Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 20

Embarrassment, confusion and more than a little pique has characterized Moscow’s reaction over the past fortnight to the fact that Russia was not represented at the emergency Middle East summit conference which took place in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh on October 16-17. In addition to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the U.S. president was there, as were the leaders of Egypt and Jordan and the UN secretary general and the European Union’s foreign policy chief. The expanded format of the talks only highlighted the absence of Russia, which was a cosponsor of the original peace accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians and which has in recent years tried to rebuild its influence in the region. Indeed, prior to the summit Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov paid a four-day visit to the Middle East, where he joined a host of other high-profile envoys in a desperate diplomatic effort to rein in the escalating violence which many believed could plunge the region into war. Ivanov’s talks with Middle Eastern leaders had received wide coverage in the Russian press and had helped to raise expectations that Moscow might play an important role in surmounting the current crisis.

Initial Russian reports provided no precise reason for Moscow’s absence from the summit, although some pointed the finger at host country Egypt, which issued the invitations to the hastily arranged conference, while others fell back on the standard position that Moscow had been squeezed out by Washington. At least a few Russian observers reached the sad conclusion that Russia’s exclusion was a factor primarily of Moscow’s fading influence in the region, a development brought on by the country’s economic and military weakness and by the perception that it had nothing substantive to add to the proceedings.

But whatever the reasons for Russia’s absence, the seeming confusion in Moscow over the matter only increased the appearance of impotence. Russian officials had appeared earlier to confirm Moscow’s intention to attend the peace summit, and there were even reports that preparations were underway for President Vladimir Putin to fly to Sharm el-Sheikh. But Russia’s foreign minister said that Moscow had waited in vain for an invitation which never came. Meanwhile, other sources suggested that Moscow had indeed received an invitation, but that it was addressed to the foreign minister rather than to Putin. Russian officials had earlier indicated Moscow’s readiness to attend the summit “on equal footing with other participants.” That statement suggested the Kremlin would take part only if Putin was invited as a participant equal in status with the U.S. president. He was not, and the Kremlin found itself in the embarrassing position of claiming that the Russian leader had not wanted to go to Egypt in any event.