"Heaven's Gift" or Curse?

What will the war in the Middle East mean for Putin's Russia?
Alexey Sakhnin 13 November 2023

A senior European official, speaking to the FT, called the escalating war in the Middle East “a godsend” for Putin. Western governments' support for Israel turns Third World states into Moscow's allies. “If you call cutting off the supply of water, food and electricity in Ukraine a war crime, then you should say the same about the Gaza Strip,” an unnamed Arab politician told reporters.

Indeed, the Middle East tragedy caused an explosion of enthusiasm in the Kremlin and in Russian state media. They perceive this conflict as a “second front” that will divert Western attention from the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine, and give Russia a chance to complete it on its own terms. The short-term benefits for Moscow are clear enough, but in the longer term it may face unforeseen difficulties. What seems like a gift from heaven today can become a curse.

Putin called the escalation of the conflict “a clear example of the failure of the United States’ policy” and offered Russian mediation for a peaceful resolution. This is a traditional step for a Russian president. Once upon a time, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush to express condolences and offer help. For several years after this, American aircraft used the Russian air base in Ulyanovsk for missions in Afghanistan. A successful military campaign for Moscow in Syria in 2015-2017. allowed Russia to partially overcome its isolation and resume dialogue with the West, interrupted after the annexation of Crimea. Today Putin is trying to repeat this experience again.

Russia almost directly offers the West to exchange its political capital - influence on Arab leaders - for a deal on Ukraine. But in order to do this, Moscow needs to maintain and increase this influence. And Putin does not spare any color: he compares the Israeli blockade of Gaza with the blockade of Leningrad during World War II. At the UN, Russian representatives propose a resolution demanding the creation of a Palestinian state and an immediate ceasefire. In response, the Hamas leadership sent official gratitude to the Russian president. And Russia's relations with Israel are predictably experiencing a cooling.

The Putin leadership may find itself hostage to the polarization it is trying to exploit. Hardly anyone will believe in the sincerity of his peacemaking efforts. “I am furious when I hear the Russian president warning everywhere that civilians are becoming victims of military clashes. It's simply impossible to be more cynical,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted.

Ruling class split
The good personal relationship between Putin and Netanyahu was just the tip of the iceberg. The Russian ruling class is closely linked to the Jewish state. Many oligarchs and influential functionaries have Israeli citizenship. For those around the Russian president, Israel served as a model of a right-wing regime that does not hesitate to use force to protect “national interests.” This was not hampered even by traditional ties with Arab regimes, for the maintenance of which the foreign policy department was responsible. After all, sympathies were supported by pragmatics. The basis of the unspoken agreement between Moscow and Jerusalem was the agreement on Syria and Ukraine. It allowed the Netanyahu government to strike Iranian allies - the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Shiite militias without the risk of facing opposition from Russian air defense. In exchange, Israel did not bomb Russian troops in Syria itself and coordinated its actions with the Russian command, and also avoided military supplies to Ukraine. An important addition to this cooperation was access for members of the Russian elite to high-quality Israeli medicine.

The war in Gaza undermines this cooperation. In the event of an escalation of the conflict, Russia will automatically find itself in the camp of the allies of Hamas and Iran. The consequences will immediately hit that part of the Russian ruling class that associates its life with Israel.

Director of the Middle East bureau of the state broadcasting company Rossiya and correspondent of the weekly analytical program Vesti, which is the tuning fork of official propaganda, Sergei Pashkov is married to the presenter of the Israeli Russian-language Channel 9, who takes a pro-Ukrainian position and sharply criticizes Vladimir Putin. A group of patriotic Israelis is already collecting signatures on a petition demanding that Pashkov be deprived of his residence permit and deported from the country.

The most famous and odious Russian propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, is known for his radically pro-Israeli position. In the past, he has publicly promised to go fight for Israel if there is a war there. Now he has to make excuses for this: “I’m 60 years old. But if Russia did not participate in the North Military District now, then I would go to Israel, because Jews from all over the world are going there to protect their people after this horrific tragedy that occurred.” In his show, Soloviev tries to combine his sympathies for Israel with narratives that are important to the Kremlin. “Ukraine is in shock, it will be hard for them to beg now,” he rejoices at the “second front” that has opened. However, sitting on two chairs becomes difficult.

Solovyov had to fire his long-time friend, far-right political scientist Evgeniy Satanovsky. In an interview with an Israeli journalist, Satanovsky expressed dissatisfaction with the too “pro-Arab” position of the Russian Foreign Ministry, and called its official speaker Maria Zakharova a “heavy drinking scum” who “cannot stand Jews.” Solovyov had to apologize to the diplomats. And Satanovsky, left without work, continued to criticize the Russian leadership. For example, he called former President Medvedev “a weak little shit.”

The worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undermining the unity of the ruling elite, perhaps even more than President Putin’s Ukrainian adventure.

Risks of geopolitics
As war heats up in the Middle East, Russian risks continue to grow. The logic of military escalation is pushing Israel towards more aggressive actions in Syria, and possibly in Iran. The first victim could be the regime of Bashar al-Assad, friendly to Moscow, and with it the Russian military base, hanging on a thin thread of maritime logistics that can be easily blocked.

If the tacit agreement with Moscow ceases to operate, then Israel will be able to join Western supplies of precision weapons to Ukraine. Even while waging his own war, he has something to offer Kyiv: Spike long-range anti-tank missile systems, Harop kamikaze drones, cruise missiles, air defense systems. In response, Russia may sell Iran the latest Su-35 aircraft. In Israel itself there are already voices demanding a break with Russia. “Russia supports the Nazis who want to commit genocide against us, and Russia will pay for it. We will not forget this, we will help Ukraine win, and we will make sure that you pay for what you did,” wrote Amir Weitman, a member of the ruling Likud party.

The Russian regime’s flirtation with the Palestinian sympathies of the Arab world could result in strategic losses in the West as well. The Putin administration is prolonging the war in Ukraine in the hope that conflict fatigue will fill the sails of far-right parties in Western countries. And their electoral successes will change the geopolitical context and allow Russia to exit the war on its own terms. The Kremlin has particular hope for the possible return of Donald Trump to power in the United States after the 2024 elections. But if there is room for such a deal with the European and American right on Ukraine, the conflict in Israel can only complicate it. It is not for nothing that Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, and now calls himself “Israel’s best friend and ally.” Among Republican voters in the US, support for Israel is also much stronger than for Ukraine. And this rule works in most cases and in relation to far-right European parties. A regional war in the Middle East will deprive the Kremlin of its far-right friends in the West.

Arab Spring 2:0
An Israeli invasion of Gaza could destabilize regimes in Arab states. Huge popular demonstrations of solidarity with the Palestinians are already shaking Jordan (where Palestinians form the majority of the population) and Egypt. The rulers of these countries rightly fear popular anger, because an anti-Israeli demonstration in their conditions is not much different from an anti-government one. A serious regional crisis could lead to a repetition of the Arab Spring with a series of overthrows of authoritarian regimes that seemed unshakable. This prospect could be a serious challenge not only for them, but also for Russia.

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly criticized the Arab Spring, which he considers a “tragedy” and the fruit of “color technologies.” New popular uprisings in the Islamic world are unlikely to win him any more sympathy. In 2011-2012, protest demonstrations took place in Moscow under the slogan “Whether Cairo or Moscow, only struggle gives rights.” The Russian president doesn't want to see them again.

“Anti-imperialist” performance at the level of public rhetoric and diplomacy has long become part of the Kremlin’s political toolkit. But, in reality, it (unlike the USSR) has nothing to offer the peoples of the Third World. Moscow's policy in Asian and African countries remains typically colonial. Created by military intelligence, the private military company Wagner sells its services to authoritarian leaders from Syria to the Central African Republic and Mali. In the context of massive anti-American or anti-French sentiment, this is often perceived as a continuation of the anti-colonial policy once pursued by the Soviet Union. That's why demonstrators in Mali or the West Bank sometimes use Russian tricolors and portraits of Putin. But the actual working conditions of Russian mercenaries are no different from the methods of their European and American competitors. Russian mercenaries receive a share of oil, gold or profits from uranium mines in exchange for their services. Today's Russia has no other economic model for the countries of the Global South.

On the other hand, many Islamic parties and movements have experience of fighting the Russian authorities in the recent past. During the Syrian civil war, Islamic groups fought Russian expeditionary forces. According to the FSB, up to 6,000 Russian-speaking Muslims fought in the ranks of Daesh and other radical groups. They were and remain closely connected with diasporas of emigrants from Chechnya and the Islamic regions of Russia itself, for whom the Russian regime remains a relevant enemy. The destabilization of Arab dictatorships will put this threat back on the agenda.

More than 20 million Muslims live in Russia itself, not counting about 9 million labor migrants from Islamic countries of Central Asia. Many of them have social and cultural reasons for disliking the Kremlin. A typical incident occurred on October 22, when police raided the parishioners of a mosque in the Moscow suburb of Kotelniki. After this, the believers were taken to the military registration and enlistment office, where, under the threat of criminal charges, they were forced to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense in order to be sent to war in Ukraine. The coercion of labor migrants and people from poor national republics to participate in the Ukrainian war is widespread. This causes protests and leads to cases of mass desertion.

The war in Palestine creates conditions for the political mobilization of Islamic communities, which, like in Arab countries, has great protest potential. In Dagestan, police dispersed several spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinians on October 17. “The protesters were dispersed, as if they were against Russia, and not against Israel!” writes the author of a local telegram channel.


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