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Russia Is the Loser in the Israel-Hamas War

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In the fall of 2012, I took part in an open discussion at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on Russia’s role in the Middle East. In her presentation, an experienced American diplomat focused on how Russia was a spent force that would never be able to recapture the Soviet Union’s prominence in the region. With few dissenting voices, the discussion was remarkable for how off-base it was: It was exactly then that Moscow was starting to reemerge as a major player in Syria and across the entire region.

In the fall of 2012, I took part in an open discussion at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on Russia’s role in the Middle East. In her presentation, an experienced American diplomat focused on how Russia was a spent force that would never be able to recapture the Soviet Union’s prominence in the region. With few dissenting voices, the discussion was remarkable for how off-base it was: It was exactly then that Moscow was starting to reemerge as a major player in Syria and across the entire region.

Today, Russia’s influence in the Middle East is at another inflection point. Hobbled by its disastrous invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s declining relevance in the region has been thrown into sharp relief by Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Whereas Moscow was central to the diplomacy surrounding the civil war in Syria 10 years ago, Russia’s push in the U.N. Security Council for a cease-fire in Gaza gained little traction. The contrast is emblematic for the end of Moscow’s decade-long comeback in the region.

Even before regaining the Russian presidency in May 2012, Vladimir Putin was determined to return Russia to a prominent role in the Middle East, which he likely believed was necessary for Russia to be a great power. Criticizing then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to abstain on the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya, which Putin likened to the medieval crusades, he appeared bent on preventing the West from ever having a free hand again. And as the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011 and intensified in 2012, the Kremlin took a hard line opposing any U.N. action, fearing a replay of events in Libya.

It was amid the Syrian war that Moscow charted its course to renewed significance in the Middle East. Putin made his first major move there in September 2013. With the United States preparing for an armed intervention after the Syrian regime crossed the “red line” publicly announced by then-President Barack Obama and used chemical weapons on its own people, Putin devised a diplomatic compromise, whereby Russia promised to help eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Two years later, Russia cemented its renewed position in the region by militarily intervening in Syria. In less than a year, Moscow’s forces turned the tide of the war and secured Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s rule—a success Putin would parlay into influence across the region. With its firm hold in Syria, Russia became central to regional diplomacy from Ankara to Riyadh to Cairo. Working with Iran and Hezbollah on the battlefield in Syria, Moscow’s relations with Tehran began to warm. Forced to take account of Russian military forces next door—especially the Russian air defense units that could potentially ground the Israeli air force—Israel increasingly engaged Moscow. Iraq and Egypt sought Russian intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation. Soon, Russia-backed forces began to arrive in Libya to intervene in that civil war as well.

Moscow used its new entree in the region to posture itself as an alternative to the United States, leveraging discontent with Washington to boost its influence. In Turkey, Moscow capitalized on perceptions of Western support for the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016 as well as persistent clashes over U.S. cooperation with Kurdish forces in Syria that Ankara considers terrorist groups. In Egypt, Putin used the Obama administration’s concerns after the overthrow of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government by the Egyptian military in 2013 to develop warm relations with new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In Israel, Putin took advantage of the icy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to further boost ties with Israel. In Saudi Arabia, Putin made an early bet on the ambitious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, demonstratively shaking his hand at the G-20 summit in 2018, just a month after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi government operatives.

Moscow’s interest-based approach and skillful diplomacy helped it successfully navigate regional cleavages. Russian policy has been pragmatic and even cynical, unmoored to ideology or values such as democracy. Russia was able to simultaneously improve ties with Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. It managed to engage the Turkish government and Kurdish groups in Syria, deftly avoiding the criticisms that Ankara levied at Washington.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, however, initiated a gradual unraveling of the Kremlin’s influence in the Middle East. First, Russia’s unprovoked attack tarnished its international standing, making it a less appealing alternative to play off against Washington. Cairo, for example, facing pressure from Washington, agreed to halt planned shipments of weapons to Russia that would have supported its war in Ukraine. Ankara has reportedly eschewed purchasing another batch of Russia’s S-400 air defense system, likely concluding that playing the Russia card with Washington is now less credible and effective.

Moscow’s leverage in its relationships with key states in the region has also been reversed. Whereas Russia was able to impose painful sanctions on Turkey in response to the latter’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in 2015 and eventually force Erdogan to apologize, Russia is now reliant on Turkey as a conduit for the transshipment of goods to circumvent Western sanctions. Russian aircraft are now routed through Istanbul and Dubai to avoid European airspace restrictions. Moscow is buying Iranian-made armed drones and even building a factory to produce Iran-licensed drones in Russia.

Finally, Moscow has weakened its military and security presence in the Middle East. While Russia still maintains a key naval and air base in Syria, it has reduced some of its forces and equipment there to support military operations in Ukraine. To feed its struggling war machine, Russia has even recruited Syrian fighters. Although Russia maintains a presence in Libya through what was the Wagner paramilitary group, it has reportedly also redeployed forces from the group to help fight in Ukraine. Russia’s ability to project power in the region is also hamstrung by the fact that Moscow would be hard-pressed to reinforce its presence in a crisis or should its forces there be challenged, given Russia’s commitments in Ukraine.

Hamas’s vicious attack against Israeli civilians and Israel’s sharp response are likely to mark a point of no return for Russia’s waning influence in the Middle East. Russia-Israel ties had already been strained by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Putin’s response to the crisis in Gaza has likely made things worse. Blaming U.S. policy, Moscow has refrained from explicitly condemning Hamas’s attack. Moscow’s reticence to weigh in on Israel’s side has not gone unnoticed, with a politician from Netanyahu’s party going on Russian state TV to lambaste Russia’s response. While Putin has likely damaged his personal ties with Netanyahu, bilateral relations would likely deteriorate even further if the latter were to leave office as a result of the crisis in Gaza.

Moscow’s past importance as a mediator among Palestinian groups is also likely to dissipate. Russia has refrained from recognizing Hamas as a terrorist group and sought to facilitate reconciliation among Palestinian groups as a key step toward peace and the creation of a Palestinian state. Hamas officials have visited Moscow several times during the past decade, including just last month. But even if Hamas manages to survive Israel’s ongoing ground invasion of Gaza, intra-Palestinian reconciliation may not be a priority for the Middle East peace process in the foreseeable future.

The Israel-Hamas war is also likely to make it more difficult for Russia to navigate regional rivalries, particularly given its warming ties with Tehran. While Moscow would probably prefer to avoid picking a side between Israel and Iran, attempts to maintain neutrality amid sharpening conflict would probably just create friction with both. If forced to choose, Moscow would probably decide based on its view of the impact on the war in Ukraine, the frame through which Putin is viewing all international challenges now. The Kremlin would need to decide whether Iranian weapons are more critical for Russia—or whether the priority is maintaining influence with Israel in order to dissuade it from providing arms to Ukraine.

An escalation of the crisis to a broader regional fight directly involving Iran—which seems unlikely now but remains possible—would make Russia’s impotence obvious to all. Despite its bases in Syria, Russia’s military presence is insufficient to shape events. When challenged in the past, Russia has chosen to back down, as it did in 2018 when the United States launched punitive airstrikes against Syrian targets. Russia simply does not have the leverage to forge a compromise or lead negotiations. Even with states with which Moscow has good relations—Iran and Saudi Arabia—it was Beijing that brokered the normalization of relations between the two.

Certainly, the Israel-Hamas war is a welcome development for Moscow, distracting international attention from Russia’s own war in Ukraine and potentially forcing the United States to make decisions about prioritizing security assistance to Israel or Ukraine. Washington’s full-throated support for Israeli military operations has also created some uncomfortable comparisons with Russia’s own attacks in Ukraine. But Washington’s own-goals with the Arab world or the broader global south do not necessarily accrue to Moscow’s account.

Ultimately, the crisis precipitated by Hamas’s large-scale attack on Israel could help determine the future of the Middle East. Moscow, however, is unlikely to have much of a role in shaping it—if it has any at all. There is not likely to be another Madrid Conference. Whereas Russia was central to the discussions around the Syrian civil war a decade ago, the future trajectory of the Middle East is likely to emerge from the Gaza crisis without any significant input from Moscow.

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