June 25, 2012 (TSR) – Vladimir Putin is heading to the Middle East. The trip promises no sensations, but draws a lot of attention due to the radically changed situation in the region. This shift had made an enormous impact on Russian positioning in the Middle East game.
After the Arab spring erupted Russia found itself in an unusual situation. Previously Moscow had always sided with the Arab world against Israel and the West. After the end of the Cold War this stand-off was mostly rhetorical, but still. Now everything was turned upside down. The West and the Arab world are on one side of barricades, while Russia and Iran, which is the sworn enemy of most Persian Gulf states are on the other side together with the Syrian regime. Israel is in a rather unclear position, somewhere in between…
There are two reasons why the current trip is important for Putin. First of all, it is crucial to show that Russia is eager to work with Arab states despite the Syrian controversy. The Palestinians and Jordan are the best options to do so.
Russia is the only great power, which has contacts with both sides in the Palestinian internal struggle – both Fatah and Hamas. To be frank, this hasn’t yet helped much to increase Russia’s profile in the settlement process, but it is a trump card anyway, which might be useful. The very fact that Moscow is still interested in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians can ease Russian tension with the rest of the Arab world.
Jordan could be instrumental as well. Amman shows solidarity with Syrian opposition and is since last year a member of the GCC, the most active anti-Assad player. Jordan is Syria’s neighbor, and is very concerned about a spill-over of violence and instability in case of escalated civil war or military intervention from abroad. Amman would prefer a political solution, which is why Putin can expect more attention to Russian arguments from the Jordanian leadership, than other regional monarchies.
The most interesting part of this visit is Israel. Russia and Israel have much to discuss about Iran – openly and confidentially. Israel perceives the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat and is considering military options. Moscow is afraid that the serious destabilization possible in Iran after a massive attack would have a major negative impact on neighboring regions, first of all the Southern Caucasus. So for both parties it is very important to listen to each other’s arguments and to understand the general mood.
On Syria, Russia and Israel don’t coincide, but their positions are actually somewhat closer than those of Russia and the Arab countries. Israelis understand very well what a power shift in Syria may mean if the Assad regime is overthrown, paving the way to full-scale chaos. Bashar Assad is a predictable foe for Israel, who used to respect the status quo. Any democracy in Syria will be by default much more hostile vis-à-vis Israel. So for Israel, regime change in Damascus can only make sense if it becomes a prelude to military action against Iran.
The Russian-Israeli relationship is an interesting phenomenon today. Putting aside rhetoric and diplomatic routine, one will discover that there is only one really deep controversy – in their approach to Iran. Beyond that, much unites. Both countries share a similar philosophy in the fight against terrorism, love Realpolitik, and frequently rely on force when it comes to political problems. More than one fifth of the Israeli population is of Soviet/Russian origin. They are Russian speakers. The latter contributes to successful business and technological cooperation. The Russian military industry for example demonstrates a growing interest in interaction with producers in Israel.
The paradox is in the following. If current trends continue, and Arab states keep looking at Russia as an obstacle to social and political progress in the region, sooner or later Israel could turn into the most important Russian partner in the Middle East. The Iranian issue will be resolved one way or another, and likely pretty soon. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that US policy towards Israel will always remain the same. In Washington DC one can hear that American interest in the Middle East should not be taken hostage by ties with Tel Aviv. Such a profound review is not in sight yet, but one should watch new trends. Today an in-depth partnership between Israel and Russia seems unlikely, Soviet inertia is still strong. But the Arab world is changing and turning its back on Russia. And this means that changes are possible from the other side as well.
AUTHOR: Fyodor Lukyanov
Fyodor Lukyanov is the Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs (founded in 2002), a journal published in Russian and English with the participation of Foreign Affairs. He has an extensive background in different Russian and international media, in which he worked from 1990 to 2002 as a commentator on international affairs. Lukyanov now widely contributes to various media in the US, Europe and China. His monthly “Geopolitics” column appears in the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. He is a member of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an independent organization providing foreign policy expertise and also a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions.
This article first appeared in RT.