The new round of Palestinian-Israeli conflict has attracted strong attention from the international community. For a time, many forces, including the United States, Europe and Russia, have turned their attention to the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has diverted the outside world’s attention from the crisis in Ukraine. Against this background, Russia is also actively taking advantage of this regional crisis to seek a diplomatic “breakout” while accumulating strength for its next move.
Evolution of position on the Palestinian-Israeli issue
Generally speaking, the “Middle East” referred to by Russian elites, media and academic circles includes northern Africa, the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, as well as the western Asia and Iran. It is literally translated as “Near East” in Russian. This title shows the close distance and deep interests between this region and Russia. As the “double-headed eagle” spanning Europe and Asia, Russia has had deep historical entanglements with the Middle East since ancient times. In 988 AD, Grand Duke Vladimir accepted the Orthodox Church from Constantinople (now Istanbul) as the state religion. Afterwards, Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1453. Moscow regarded itself as the “Third Rome” and the successor of Byzantium, and began a bloody war with the Ottoman Empire that lasted for hundreds of years. If the wings of the “double-headed eagle” cover Europe and Asia, then its “talons” are always ready to encroach on the strategically important Middle East. From the establishment of the Soviet Union to the post-World War II period, the Soviet Union actively supported national liberation movements in the colonies and semi-colonies in the Middle East. After the start of the Cold War, the Middle East became a key area that the two camps of the United States and the Soviet Union fought for. The United States replaced Britain and France and entered the Middle East in a large scale. The Soviet Union held high the banner of “anti-imperialism”, vigorously supported Palestine, Syria, Libya and other countries, and fostered regional allies. Major events such as the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, especially the implementation of “new thinking” reforms within the Soviet Union, led to the decline of the Soviet Union’s influence in the Middle East. Lacking Soviet support, the Palestinian National Liberation Front was forced to pursue peace talks with Israel. At the Madrid Middle East Peace Summit in 1990, the Soviet Union on the eve of its disintegration had been reduced to a supporting role, and the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991 marked the Soviet Union’s loss of its dominant position in the Middle East.
After the end of the Cold War and during Yeltsin’s administration, Russia shrank in the Middle East and its support for Palestine further weakened. At the same time, more than 100,000 Soviet Jews moved to Israel. Relations between Russia and Israel continued to improve, and a number of cooperation agreements were signed. After Putin came to power in 2000, he continued the active Middle East policy in the late Yeltsin period, actively restored and enhanced Russia’s political and economic presence in the region, and actively cooperated with Middle Eastern countries in combating terrorism. Relations with Israel also continued to improve. . In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Israel for the first time. This was the first visit by a Russian leader to Israel. After the “Arab Spring”, Russia has become more active in the Middle East and Palestinian-Israeli issues. After the Ukraine crisis broke out in 2014, faced with Western sanctions and isolation, Russia regarded the Middle East as an important stage to expand its diplomatic space and compete with the West. Especially after its military intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, Russia used Syria as a fulcrum to expand in the Middle East, trading less for more, making steady progress, and making progress step by step. Its influence in the region has been increasing day by day, reversing its previous passive situation. At that time, Russia actively mediated the positions of Palestine and Israel, promoted peace talks, and promoted the peaceful settlement of disputes. Putin has repeatedly expressed his willingness to hold talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders in Moscow.
Relatively balanced, but also has its own considerations
As a “traditional player” in the Middle East, Russia has a greater influence on Iran and Syria, and it also maintains close cooperative relations with Gulf Arab countries. Generally speaking, Russia’s position on the conflict is relatively balanced, and its main proposition is to promote peace and negotiation. At the same time, Russia also has its own strategic considerations and hopes to use this round of conflicts to seek a favorable position for Russia diplomatically and militarily.
This round of conflict between Palestine and Israel is an important opportunity for Russian diplomacy to “break through”. After the Ukrainian crisis escalated in February 2022, Russia came under severe and comprehensive sanctions and isolation from the West. The West has imposed more than 10,000 sanctions on Russia, involving politics, economy, military, culture and other aspects. Although Russia occupied part of Ukrainian territory, it also paid a heavy price. The West has jointly provided support to Ukraine, and conflicts have continued again and again. Russia hopes to make a breakthrough in the diplomatic field, but its diplomatic shift of “turning eastward and moving southward” has not made much progress in the short term. This round of conflict between Palestine and Israel may be an opportunity for Russia to reverse its diplomatic posture. After the conflict broke out, Russia recognized that Israel had suffered “unprecedented brutal attacks” in this round of conflicts, but at the same time supported Hamas and Palestine. Putin said any “normal person” would be outraged by the bloody scenes in Gaza. The key to solving the problem is to stop the war and stop violating the principles of international law. Russia also submitted a ceasefire draft to the United Nations, warning that Israel’s ground attacks on the Gaza Strip would bring “serious consequences to all parties” and calling for an immediate end to wars and attacks on civilians to create conditions for humanitarian assistance and civilian evacuation. Russia’s series of actions are aimed at playing a greater role in the Middle East, while increasing its voice in international arenas, regrouping, and getting rid of the current unfavorable situation of isolation.
Russia also uses the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a powerful tool to combat US hegemony and promote Russia’s global strategy. During the Obama administration, U.S. influence in the Middle East declined. After Biden came to power, he promoted the transformation of the U.S. Middle East strategy and adopted a strategic tone of “overall contraction and limited intervention.” Facing the new geopolitical environment, the United States cannot “cover the sky with one hand” as it did at the end of the Cold War. It must engage in dialogue with Russia to jointly respond to new security challenges. For Russia, it will not be satisfied with just achieving a “breakout” in the Middle East, but will continue to plan a larger strategic framework. During this round of conflicts, Putin bluntly stated that “the United States has been inciting conflicts around the world and profiting from them. The American political elite and its vassals are the biggest beneficiaries of global instability.” During this round of Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, Russia actively communicated with Turkey, Iran and other countries. At the same time, it condemned the West’s “deliberate silence” on Israel’s war atrocities and accused the West of different standards for treating the conflicts between Russia and Ukraine and the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. Russia’s move is intended to unite most countries that have conflicts with the West and make it an important position in the confrontation between Russia and the West.
In addition, Russia has taken advantage of the West’s weakening attention on Ukraine to gain battlefield advantages. Since the outbreak of the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict, attention has been paid to whether the West, especially the United States, aid to Israel will occupy or affect its share of aid to Ukraine. Although top US officials, including Biden and Blinken, have repeatedly stated that the United States has the absolute ability to assist Ukraine and Israel at the same time, this is not the case. US State Department spokesman Kirby said that 96% of the cumulative US aid funds allocated to Ukraine have been used up, and future US aid to Ukraine will rely on special presidential appropriations. Of the $105 billion in special appropriations previously proposed by the Biden administration, $61.4 billion was used to assist Ukraine and $14.3 billion was used for military aid to Israel. On October 30, Republicans who controlled the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a bill to agree to the Biden administration’s request for a special appropriation of US$14.3 billion in military aid to Israel. However, they did not respond to the request for aid to Ukraine, arguing that aid to Ukraine and aid to Israel were inconsistent with each other. parts should be considered separately. New House Speaker Mike Johnson said strengthening support for Israel should be considered a national security priority. Ukraine is very worried about this. Ukrainian President Zelensky has repeatedly called on the West not to pay too much attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, emphasizing that Ukraine’s current counterattack is in a difficult stage. Unless the West upgrades the weapons it provides, it will be difficult for Ukraine to achieve a breakthrough. Against this background, the balance of power on the Ukrainian battlefield may change. Russia will make full use of the chaos in the Middle East to distract the United States from its efforts.
The future direction of Russia’s Middle East policy
Since 2008, many large-scale conflicts have broken out between Hamas and Israel. The current Palestinian-Israeli conflict is an outbreak of the grievances and conflicts accumulated between the two sides over the years, and is also a difficult crux of the geopolitical game. At present, it seems that both sides have no intention of stopping the war. The West will continue to support Israel in its attack on Hamas forces, and the Middle Eastern countries that support Palestine will gradually unite to form an anti-Israel “alliance.” After this round of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the momentum of improving relations between Israel and Arab countries in recent years has been interrupted, and the trend of division in the Middle East has once again become prominent.
Under this situation, on the one hand, Russia will strive to seek a favorable position in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Currently, Russia maintains good relations with Egypt, Syria and other countries, and can strengthen cooperation in military, security and other fields to help them improve their defense capabilities. At the same time, Russia can also use arms exports to revitalize its status as a major arms exporter. Countries in the Middle East do not want to completely follow the United States and look forward to using Russia to hedge against the influence of the United States. At the same time, Russia will actively support Palestine and use it as a favorable starting point to “accuse Western crimes.”
On the other hand, Russia will also be an important participant in the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Russia has expressed support for Palestinian statehood and United Nations membership over the years, and is an important force in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After this round of conflicts broke out, Russia immediately proposed to seek to resolve the dispute through the four-party mechanism (Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations). If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict becomes protracted in the future, Russia will also promote direct dialogue between the two sides. At the same time, Russia-Israel relations have historical origins. Israel is aware of Russia’s important role in Middle East affairs, especially in limiting the military threats from Iran and Turkey, and will continue to rely heavily on Russia.
In addition, Russia will continue to increase its influence in the Middle East. In recent years, the Middle East has been a key area for Russia’s active operations, and Russia strives to compete with the United States in the Middle East. In the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in addition to actively promoting peace talks on international occasions, Russia has also made extensive contacts with various countries in the Middle East. In mid-October, Putin discussed the situation between Palestine and Israel with the Prime Minister of Iraq and the President of Turkey. On October 26, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs received a Hamas delegation in Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov also had phone calls with the foreign ministers of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and met with the Secretary-General of the Arab League. Russia uses its traditional diplomatic advantages in the Middle East to encourage more Middle Eastern countries to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with Russia, and then promotes a Russian-led dialogue and coordination mechanism to plan in advance for continued strengthening of influence in the Middle East in the future. In the medium to long term, Russia intends to encourage more Middle Eastern countries to “disengage” from the United States, thereby consolidating its status as an “important player” in the Middle East.