By John Cody Mosbey
The bad cloud that portends a perfect storm continues to build. Perhaps the most serious development on the near horizon is a possible Putin pivot from Syria to Libya. It may be in the works – if it is, bad things are bound to happen.
There is no real and historic Russian desire for a mere presence in Southwest Asia. Geopolitical scholars, diplomats, and military thinkers who have put forth such ideas have been rightly criticized but largely for the wrong reason. The fact is that those who believe that Russia has a real and historic desire for a presence in Southwest Asia and those who criticize those that do think this are both wrong. Russia has no desire for a mere presence in Southwest Asia – Russia’s desire there is for regional hegemony.
In what here must be a brief examination, it is important to recall two historical developments: the first is the realization that for many Russia embodies the “Third Rome.” This is the idea that Moscow (i.e. Russia) is the inheritor of the mantle of Rome transferred to it via Constantinople. As Rome was empire, as Byzantium was empire, so Russia is empire. Coupled with the concept of Third Rome is the acceptance of Russia as the protector of the Orthodox Church (and the Christian Church collectively) throughout the lands previously under control of the Ottoman Empire.
It is noteworthy that the Russian Orthodox Church, through a spokesman, has stated that Russia’s presence in Syria is historically consistent with the role Russia “has always played in the Middle East.” Alexandr Dugin, an outspoken advocate of Russian expansion who has been rather sensationally dubbed “Putin’s Rasputin,” has said that Russia should recreate empire and looks to Southwest Asia for Russia’s southern expansion.
Besides belief in Russia as the Third Rome, the second important historical position to recall is the assumption of Russia as “Protector of the Persian Crown.” Russian expansion southward is no new thing. After victories in the Russo-Persian Wars, Russia was ceded a great deal of territory formerly under Persian control. The Czar was bestowed with the title “Protector of the Persian Crown.” In deference to Russia’s Eurasian outlook it should be noted that historical titles, possessions, and interests are deeply embedded in the long reachback of Russian memory.
Russia views Southwest Asia geopolitically as a region next door. This is a markedly different understanding from European or American perceptions of Southwest Asia as a much more distant region. When Russian understanding of close geographical proximity and perceived historical duty to protect both Christianity and Persia combine the result can help explain current Russian interest and involvement in the region.
Consider that Mr. Putin has reinvigorated Russia’s historically important relationship with Iran and moved boldly into Syria. Surely no one can be naive enough to believe he will stop with these two works in progress. Russia is energized for action and pushback to Russian initiatives has been minimal, ineffective, or both.
The US, the EU, and other concerned nations and bodies must prepare for Russia’s next move – and it may well be another bold one. Knowledgeable persons inside European and US intelligence communities are seeing indications of Russian intentions toward Libya begin to solidify.
Mr. Putin has forwarded the notion that Russia has a responsibility to bring stability to the de facto failed state of Syria by supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad as the legal and legitimate governmental power of Syria. Putin claims that longer term peace can best be achieved when the established government and its adversaries can be brought to the table, not when a state descends into total chaos and there is not even the remnant of recognizable government left to negotiate with. This is his position in Syria and it is a ready-made position for him to adopt in Libya.
Further consider the current Libyan situation. General Khalifah Hafter, the commander of the Libyan armed forces (such as they are), stated that he would be loyal to Libya’s Tobruk-based House of Representatives if they did not acquiesce to the Political Accord put forward by Benardino Leon and backed by Western governments and the UN. The House of Representatives (Libya’s internationally recognized parliamentary body) rejected the Political Accord. We will now see just how General Hafter will carry out his pledge to root out armed opposition, especially in light of his claim that Russia has offered to support his efforts.
The unraveling of the UN sponsored Political Accord was in part due to what the Libyan House of Representatives viewed as its unwarranted support for the Salifist elements in Tripoli.
The alarm bells should be ringing. Russian and Libya came close to closing a deal for a Russian base in Libya under Muammar Gaddafi. Of course to Libya, this would mean a real Russian presence in the form of arms; only this time armament at a level similar to the Russian arming of Syria. More importantly, a substantial Russian presence in Libya and continued lack of effective US pushback to Putin’s initiatives combine to make the Mediterranean much more attractive and tractable to Moscow.
A perfect storm is now in the making. Russia and Iran will continue to test US resolve to hold Iran in strict compliance with the Nuclear Deal through deployments such as the S300 missile system to Iran. No Syrian style red line will be strong enough to keep Iran from unleashing the whirlwind if it continues, with Russian help, to develop truly heavy-lift capability for its ballistic missile program.
Russia is daily strengthening its foothold in Syria and a Putin pivot off of that into Libya may prove to be too much Russia and too little US in a region Russian has long felt is rightfully in their sphere of influence.
If conditions continue toward a perfect storm in Southwest Asia, one must consider the prescience of Alexandr Dugin’s claim that “We will have a new Cold War, but maybe not so cold—maybe hot this time.”
John Cody Mosbey is consultant and instructor in Criminal Justice and Emergency Management. He is also researcher and writer in various aspects of conflict resolution, terrorism, homeland security, and related criminal justice and national security fields. He regularly serves as a consultant to EMS transportation companies regarding management and regulatory requirements and also holds membership on the boards of several companies.