In an interview, Leonid Nersisyan examines Moscow’s stakes in the Levant and North Africa in light of the stalemated war in Ukraine.

Leonid Nersisyan is a defense analyst focusing on the foreign and military policy of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States region. He also follows the defense industry in general, as well as armed conflict and arms control. Nersisyan is a research fellow at the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. Diwan interviewed Nersisyan in July to get his perspective on how the Ukraine war and its repercussions have affected Russia’s defense posture in the Middle East.

Armenak Tokmajyan: We are more than a year into the Ukraine conflict and the end doesn’t seem to be near. How has the conflict impacted Russia’s military presence abroad, especially in the Middle East?

Leonid Nersisyan: The Russo-Ukrainian war began affecting Russia’s military presence abroad after its initial plans for a blitzkrieg failed and the conflict was transformed into a protracted war of attrition. It is no secret that most of the best units of the Wagner mercenary group were withdrawn from Syria, Libya, and various African countries, leaving behind a minimal presence. These redeployed units, with their experienced commanders, became the matrix for growth of the Wagner group in Ukraine, which at the time of the infamous “Bakhmut meatgrinder” earlier this year had up to 50,000 personnel.

Aside from Wagner personnel, there is another major trend visible related to Russian troops and bases abroad. The best officers and contractor servicemen have been redeployed to Ukraine, while less capable and wounded personnel, as well as conscripts, are filling up their places in foreign bases. At the same time, the equipment in these foreign bases remains almost intact, as their numbers are in general irrelevant for the scale of hostilities in Ukraine. For example, withdrawing aircraft from the Hmeimim airbase in Syria (where there are only six multirole fighters, sixteen frontline bombers, sixteen military helicopters, etc.) will not change much on the Russian-Ukrainian battlefield, while doing so will risk damaging Russian interest in Middle East. It’s significant that when it comes to Syria, there is even growing interest from Moscow in pursuing maintenance and refueling operations at the Tartous naval base, as Turkey is limiting usage of the Bosporus in wartime for Russian combat ships. That would allow Russia to keep part of its fleet in Mediterranean.

Russia’s interest in maintaining troops in foreign countries is not waning. While the Russian Defense Ministry has redeployed contractors and professional peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniestria to Ukraine, Russia does not seem to be preparing to abandon these missions. That said, sources suggest that the Nagorno-Karabakh peacekeeping mission is some 15 percent understaffed because of the conflict in Ukraine. Nonetheless, in April 2023, the Russian State Duma approved a new bill that allowed conscripts to be part of peacekeeping missions abroad. Now Moscow can man these missions with conscripts.

AT: In light of Wagner’s failed rebellion in Russia and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s departure to Belarus, how do you see the mercenary group’s future? Also, how do you think this new situation will impact Wagner’s presence abroad, especially in the Middle East and North Africa?

LN: It’s obvious, that Wagner won’t receive the major state contracts from Russia that it received during the Russian-Ukrainian war. Moreover, there have been suggestions the Russian Foreign Ministry is actively trying to push Wagner troops out of the countries where they have a presence. Some have even speculated that Wagner may possibly have lost some trust from its Libyan and Syrian clients. At the same time, information about a meeting that took place on June 29 between Prigozhin and Wagner commanders with Russian President Vladimir Putin shows there is still potential for Wagner to work on behalf of the Russian state, though its resources are likely to remain limited, and it will be deployed outside Russia.

Against this background, the future of Wagner looks more positive than was first perceived in the early days after the rebellion, but it is almost certain the company won’t ever be given the resources it had in 2022. As for the prospects of Wagner’s presence abroad, the group probably will be able to save and maybe even grow its forces in Africa, while Middle Eastern markets are under risk. Syria has very strong cooperation and coordination with the Russian state and won’t keep Wagner on its territory if Moscow cancels its contracts with the group.

AT: Russia has been a major arms exporter for decades. How has the war in Ukraine affected the country’s arms manufacturing industry and its exports of weapons?

LN: The transformation of the conflict into a protracted war, with huge losses in terms of equipment, changed the priorities for Russia’s defense industry. Now, it is much more focused on raising the volumes of production for the local market, rather than for export. There are signs that the export of many types of Russian equipment slowed down or stopped after the beginning of the war in Ukraine. For example, there are photos of T-90S tanks modified for export that are being used by the Russian armed forces themselves in Ukraine, which means that clients are not getting them. Another telling example comes from Armenia, Russia’s Common Security Treaty Organization ally. Armenia ordered large volumes of armaments in August 2021 and still hasn’t received anything, which has pushed Yerevan to turn to new suppliers, in particular India and France.

Another trend in the Russia defense industry involves simplifying the production process, with the aim of producing larger volumes in shorter timeframes. For example, some of the T-72B3 and T-80BVM tanks are no longer being equipped with the best available Sosna-U sights—a tank gunner’s sight produced in Belarus—and instead are being equipped with the much simpler 1PN96MT-02 sights. That approach disconnects the production rate of tanks from the production rate of the complex Sosna-U, which is limited and takes a longer time to produce.

Using the same rationale, the Russian Defense Ministry began showing a much more flexible approach to procurement in wartime. For example, the UMPK device, which is used to modernize standard FAB-500 gravity bombs by transforming them into satellite-guided bombs (like the United States’ Joint Direct Attack Munition sets) looks like an early prototype rather than a serial production weapon, but it is still being procured and used.

AT: Turkey’s military industry has grown significantly in the past decade. Is Turkey on the path to becoming a major arms exporter? Do Russia and Turkey compete for the same markets?

LN: In general, the Turkish defense industry has actively grown in the last decade. The value of Turkish armament exports surpassed $4 billion in 2022. According to a SIPRI report from March 2023, records from 2018–2022 place Turkey in eleventh place in terms of the share of global arms exports, with the top three countries being the United States (40 percent), Russia (16 percent), and France (11 percent). According to the same report, Turkey’s top three buyers were Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, while Russia’s top buyers were India, China, and Egypt.

Turkey’s success comes against a backdrop of the commercial success of the Bayraktar TB2 drone, a military-class unarmed aerial vehicle, which was very aggressively promoted based on its performance in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno Karabakh. It was also thought that the Bayraktar could make a difference in Ukraine. However, the war there is showing that the drone was heavily over-advertised and that such large combat drones are highly vulnerable to air defenses. Thus, the Turkish approach to developing and selling large drones, including Bayraktar, Akinci, and Anka, may bring in less revenue than planned in the future. In general, Turkey is not yet a serious rival of Russia in the defense market, but this could change in the future.

AT: How would you describe Russia’s relations with Israel today, especially in light of Moscow’s rapprochement with Iran and reports that Russian aircraft tried to disrupt a joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise over the Mediterranean last January?

LN: Russian-Israeli relations can be defined as a “cold partnership.” It is obvious to Russia that Israel is an ally of the United States, and the West in general, although the fact that it is not directly supporting Ukraine militarily yet is considered very positive. The same can be said of Syria. It is obvious that Israel is no friend of Moscow or Damascus, but this rivalry is viewed only as part of local competition which is not necessarily making the countries enemies.

From the Israeli side, the views are likely similar. Entering into a full-fledge confrontation with Russia won’t bring much benefit, even as direct Russian support for Israel’s regional enemies, including Iran, may create many new problems.

CARNEGIE Middle east Center