BY ANNA BORSHCHEVSKAYA, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 09/15/20 03:30 PM EDT
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL
Israel signed a peace treaty with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Tuesday at the White House, along with a declaration of peace with Bahrain, and for weeks analysts and policymakers have been discussing many issues surrounding these landmark events: How did they come about? Why now?
Will it impact the region overall, as well as the Arab peace initiative in particular? Turkey and Iran have been most vocal regional critics of the Israel-UAE deal, along with the Palestinian leadership. But one country has largely sulked — Russia.
In response to last month’s White House announcement about the agreement between the UAE and Israel, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a fairly cool statement that mainly focused on two issues: Russia’s own importance and the centrality of the Palestinian issue. Moscow, according to the statement, “carefully” studied the announcement and wanted to highlight that Russia, a permanent UN Security member, co-sponsor of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the Quartet (which mediates Israeli-Palestinian peace process) “has always acted “from the need to achieve a comprehensive Middle East settlement.” The statement then stressed, “[T]he Palestinian problem has been and remains central in the search for peace in the Middle East.”
This reaction does not surprise. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it his priority to restore Russia’s great power status on the global scene — as he defines it — and has done much to position Russia as a critical mediator in the Middle East in particular. But it was American, not Russian mediation that helped broker what is objectively a landmark peace agreement in the region, and this point is not lost on Moscow.
Thus, when Putin spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in late August after the peace deal was announced, the Kremlin statement also noted that Netanyahu was the one to initiate the call. With regard to the Israel-UAE agreement, the Russian side, according to the Kremlin statement, supports “a just, comprehensive and sustainable solution to the Palestinian problem and… hope[s] that the agreement between Israel and the UAE would contribute to strengthening stability and security in the region.”
To be sure, Putin did not criticize the deal, but contrast his measured comments with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky who congratulated Netanyahu in an earlier conversation last month, and called the deal “a historic achievement and a vivid example of the opportunities for dialogue and diplomacy that other countries can inherit.” Moscow issued no such congratulations.
And while the Kremlin continues to stress the centrality of the Palestinian issue, it has long been clear that most Arab states no longer give it the same degree of importance they did a decade ago, and worry now more about Iranian regional ambitions. Moscow, meanwhile, has long tilted more in favor of the Shiite Axis in the region. In this context it also makes sense that Andrey Baklanov, deputy chairman of the Association of Russian Diplomats noted in an article for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow’s “generally positive assessment” of the Israel-UAE agreement but also noted “alarming, potentially dangerous moments for the peaceful development of the region. These include a clear anti-Iranian perspective of rapprochement between Israel and the UAE.” In his view, he writes in the same article, the agreement comes in context of both states’ growing discussion about the “Iranian threat” — something Moscow always downplays.
Certainly the September 2015 Syria intervention officially returned Russia as a great power player in the region, beyond Syria alone. And make no mistake — Moscow is engaged in a great power competition game with the United States, and more broadly the West, for influence in the Middle East. This game will go on. But there is no substitute for American leadership, and Moscow knows it lost this round.
Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East. In addition, she is a contributor to Oxford Analytica and a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. She holds a doctorate from George Mason University.