Current turmoil in Middle East producing one winner: Putin

Current turmoil in Middle East producing one winner: Putin
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Tensions between Israel and Iran have escalated, and this month, they spilled into a military exchange in Syria between the two countries. The final outcome of this escalation has yet to play itself out. Yet, so far it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who is coming out as the winner.

For the Kremlin, tensions between anyone — whether friends or foes — present opportunities for weakening both sides, and thus strengthen Moscow’s position by comparison. Putin likely views current tensions between Israel and Iran in the same vein.

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While he would prefer these current tensions to simmer rather than boil over, as U.S. policy in the region remains confused, much as it has in previous years, it is easy for Moscow to continue to step in and present itself as a “peacemaker” that can talk to everyone.

 

As strains between Israel and Iran mounted during earlier months, the Kremlin ostensibly took a neutral position, even as it was clear that in reality Moscow leaned closer to Iran, its main regional partner, while Russia’s relations with Israel grew strained. 

For example, in February, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry urged “restraint on all sides,” but failed to acknowledge Israel’s legitimate reasons for resorting to strikes.

Following Israel’s airstrikes at Syria’s T-4 base on April 9, Moscow (which outed Israel in the first place, likely because Putin was angry Israel did not notify Moscow first) said it might sell the S-300 system to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Yet, following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest trip to Moscow and Israel’s military operation in Syria, Putin backed off the S-300 sale to Syria — at least for now, though the Kremlin was quick to point out publicly that Netanyahu’s visit had nothing to do with the decision. In the days ahead, Moscow appeared to have shifted its position on Iran.

When Assad flew to Sochi and met with Putin on May 17, Putin reportedly said that “in connection with the significant victories and success of the Syrian army in the fight against terrorism…foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later clarified that Putin meant those troops that are in Syria “de facto illegally from the point of view of the international legal regime.” 

Typically, the Kremlin would not consider Iran to be in Syria illegally, but Peskov’s statement allowed for ambiguity, as he named only one country — Russia — that is in Syria “legally.”

Alexander Lavrientiev, Putin’s Syria envoy, further explained that Putin aimed his comment at the U.S., Turkey, Iran and Hezbollah. But while Lavrientiev’s comment provoked an angry response from Tehran, Lavrientiev added that Putin’s comment is more of a “political statement” than a beginning of an actual withdrawal.  

In this context, it is highly unlikely that Putin will put any serious pressure on Iran, but a weakened Iran in the Middle East would be to his advantage, as it would eliminate a potentially serious rival, while an Israel that knows there are limits to its power and beholden to Putin would only raise his regional standing. 

The Kremlin views relationships through a power-dynamics prism, and it prefers dependent subjects to equal partners. In this context, genuine peace is not in Putin’s interest, nor is he truly capable of real mediation.

His hostility to Western democratic values presents a less immediate, but serious challenge to Israel’s democracy in the long run. The Middle East is volatile and unpredictable, but without a strong and coherent American presence, Putin appears far more likely to come out with a stronger position in the region. 

Anna Borshchevskaya is the Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.