international analysis and commentary

Putin’s visit to the Middle East: new strategy or pilgrimage?

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Vladimir Putin paid a rare visit to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan at the end of June. The newly elected Russian President is often the source of deadlocked enigmas; surely this recent trip is one of those. In fact, although it occurred at a time of great upheaval in the Middle East, it resembles a private pilgrimage rather than an official state visit.

Some analysts interpret it as a symbolic and assertive statement: Russia is back in the Middle East and intends to act as a major player. Hence the visit aimed at partially re-positioning Russia as a proactive leader in the region, amidst declining US influence. In contrast, Echo Moskvy Editor-in-Chief Alexei Venediktov, who travelled with Putin to the Middle East, suggested an alternative analysis comparing Putin to Tsar Nicholas I. In other words, the main goal of the journey was to visit holy sights due to an alleged spiritual “revival” of the Russian President.  

The trip drew wide attention because of Russia’s stance on Syria. Despite the ongoing carnage, Russia still firmly opposes a military attack against Assad’s regime. During his visit to Israel, Putin reiterated the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a country. But, he also mentioned that this stance stems from the high risk of truly unpredictable consequences should an armed intervention fail and spread across the region. Since Moscow’s traditional influence in the Middle East has been highly affected after the Arab Spring and the Syrian crisis, indeed, the trip can be seen as an attempt to diversify Russia’s partners and allies in the region – above all Palestine and Jordan. At the same time, it showed that the Kremlin’s interests go beyond Syria.

The outcome of Putin’s meeting with the Jordanian leaders was very positive. The country shares similar views and might turn into a useful ally for Moscow in the Middle East. Likewise Russia is in fact concerned about the possibility of a spill-over of the conflict and  an escalation of violence in neighboring countries. Thus, King Abdullah underlined the need to find a political solution for the crisis that would maintain the unity and stability of Syria and put an end to the bloodshed. In addition, the two leaders discussed bilateral ties and prospects for further cooperation, especially in politics, economy, agriculture, tourism, transport and energy.

Syria was at the top of the agenda also during Putin’s visit with the Israeli authorities. President Simon Peres urged Russia to act on Syria since there is “a real danger that Syrian chemical weapons will reach the hands of Hezbollah and al Qaeda”. Nevertheless, as Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, wrote in a recent article, Israel understands that a power shift in Syria would entail negative consequences for the country, as any democracy will be much more hostile to Israel than Assad’s regime. The Israelis cannot control regime change in Syria, but to some extent Russia can. Israel would likely agree with Russia and tolerate the survival of the Assad regime as long as Syria does not become an Iranian satellite. Most likely, Israel would support regime change in Damascus should it become a precedent for military action against Iran.

With regards to Iran, the leaders faced instead a stumbling block. Putin used the “Syrian argument” to persuade Israel to refrain from any military attack. Specifically, he recalled the scenarios in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unpredictable consequences should a military attack be “hasty” or “rushed.” Such stance is partly driven by the legacy of NATO’s Libya campaign: in Russian eyes, NATO turned a UN resolution designed to protect civilians into a bombing campaign aimed at regime change. The role of NATO, more generally the West, as a “peacemaker” in the region remains highly discredited by the Russian government. Ultimately Putin conveyed a clear message: scenarios, both in Syria and Iran, could yet worsen should the status quo dramatically change.

Conversely, Syria was not on the agenda in the meeting with the Palestinian authorities. Abbas surprised Putin by announcing that the city of Bethlehem will name a street after him. Putin was also awarded the Palestinian Authority (PA) Medal of Honor, and the PA even refused to allow any demonstration against Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime. The meeting also reiterated good bilateral relations in various fields. For instance, Russia will continue to provide free higher education to Palestinian students; a special quota from the federal budget is assigned to provide for the education of Palestinian students in Russian universities;and recently a Russian science and cultural center opened in Bethlehem.

Having said that, it is interesting to note how Putin’s visit was not only centred on politics. On the presidential website pictures were published of Putin standing alone by holy sites, which is somewhat different from records of other state visits. The information aforementioned regarding Syria and Iran emerged predominantly in questions asked by journalists. In other words, considering the political upheaval in the Middle East, this rare visit lacked the political and strategic texture that many expected.

Venediktov suggested that the visit had a significant private component for the Russian leader and might be an indication of Russia’s internal affairs rather than foreign policy. A parallel can be drawn between Putin and the Tsar Nicholas I, who came into power during the turbulent years, did achieve some important objectives but towards the end of his reign faced a series of failures (defeat in the Crimean War, loss of Black Sea fleet, amongst others); he then entered a phase of religious zealousness, boosting orthodoxy and nationalism. It is early to assess the similarities but Putin will be almost certainly thinking in terms of his long-term legacy – more so than ever before.

Regardless of initial intentions, Putin’s visit showed on one hand the high expectations that the international community has of Russia’s new role in the Middle East; and on the other, Moscow’s symbolic attempt to move beyond the Syrian crisis in the context of a new evolving balance of power in the region.