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Thursday, February 11, 2016
- As the Palestinian unity government announced June 2 receives a cautious welcome from many world leaders, Russia’s support for the new body is providing the Kremlin with an opportune platform to pursue its foreign policy ambitions and strengthen its domestic ideology.
Russia is one of the four members of the Middle East Quartet – along with the European Union, the United States and the United Nations – working on the Israeli-Palestine peace process and has pledged its, albeit cautious, support for the new body.
But with seven years of internal conflict having been brought to an end with the formation of the unity government, Russia is now likely to be looking to emphasise its role as peace broker in the Middle East to gain influence not just in the region, but in other areas torn by internal conflict, experts say.
Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director of Research and Consultancy at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), told IPS: “Russia could use this unity government as a platform to push its position on a number of issues in the region.”
“The Kremlin and the Russian Defence Ministry are beginning to make large inroads into the region, capitalising on perceived Western mistakes to win over countries on issues that are up in the air.”
For more than a decade, Russian foreign policy has ostensibly been against intervention of foreign powers in the affairs of other sovereign nations and it has increasingly viewed the Middle East as a good example to prove its point, highlighting the chaos and violence following direct U.S.-Western military action or support in various states.
And it has positioned itself as a peacemaker, trying to avert the same Western mistakes in Syria by pushing for a solution to the country’s internal conflict that does not involve U.S. military action.
This has given it an enhanced, if far from dominant, role in a region where it is already a major arms supplier to a number of regimes and has important relationships with key states such as Israel and Iran, among others.
Its support for, and role as part of the Middle East Quartet, in bringing about a unity government in an explosive part of a highly troubled region, will cement its position there, say Russian analysts.
It will also help to solidify support from others for its view that U.S.-led solutions for the region, and by extension other troubled parts of the world, are fatally flawed.
“Russia is looking for a position in the Middle East, utilising the perception of U.S. and Atlanticists’ mistakes that have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the region,” said Karasik.
“The idea of a Palestinian government is not just about a two-state system but about an Arab initiative to solve problems between internal factions, Hamas and Fatah, and bringing calm and peace in a wider area that goes beyond just Gaza.”
“Moscow is then aligned with Arab states supporting this and can say that it is working on this as a mediator and bringing peace just as it was right at the time when U.S. President Barack Obama was about to bomb Syria,” Karasik added.
Indeed, defence analysts say that many countries in the region already view U.S. policy on Ukraine as misguided and are likely to side with Russia in opposition to the Western sanctions that have been imposed on it in the wake of its annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s emphasis on stability in the region is also tied to the Kremlin’s domestic agenda. The spate of colour revolutions in neighbouring and geographically close states in the last decade, as well as the recent Arab spring uprisings, have left Russia’s political elite aghast.
Fears of something similar happening in Russia, which intensified deeply following the revolution in Ukraine earlier this year, have been behind a severe crackdown on civil liberties and basic rights in Russia, rights watchdogs have said.
By acting as a peacemaker parading the benefits of stability in countries in the Middle East – and therefore the rejection of Western military-intervention led approaches to resolving other nations’ internal conflicts – and garnering support for that view from other states, the Kremlin is also reinforcing tacit support for its own approach at ensuring order at home.
“It sees itself as looking to prevent chaos from ripping up countries from within, something which ties in with its domestic agenda,” said Karasik.
The Kremlin propaganda machine has repeatedly pushed the idea that the West has been behind foreign revolutions, fomenting and then orchestrating them.
Throughout the Maidan protests in November last year, it painted a picture of the demonstrations being led by Western-backed and funded fascist groups bent on destruction and chaos and ultimately ushering in an illegitimate government doing the bidding of the West and posing a direct threat to Russia.
And it can now point to the conflict in the east of Ukraine as another example of the resultant chaos when the West interferes in other sovereign states.
However, those same problems in Ukraine may mean that Russia will have to forego any ambitions it might have in expanding its influence in the Middle East, say some experts.
Sergei Demidenko, a Middle East specialist at the Institute for Strategic Analysis in Moscow, told IPS: “The Kremlin will not go overboard in its support for the Palestinian unity government, but at the same time it would not be the case that it will not support it.”
“Palestine and the Middle East are not important for Russia in terms of foreign policy because its focus is all on Ukraine and the post-Soviet space at the moment. It will say that it wants to see stability in the [Middle East] region and Palestine, and that may well be true, but it will say that because it needs to say something.”
“Russia’s influence in the Middle East is not as great as some may think and the concern now is on Ukraine, not Palestine.”