Fyodor Lukyanov: Here’s the secret behind Russia’s stance on the Middle East crisis
The acute crisis in Palestine came as a surprise to everyone – both those who were directly involved and external players. For years, the long-standing conflict was considered frozen and ‘deadlocked’, and because of this, for many global, and even regional, powers, the issue retreated into the background.
No one was really content with the status quo, but it didn't seem to bother anyone either. Apparently, other important events in the Middle East had overshadowed the Palestinian problem, which was once a key issue. For example, the Syrian war and the settlement of this conflict, the destruction of ISIS, and the rapprochement of the Gulf monarchies with Israel (the Abraham Accords) and Iran (the reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran, mediated by China) were not related to the Palestinian issue. Some experts believed this could help form a ‘new’ Middle East – a more interconnected and independent region that would be less dependent on the interventions of external forces.
Solving the region’s other problems while avoiding the Palestinian issue suited almost everyone – except, of course, the Palestinians themselves. Hamas wanted to crush these plans and force everyone to turn their attention back to Palestine – and whatever the outcome of the war, they have most likely achieved this goal.
Russia had not been active in the Middle East for years – since the collapse of the USSR and up to the mid-2010s. Moscow made a ‘comeback’ in 2015, when it conducted a military intervention to save the government of Bashar Assad in Syria. The goal was achieved, and there was a turning point in the Syrian war in favor of Damascus. Following this, Russia became one of the most influential non-regional forces in the Middle East. Both in the military-political and economic sense, it had become a lot more active.
The military operation in Ukraine marked a new stage for Russia. The internal, foreign, defense, and economic policies of our country all came together to serve a single goal. Other areas of interest were considered primarily through this lens. This does not mean that they ceased to exist, but there was a change in Russia’s system of priorities and its willingness to allocate resources.
Due to the Ukraine focus, a certain change came about that turned out to be particularly important for Russia in the context of the Middle East. The undisputed strength of Moscow’s policy used to be based on its ability to hold businesslike, pragmatic dialogues with almost all political forces there, including those strongly opposed to each other. These included Iran and Israel, various Palestinian and Lebanese factions, conflicting parties in Libya and Yemen, the Turks and Kurds, Saudis and Iranians, and to a certain extent, even those who participated in the Syrian civil war.
As a result of the Ukraine conflict, Russia lost this unique quality (at the very least it was significantly weakened). Relations between Moscow and the West entered a phase of direct and undisguised antagonism, a real and acute Cold War. Moreover, Russia’s relations with different nations and groups became dependent on their position and ties with the US.
This change has had the strongest impact on our relations with Israel. After the end of the confrontation in the late 1980s, relations between the two countries actively developed – not just on the political level, but particularly in the human sense. After the start of the Ukraine conflict, the Israeli authorities criticized Moscow but tried to maintain a balance and did not directly participate in the anti-Russia sanctions coalition headed by Washington. However, the growing cooperation between Moscow and Iran, which the Kremlin needed to achieve its goals in Ukraine, put Israel in an increasingly difficult position. The Hamas attack and the outbreak of the war in Palestine in which the US and EU have unconditionally supported Israel, established the Jewish state as an integral part of the ‘Collective West’, which Russia fiercely confronts. This has simplified the previously complex scheme (of relations) and provided less space for political maneuvering.
The ongoing military campaign and increasing humanitarian costs may affect the situation in the West itself. Both in the US and Western Europe there are already certain disagreements on the issue of supporting Israel. However, there will not be any major changes. In the context of the Western coalition’s attempts to ensure the political and economic blockade of Russia, Moscow needs the support of the part of the world (the majority) that now condemns Israel and treats the Palestinians with understanding. The position of the US is unpopular among the countries of the ‘Global South’, and this opens up additional opportunities for Russia.
None of this means that Moscow supports Hamas as such. The Islamist group with its nationalist slogans brings back many unpleasant memories for our country. At the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s, Russia fought against militant Islamists in the North Caucasus who sought to undermine the state. In fact, they were partly financed and armed by Middle Eastern interests, including those countries with which Russia now has business ties. The West also sympathized with the ‘insurgents’, considering them representatives of their people, who wished to break away. Leftists and liberals of the time justified the Islamists’ frankly terrorist, bloody methods – claiming they had no other way to achieve their goals. Presently, some apply the same logic to Hamas.
Since Russia currently views all international events through the Ukrainian lens, the overstretch that the US is now experiencing is favorable for Moscow. Washington is forced to provide quick and effective support to two military partners at the same time, which is problematic even for such a strong world power. The US, however, has placed this burden on itself. Many people in Russia are quite emotional about what is happening in and around Palestine. However, due to the country’s diversity, there is no single opinion on the matter. Russian Muslims strongly support the people of Gaza, while those who have friends, relatives, or business partners in Israel, formed as a result of the many years of strong ties between the two countries, empathize with the Jewish state.
Currently, Russia does not expect the conflict to escalate into a region-wide war, although, like most other powers, it emphasizes the potential risks. In general, Moscow’s position concerning the Middle East will be quite restrained, showing a certain support toward the Palestinians, calling on the parties to end the violence and resume the political process to resolve the Palestinian issue. While Israel has ruled out any peace processes, it may eventually come to the conclusion that there is no other solution. Then, Russia’s ties with the different sides may come in handy once again – especially if by that time, there is greater clarity on the Ukrainian conundrum.