Observing without intervening:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Russian standpoint
by Ksenia Svetlova | June, 2021
Spotlight: Russia & The Middle East
During the 11 days of fighting in Gaza, Moscow preferred to observe the goings-on in the Middle East from afar, while hinting that the geographic vicinity to Russia could, in future, lead to a change in direction. Russia condemned the violence, urged both parties to reach a ceasefire, criticized Israel for "disproportionate use of force", and called for Hamas to stop firing at Israeli city centers. It even offered its mediation services (knowing well that this position is strongly occupied by Egypt). What Russia did not do during Operation Guardian of the Walls was roll up its sleeves and dive in headlong.
Since post-Soviet Russia was established, the national Palestinian issue and the promotion thereof never on top of Russian list of priorities. It has forged close relations with the FATAH Movement, headed by the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, as well as with AMAS , the leaders of which it has been hosting in its capital since the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council back in 2006. It has been treating many other places around the world in much the same way (Turkey and Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Israel, Iran and Hizballah, etc.). However, Palestinians do not receive any substantial financial or humanitarian aid. Also, despite being repeatedly asked to do so by senior officials from both groups, Russia makes no special effort to advance peace and negotiations between the parties.
Russia is well aware of the special relations between Israel and the United States, as well as Israel's preference to have an American mediator during negotiations (although this has not happened since 2014). However, it also views the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as unresolvable, and therefore unable to provide Moscow with too many points or substantial gains. Moreover, there is no certainty that active intervention on behalf of the Palestinians would have won Russia too many points in the Arab world, where many were content with issuing feeble condemnations, and certainly avoided expressing their support for Hamas' actions since it is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nevertheless, Moscow is hinting, primarily to Israel, that it is monitoring the Middle East closely. "The aggravated Palestinian-Israeli conflict is happening in the immediate vicinity of our borders", said President Putin, and his spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, explained that violence in the Middle East can also affect the security situation in the Russian Federation. At the time, when Russia joined the war in Syria, it used a similar excuse. The rise of radical Islam in the Middle East worries Russia because it affects its own Muslim areas in the Caucasus and post-Soviet republics. Alongside this view, Russia has close ties with several extreme Muslim movements – Hamas in Gaza and Hizballah in Lebanon. Is there a contradiction here? Russian statesmen think not, for they operate according to their map of interests first and foremost, not in accordance with an ideological outline of any kind.
The conclusion is clear: at present, Russia is not inclined to meddle in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as long as its chances of gaining from such involvement are slim at best. If and when this situation will change, Russia will not hesitate to take action. Judging by its current approach in the international institutions, where the Russian representative supported the version of the resolution that did not condemn nor demand the cessation of rocket firing from Gaza, Israel is expected to endure heavy pressure and sharp criticism.
In preparation for the Biden-Putin summit
The first personal meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is expected to take place in Switzerland in less than two weeks. in preparation for this summit, the two foreign ministers – Antony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov – met in Iceland's capital of Reykjavík this week. Since Biden won the U.S. presidential elections, the Biden-Blinken team have often criticized Russia, and Moscow expected their new approach to be far stricter than President Donald Trump's ever was.
Biden undoubtedly views Russia as a grave danger to his country and democracy at large, since human rights are so dear to his heart. For now, this issue probably will not change following Blinken and Lavrov's meeting, described as "tense but positive", or after the planned summit between Putin and Biden. The latter is determined to take consistent action to impede Russia's destructiveness with respect to its intervention in the elections and attempts to influence public opinion. He will probably also continue to impose more stringent sanctions on Russian companies, government agencies, and senior officials.
And what about the Nord Stream 2 project, the 1,200km gas pipeline designed to transport 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Vyborg in Russia to Greifswald in Germany? It was supposed to provide gas to 26 million households across the European Union while bypassing Ukrainian territory – which is of no lesser importance to Russia. This project is extremely important to the Kremlin, but also to Germany, the relations with which are critical to Biden's policy. This issue was not addressed during the Blinken-Lavrov meeting, but U.S. officials later explained that there was no shift in their policy – Congress has recently approved a sanction package against companies and sea vessels associated with the Russian project, and the U.S. views it as a Russian geopolitical project par excellence. Still, work on this endeavor is advancing in leaps and bounds, and it is scheduled to be operative by September 2021. Also, The US government has reportedly decided not to sanction the German company behind the gas pipeline.
Since 2014, Russia has established a "sanction-bypassing" economy for itself, even if this step has taken it several years back on scientific and technological levels. Over the last 12 months, together with other OPEC members, it has even managed to stabilize the prices of oil. The Nord Stream 2 project will push its wavering economy forward, and may even become a bone of contention among members of NATO, such as the United States and Germany, but others as well, like France, for instance, that expressed its great discontent with this project.
The question is how Biden will solve this conundrum – stopping Russia from advancing its premium geopolitical project, without harming the United States' important relations with Germany. Washington is holding talks with German government now, prior to Biden-Putin’s summit. Most likely, the US will take a final decision soon after German elections that are set to take place in September this year.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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