Do normalisation deals with Israel help or hinder Russia's 'return' to the Middle East?

Do normalisation deals with Israel help or hinder Russia's 'return' to the Middle East?
Analysis: The UAE and Bahrain's normalisation of ties with Israel presents both challenges and opportunities for Russian interests in the Middle East.
7 min read
Despite Russia's concerns about the Abraham Accords, Moscow also sees a chance to benefit. [Getty]
The Abraham Accords, which normalised the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain's relations with Israel in August and September respectively, are unlikely to fundamentally transform the Middle East's balance of power. 

However, that is not to say that they will not have important geopolitical ramifications. On the contrary, these two bilateral accords will probably serve to institutionalise and formalise existing fault lines in the region. But how will they impact Russia's agenda and interests in the Middle East? 

Like China, Russia has responded in a cautious and balanced manner. While the leadership in Moscow has officially welcomed the Abraham Accords, Russia has been keen to avoid reacting in ways that jeopardise the Kremlin's positive relations with Palestinian groups such as Hamas, as well as Moscow's partnership with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  

By the same token, Moscow also views Israel's formalisation of relations with Abu Dhabi and Manama as presenting some valuable opportunities to advance Russian interests in the region.

Yet, on balance, the Kremlin likely sees the "peace" deals as a net negative, given how these two diplomatic agreements constitute a victory for American (as opposed to Russian) diplomacy in the region. 

Russia and the question of Palestine  

Since Russia intensified its direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict in 2015, Moscow has made itself a force for all to contend with in the Arab world. Today, all actors in the Middle East recognise that the Russians have "returned" to the region.

Today, all actors in the Middle East recognise that the Russians have 'returned' to the region

In order to facilitate Moscow's strengthening role in the Middle East throughout the past five years, President Vladimir Putin's government has, for example, increased its diplomatic involvement in the Palestinian cause. 

Less than one week after the announcement of the Bahrain-Israel normalisation deal, the Russian foreign ministry released a statement, warning that it would be a "mistake" to believe that long-term peace could come to the Middle East without a resolution of the Palestinian question.

Read more: As Arab countries edge towards Israel, what's
next for the Palestinian national movement?

While recognizing "progress" in Israel's relations with the two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Moscow stated that "the Palestinian problem remains acute" and called on regional and international actors to "ramp up coordinated efforts" to resolve the question of Palestine

In contrast to the US, which considers Hamas a terrorist organisation, Russia views Hamas as a legitimate party which represents Palestinians in Gaza. A number of visits between Russian and Hamas representatives, which began in 2006, have highlighted Moscow's commitment to dialogue with the group.

Ultimately, the Russians are keen to avoid alienating the Palestinians as Moscow seeks to fill voids created by the decline of US influence in the Middle East.  

Within this context, Moscow has acted logically in welcoming the Abraham Accords while also emphasising the importance of encouraging Israel to make a lasting peace with the Palestinians, in addition to formalising diplomatic relations with Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf. 

The Iranian factor

Russia's relationship with Iran also influences Moscow's perspective on the Abraham Accords. It is difficult to exaggerate how critical Tehran was to Moscow's military success in Syria beginning in 2015.

Russia has been keen to avoid reacting in ways that jeopardise the Kremlin's positive relations with Palestinian groups and Iran

Last month, Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin's description of Iran as a "ally" (as opposed to a "partner") spoke volumes regarding the extent to which Moscow-Tehran relations have strengthened against the backdrop of the Trump administration's anti-Iranian "maximum pressure" agenda. 

At a time in which the Kremlin's relationship with the Islamic Republic is at an "all time high", the Russian leadership has gone to great lengths to avoid offending Tehran, which contributed to Moscow's decision to respond to the Abraham Accords with ambiguity.

The Kremlin has concerns about how growing defence cooperation between GCC states and Israel could heighten instability and the risk of an armed conflict in the Gulf. As Russian diplomats have been seeking to cool tensions between Iran and the Gulf Arabs, there are concerns about how Abu Dhabi's accord with Israel could reignite friction between the Emiratis and Iranians after temperatures started decreasing in the wake of the UAE's modest diplomatic outreach to Iran last year.

These concerns are valid, considering how much Abu Dhabi's accord with Israel has led to a ratcheting up of tensions in Emirati-Iranian relations since 13 August, illustrated by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stating that the diplomatic agreement was a "stab in the back" to Muslims.

Read more: Warm waters at last: Russia's expanding military footprint in the Middle East

Moscow's opportunities 

Despite Russia's concerns about the Abraham Accords, Moscow also sees a chance to benefit from the UAE and Bahrain's normalised ties with Israel. Given that Russia maintains excellent relations with both Gulf Arab monarchies and the Jewish state, Moscow is keen to take advantage of Bahrain and the UAE's opening of full-fledged relations with Israel, to the extent that this is realistic.  

In August, Andrei Baklanov, who previously served as Russia's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said that the Israel-UAE deal could lead to increased Russian exports to both countries. Furthermore, Baklanov argued that the accord was a "partial triumph" of Moscow's diplomatic efforts, which entailed a hosting of the first summit between Israel and GCC states shortly after the Russian Federation's establishment in the wake of the Soviet Union's implosion.

Moreover, in the grander picture, Moscow views the two diplomatic agreements as boding well for the long-term collective security of the Middle East. Russia desires the creation of an "all-inclusive [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] style format for dialogue in the Gulf and is therefore, seeking to eliminate points of friction," according to Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University.

"Israel normalizing relations with the UAE and Bahrain eases the Arab-Israeli conflict and that allows for Russia to more flexibly engage with all three countries," he told The New Arab.

On balance, Russia stands to lose more than it gains from the formalisation of the UAE and Bahrain's relations with Israel

Competing with Washington

On balance, Russia seems to stand to lose more than it gains from the formalisation of the UAE and Bahrain's relations with Israel. This is because the Kremlin did not play any direct role in the Abraham Accords, which the US brokered. Moscow has concerns that these two accords undermine Russia's narrative that it, rather than any Western power, is the go-to destination for mediation and arbitration in the Middle East.

"The Russian leadership is annoyed that this process is taking place without Russia," Anton Marsadov, a non-resident military affairs expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told The New Arab. "Moscow is trying to devalue the official normalization of relations with arguments such as 'this process has begun long ago.'"

Russia's state-owned media outlets such as Russia Today have downplayed the Abraham Accords' significance, frequently dismissing it as a cynical move on the part of the Trump administration amid the president's contentious re-election bid.

Read more: How the Israel-UAE alliance formalises new
fault lines in the Middle East

Looking ahead, Moscow will most likely continue to engage actors on the Palestinian side in order to present Russia as a power that is genuinely committed to resolving Middle Eastern conflicts while the Americans are merely putting on a show in which Washington poses as a facilitator of peace. As Marsadov posits, Moscow will confidently work to "show itself as a lawyer for all abandoned Palestinians."

A number of experts have interpreted the diplomatic agreements between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel as factoring into Washington's quest to counter Moscow and Beijing's efforts to further challenge the US in the region.

Most likely, the Kremlin will view the Abraham Accords within this context, with Washington having achieved a diplomatic victory in the Middle East at the expense of Russian prestige. 

However, in the near future Russia will have opportunities to exploit Washington's blunders vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Iran in ways that can boost Moscow's credibility in the region. Most likely, the Russians will increase their efforts to insert themselves as mediators between the Palestinians and Israelis in ways that elude the Americans as a result of Washington's unbalanced position in the "peace process", underscored by White House advisor Jared Kushner's so-called "Deal of the Century", which Moscow opposed last year.

In sum, Russia will work to diminish the extent to which Washington can benefit diplomatically from the Abraham Accords while doubling down on its argument that the UAE and Bahrain's normalisation deals with Israel are hardly useful for achieving peace in the deeply polarized and war-torn Middle East because they fail to address the decades-old Palestinian question. 

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics,  a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the new book, The Chinese Vortex: The Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact on the World