Russia has traditionally excelled at exploiting crises in the Middle East as a way to boost its own global stature, but the sharp escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent weeks has left Moscow uncharacteristically muted. At the United Nations Security Council, Russia ceded the initiative of preparing an official statement to China, Norway and Tunisia, and it conspicuously refrained from expressing any disappointment when the declaration’s adoption was blocked by the United States. President Vladimir Putin had a video conversation with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (who arrived in Moscow expecting a face-to-face meeting) on a range of issues, including the surge in violence in and around Gaza. During these talks, the Kremlin leader limited himself to modestly expressing due concerns and continuing support for the two-state solution (Kremlin.ru, May 13).
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was more assertive, demanding from Israel a termination of the latter’s settlement activity in the occupied territories and condemning the attempts to alter the geographic, demographic and historical character and status of Jerusalem (RIA Novosti, May 12). This stance, however, was softened rather than reinforced by the indifferent signals from the Kremlin, for which Ukraine continues to be the main preoccupation (Republic.ru, May 14). The tone of the commentary in the mainstream Russian media regarding the latest conflagration in the Middle East has remained remarkably balanced, without the traditional inclinations to put the blame squarely on Israel (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, May 13). The human tragedy in Gaza is not a central preoccupation for the audience of Russia’s main TV channels and tabloids; but the effectiveness of the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system against hundreds of low-cost rockets is being discussed in much detail (Izvestia, May 14).
When it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Russian commentators most clearly understand how it answers the political interests of both Hamas, which seeks to expand its influence from Gaza to the West Bank and undercut the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has restored his position after the failure to form a coalition government (Forbes.ru, May 13). Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov keeps Moscow’s connections with Hamas open, but Putin seems to prefer to communicate with Netanyahu, with whom he has built a good rapport and last talked on the phone on May 7 (RIA Novosti, May 12). Yet domestic political considerations dissuade the Russian president from coming down unambiguously on the side of the Israeli authorities. Namely, Putin appears uneasy that pronounced support for a forceful Israeli response to the rocket salvos from Gaza is coming from many opinion-makers in the Russian liberal opposition, who tend to see the conflict through the lens of a terrorist threat to democracy (Moscow Echo, May 13). Nevertheless, the Kremlin has sternly reprimanded Ramzan Kadyrov, the maverick ruler of Chechnya, who condemned Israel for violating the al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem and demanded an apology (Kommersant, May 10; RIA Novosti, May 12).
Rather awkward for Putin was a phone call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who bluntly suggested joining forces in supporting the Palestinian cause and countering Israel’s “terrorist” policy (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 12). Putin issued some ambivalent statements, which did not prevent Erdoğan from declaring that Russia backs his stance and the plan for sending an international peacekeeping force into the conflict zone (Interfax, May 12). The Russian foreign ministry would never dream of subscribing to such a far-fetched proposition, yet it needs Turkish consent in the complicated diplomatic maneuvering around the issue of delivering humanitarian aid to Syria and to the rebel-held Idlib province (Russiancouncil.ru, April 14). Moscow’s efforts at stabilizing the Bashar al-Assad regime are undercut by the lack of funding for the post-war reconstruction. Making matters worse, international and Arab state donors are now turning their attention toward the plight of the Palestinians, thus complicating Russian efforts at prioritizing the humanitarian disaster in Syria—a direct consequence of the much-trumpeted victory of the Russian intervention. The top brass in Moscow, meanwhile, remains eager to test the US’s “red lines” on Syria: recently, the Russian military proudly reported on having blockaded a US “armored column” that, allegedly, tried to proceed along the M-4 highway in the northeastern al-Hasakah governorate without proper notification (Interfax, May 13).
The episode may be of minor significance, but it illuminates the pivotal importance Russia’s Middle East policy places on interactions with the United States. Putin cannot figure out the unusually low-profile US stance toward the crisis around Israel, but he definitely seeks to add a possible mediator role for Russia to the agenda of the planned summit with President Joseph Biden next month (Kommersant, May 15). He informed the members of his Security Council at a virtual meeting last Friday (May 14) that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict occurred in the “immediate vicinity” of Russia’s borders and, thus, impacts directly on Moscow’s security interests (Kremlin.ru, May 14). This geopolitical stretch hardly signifies a claim that Russian bases in Syria constitute an extension of Russia’s national territory (The Insider, May 14). It rather reflects concern about the marginalization of Moscow in light of normalizing relations between Israel and such key Arab states as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and even Saudi Arabia; these precarious ties are now in jeopardy, but Russia cannot present any meaningful alternative (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 11). The only proposition the Kremlin tries to advance is to reconvene the so-called “Quartet” on the Middle East, established back in 2002 and consisting of the UN, the European Union, the US and Russia; but the usefulness of this never-productive format is doubtful (TASS, May 14).
Positioning itself as a champion of the anti-Western and anti-American movement, Russia finds few enthusiastic followers in the Middle East, where the main worries are about insufficient attention from the Biden administration to the overlapping conflicts and deepening sources of instability in the region. Egypt, Qatar, Jordan and other regional stakeholders know that their mediation attempts can only succeed if backed by effectual (even if unadvertised US leadership), while engagement with Russia will likely only add complications. Empathy with the Palestinian cause—common among the left-leaning political forces in Europe and the US—is an entirely foreign feeling for the geopolitically minded Russian political elites; and unceasing news coverage of the devastation in the Donbas war zone, resulting from Russia’s “hybrid” aggression, has somewhat desensitized Russian public opinion to the latest human tragedies in Gaza. Troublemaking has become Moscow’s key means of asserting a major impact on international affairs (see EDM, May 3), but the Middle East hardly needs this sort of contribution.