Gaza War Shifts Russia’s Middle East Relations

From the start of the Ukraine invasion, Vladimir Putin has understood that Russia retains one immeasurable advantage: time. The sheer size of the Russian landmass, population and economy, as well as Putin’s iron grip over the country’s politics, means that the war could churn on for weeks, months or even years without causing government-altering pain in Moscow. Indeed, part of the West’s strategy in arming Ukraine so rapidly after the invasion was to force the pace against Moscow, to try to inflict a series of defeats on Russia that would force it to the negotiating table.

So it has proven. Twenty months into the invasion and another war came along, taking the political focus of the West and the wider world away from Ukraine. The Gaza war – what historians will likely call the Second October War, coming 50 years after the 1973 October War – has become an opportunity for Russia, a chance to regain the moral high ground, grandstand among the Global South, and change the country’s relationships with Middle Eastern nations.

The first has been much discussed. The carte blanche offered to Israel by the United States and other countries has been a gift from the West to Moscow.

The Kremlin and its political and media supporters have repeatedly drawn an unflattering parallel between the way the US responded to the Ukraine invasion – with threats and sanctions against Russia – and the way it has responded to Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The hypocrisy is glaring and perfectly fits Russia’s narrative that great powers behave differently and rules don’t apply to them. Why therefore, they ask, must rules apply to a great power like Russia, when it perceives a danger from Ukraine?

Related to this attempt to regain the moral high ground has been the ability to grandstand among the countries of the Global South.

Analysts have noted that the United Nations resolution introduced by Russia 10 days after the Gaza war started to bring about a ceasefire was a diplomatic failure – and it was, but only in part. Yes, the resolution failed to pass, but with China and Russia in favor and the expected Western allies of the US, the UK and France against, a message was conveyed to the court of public opinion in the Global South that the global body was biased against their interests.

Those changes are more about public image than real politics, although they do have an effect. But the Gaza war is also altering Russia’s relationship with other countries in the Middle East.

For years, Russia has tried to maintain pragmatic relations with Israel. With its strong footing in Syria, it has tried to play the role of a mediating power, allowing Israel some leeway to bomb sites inside the country, while also giving Iran room to act.

The Gaza war has shifted that. Within two weeks of the October 7 attack that started the war, Russia welcomed a Hamas delegation to Moscow, ostensibly to discuss how to safeguard Russian citizens. But since that could have been done without such an official visit – and as it was noted that Iran’s deputy foreign minister was there at the same time – the not unreasonable interpretation was that Russia was facilitating planning between the two. Since then, the relationship has soured further, and the UN envoys of both countries have traded harsh words.

For Russia, shifting away from Israel carries the possibility of gaining political support from across the Muslim world. It makes it harder for Arab states, and Turkey, to support Ukraine openly. After Volodymyr Zelensky’s open support for Israel and lack of statements on the destruction in Gaza, he will not be welcome at next year’s Arab League summit. That may have been a miscalculation on Zelensky’s part, but Moscow will capitalize on it.

The war also means that Russian-Turkey relations are getting warmer.

Long before the Ukraine invasion, the two have warily circled each other in Syria, and the Ukraine conflict has seen Turkey try to balance relations with both sides. But the Gaza war has changed that and placed them both on the same side. Both have aimed their barbs either at Israel or its principal backer the United States; both see in that a chance for a greater role. For Turkey, that would be something like the moral leadership of the Middle East; for Russia, a rival to China for leadership of the Global South.

The Gaza war has offered an opportunity to Russia to move beyond the war in Ukraine in its relations with the Middle East.

The return of Russia to the Middle East is often overstated. Russia, for all its search for ways to project influence across the Global South, appears uninterested in the extensive backing for Arab and African governments seen during the Cold War.

Instead, Russia today practices a form of “vacuum diplomacy,” rushing to fill the spaces left by a retreating America, or pushing out Western influence once it becomes unpopular, or supporting sidelined political groups. Those elements can be seen in its recent welcome of Hamas to Moscow; in the way Wagner operatives collaborate with African governments, or the way Moscow was happy to save the Syrian regime from its armed opponents.

The same is true for this Gaza conflict, which has come at an opportune time for Putin. With Western backing for Israel seemingly without conditions or limits, a space has opened for Russia to once again dive into the politics of the Middle East. It was only a matter of time.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. X: @FaisalAlYafai


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