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Putin Looks To Capitalize As West Diverts Attention From Ukraine

  • Russia benefits from diverting attention away from the conflict in Ukraine.
  • The conflict presents propaganda opportunities for Russia to assert its narratives.
  • Russia seeks to increase its influence in the Middle East amid escalating tensions between Iran and Israel.

After several hours of silence following Iran’s unprecedented missile-and-drone attack on Israel, Russia issued its first formal reaction: The Foreign Ministry voiced what it said was Moscow’s “extreme concern” over “the latest dangerous escalation in the region.”

There may be some truth to that statement, as analysts say that a full-scale war in the Middle East would not be in the interests of President Vladimir Putin’s government. For now, though, it seems more likely that the Kremlin is enthusiastic about a development that could play into Putin’s hands in several ways, most of them directly connected to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“The Middle East entering uncharted territory (short of full-blown war) is the best that can happen to Putin now,” Hanna Notte, a senior associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Here’s why.

For one thing, it draws attention away from the war in Ukraine at a crucial time when Kyiv is facing major challenges on the front line, which could get worse in the coming weeks and months, and Russia is pounding the country’s energy infrastructure with renewed intensity and bombarding cities including Kharkiv and Odesa.

The outbreak in October of Israel’s war against Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, had already complicated global perceptions of the war in Ukraine and confounded Western efforts to support its defense against the Russian invasion. The new flare-up in the Middle East -- the first time Iran has openly and directly attacked arch-enemy Israel, or vice versa -- may exacerbate that problem for Kyiv.

'A Chance To Challenge'

For the Kremlin, the potential benefits to be reaped from Iran’s attack on Israel are both broad and quite specific. In over two years since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he has increasingly portrayed the war there as part of a wider confrontation in which, he asserts, Russia is defending itself and the rest of the world from the West and, in particular, the United States.

Against that zero-sum backdrop, Iran’s attack on Israel may play into the Kremlin’s propaganda, handing Russia new material it can use to press its public narratives about the war in Ukraine and its showdown with the West.

“There is a certain perception among the axis states -- Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China -- that the West has weakened. And [that] American attitudes and policies can no longer guarantee the security of its allies,” Ihor Semyvolos, director of the Center for Middle East Studies in Kyiv, told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

As a result, the Iranian attack provides Russia and like-minded states with “a chance to challenge this unipolar world that Putin, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, and [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei have talked a lot about,” he said.

Instability in the Middle East “diverts Western attention and resources away from Ukraine and NATO's Eastern flank, it generates insecurity among U.S. regional allies, and it further fuels a broader, global perception that the West cannot pacify the region, thus amplifying perceptions of the Gaza war,” Notte told RFE/RL in a written exchange on April 15.

“In sum, such instability fuels a global perception that the war in Ukraine is another war among many, one problem amid a proliferation of problems -- a perception which the Kremlin can only value,” she said.

In practice, the array of problems and the attack itself could dilute the case for aid to Ukraine, undermining arguments by champions of such support that the fate of the West and the world hangs in the balance.

Clouds In Congress?

Specifically, the Iranian attack on Israel adds a new element to the uncertainty over the prospects for long-delayed U.S. aid for Ukraine -- even as the prospect of passage of legislation on the matter is finally looming larger.

Nearly six months after U.S. President Joe Biden first proposed a package including more than $60 billion in mostly military aid for Ukraine as well as aid for Israel and other purposes, the current speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Mike Johnson, had indicated at the end of March that he would seek to secure support for Ukraine in the coming days or weeks.

However, it was unclear exactly what he would propose, how much it would differ from a bill that was passed with bipartisan support in the Senate in February, and whether the effort to renew U.S. supplies of desperately needed weapons to Ukraine could overcome opposition from staunch opponents of aid for Kyiv in his own party.

On April 15, Johnson provided more clarity, saying he plans to press for separate bills on three of the elements in the Senate legislation -- aid for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan and other allies -- and to placate recalcitrant Republicans by introducing a fourth measure including policies that many lawmakers in his party favor. The fate of the package is uncertain.

Seeking Disbalance

Regardless of the outcome of wrangling over aid in the United States, Putin may see the Iranian attack on Israel as a chance to increase Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, where rebuilding the clout that dried up drastically after the Soviet collapse seems to have been deeply important to Putin since he came to power a quarter century ago.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has tightened its ties with Iran, which has supported the onslaught by providing attack drones and the technology to produce them, but Putin has for years been courting regional foes of Iran, including Israel and Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, as part of his efforts to increase Moscow’s sway in the Middle East and bite into U.S. clout.

The Kremlin may hope that despite the way its sharper turn toward Tehran and its response to the Israel-Hamas war have harmed its relations with Israel, Moscow’s multitentacled Middle East ties could give it a substantial regional role to play in the coming months or years.

“Since Russia is an increasingly close partner to Iran, the Kremlin might…calculate that with Iran stepping up the escalation ladder, Russia's own value to [and] leverage over the Gulf states will increase -- since the Gulf states might look to Moscow (and Beijing) as the only players with some leverage in Tehran, and hence as interlocutors who could help rein in the Iranians,” Notte told RFE/RL.

It’s a classic approach for Putin’s Russia: help create problems, to one degree or another, and then offer help to resolve them -- in a way that benefits the Kremlin. As they have amid the Hamas attack on Israel and the resulting war in Gaza, however, analysts of Russia and the region say that Moscow does not want an all-out war between Israel and Iran.

“That scenario would bring significant risks for Russia,” Notte said. It would complicate Russia’s military presence in Syria, and a heavy hit to Iran could sap some of Moscow’s strength against Ukraine.

Furthermore, “a full-blown war would almost certainly end Russia's balancing act in the region (however tenuous it has become already). It would force Russia to choose sides.”

While Moscow has come ever closer to Iran and its proxies since it launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she said, “it doesn’t want to go ‘all in’ with Iran, for sure.”



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  • Mamdouh Salameh on April 18 2024 said:
    While it is true that the escalating tension in the Middle East divers attention away from the conflict in Ukraine, it wouldn't change the reality on the battlefields of Ukraine.. And the reality is that Russia is already prevailing. Moreover, any eventual settlement of the conflict will be on Russia's own terms meaning that all its security concerns would have to be addressed before it will agree to any settlement.

    Even before the recent Hamas-Israel war erupted, the Chinese-Russian strategic alliance has been enhancing its influence and involvement in the Gulf region and the whole Middle East virtually making both of them its domain.

    This is manifested by the acceleration of the transition of the World Order from a unipolar system led by the United States to a multipolar one being ushered in by the Chinese-Russian alliance, the expanding global de-dollarization drive, the emergence of a new global financial systems and the rising share of the petro-yuan in global oil trade at the expense of the petrodollar.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

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