From Ukraine to the Middle East: a Geopolitical Puzzle

In a matter of hours, the war in Ukraine was appearing downsizing to a status of regional conflict, aligning with the perspective of many non-Western observers, including those in Israel and the Middle East. Hamas’s actions reshaped the geopolitical landscape of a region strategically crucial for the United States. Despite the White House’s emphasis on European security, the sudden escalation prompted swift U.S. support for Israel, challenging the notion that European security could be managed largely by Europeans. The geopolitical landscape quickly shifted, with the U.S. providing military supplies, including Iron Dome interceptors and financial aid, and deploying aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean.

Not sidelined

Kyiv officials perceived the danger of an acceleration of Western political and financial support to Israel, at a time of already faltering support by Ukraine’s allies. But, focused on the conflict with Russian occupying forces, their view was colored by a tendency to support groups they perceived as fighting for the liberation of national territory, sometimes neglecting diplomatic restraint. President Zelensky expressed sympathy for various causes, from the recovery of Karabakh by Azerbaijani forces to the right of Palestinians (not Hamas) to reclaim their land. He compared the massacres in South Israel to those in Bucha, and the hostages taking of Israeli children to the fate of Ukrainian children forcibly taken to Russia. A Study Centre of the Defence ministry claimed that Hamas fighters were trained by Wagner mercenaries who had left Belarus for Africa.

For months, the Ukrainian perspective portrayed the invasion of Ukraine as an act of terrorism, branding Russia as a terrorist state. This narrative, articulated consistently by Ukrainian officials, aimed to rally global support to this ‘terrorist’ qualification, leading to the exclusion of Russia from the United Nation. Following Hamas attack, President Zelensky conveyed this message again in daily addresses, interviews, and even during a conversation with a French channel on October 10. “Terror has opened far too many fronts against humanity. The war against Ukraine. The war in the Middle East. Terrible destabilisations throughout Africa” he said. The idea, pretty embarrassing for a majority of Ukraine’s allies, is that Hamas was supported by Russia.

Concerns heightened in Kyiv when a NATO meeting, initially set to focus on Russia’s invasion, shifted its agenda to address Hamas’s attack on Israel. Ukrainians feared that the conflict could expand to Lebanon and Syria, diverting global attention further away from its own struggles, particularly as winter approached. Zelensky invited himself to the NATO’s 31 defence ministers meeting, asking for more weapons, including anti-air defense systems, labeling them a “winter shield” to safeguard energy infrastructure, economic activities, and the population. He engaged in bilateral meetings, including with the ‘local’ Belgian prime minister who promised fighter jets from Belgium starting in 2025, to use the interests of Russian frozen assets at Euroclear for an Ukrainian Fund, and efforts to ban Russian diamonds. All depends of agreements at European levels, and of the composition of the next year coalition.

Russia’s moves

There are no doubts that the focus on Israel and the Middle East diverted global attention from Ukraine, providing Russia with an opportunity to advance its agenda during a critical phase of operations. Russia maintained a coherent and reactive diplomatic stance. Analysis of Russia’s position in the Middle East must consider five key elements:

  1. Proximity: The Middle East is adjacent to Russia, and its stability is crucial for the Russian Federation and CIS countries. At the difference of Western countries, its Muslim population is native, not from immigration
  2. Terrorism Concerns: Terrorism in the Middle East resonates strongly in Russia, in the Caucasus and Central Asia. All have been targeted by Muslim fanatic groups trained in radical mosques in the Middle East or infiltrated from Afghanistan. Those ‘international terrorists” moved through porous borders,
  3. Saudi-Israel Agreement: Russia supported Biden’s initiative but saw it as dangerous for regional stability if perceived as anti-Iranian or anti-Turkish.
  4. Continuous Presence: Russia is not “returning” to the Middle East as it did in Africa. It has consistently maintained a presence in the Middle East, building on former Soviet channels, official or personal links. It has been fostering contacts across various groups, including those who are at the throat of each other’s.
  5. Coherent Position: Russia has consistently advocated for a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestinian problem. Lavrov and Putin repeated the message in reaction to Hamas attacks.

While Russia may benefit from the global distraction away from Ukraine, its primary interest lies in returning to the forefront of global diplomacy. Russia’s ability to engage with all factions in the Middle East positions it uniquely, and Moscow is content to show that ignoring certain leaders or parties is an ineffective strategy for the West.

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