For the first time in seven years President Vladimir Putin took off on an official visit to the Middle East this week. But this is no ordinary trip: visiting both Israel and Muslim states and seeking close Israeli cooperation while maintaining Russia’s policy toward Syria and Iran, Putin has had to strike an ever delicate balance. Balancing foes on either side seems like a difficult task, but experts suggest it might prove to be easier than it looks.
Putin first flew to Israel on Monday, where he attended an unveiling ceremony for a monument dedicated to Soviet soldiers who repelled the Nazi onslaught in World War II. He also met with his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Russia and Israel share a slew of common ground: not only are they keen on economic and military cooperation with one another, but Israel is also home to more than a million Russian-speaking Jews.
But then, of course, there’s the whole “Syria and Iran thing.” Russia’s tacit support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on dissent, as well as its protection of Iran’s nuclear program – which the West believes is designed to cultivate a nuclear weapon – has put Russia into a tight spot. Israel, for its part, is vehemently opposed to both regimes; talk has even arisen among the Israeli leadership of a possible strike against Iran if international negotiations, meant to stop the regime’s enrichment of uranium, fail.
For this reason, some observers say, Putin’s visit was likely more about PR than about business. As the West, along with Israel, has long decried both the Syrian and Iranian regimes for their intransigence, Russia has largely stood by stubbornly, often insisting on moral grounds that foreign countries have no right to mettle in other nations’ domestic affairs. So when in Jerusalem – and sensing the need to balance out Russian interests in the Middle East – Putin put on his best diplomatic face and, it seems, the trick largely worked.
Not only did Putin and Netanyahu claim that their talks on Syria and Iran were productive and friendly, but Russia is set to continue cooperation with Israel on a slew of projects, from energy and agriculture to the space industry. According to RIA Novosti, Russia could even open a GLONASS satellite navigation station in Israel as early as next year. Moreover, all signs point to a burgeoning trade relationship between the two countries, which has grown rapidly in the last decade. In 2011, Russian-Israeli trade reached about $3 billion – itself a nearly 11 percent increase from the previous year, Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s aid on foreign affairs, said during the visit.
In fact, experts say, Russia and Israel may be less at odds than it seems. According to foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, besides the Iran issue, Israel is in many ways “much closer to Russia than any Arab countries,” given their common views on how to tackle Islamic terrorism and the profitable cultural and financial cooperation Russia and Israel share. Even on Iran, which remains a non-starter between the two, Russia seems committed to keeping an ear to Israel’s line of argument: “It’s very important for Russia to understand under what conditions Israel can take a decision to strike [Iran], because any destabilization in this region has the potential to spill over into neighboring regions, like the South Caucasus,” Lukyanov said.
Lukyanov also noted that Putin’s regional tour, which included brief stops on Tuesday in Palestine and Jordan, was aimed in large part at the Arab world as well. It was meant to deliver a message of cooperation rather than confrontation – and to iron out the rift over Syria that had pushed many Arab countries away from Russia. “The sense of this visit is to show that despite Syria, Russia is ready to work with the Arab world and is interested in helping to discuss the most touchy issue: Palestine’s future,” he said. “[Putin wants] to show that Russia cares about Arab issues as well.”
International media also pitched the visit as a bid to reassert the Russian presence in the Middle East. Since Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s toppling and the growing uncertainty over Assad’s future in Syria, many have claimed Russia’s role in the region has been thrown into question. Yet analysts say this is largely a misnomer, and that Russia has in fact wielded little influence there since the end of the Cold War. This, in turn, leaves little to either save or rebuild, said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow-based Institute for Middle Eastern Studies.
“What does ‘influence’ really mean? No one, except India and Indonesia, has paid back Soviet military or civilian debts,” he said, referring to Russia’s waning “Soviet-style influence” in the Middle East, in which the regime flooded the region with funds but with little tangible returns. “Is it influence? Russia has a very, very small interest in the whole Arab world, and even in the whole Muslim world.”