Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel on June 25 drew significant attention among analysts and observers of the Middle East. Apart from being his first state visit since retaking the presidency, Putin arrived in Israel at an exceptionally critical political phase in the region. Indeed, the visit was arranged right after Putin’s reinstatement last May, and so at least part of the agenda was set, given events in Syria, Egypt and the resumption of talks over Iran’s nuclear programme.
It is worth noting that while Israel and Russia seem to have different agendas concerning many regional and international issues, the fact is that their interests are not always opposed. On the contrary, they seem to have identical objectives, a close look would reveal.
On Syria, for example, until recently, the positions of the two countries were almost identical. Both Russia and Israel oppose the removal of the Syrian regime and fear that its demise will almost certainly lead to the ascendance of Islamist forces. Moscow and Tel Aviv share the view that the rising power of Islamism in the Middle East and Central Asia constitutes a major political and security threat.
On Egypt, Russia and Israel were among few world states to openly stand against the Egyptian revolution and oppose the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak. It is significant that the last foreign dignitary to visit Mubarak during his waning days as president was Russia’s special envoy to the Middle East, who conveyed to his host Moscow’s full support.
Ironically, Russia took this position at a time when Mubarak’s western allies, namely the US and France, were publically calling him to step down. Here too, the fear of the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power was the key determinant of Israeli and Russian policies on Egypt.
Fear and suspicion
On Iran, while the Russian and Israeli policies seem to be poles apart, they eventually converge. Indeed, Israel considers Iran as a major geopolitical threat. It vehemently oppose the acquirement of nuclear weapons by Tehran and seems to be willing to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Russia, on the other hand, is Iran’s main international backer. It supplies Tehran with technical, military and other kinds of assistance. Yet, Russia’s policy on Iran is misleading. On the long run, Russia views Iran as a potential threat and seeks to prevent it from acquiring military nuclear capabilities.
Russia watches Iran’s rising influence in Central Asia and the Gulf with fear and suspicion and does everything to curtail it. In addition, Moscow considers Iran as a major rival in the energy market. It has always sought to prevent Tehran from becoming a major supplier of oil and gas to Turkey and Europe.
Given their historical animosity, Russia does not have a love relationship with the Iranian regime. It merely uses Iran as a bargaining ship with the western powers to extract concessions on more pressing issues, such as the US missile shield in Eastern Europe. Russia is seeking to keep Tehran as a thorn in the US side more than being interested in building it as a regional hegemon. In brief, Russia is as much concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as Israel and will do its best to prevent this probability.
On Turkey, Russia is absolutely alarmed by the AKP government’s efforts to seize on the opportunity presented by the Arab Spring to further its influence in the Middle East, the Balkan, Central Asia and Caucasia. With Turkey marketing itself as a model of Liberal Islam and with the ascendance of Islamist forces in all of the Arab countries which have so far witnessed change, Turkey is set to gain most.
For Moscow, if Turkey manages to instate a friendly regime in Damascus, the balance of power in a region that stretches from Central Asia to the Middle East and from the Balkan and Caucasia to the Gulf will be fundamentally shifted in Turkey’s favour. Turkey is hence seen by Russia as major regional rival. For Putin it presents more threat on the short run than Iran does.
Israel views the policies of the Islamically-oriented government of Prime Minister Erdogan more or less through the same lens. Since the arrival of the AKP to power in November 2002, Israeli-Turkish relations have turned sour. In the light of these complications, Turkey’s rising regional influence is seen in Tel Aviv as a matter of great concern.
Having said that; Putin must have discovered many common interests during his talks with his Israeli counterpart.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon.