Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 18 October 2023. © Richard Kemp
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Putin is seeking to exploit the war between Israel and Hamas. This week alone he has been on the telephone to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, and the leaders of Egypt, Syria and Iran, claiming he wants to negotiate a ceasefire. The man responsible for spilling vast quantities of blood around the world, and especially in Ukraine, now says: ‘What matters now is to stop the bloodshed.’
If the Russian president thinks his intervention will make any difference, however, he is deluding himself. The idea that Moscow could any longer hold significant sway in the Middle East is farcical. Whatever reputation it had as a world power has been shattered in Ukraine. We’ve seen yet more reasons why this week.
On Tuesday, Kyiv’s surprise ATACMS long-range missile strike against Russian airfields in occupied Berdyansk and Luhansk sent Russian forces reeling – some are calling it the most significant strike by the Ukrainians in months. The Russians reportedly suffered significant losses and will be forced to move aircraft further away from the front line – operationally damaging as well as publicly humiliating. In the area of Kupyansk, meanwhile, Ukrainian forces appear to have blunted a significant Russian offensive – a miniature blitzkrieg – that had been building for weeks.
Although Putin’s forces have adapted and expanded from their lowest point last autumn, it bears repeating that his army remains in dire straits 18 months on from the three-week campaign planned for February last year. Russia is still heavily constrained, both economically and militarily, and has limited freedom of action beyond its all-consuming war.
As such, Middle Eastern countries, once impressed by Russian prowess – or at least the illusion of it – have seen Moscow’s failure to subjugate a markedly less powerful state and its accompanying debasement on the battlefield as a sign that it is a declining power. In Syria, for example, where Putin once held great sway following his support of the monstrous dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russia is losing traction, not least because it has had to redeploy some of its forces to Ukraine.
The Wagner Group, the critical force that gave Moscow such a grip over the region, has been largely neutered following its late leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny against the Kremlin. Growing Chinese influence has also helped to undermine Moscow’s relevance, and its close relationship with Iran has been met with suspicion in many Arab countries. Whatever Putin might wish, the idea that Russia can still shape the Middle East is finished.
Nevertheless, it may be that Putin sees the events in Israel as a golden opportunity to clasp back victory from the jaws of defeat. Certainly, there is evidence that, in the short term, he will end up as a net beneficiary of Hamas’s bloody slaughter and the war that has exploded in its wake. American attention has shifted sharply from Ukraine to the Middle East – necessary, perhaps, in this combustible situation, but something that many believe will work to Russia’s advantage.
Added to that, Putin will relish another foreign policy dilemma for Joe Biden as election season wears on. If America seeks to restrain Israel as it fights what it perceives to be its toughest war since it was established in 1948 (I am currently there and can attest to this strength of feeling), it will be deeply unpopular among some sections of the American electorate. At the same time, support for Israel will draw intense criticism from others.
Much to Moscow’s delight, Biden’s dream of a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia and his election-boosting place as a peacemaker also lies in ruins. But all this may seem like chicken feed if Hezbollah further intensifies its assaults against Israel from Lebanon and Syria, drawing the West into a lengthy, multi-front war, potentially including a direct confrontation with Iran. Then all bets are off.
While it is far from inconceivable that Putin foresaw an advantage in destabilising the region, perhaps encouraging his ally and weapons-supplier Iran into pressing its proxies – Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon – into violent aggression, what might sound like strategic genius looks as if it might end up as yet another geopolitical disaster for Russia. If Tehran and Moscow were coordinating their actions, especially in Syria and Iraq, as part of a joint effort to push Washington out of the region, this has seriously backfired.
US carrier strike groups are now steaming across the Mediterranean, with America reluctantly set to engage again in the region after the Iran-compliant pivot away from the Middle East initiated under Obama that continued under Biden. If anything, at the present moment – as the West rallies around Israel – Russia is even more of an outsider than before.
Russia has long been a toxic influence in the Middle East, but – as with Ukraine – it has now got more than it bargained for. It can pretend all it wants to be a major player in what unfolds, but in reality it can have little influence over what is about to happen. If it sees this crisis as being the means to win the war in Ukraine, then it is a pipe dream: the kind only a desperate dictator could conjure.
Image: Wikimedia Commons