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The Growing Russian Interest in Lebanon

04 Jun 2021
By Dr Khurram Abbas
Beirut after the explosion in August 2020, photography Bernard Kahill, sourced from Flickr,

Lebanon is passing through challenging times, even when compared with Lebanon’s own standards of what constitutes as “challenging.” As previous allies seem to be withdrawing support, Russia is developing strategic relations with Beirut.

Socioeconomic implosion, rising inflation and unemployment, mismanaged monetary policy, and competing foreign interests all complicate the picture in Lebanon. However, there is one thing that is different this time: the US, Saudi Arabia, and UAE are losing interest in financial assistance to Beirut. At the same time, the geopolitical interest in Lebanon from non-Western countries like Russia and China is increasing.

Lebanon has not had a government in nine months now, primarily due to differences between different political players. Russia is one of the only major countries which has active relations with different and even opposing political sides in Lebanon. In April, Russia hosted Lebanese prime minister-designate Saad Hariri. A month before that, it hosted a delegation of Hezbollah which included Mohammad Raad, the head of the movement’s parliamentary bloc. Russian influence in Lebanon is increasing so much so that George Shabaan, the special representative of prime minister-designate said, “We believe that Russia can help in solving the political deadlock in Lebanon since Moscow has good ties with all political parties in Lebanon, and with the regional countries that have an influence on the situation in our country.” Hezbollah and Russia are reportedly even considering the idea of opening an office for the party in Moscow. The article that reported this also claimed that “the Russians do not view Hezbollah as a Lebanese organisation. Rather, it is a party that has a presence in many countries of the region.”

Though, it is important to note that this growing Russian interest in Lebanon’s political affairs is only a result of its ever-increasing strategic interests in the country. Moscow’s strategic interests intensified after the discovery of a large number of big sub-sea gas fields in the Levant Basin. Russian company Novatek is already part of the consortium, which also includes France’s Total and Italy’s ENI, that has started oil and gas exploration on behalf of Beirut. At the same time, among many other states that have expressed interest, Russia too has shown a keen interest in rebuilding the Beirut port, which faced massive destruction as a result of an explosion in August 2020. Not long ago, in 2019, Russia’s Rosneft also signed a 20-year-long agreement with Lebanon which would ensure the operational management of oil storage facilities at the port of Tripoli.

With enhanced cooperation with Lebanon, Russia aims to influence—and even control—the eastern Mediterranean by reducing competition from rival pipelines, such as the proposed Friendship Pipeline between Iran, Syria, and Iraq. The Russian race to access eastern Mediterranean gas goes back to 2013, when Russia and Syria signed an agreement that allowed Russia to explore gas off of Syria’s Mediterranean coast in exchange for Russian efforts to protect Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. This deal involved Russia’s energy firm SoyuzNefteGaz  and would cost US$100 million for initial exploration. Moreover, just in April, another agreement was signed that allowed two Russian firms, Capital Limited and East Med Amrit, to begin oil and gas exploration off the Syrian Coast. This agreement raised eyebrows in Lebanon, as the waters between Lebanon and Syria are contested. Additionally, this agreement also puts Russia directly against the countries of Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. However, Russia sees this a strategic leverage, giving Moscow the space to be part of future negotiations which would decide the hydrocarbon future of the region.

At the same time, a Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean waters would further increase Syrian economy’s dependancy on Russia both directly and indirectly because Russia can potentially become a bridge for Iranian goods to be delivered to Syrian market. Therefore, Russia also sees enhanced partnership with Lebanon as a way of protecting its interests in Syria.

Yet, amidst all these developments lies an opportunity. For the US, if it chooses to view it so, the growing Russian interest in Lebanon can also become an area of cooperation between Washington and Moscow. While the end goal of who gets to call the shots in the region will differ because the US and Russia are geopolitical rivals, neither of them want Lebanon to be a failed state because any prospect of further instability in the Middle East would only enhance extremism. Similarly, neither the US nor Russia want an increased Iranian presence in the Levant — the US because it wants to counter Iranian interests in the fertile crescent and the Gulf, and Russia because it wants a leading role in deciding the future of Syria. Subsequently, any US-Russian cooperation in Lebanon would also enhance prospects and possibilities of their cooperation on other areas of immense regional and global importance.

Speaking in February, a senior State Department official expressed how “many are saying that Lebanon is already lost and that we’ll come back later once the circumstances change.” Well, the problem with this notion is that disengagement wouldn’t resolve anything, rather it might only lead to further chaos in the country domestically, and will allow geopolitical space to be receded elsewhere. Lebanon is not a lost cause. The West should remain engaged, encouraging reform through conditional— and vital— aid.

Abdullah Khurram is a Doctoral Researcher in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. His research focuses on the strategic cultures and diplomatic styles of rising powers.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.