliates, many in Lebanon—on both sides of the political divide—are now looking towards Russia as a viable alternative willing to invest economically and militarily without political preconditions.
“The Americans are willing to concede some influence if the other side is a side they can deal with, which would be Russia. We’ve seen this in Syria,” the source said. “And if it serves to counter or contain Iranian presence in Lebanon.”
Eyes on Lebanon
Historically, Lebanon was not of strategic value to Moscow. During the Soviet years, while it had close ties with the leftist, communist, and secularist factions in Lebanon (largely through arms and military training) and facilitated thousands of Lebanese students to study in the Soviet Union, it never had the ability nor the interest to invest in educational, scientific, or even cultural institutions that could compete with those of the United States in Lebanon.
But today, the re-establishment of joint military bases in Syria and the recent signing of a fifty-year military deal to maintain a presence in Syria, not to mention the millions of dollars’ worth of economic investments in the country, are concrete indications that Russia plans on staying in the Levant for the long term—and that they see Lebanon as a natural and vital extension to its presence and influence in Syria.
Tilting Lebanon into its sphere of influence would allow Russia to protect its continuing presence in Syria, and establish a strong and permanent foothold along the eastern Mediterranean coast, from there serving its oil and gas projects. In 2014 Russia signed the rights to exploration of Syria’s offshore gas fields, and further consolidated its presence on the Mediterranean in December last year after winning the offshore energy rights to explore for oil and gas in Lebanon’s fields. And as the terms of the agreement stipulate, exploration can last for up to ten years, and if commercial reserves are proved and a development plan is approved by the Lebanese government, they have the “right to tap gas and oil during 25 years after its approval with an extension option.”
Lebanese sources say Russia’s involvement in the oil and gas field means it can also play a positive role in preventing Israeli interference in the exploration and extraction in the blocks between the two countries—specifically Block 9, which Israel falsely claims as theirs and where Russia will be working.
Militarily, Russia had tried in the past to bolster a stronger cooperation with the Lebanese government—in 2008, then Lebanese defense minister Elias el Murr, a close U.S. ally, rebuffed a military package from Russia consisting of dozens of T-72 tanks, ammunition, and ten free MiG-29 fighter jets. Following a veiled warning from then-U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Michele Sison, who told him the Moscow “deal” had led to many questions in Washington, he promised he would stall, later saying the Lebanese army would not be accepting them, not “before 2040!” The deal never came into fruition.
But the situation started to change last year. Suddenly, parliament approved a technical military cooperation agreement with Russia—a deal that had been frozen since 2012. An amendment was hastily added that would see Lebanon receiving military aid from Russia—the first shipment of which is expected to arrive at the beginning of September.
Tilting Lebanon into its sphere of influence would allow Russia to protect its continuing presence in Syria, and establish a strong and permanent foothold along the eastern Mediterranean coast, from there serving its oil and gas projects.
This paved the way for Russia to offer an even more lucrative military deal—one that would see the Lebanese army receiving Russian weaponry over a span of fifteen years to the tune of around $1 billion, and with no interest on the repayments. This time it looked likely to go through: the president approved it, the army approved it, and the defense minister was set to sign it on his trip to Moscow. But intense pressure from both the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s ambassadors in Lebanon forced Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri to shelve the deal—according to numerous sources close to the Russians and close to the premier—and he abruptly cancelled the defense minister’s trip.
According to a source close to Hariri, the United States will only accept Russian influence in Lebanon within certain parameters. “If buying Russian weapons signals a big shift towards Russia, the Americans are not going to accept that. And as long as it won’t be used as a means to pressure America. America won’t accept this kind of game,” he said.
Fearing the deal may be formally accepted after the government formation, Washington reasserted pressure on Hariri not to sign the deal. But sources within the Russian camp in Lebanon have made it clear that while there is a consensus to give Hariri some space for the time being, they are confident that this deal and others will go through after the government is formed.
As one source close to the Russians in Lebanon said, “The Russians have patience because the groundwork is ready for this level of partnership, and they are betting on the shift in the political atmosphere.”
As this source’s confidence indicates, Russia has been playing a long game in the Middle East. It has carefully cultivated economic, military, and political ties with the region’s powerhouses, powerhouses that had traditionally been firmly in America’s camp: namely Turkey, the Gulf countries, and Egypt. Its historical alliances with both Iran and Syria are stronger than ever. Even Israel is turning to Russia as a security guarantor and mediator with its neighbors. And now Lebanon, where the United States has historically maintained outsized influence over the tiny state, is pivoting—the most recent indicator of a new Middle Eastern footprint for Moscow, and something which will have repercussions for decades to come.