When it comes to the Israel-Gaza war, Russia is playing a game of chess

Moscow's diplomatic position may appear to be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli, but it is far more nuanced than it appears

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, left, speaks sitting next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a meeting about Gaza in Moscow last November. AP
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Russian diplomacy has given the impression of remaining on the sidelines of the Israel-Gaza war. The Kremlin has so far stuck to its usual statements, in line with its historic support for the Palestinian cause and its condemnation of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, going so far in October last year as to compare the blockade of Gaza to the siege of Leningrad by Nazi troops.

In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin waited several days before calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express his condolences after the October 7 attacks. Not only was Russian condemnation of Hamas never unequivocal, the group sent a delegation to Moscow for talks within a month of the crisis beginning.

This diplomatic position may appear to be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli, but it is far more nuanced than it appears. Russia’s main concern, like that of the US, has been to prevent a general conflagration in the Middle East. This explains why Moscow, like Washington, has repeatedly called for calm.

Since January 18, Russian and Syrian aircraft have been patrolling the occupied Golan Heights, above the Bravo Line that separates Syrian territory from that occupied by the Israeli army. The message from Moscow appears twofold.

First, it could be seen as a gesture to the regime in Damascus – a reminder of Russian loyalty in a time of great instability. Second, it could be a message to Russia’s Iranian ally, whose armed groups have been active along the Abu Kamal-Al Mayadeen-Deir Ezzor axis. Moscow is keen to keep a close eye on the activities of these groups and prevent them from getting out of control. Russian forces in Syria have set up several checkpoints on the outskirts of the Golan Heights, in the area around Al Quneitra. The aim is to monitor developments on the Israeli border and act as a de facto buffer.

The Kremlin is banking on the erosion of America’s influence in the region

Russia’s policy is based on managing complexity. In the case of Gaza, it must manage two contradictory dossiers: the Palestinian territories, where old-timers remember the erstwhile USSR’s support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation during the Yasser Arafat years, and Israel, a country of emigration for Ashkenazi Jews and a rival power to Syria.

Moscow knows that it cannot propose itself as a sponsor of a peace process, at least not right now. Rather, it is banking on the erosion of America’s influence in the region. Some Russian strategists, notably Timofey Bordachev of the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based think tank, foresee a US strategic failure because of its domineering behaviour as well as its unwavering support for Israel, and worse, its inability to rein in the Israeli government’s military operation in Gaza.

Even as the US and Britain launched air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen, Russia proposed an alternative route along its Arctic coast to offset the risk of a Red Sea blockade. Last month, Russian diplomacy opened the way for talks involving Iran, Turkey and Lebanon to resolve the Middle East conflict, including an attempt to curb clashes between Hezbollah and the Israeli army. Paradoxically, if these talks are successful, Israel may welcome a cessation of hostilities on that front.

Moreover, Russian diplomacy has insisted on maintaining the timetable for the Astana Process talks, which enable Moscow to bring together the warring parties in the Syrian conflict without western presence. Even though the last round of talks – in Nur Sultan, the Kazakh capital, last month – achieved little beyond condemning the Israeli operation in Gaza, the process has the merit of existing at a time when its UN counterpart has virtually ground to a halt.

As one of the first consequences of the war in Gaza, the unity of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation was renewed at a summit in Riyadh last November. Even the countries with the deepest reservations about Iran’s support for Hamas expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian people. It won’t be surprising if the unanimous rejection of Israel’s military response was interpreted in Moscow as a rejection of the US-Israel tandem.

The Kremlin makes no secret of its aim: it seeks the closure of US bases in the Middle East and the roll-back of Washington’s influence in the region. There is little doubt that Russian diplomats will be closely following the talks between Washington and Baghdad about the complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. The future of the Abraham Accords will also be closely monitored, particularly on how they hold up in the aftermath of the Gaza war.

For now, Arab perceptions of Moscow’s diplomacy, especially its relationship with Tehran, remain nuanced. There are questions about the solidity – real or perceived – of the alliance between Russia and Iran, with Tehran-backed militias continuing to conduct operations against Israel. The Emirates Policy Centre, for instance, notes that Moscow-Tehran relations have been stormy in the past. Even today, ideological differences remain, as Russia rejects calls for the “total annihilation of the state of Israel”.

There is also a perception that this is an open diplomatic game. If we were to compare Moscow to a chess player, we’d say that it is making one move at a time, without haste, as it continues to expand its influence in dealing with Iran, Israel and key Arab powers, as well as in Syria.

Meanwhile, its actions at the UN Security Council are indicative of its ability to manoeuvre.

On January 10, when the US introduced Resolution 2722 to attack Houthi infrastructure, Russia did not veto it. It was clear that the air operations that were about to begin would create a negative image of western “policing” of commercial interests in the Red Sea throughout the Arab world. The West could not have remained inactive in the face of the Houthi attacks, and Russia could not have been seen to take advantage of the situation.

It is said that chess is the art of thinking ahead and anticipating the opponent’s next move. When it comes to Moscow’s Gaza and Middle East policy, an old Russian proverb sums it up best: “The slower you drive, the further you go.”

Published: February 07, 2024, 4:00 AM