Under the radar last week, Vladimir Putin met with Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow. The meeting was not considered remarkable as Abbas has started to visit the Kremlin on an annual basis. The timing, though, corresponded with Putin’s definitely remarkable announcement Russia would reinitiate its sale of S-300 missiles to Iran. According to Sarah Fainberg of the Institute for National Security Studies, it is hard to ignore the correlation.
“The official announcement that Putin was lifting the ban happened a few hours after Russia received Abbas in Moscow. It might be just a coincidence. But at this level of decision-making, coincidences are rare. It is sending a message about Russia's intentions in the Middle East.”
Russia’s goals in the region have been opaque for analysts, even more so for people unfamiliar with Russian politics. Spokesman for the White House Josh Earnest belittled the Russians by suggesting the missile sale was all about badly needed currency.
But Fainberg says that that is hardly the entire picture. The money Russia would make from the deal is extremely limited and cannot hope to make a massive impact on a Russian economy in its sixth year of recession.
“Basically we often quote economic reasons and these are valid, real reasons. But the ultimate and decisive reason is of a geopolitical nature meaning Russia wants to ultimately redesign the Middle East to its best interests and this explains the intensification of its activities in the past weeks whether in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen or Iran. For Russia it is also about containing the spread of Sunni fundamentalism through its Southern borders. The number of Chechen fighters in Iraq and Syria has been on the rise.”
Abbas is an interesting point in the Russian approach to the region. While Russia is clearly closer to Iran and Syria than the Turks or Saudis, they are doing more outreach to the Palestinian Authority than Hamas, the latter being more closely aligned to Iran. That is indicative of a Russian effort to have influence in every place that it can, even to the point where it sometimes has to make choices that will inversely upset one country while benefiting another.
How would Putin “redesign” the strategic layout of the region? By running Russian interests through what it perceives as the potentially most powerful country in the Middle East: Iran.
“What Russia is suggesting is that it wants to redesign the Middle East around a single superpower, which is Iran and through this settle a number of crises: Yemen, Syria and Iraq; paradoxically also the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [Foreign Minister] Lavrov last week made a clear, although for us paradoxical, linkage between Iran and the Palestinian issue.”
“Their attitude is along the lines of ‘Having Iran as a strong power will have a stabilizing effect on the entire Middle East and ultimately on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’”
“They want to be a key player and the way to do it is to remain Iran’s first and exclusive ally. Strengthening Iran and approaching the Palestinians is part of this same vision, the same package. They are using this to be a moderator or mediator of those conflicts thereby enhancing their leverage across the region and with the West.”
Will Russia Moderate Iran’s Position?
This begs the question then; might Russia want Iran to moderate its position toward Israel? The suggestion has come up the US hopes this deal is the beginning of an opening up for Iran. Might Russia be hoping for the same?
“Russia doesn’t want Iran to become nuclear. This is the whole paradox. At the practical level, Russia is a major exporter of nuclear power plants in the area. Russia constantly condemns the spread of WMD in the Middle East (referring to Israel's nuclear power) while selling weapons throughout the region.”
“I don’t think Russia sees Iran as a stabilizer for Israel though, that’s for sure. But I think they have a very compartmentalized look at this. They want to keep Iran as a partner, but they also do not want Iran to become a nuclear threat to its neighbors while also not hurting its relationship with Israel.”
Despite this, Russia still respects the strength Israel has and its ability to act.
“They know that Israel is a military superpower and are wary of what Israel’s potential is to respond to threats. Russia also has a better understanding of the nuances in the area than the Americans do, since the late Soviet period they have a very sophisticated school of Middle East experts.”
Russia still values the relationship it has built for itself with Israel since the fall of the Soviet Union. As it is, Russia’s views of the Middle East might not be getting out to Israelis, though they might be little consolation in view of weapons sales to Iran or Syria.
“For Russia, there are four main regional powers in the area: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel. They have good relations with all four. It’s paradoxical to see the level of bilateral trade between Russia and Israel was double the size of Russian-Iranian trade.”
“Another reason they act that way is because they believe Israel’s ally the US is a completely irresponsible actor in the area.They strive to contain and stop the explosion of violence by non-state actors which according to Russia developed because of US’ irresponsible alliance-making in the region.”
“Yet we still don’t have complete clarity of Russia’s decisions.”