President Putin's Middle East gambit

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

  • Published
People walk next to a monument commemorating the victory of the Soviet Red Army in World War Two in the coastal city of Netanya which will be unveiled by Mr PutinImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mr Putin will unveil a monument commemorating the Soviet Red Army's victory in World War II

Russian President Vladimir Putin's two-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories may be brief but it is full of symbolism.

Mr Putin will unveil a memorial to Russian soldiers of the Second World War at the coastal city of Netanya, a little north of Tel Aviv.

This marks the contribution of Russian troops to the defeat of Nazism. More than a million Russian Jews now live in Israel; Netanya itself has a significant Russian community.

Many of Israel's Russian immigrants retain links with their former country but few analysts believe that the Russian president has much to gain in domestic political terms from this visit.

Its significance comes more from its timing.

Mr Putin has re-gained the Russian presidency, the Middle East is in turmoil in the wake of the Arab Spring and Russia's close ties with Syria and Iran are proving problematic.

Hence the trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories will enable Russia to present a different facet of its Middle East policy.

New challenges

Russian foreign policy expert, Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Centre, says that in fact Vladimir Putin has a pretty close relationship with Israeli officials.

Indeed he describes him as "the most pro-Israeli Russian President since the end of Soviet Union".

"He wants Russia to be a player in the region. Given all the turmoil at the moment, Israel looks like the only place that it makes sense for Mr Putin to visit," says Mr Trenin.

"The Palestinian leg should also enhance Russia's prestige - Russia still has hopes of one day staging a Middle East Peace conference," he adds.

"It is member of the Middle East diplomatic steering group the Quartet, and it cares about how it is perceived."

Image source, AFP
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Russia feels threatened by the growing power of Islamism movements in the region, analysts say

Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia and now a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, says that President Putin's visit comes at a time when there is a reshuffling of power in the region.

"Russia is now viewing the Middle East as a cause of trouble," he says.

"Russia is finding itself challenged by the Islamists' rising power and is feeling isolated in the Arab world."

"The ouster of the secular regimes and their replacement by Islamists raises concern in Moscow," Mr Magen argues, "with the Kremlin fearing the events of the Arab Spring might inspire similar developments in Russia's soft belly - the Caucasus - and also inside its own territory."

In his view Russia has been "side-lined" into the role of a defender of the Shia camp.

"In addition, it views the geo-political activities of Turkey with some suspicion," he says.

A fine balance

In this new reality, Zvi Magen believes, part of Russia's interest is in changing its Middle East policy to seek out new partners.

Dmitri Trenin echoes this view, arguing that Russian foreign policy in general is in a constant state of balancing and re-balancing.

Mr Trenin discounts the idea that there are any domestic benefits for President Putin in this visit.

Though genuinely friendly towards the Jewish people, Mr Putin "values Israeli assessments of what is going on in the region, especially in Syria," Mr Trenin says.

"Mr Putin knows many Israeli leaders well - that cannot be said of his relations with many leaders in the Arab world," he notes.

Indeed, Mr Trenin asserts that the perceptions of Russia's closeness to the Assad regime in Damascus is not doing Mr Putin any favours in the region.

"Russia is on the map in Syria in quite the wrong way, so a visit to Israel may help to counterbalance that," he says.

Mr Magen agrees that inevitably Syria will be high on the agenda at this meeting.

Image source, AFP
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Russia's support for Syria's regime is harming its image with some in the region

Syria, he says, "is the most important Russian regional partner.

"Moscow sees it as an strategic base and also as a gateway to Iran. Together, they comprise Russia's anti-Western axis."

The former Israeli ambassador to Moscow believes though that there is some flexibility in the Russian position and that discussions in Israel could help to shift Russian positions on the Syrian crisis.

Red-button issues

Iran's nuclear programme will also be high on the agenda.

Russia has gone along with UN Security Council sanctions resolutions against Iran but seems unwilling to push these further.

Moscow insists upon a diplomatic resolution to the row with Tehran. Mr Putin will be eager to impress upon his Israeli hosts the need to refrain from military action.

The Israelis will be telling him that only tougher sanctions can keep up the diplomatic pressure on Tehran.

Beyond the red-button issues in international diplomacy, bilateral economic ties between Israel and Russia will also be discussed.

As Dmitri Trenin notes, technologically, "Israel a very advanced country. It is a major modernisation partner for Russia given that so many Israeli scientists speak Russian and come from Russia - this is one way to enhance relations."

Mr Magen points to Russia's growing interest in the energy fields off Israel's coast, something that could eventually develop into a multilateral relationship involving other Mediterranean countries, for example Cyprus.

The current instability in the Middle East prompts a cautious stance on the part of Moscow. But it is clear that this is something of a hinge moment for Russia.

Its old partnerships are under pressure or very much in decline. New relationships beckon but these are early days yet.