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Why isn’t Russia involved in the Gaza war?

April 18, 2024 at 2:23 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting via video link with members of the government in Moscow, Russia on 04 April, 2024 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

America’s failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to its self-sufficiency in terms of energy resources, led to a consensus forming within Washington over the past decade, both Democratic and Republican alike, towards gradually reducing the US military presence and political investment in the Middle East. This gradual decline of the US role, the resulting power vacuums and the fracture of state institutions in Syria, Libya and Sudan, have enabled Russia to return to the region, having been absent since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, and watching US domination between the war to liberate Kuwait in 1991 and the attacks of 11 September, 2001.

The two disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq exhausted Washington’s military and political capabilities, with extremely negative repercussions on its image across the Arab and Islamic world.

The door was open for Russia to return.

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, latterly, Israel’s military offensive against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the American drawback enabled Moscow to boost its presence in the Middle East and North Africa. This went beyond its relationship with Iran and alliance with Syria — and the military and security implications that both imply — to greater openness towards economic and commercial cooperation, arms exports and offers to export nuclear energy technology to Egypt, the Gulf, Iraq and Algeria. Russia supported its re-emergence as a major power in the region through its proxy military intervention (through the Wagner mercenary company) in some of the fighting that has been raging in Libya for years and in Sudan since last year.

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While the enemies of the US, such as Iran and Syria, welcomed the expansion of Russia’s role in order to limit American pressure on the Iranian nuclear project and enable Moscow’s reintegration into the region, some Arab countries do not want to lose their relations with the US in order to develop links with Russia. Nor do they want to be pushed to choose between the superpower with the largest military presence in the region, the US, and a returning superpower that has traditional military and security footholds and does not mind exporting weapons and energy technology to fill the gaps in the security arrangements of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa; Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in using the disastrous results of US foreign policy since 2001 in order to reformulate his country’s role in the region over and above its traditional influence in Iran and Syria. Moscow has presented itself to the Middle East as a stabilising force seeking military, security, economic and commercial cooperation with all governments in the region, without asking them to choose between itself and Washington. Russia let the US impose restrictions on arms exports to the region, and offered its own weapons without conditions.

We have also seen Russia take advantage of US hesitancy towards security issues in the Middle East by projecting a new image of an ally ready to offer direct military and security intervention to defend its friends, such as Syria, for example); an ally that can also influence developments and outcomes of the ongoing conflicts in the region, such as in Libya. It also portrayed itself as not being opposed to diplomatic solutions to end conflicts, as it did with Iran and Turkiye with regard to Syria, and with Egypt, the UAE, Turkiye and France regarding Libya. New tools have been made available to promote this positive image, the most notable of which are Arabic-language TV channels.

Russia’s intervention in Syria did not prevent it from forming a strategic relationship with Israel. Nor did its closeness to the occupation state prevent it from maintaining strong ties with Iran. Likewise, its cooperation and coordination with Israel and Iran did not prevent Moscow from exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Turkiye, or from increasing its cooperation with them all and Algeria in North Africa.

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Instead, Russian decision-makers succeeded in developing alliances based on mutual interests with Middle Eastern governments regarding global energy prices, which Moscow and the Gulf capitals want to maintain at their current high level to support their budgets. They combined this with an agreement with Egypt and Algeria to build nuclear reactors with funding and technology from Russia.

Based on this, we can say that the clear strategic goal of Russia in the Middle East and North Africa is not to allow the US to dominate the region. The second goal is to push towards the creation of a new security system in which all the great powers participate, including Russia and China alongside influential regional parties.

It is clear that Russia presents itself as an alternative global power whose policies do not fluctuate with changes of administrations, and which is capable of military and security cooperation and coordination regarding energy prices in a manner that is distinct from the traditional conflict lines between Israel and Iran; Iran and the Gulf states; and Turkiye and many Arab parties.

It was no surprise that Iran and Syria aligned themselves with Russia, refused to condemn the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and refrained from implementing Western sanctions. However, the shock for the US came as its friends in the Middle East moved away from explicitly condemning Russia and from implementing sanctions. The governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Turkiye, and even Israel, all refused to act against Russia.

Moreover, the governments of the GCC countries rejected pressure from the Biden administration to raise their oil and natural gas production rates to reduce the current energy prices, thus enabling Russia to maintain its high revenues from energy exports.

Russia, therefore, reaped some of the fruits of these alliances of convenience with the governments of the Middle East and the fruits of its pragmatic policies that did not set conditions for cooperation with everyone and worked to present a new image of a strong Russia capable of military intervention, exporting weapons and technology, and providing security promises.

This new image is reminiscent of the influential Soviet Union’s presence in the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century. Today, Russia is being placed on the scene of regional events as a superpower that influences the course of affairs in Iran and Syria and refuses to get involved in the Israeli offensive in Gaza, apart from some diplomatic efforts in the UN Security Council to get a ceasefire and some attempts at coordination between the Palestinian factions.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Ayyam on 16 April 2024

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