Mon 06 Nov 2023 5:45 pm - Jerusalem Time

The crisis in the Middle East, a boon for Russia?

By Cyrille Bret

As tensions rise in the Middle East, Russia appears to be playing a two-sided game. Seeking to divert the spotlight from Ukraine, it attempts to position itself as the essential arbiter of regional peace.

Since the start of the fighting between Hamas and Israel, the Russian Federation has made full use of its very particular position in the Middle East. Its structural links with all the actors in the current crisis allow it to carry out actions and make speeches that no other European country is ready to take on.

On October 26, the special representative of the Russian presidency for the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, received Hamas leaders in Moscow. At the same time, the relationship between Israel and Russia remains strong, maintained in particular through the numerous and influential immigrant community in Israel from the former USSR.

For Moscow, the series of events which began on October 7 constitutes a diversion that borders on a godsend. The war in Ukraine has taken a back seat to media and diplomatic attention, and the Kremlin presents itself as a peacemaker between Israel and Hamas. Can the “Sukkot war” allow Russia to relaunch itself on the international scene while scoring points in its geopolitical standoff with the United States, which it designates as the main culprits for the current chaos in the Middle East? -Orient?

 Exploit a strategic opportunity

For Russian strategy in Europe, this crisis constitutes an unexpected opportunity. It comes at a time when the Federation needs a break from the international mobilization against its military operation in Ukraine. The relative move to the background of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict benefits it directly and massively. If only because Washington sent Israel weapons initially intended for Ukraine…

In the fall of 2023, Ukrainian reconquest efforts are struggling to produce strategic effects. The territories recaptured since the beginning of June by the armies of kyiv are substantial, but remain incommensurate with the 20% of the national territory occupied and illegally annexed by Russia. For Moscow, the crisis in the Middle East allows us to turn the page on the Ukrainian counter-offensive even more quickly in order to make it appear as a non-event.

In addition, the crisis in the Middle East is absorbing the attention and activities of world chancelleries at a time when certain declines in support for Ukraine and Poland are occurring due to the conflict linked to the importation of Ukrainian cereals into Europe. , in the United States in a context of institutional crisis in Congress or in Central Europe such as in Slovakia, where Robert Fico's victory weakens the unity of the EU in its standoff with Russia.

Beyond the leaders, it is also the media and public opinion throughout the world which, currently, are less interested in the Ukrainian theater and the fierce fighting taking place in the Donbass, to focus on the conflict in Middle East, which offers Russia a form of respite.

How Russia will exploit this period of relative media and diplomatic respite will not be immediately apparent. The repositioning of ground troops, bilateral diplomatic campaigns, the mobilization of friends of the Kremlin in multilateral organizations, the development of a new narrative on the war in Ukraine, etc. : all this is being prepared in Moscow. But the effects will only be seen towards the end of the year, notably during President Putin's traditional press conference.

Certainly, Russia will no longer reposition itself as a regional player in Eastern Europe but as a global player, particularly in the Middle East. This is how she submitted a resolution text to the UN aimed at obtaining a ceasefire in Gaza; the rejection of this text, due to the “against” votes of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Japan, allowed it to strengthen, in the eyes of the so-called countries of the South and, especially, of Muslim states , his posture as leader of the anti-Western camp, concerned with protecting the Gazan civilian population, while denouncing the alignment of Westerners with Israel and going so far as to present itself as a country defending international law.

Mobilize its allies in the region

For Russian Realpolitikers, this crisis also presents the opportunity to mobilize their networks of alliances in the Arab, Turkish, Persian and more broadly Muslim worlds. Even before Vladimir Putin came to power, the Russian Federation has constantly strengthened its relays in the region.

In the Arab world, from 2015, it reactivated the old alliance with the Al-Assad family to literally save the regime in Syria through a crucial military intervention. It has also strengthened its traditional ties with Egypt in the fields of arms, agri-food and energy. Russia cultivated its Algerian ally and regained a foothold in Libya with its support for Marshal Haftar. It has even engaged in cooperation with the Saudi kingdom within the framework of OPEC+.

Beyond the Arab world, it found in Iran a supplier of drones for the war in Ukraine as well as support in international forums. And the rapprochements between the Russian and Turkish presidents are real, even if they should not give rise to the illusion of a solid alliance.

The current crisis allows it to revive these structural alliances around an old issue that took second place in the Muslim world after the Abraham Accords: the Palestinian cause. The specificity of Russia's position in the region thanks to this conflict must be underlined: it is capable of mobilizing its allies across the region's internal dividing lines. And the current crisis, which is reactivating hostility to Israel in Arab, Persian and Muslim opinions in the broad sense, underlines the centrality of an actor of whom Westerners nevertheless wanted to make a pariah.

Here again, the effects of this position will not all appear immediately: it is in the medium term that Russia will try to take advantage of its current position to further challenge the weight of the United States in the region. However, it is certain that the immediate boon can be supplemented by strategic gains in the area: Russia can use the crisis to underline its centrality, to remind its allies that it speaks to everyone and can therefore claim the role of mediator.

On condition, however, that it preserves its relationship with Israel.


Preserve its relays in Israel

If Russia claims an ecumenical position in the Middle East, it is currently handicapped, in Israel, by several factors. Crowd movements in Dagestan, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation with a Muslim majority, against passengers on a flight from Tel Aviv, were seen with great concern in the Jewish state.

After claiming the role of pioneer in the fight against violent Sunni Islamism, how could Russia claim the role of mediator when it now frequently welcomes Hamas leaders?

Several leaders in Israel fear the strengthening of the Moscow-Tehran-Hamas axis in the context of the Israeli operation in Gaza. The symbiosis between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation is of particular concern to Israel: it can work in favor of moderation of Hezbollah, but it can also contribute to the regionalization of hostilities.

In the crisis, Russia has a lot to lose with Israel. Its relays of influence are multiple: more than a million inhabitants (out of 9 million) come from the former USSR. They constitute the largest immigrant community in Israel and have influential public figures in the political, economic, financial, media and technological fields. Is Russia condemned by its current position to squander its capital in Israel? Many observers believe that bilateral relations between Moscow and Tel Aviv are at an all-time low.

In short, the Russian position in the Middle East finds itself at a crossroads. Either it is content to treat the current crisis as a diversion: it will then take advantage of the media respite and the reduction in diplomatic pressure to further strengthen its positions in Ukraine; either it takes on the role of cementing anti-Israel actors in the Middle East: it will break even further with Westerners mobilized in favor of Israel’s security; or, finally, it chooses the narrow path of potential mediator: it will then be necessary, to be accepted as such by the Israelis, to remedy the numerous tensions in the bilateral Moscow-Tel Aviv relationship.


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The crisis in the Middle East, a boon for Russia?