Almost four weeks into Hamas’ attack on Israel, Russia is in no hurry to exploit the Biden administration’s quandary over the collapse of Middle East security. The western media was unanimous that Russia was waiting in the wings to seize the opportunity once the US took its eye off the ball in Ukraine. However, no such thing happened.
Ukraine war is on autopilot. The compass has been set, the dice is cast and the calculus is holding steady with regard to the strategic objectives set by President Vladimir Putin in February last year. Russia senses that it has gained the upper hand in the war and that is irreversible.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive has failed and the fighting is presently restricted to two sectors of the frontline, as Russian forces strengthen the security of the Donetsk region and seek to regain control of territories up north in the borderlands of Donbass and Kharkov region from where they retreated for tactical reasons last September and October.
Yet, Moscow has not begun its grand offensive, as many had predicted. One plausible explanation is that Moscow is watching the maelstrom sweeping through the Middle East. Moscow is particularly sensitive about any spillover into Syria.
With an eye on the formidable US naval build-up in Eastern Mediterranean with the deployment of two aircraft carrier groups, President Vladimir Putin has publicised that Russian jets equipped with hypersonic Kinzhal missiles are roaming the skies above the Black Sea, which can strike targets 1000 kms away at Mach 9 speed, which no existing missile defence system can intercept. Suffice to say, the war in Ukraine remains attritional.
Curiously, Russia conducted a simulated nuclear strike in a drill on Wednesday overseen by Putin, hours after Russian parliament voted to rescind the country’s ratification of the global nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT). The drill needs to be seen in the broader context of global strategic stability. A Kremlin statement said, “The purpose of the training exercise was to check the level of preparedness of military command bodies, as well as the skill of the leadership and operational personnel in managing the troops (forces) under their command.” Everything, however, adds up in these extraordinary times.
At its most obvious level, the Palestine-Israel conflict is a manifestation of the growing imbalance in the existing system of international relations. New wars are emerging; longstanding conflicts are mutating (eg., Nagorno-Karabakh). Last week, Pakistan bracketed Palestine and Kashmir as the UN’s unfinished business in the post-colonial era. North Korea and Iran are flash points that have no military solution.
In the months ahead, without doubt, Washington will continue to provide Israel with military and diplomatic support but an extended Israeli operation lasting months in Gaza will mean dispersal of US resources that might be needed in other theatres. The conflict in Gaza underscores the imperative for a rethink in the US’ notions of global hegemony. The fact remains that the US, despite its self-proclaimed status as the “Indispensable Nation” (Madeline Albright) and the guarantor of “rules-based order,” failed to prevent the latest eruption of conflict in the Middle East.
Arguably, therefore, the latest US proposal for a systematic resumption of strategic dialogue with Russia can be seen as a sign of positive thinking. Unsurprisingly, Moscow has displayed a studied indifference to the US proposal. But that needn’t be taken as the last word. Historically, Soviet-American strategic dialogue brought on board into the agenda all major issues and most minor issues affecting international security.
The big question, therefore, is the timing of the US proposal. Against the backdrop of the gathering storms in the Middle East, the Biden Administration probably seeks to calm the nerves by proposing talks with Russia on global strategic balance, since the guardrails in arms control no longer exist. This is one thing.
At any rate, Russia’s “neutrality” in a Middle East conflict could also be a consideration. Equally, Western leaderships understand that the war against Russia is practically lost — although they will not admit it publicly — and engagement with Russia is needed.
Again, although the US has provided Israel with significant military and diplomatic support and keep influencing the latter not to escalate the conflict, there are variables in the situation and any big conflagration in the Middle East will require a massive concentration of material and financial resources that are limited even for a superpower, since there are other unresolved problems in the world, too.
The breakdown of trust in the Russian-American ties hurts the US interests. Fundamentally, it must also be understood that what Moscow seeks even today after nearly 20 months of battling NATO and the US in Ukraine’s killing fields is a sustained engagement with Washington and a willingness to accommodate mutual interests.
On its part, Russia is conducting itself as a responsible power vis-a-vis the crisis in Gaza. There is no shred of evidence to show that Russia has acted as a “spoiler”. On the contrary, Moscow has been projecting its credentials as a potential peacemaker who enjoys good relations with all key players — Israel, Hamas, Iran and other regional states alike.
In fact, President Biden’s recent remarks on the Gaza situation bring the US position rather close to Russia’s. Biden read out the following from a prepared text at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia:
“Israel has the right and, I would add, responsibility to respond to the slaughter of their people. And we will ensure Israel has what it needs to defend itself against these terrorists. That’s a guarantee…
“But that does not lessen the need for — to operate and align with the laws of war for Israeli — it has to do everything in its power — Israel has to do everything in its power, as difficult as it is, to protect innocent civilians. And it’s difficult. I also want take a moment to look ahead toward the future that we seek.
“Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live side by side in safety, dignity, and peace. And there’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on October the 6th. That means ensuring Hamas can no longer terrorise Israel and use Palestinian civilians as human shields.
“It also means that when this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next. And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.”
Putin couldn’t have put this across differently. There is a sense of expectation in Moscow that in the emergent conditions in regional security, the US and its allies will “reconsider their notions of defeating Russia in the Ukraine conflict at any cost” — as an establishment think tanker wrote in the Kremlin-funded RT last week.
Trust is lacking, he concluded, “compromises without the full consideration of Russian interests” are difficult to reach, but “a pivotal stage in the (world) order … is taking shape before our eyes.”