The Kremlin has welcomed the Israel-Hamas truce in Gaza that began on November 24. The pause, however, does not fit into Russia’s larger designs for the Middle East.
From Moscow’s perspective, further escalation would have been a much better option in disrupting the US-led world order.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka spelled out this vision in mid-November, foretelling how the more localized conflict could ignite a new world war (Kommersant, November 23).
Russia’s diminishing influence in the Middle East
Russian President Vladimir Putin has struggled to push his narrative that the fighting in Gaza came as a result of a “glaring failure” in US policy. Putin has had few conversations with key regional partners, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and little, if anything, has come from those talks (Forbes.ru, October 10). The war in Gaza has highlighted Russia’s diminishing influence and lack of control over previously reliable allies in pursuing its interests in the Middle East. The growing weakness of Russia’s energy and arms industries means that the Kremlin must rely on external distractions to fragment those powers arrayed against its position in the region.
An attempt to shift the world’s attention to Gaza
The Kremlin has attempted to shift global focus from Ukraine to the Israel-Hamas war. Addressing the virtual G20 summit on November 22, Putin accused those who expressed shock at Russia’s continuing war against Ukraine of ignoring Israel’s “extermination of civilians in Palestine and the Gaza Strip” (Kremlin.ru, November 22). The attempt to shift the world’s attention without a word of condemnation against Hamas works only so far (Vedomosti, November 23). Putin’s rhetoric betrays Moscow’s preoccupation with Ukraine: all global problems are examined through Russia’s long war against Kyiv and the collective West (Rossiiskaya gazeta, November 21). Israel is considered part of the Western coalition united against Russia, and Tel Aviv’s operations in Gaza are condemned with expressions resembling old Soviet propaganda (Russian International Affairs Council, November 15).
Russia’s unreliable allies have hurt its position in the Middle East. Syria was once the central player for Russian policy in the Middle East. The value of this ally, however, has shrunk as the Bashar al-Assad regime cautiously refrains from any forceful action against US troops in the Idlib province (The Insider, November 15). Türkiye has stayed relatively quiet on the Syrian front. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been rather outspoken over Israel’s actions in Gaza but has yet to follow that outrage with overt military actions (Carnegie Politika, November 9).
Other allies have undermined Moscow’s efforts in pursuing their own interests in the region. Iran has some interest in further escalating the instability in the Middle East. Tehran has been careful not to overplay its hand thus far, perhaps wary of the US and Israeli air strikes on its proxies supporting the Palestinian side (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 21). The Kremlin remains in the dark regarding Iran’s ultimate intentions, but that has not stopped Russian mainstream media from amplifying the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels’ hijacking of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea as “retaliation for Israel’s war against Hamas” (Izvestiya, November 24).
Hoping for the oil price
Moscow had hoped for a spike in oil prices following the outbreak of fighting in Gaza. That has yet to happen, with petro-revenues in the Russian state budget continuing to fall (BFM.ru, November 23). Tighter Western sanctions against the “shadow fleet” of old and under-insured tankers transporting Russian oil from the terminals in the Baltic and Black seas further curb revenues (Forbes.ru, November 22).
Russia has sought to reduce global oil production to boost prices and to refill the compromised state coffers. Bargaining on oil production quotas in the OPEC+ format (formal members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries with allied non-members such as Russia) has been distorted by the refusal of Russian negotiators to provide reliable data. The Kremlin has now made such information strictly confidential. In response, Saudi Arabia postponed the next formal meeting in this format until November 30 (Kommersant, November 22). Russia needs to maximize its oil and diesel exports to stabilize growing budget deficits. However, western Siberian oil fields are being overused, bringing them close to exhaustion. The lack of investment in maintenance and exploration further undercuts Russia’s position as a major global energy supplier (The Moscow Times, November 24).
Moscow had also hoped that the Israel-Hamas war would increase demands for its arms exports. The Russian exhibition at the Dubai Airshow from November 13 to 17 featured a wide range of modern weapon systems, reportedly proven effective during the “special military operation” in Ukraine (TASS, November 17). Hopes for new contracts were, nevertheless, frustrated as potential customers doubt the capacity of Russia’s military-industrial complex to deliver (The Moscow Times, November 21). Even some “military-patriotic” commentators in Moscow expressed disagreement with attempts to boost arms exports, as Russian troops in Ukraine continue to be supplied with Soviet-era armor and North Korean artillery shells (Topwar.ru, November 17). The renewed drone attacks on Kyiv with the Iranian-designed Shahed 131 and 136 loitering munitions further damage Russia’s reputation as an exporter of superior missile technology (Meduza, November 25).
Resorting to hybrid means
Without traditional instruments for its policy in the Middle East, Moscow has resorted to “hybrid” means. For example, Russian border guards were reportedly involved in transporting hundreds of migrants from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and other troubled states to the border with Finland, provoking a migrant crisis similar to 2015–2016 (Novayagazeta.eu, November 25; Fontanka.ru, November 21). Helsinki responded by closing all border crossings and requesting help from the European Union, dismissing Moscow’s protests (Rossiiskaya gazeta, November 22). The scale of the crisis may be minor for now. Still, the Kremlin’s attempt to fan xenophobic sentiments in Europe and boost the popularity of right-wing, pro-Russian parties will likely continue (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 23).
Growing irrelevance in the Middle East
The recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco demonstrated Russia’s growing irrelevance in the Asia-Pacific and the futility of its ambitions to claim a great-power role there (see EDM, November 13). A similar trend is happening with Russia’s traditionally overblown profile in the Middle East. Moscow now perceives conflicts in the region largely through the lens of its war against Ukraine war. The more assertive regional powers have closely monitored Russia’s weakened capabilities for power projection and seek to chart a more independent course with Moscow’s diminished ability to manipulate regional tensions in its favor.