With U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration focused on countering his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin’s moves in Ukraine, the Kremlin has quietly sought to capitalize on its growing influence in the Middle East to court Lebanon in a bid to advance the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests at the expense of the White House.
A stronger footprint in the small yet strategically located Mediterranean country would potentially give Moscow new port and commercial market access to dodge Western sanctions, as well as an additional partner to back up Russian positions in international fora.
These efforts are shored up by Russia’s successful intervention and subsequent entrenchment in Syria, as well as by growing engagement with North African states such as Algeria and Egypt, along with Persian Gulf nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
For Lebanon, Russian energy exports flowing through the nation could address major infrastructure woes amid an ongoing economic crisis. Tacit backing for one particular presidential hopeful, Christian Marada Movement leader Suleiman Frangieh, may also be aimed at breaking the country’s lengthy political paralysis and cementing ties between Lebanon and Syria.
But while further shutting the United States out of the region may be a key goal for Russia, fraying long-standing ties with Washington remains a serious concern for Beirut, and Moscow faces a number of obstacles in achieving significant inroads in a country located on the crossroads of competing regional and international interests.
Still, the Kremlin has a plan to exert influence today in a country in which it has struggled to do so in the past.
Lebanese Marada Movement leader Suleiman Frangieh (left) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (right) in Moscow on October 30, 2018. Frangieh has held a number of meetings with Russian officials, including a recent encounter with Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon and others at his residence on June 23, 2023.
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
“For Russia, at least as long as its main focus was the war in Syria, Lebanon was perceived as an annex, a western flank that needed to be ‘secured’ for not interfering with its action there,” Joseph Bahout, director of the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), told Newsweek.
“To the difference of Syria, where Russia has always had a vested interest and entrenched presence,” he added, “Lebanon has never been a center of influence or presence for Moscow, that usually recognized that the country was mainly gravitating in the Western-U.S. sphere, shared with a potent and unavoidable presence and say by Iran through Hezbollah.”
But Bahout argued that “this has gradually changed over time,” with “Russia increasingly seeking some gains and avenues in Lebanon, especially within its quest to become a wider Middle Eastern player.”
A Complex Operating EnvironmentBahout identified “several leverages” through which Russia could look to pursue this path in Lebanon.
These include “an important Orthodox community that always had sympathies for Moscow—added to other Christians disenchanted with the West and perceiving Putin as a defender of the faith, a fairly important contingent of alumni from East European universities, mostly former communists, who still look at Russia as a counterweight to ‘Western imperialism,’ and more generally segments of political society always fascinated and attracted to ‘strong men.'”
Translating this into actual gains has historically proven difficult, however.
Support for Frangieh has also proven complex, given the nuances of Lebanon’s internal politics, which are dominated by shifting factions and alliances largely consisting of leaders who participated in the country’s devastating 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. These complications are compounded by Lebanon’s confessional system that mandates that the president be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament Shiite Muslim.
While Amal Movement chief Nabih Berri has served as parliament speaker since 1992, the presidency and premiership have shifted frequently over the past three decades, with recent years proving especially tumultuous. Christian Free Patriotic Movement founder Michel Aoun ended a two-year deadlock upon his election to the presidency in 2016 after securing support from both Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and rival Christian Lebanese Forces, but when Aoun stepped down in October it opened yet another vacuum that remains unfilled.
Frangieh is among those who have stepped up, aided by endorsements from the Amal Movement Hezbollah. In Lebanon’s latest failed attempt to choose a president in June, Frangieh received 51 votes, second only to former Lebanese Finance Minister and International Monetary Fund Middle East and Central Asia Director Jihad Azour, who received 59.
Less than two weeks later, Frangieh hosted Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zaspikin alongside others at his residence in the latest of a series of meetings the Lebanese politician has held with Russian officials in recent years.
Responding to Newsweek’s question during a press briefing Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Alexey Zaitsev stated that it was Moscow’s position “that the election of the president is now a key issue for Lebanon, and it is key for the political stability in that country.”
“We do not have any preferences on personalities,” he added. “We do not intend to interfere in the domestic affairs of other states.”
At the same time, Zaitsev said Russia knew Frangieh “well,” referencing his travels to Moscow and engagements with senior Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.
“We think that he is a worthy candidate for the presidency,” Zaitsev said. “But the decision belongs to the people of Lebanon, and we will respect their choice.”
Frangieh has also eyed other international ties. In May, he participated in a high-profile sit-down with the ambassador of Saudi Arabia, which has historically played an influential role in Lebanese politics opposite to that of Iran.
The meeting came after Riyadh and Tehran agreed to reestablish relations in a deal brokered by China in March. And while this rapprochement also saw Saudi Arabia ultimately mend ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad just days before Frangieh’s meeting with the Kingdom’s envoy, the Syrian leader remains a polarizing figure in Lebanon, and is still openly rejected by the West.
The Frangieh-Assad Family ConnectionTies between the Frangieh and Assad families date back to the 1950s when Frangieh’s grandfather took refuge in Syria amid unrest and forged close ties with future Syrian President Hafez al-Assad before becoming president of Lebanon in 1970, ultimately overseeing the country when it devolved into civil war in 1975. Frangieh’s father would go on to lead the Marada Brigade, based in their northern stronghold of Zgharta, near Tripoli, and initially sided with fellow Christian movements against predominantly Muslim Arab nationalist and leftist militias as the sectarian conflict worsened.
But violent divisions emerged amid the Frangieh family’s continued ties with Syria and the faction’s refusal to align with Israel and establish a separate Christian state in Northern Lebanon. The rift ultimately led to the infamous 1978 Ehden Massacre in which Frangieh’s father, mother and three-year-old sister were among some 40 killed in a raid on the Frangieh family mansion conducted by the predecessor to today’s Lebanese Forces.
Then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (left), father of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and then-Lebanese President Suleiman Frangieh (right), who shares his name with his grandson now leading the Marada Movement and running for the presidency, mark the first visit of a Syrian leader to Lebanon in 18 years on January 17, 1975, three months before Lebanon’s civil war erupted.
Claude Salhani/Getty Images
Frangieh, who was in Beirut at the time of the killings, fled to Syria much like his grandfather had years before him, and went on to strengthen his relationship with the Assad family. When civil war came to Syria in 2011, Frangieh openly backed Bashar al-Assad, who received early support from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia in an intervention that has been credited with turning the tide of the conflict in Damascus’ favor.
Given that history, Bahout argues that “Russia could be an additional liability for him, since it would further strengthen his image of being ‘Bashar’s personal friend,’ something that would increase his rejection by other Lebanese factions, and, ultimately, strengthen the American and European reluctance to agree on him being elected—despite some good personal ties he keeps with both U.S. and European diplomats in Lebanon.”
Newsweek has reached out to the Marada Movement, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department for comment.
“A Reliable Partner and Ally for Russia”Officially, Washington has been hesitant to weigh in directly on the issue. Asked about a potential Frangieh presidency in June, U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said he would not “hypothesize or speculate on processual outcomes.” He did, however, reiterate the Biden administration’s “call to the people of Lebanon for them to choose and select a president, one that could lead and serve at this very challenging time in the country.”
Yeghia Tashjian, an associate fellow also at the American University of Beirut’s IFI, described Frangieh as “a reliable partner and ally for Russia.”
But he too saw reluctance to solidify this relationship into overt backing, telling Newsweek that “this doesn’t mean that Moscow is insisting on him, Russians are being cautious and playing a low-profile game, given the fact that they became experienced in the Lebanese scene, which can be full of surprises.”
Tashjian also noted the lack of support offered by other Christian groups, such as the Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanese Forces, who have backed Frangieh’s rival, Azour.
But “if a certain ‘political miracle’ happens and Frangieh is elected, of course this will consolidate Russia’s and Syria’s—let’s say limited—position in Lebanon,” Tashjian said. “Frangieh is also known for his flexibility, hence he is one of those politicians and doesn’t like to burn his bridges, hence he will also sustain connections with the Americans.”
One potential route for Frangieh to ultimately win out would be a deal in which he was elected alongside a prime minister closer to the U.S., such as former Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations Nawaf Salam, in order “to maintain balance in the country and implement political and economic reforms,” according to Tashjian.
But he said that, for Moscow, the primary objective was to extend its success in Syria to Lebanon.
Soft Power Plays”Russia is seeking to come back on the Lebanese economic, political and diplomatic scene by activating its soft power, simply because it considers Lebanon an extension of its geopolitical depth in Syria,” Tashjian said. “To do so, it needs Lebanon to be and remain stable because its stability influences that of its neighbor. It is therefore necessary for Russia to have a presence in Lebanon which, if it cannot be in a military form as in Syria, must at least be commercial.”
In an attempt to expand upon the soft power base identified by Bahout, Tashjian said Moscow has especially invested in initiatives to engage with Lebanese youth, particularly in education, sports and cultural competitions, and that a number of Lebanese nationals have traveled to Russia in line with these efforts.
A photograph taken on March 9, 2018 along a highway in the southern Lebanese coastal city of Tyre shows an electoral billboard for Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing sunglasses with lettering in Russian reading “Strong President, Strong Russia, 18 March 2018,” for the Russian diaspora in the city to vote in the election scheduled on the same date.
MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
Also at the heart of Moscow’s overtures is “energy security,” which “Russia is interested in the north, mainly Tripoli, as it aims to turn Tartous into a grain transit hub to export grain from the Black Sea to North Africa.” These overtures have survived Russian gas producer Novatek’s October 2022 exit from projects related to the exploration of oil and gas blocs off Lebanon’s southern shores in the Mediterranean as a result of Western sanctions.
“When Novatek withdrew from the South many argued that this was a reflection of Russia’s weakened position—post-2022 war—in the region,” Tashjian said. “However, if the Americans have the upper hand in South Lebanon, they do not have it in North Lebanon. This is why the Russian presence is particularly evident in Tripoli, where it is particularly involved given the city’s proximity to Syria.”
Energy, Markets and PoliticsIgor Matveev, a Russian International Affairs Council expert who is a senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies and a lecturer at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), also spoke to Russia’s interest in the northern port city of Tripoli in particular.
“Russian companies can get broader access to Lebanon’s energy and natural resources sectors, which includes launching joint infrastructure projects,” Matveev told Newsweek. “Among them is Rosneft’s project of Levante Storage S.A.R.L., responsible for the storage of oil and oil products in Tripoli.”
Other Russian incentives include securing Lebanese investment in Russia’s sanctions-beset market, a possibility demonstrated by Lebanon’s UAE-based Daher Group substituting a Spanish company that owns popular brands such as Zara and Bershka in selling to Russia in October. He also saw the potential for Russia to participate in geological research along Lebanon’s offshore gas blocs, something that “could create new jobs for Russians and Lebanese.”
And, at a time where Lebanon was among a number of nations suffering due to an unsteady supply of badly needed grains from Ukraine as a result of the ongoing war and the collapse of a Türkiye-brokered deal to ensure grain shipments, Matveev asserted that “Russia can unilaterally substitute the Ukrainian exporters of grain—in 2020, Lebanon allegedly was importing 80 percent of wheat from Ukraine—thus enhancing Lebanon’s food security amidst the stalled Black Sea initiative.”
There were political motivations as well.
“By steps of good will,” Matveev said. “Russia can persuade the Lebanese authorities to occupy a friendlier position at the U.N., which means abstaining from voting instead of voting for anti-Russia resolutions adopted by the U.N. General Assembly.”
“This could be possible especially if H.E. Suleiman Frangieh becomes the next president,” he added.
Finding LeverageMohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, also told Newsweek how Russian officials have “shown great interest in Suleiman Frangieh’s candidacy,” but he argued that “their leverage over Frangieh is not as great as France I would say,” as “Paris has backed Frangieh’s candidacy too.”
Separately, Newsweek has learned that France does not want to be viewed as choosing a side in the debate over Lebanon’s presidency and officially was not behind any particular candidate.
In any case, Hage Ali argued that “for now, Russian influence has taken a hit with the conflict, and the sanctions mean a few parties would openly deal with Moscow.” He asserted that “the hype of 2017-2021 is no longer.”
One Lebanese official, speaking to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity, also cited internal views suggesting that Russia wielded “less leverage in that arena” since the war in Ukraine, especially given the Lebanese Armed Forces’ dedication to receiving U.S. and other Western equipment and the withdrawal of Novatek due to sanctions.
“Nevertheless,” the Lebanese official added, “Beirut seems to be walking on eggshells when it comes to keeping Moscow in our good graces.”
The Lebanese official cited a recent instance in which the U.S. State Department asked Lebanon to sign on to a joint communique condemning the use of food as a weapon of war in a thinly veiled reference to the dispute over the stalled Black Sea Grain Initiative. While the text did not explicitly mention Russia or the conflict in Ukraine, Lebanon ultimately decided against joining 91 other U.N. member states in endorsing it.
Ukrainian citizens living in Lebanon and supporters lift a giant flag during a demonstration against Russia’s war in Ukraine, in downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, on March 27, 2022. As is the case of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the legacy of Russian President Vladimir Putin remains divisive in Lebanon, where he counts scores of supporters and critics.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
Becoming ‘Part of the Solution’A perceived lack of leverage has done little to deter Russian efforts in Lebanon. Matthew Levitt, director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, told Newsweek that “there are a whole bunch of reasons why there’s a push now on Russia’s part to make better inroads into Lebanon.”
These include growing direct ties between Russia and Hezbollah, who, under sanctions, Levitt argued “now have more shared interest in terms of working together” alongside “Hezbollah’s other two main partners, Iran and Syria,” who are also subject to sanctions. Russia and Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and a number of other countries, brought a relationship forged during the Syrian conflict into the open in March 2021, when Moscow hosted a delegation by the group.
In addition to the “great potential” in evading such economic restrictions through new business and investment opportunities, Levitt identified a broader goal in mind that relates to Russia’s efforts to empower its influence in the region and reduce that of the U.S. and its allies.
“Russia has tried to chip away at Western alliances in the region, not so much to kind of undo them but to kind of carve out a little more space for itself,” Levitt said. “It’s important for Russia, that it be seen as important enough that countries in the region don’t sign up wholeheartedly on the Western side of the equation, for example, regarding Ukraine, that they don’t become huge proponents of enforcing Western sanctions on Russia.”
“Russia by virtue of its successful defense of the Assad regime in Syria has also demonstrated it can be a reliable ally,” he added. “And I see its efforts in Lebanon as being part of its overall efforts to carve out more space for itself in the region, and in Lebanon, it can’t do that so much with the government, but it’s able to do that with one of the major sectarian players, which, as it happens, has maintained arms and therefore is very powerful.”
This vision also ties into Moscow’s relationship with Frangieh.
“I think Russia would both like to see someone that is in Hezbollah’s favor in the presidency, and they’d also like to be seen as playing a positive role in breaking the political logjam,” Levitt said, “maybe even being able to present themselves as the one who was able to do it when France and the United States could not.”
“It doesn’t make a difference so much that Frangieh is very much a longshot candidate,” he added. “This is a relatively risk-free endeavor for Russia, and if nothing comes of it, they can still present themselves as trying to be part of the solution.”
Source : Newsweek