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Source: The Telegraph

Oct 27, 2023

Putin is dragging the Middle East into his own war

The Russian president's "humanitarian" interventions over Gaza are pure Machiavellianism


Missiles rain down, buildings collapse, children wail. Horrendous scenes wherever they occur.

But this is not Gaza, this is Ukraine – every day for over 18 months.

Which makes Vladimir Putin’s “humanitarian” interventions over events in the Middle East – most significantly by inviting Hamas representatives to Moscow this week – all the more cold-blooded. Try telling the child of a parent killed in one of the thousands of Russian bombardments that the Kremlin believes innocent people – including women and children – should “not be punished for other people’s crimes.”

But, in truth, in the unscrupulous world of geopolitics, the crisis in the Middle East is too good an opportunity for Moscow to miss. For the first time in almost two years, international attention – at least in the West – has shifted away from the Kremlin’s disastrous “special operation” in Ukraine, offering Putin a leg-up back onto the world stage. Hence his recent calls to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and the leaders of Egypt, Iran, and Syria, ostensibly to negotiate a ceasefire

Destabilising the Middle East to distract from its military failures has been a priority for Moscow ever since the invasion. It forged close ties with Iran – widely believed to be Hamas’s most important financial and political backer – as a result of the war, as the Kremlin purchased drones used to attack Kyiv and other cities, purportedly in exchange for intelligence and finance. Iran’s deputy foreign minister is currently in Moscow, and Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, met with the leadership of Hamas earlier this year. 

President Zelensky, perhaps more than any other world leader, has been keen to draw parallels between Hamas’s attack and Moscow. “We have data very clearly proving that Russia is interested in inciting war in the Middle East,” he said last week. “So that a new source of pain and suffering would erode global unity and exacerbate cleavages and controversies, helping Russia in destroying freedom in Europe.”

But it is not just Moscow that stands to benefit. So does China, all too eager to rally Arab nations and African countries – more sympathetic to the Palestinians – to its side. Hence why Moscow and Beijing used their vetos to block a US-drafted UN Security Council resolution condemning Hamas and expressed support for Israel’s right to self-defence.

In the clearest sign yet of the ‘multi-polar’ world Russia and China seek to forge, last week 130 delegates – with Putin as the guest of honour – joined President Xi in Beijing to mark the 10-year anniversary of China’s global infrastructure-building scheme, Belt and Road. If we are indeed entering ‘Cold War II’, it was a landmark moment.

But if Moscow and Beijing think they only stand to benefit from this crisis, they may be in for a shock. Russia took advantage of Western hesitancy to engage in Syria, boosting its profile in the region. Any influence it wielded there will be imperilled if America and its allies decide to return.

It may also have the unintended consequence of turning Ukraine-sceptic but fiercely pro-Israel Republicans against Moscow if Russia is seen as falling under a new axis of evil including Iran and Hamas. Already, in the region itself, a number of Israeli politicians have called for Prime Minister Netanyahu to back Kyiv more strongly than it has.

For now, however, leveraging the conflict offers more advantages than disadvantages for both President Putin and Xi. It will drive a wedge between Western countries and those China and Russia seek to court, as well as offering much-needed distractions from Putin’s bloody war in Ukraine and Xi’s probing of Taiwan

Such a wedge, even one measured in human lives, is perceived as worth the risk.

Francis Dearnley is one of the core team behind The Telegraph’s daily Ukraine: The Latest podcast.

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