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Moscow and Gaza: Is Russia ready for a major shift in its Middle East policy?

December 9, 2023 at 1:48 pm

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) at Al Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 06, 2023 [Royal Court of Saudi Arabia – Anadolu Agency]

Gaza was among the main topics on the agenda of Russian President Vladimir Putin as he arrived in the Middle East on 6 December.

Some news reports referred to the trip as “rare”, especially since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022.

We know that the situation in Gaza, namely the Israeli war and the subsequent genocide, is a major objective of Putin’s visit, based on press statements from Russia’s official media.

But we do not yet know exactly how Gaza factored into Putin’s one-day visit.

Putin’s visit included the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two of the richest and most economically influential Arab countries. They are, like Russia, members of OPEC+ – the larger and most influential group of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Oil prices, energy supplies and the fractious security of the Red Sea waterways are reportedly also part of Putin’s agenda. However, it is unlikely that the Russian president has initiated such an important visit to discuss any of these issues.

Indeed, fluctuating oil prices and achieving OPEC+ consensus regarding production levels have been ongoing issues linking Russia to the Middle East for years, especially since the start of the Ukraine war, which invited unprecedented US-Western sanctions.

But what does Putin have to say about Gaza, in particular?

In the early phase of the Israeli war with the Palestinian resistance in the besieged Gaza Strip, Russia had taken a guarded position, condemning the targeting of civilians, while calling for a comprehensive political solution.

WATCH: US votes against UN proposal for immediate ceasefire in Gaza

But, days later, Moscow’s position began evolving into a stronger stance, namely condemning the Israeli war on Gaza, Washington’s blind support for Tel Aviv and the US’ intransigence during United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meetings.

President Putin, on 13 October, compared Israel’s besiegement of the Gaza Strip to the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1941. “In my view it is unacceptable. More than two million people live there. Far from all of them support Hamas, by the way, far from all. But all of them have to suffer, including women and children,” he said.

Moscow’s UN ambassador, Vasily Nebenzia, has repeatedly attempted, to no avail, to pass a UNSC resolution demanding an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Gaza. His efforts culminated in nil due to US refusal, backed by equally strong rejection of other Western allies of Israel.

Despite his unsuccessful efforts, Nebenzia has used the UNSC as a platform to declare Russia’s progressively strong stances against the Israeli war, going as far as questioning Israel’s long-touted “right to defend itself”.

“All they (the West) can do is to keep [talking] about Israel’s alleged right for self-defence, which, as an occupying state, it does not have, as was confirmed by the [UN] International Court consultative ruling in 2004,” Nebenzia said on 2 November.

Following the US shameful use of the veto power to block the passing of a UNSC resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, Russian representative Dmitry Polyanskiy stated: “Our American colleagues have condemned thousands – if not tens of thousands – more civilians (..) including women and children, to death, along with the UN workers who are trying to help them.”

But for various reasons, the Russian position did not evolve beyond political rhetoric, however strong, into any tangible strategies.

The typical explanation for Russia’s inability to formulate a practical strategy regarding Gaza is its lack of any serious diplomatic or political capital beyond the current war on Ukraine and that Moscow was fully aware of the Middle East’s delicate geopolitical balances.

But things began to change – not in Moscow, but in Gaza itself. Over two months into a war that has resulted in the killing of more than 17,000 civilians, so far, Tel Aviv is finally discovering the limits of its military power.

Moreover, the war gradually began to destabilise the Middle East, involving state and powerful non-state actors, many of whom are close allies to Moscow and protectors of Russian interests in the region.

They include Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansarallah in Yemen, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq and, of course, Hamas itself.

As a sign of a closer relationship between Hamas and Russia, the Palestinian movement has released all Israeli captives with dual Israeli-Russian citizenship.

It has done so without a formal prisoner swap agreement, like the ones that have been mediated through Qatar and Egypt, resulting in the release of scores of Israelis and hundreds of Palestinians, starting on 24 November.

Surely, Putin’s visit to the Middle East carries greater meaning than the mere “emphasis on the strong relationships” between Russia and a few Arab countries. This meaning is compounded by the immediate visit to Moscow by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on 7 December, also with the sole purpose of discussing the situation in Gaza.

Is it possible that Russia has finally found a geostrategic opportunity in the Middle East that would allow it to expand, in terms of its strategic alliances and political role, beyond Syria?

This expansion must appear as an attractive opportunity for Moscow, especially as early signs of Israeli military failure and, to an extent, US failure in Gaza are becoming unmistakably clear.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to deliver an important speech at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on 10 December.

READ: Netanyahu reacts to Shtayyeh’s remarks on Hamas-PA Gaza partnership

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova was quoted by TASS Russian news agency on 6 December confirming that Lavrov will be discussing the war in Gaza and the overall situation in Palestine and the Middle East.

“The minister will pay special attention to the problem of Palestinian-Israeli settlement, of course, and security issues in the Middle East,” Zakharova said.

None of this, including the potential new Russian “vision” in the Middle East, would have been possible if it were not for the Israeli-US inability to defeat small Resistance groups in a tiny, besieged region like Gaza.

Aside from the setback of the Israeli military machine, which has been financed and sustained by Washington, the genocide in Gaza has cost the US whatever little political credibility it still enjoyed in the Middle East.

Time will tell whether Russia will be able to stake a claim and help define a new Middle East in the post-Gaza war.

However, one of the most important factors that Russia will consider before making any major moves is the tangible outcome of the Israeli war on Gaza.

And, unlike most Israeli wars against Palestinians and Arabs in the past, this time around, it seems that Palestinian resistance – despite its very limited capabilities in the face of a powerful Israel-US military machine – is the one most likely to control the outcomes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.