The horrific terror attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7 is playing into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands.
The most obvious benefit for Russia in the escalating crisis in the Middle East is distracting the West from Russia’s war against Ukraine, something that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has already talked about publicly.
There is also a question mark over if the US can supply two wars with adequate arms and ammo. As bne IntelliNews has reported, the West has failed to invest in ammunition production and the Western stocks of ammo are already running dangerously low, to the point where Ukraine has run out of things like Javelin missiles and the crucial 155mm shells.
However, one of the benefits for Ukraine of this war is that, confronted by the prospect of a larger regional war that could include fighting the well-armed Iran, this might push the West into actually making those investments. In the last week the White House has begun to talk about supplying Ukraine with adequate arms for war with Russia up until 2024, so it appears to me those investments are now very likely.
But the main problem is US President Joe Biden's diplomacy is now in tatters after the “explosion” in the Al-Ahli Baptist hospital that killed over 500 people on October 17 – mostly women and children who were sheltering there under the belief that no one would hit a hospital.
The Israelis have already blamed it on a stray Hamas rocket, but as Biden arrives in Israel today for what was supposed to be a diplomatic tour de force making the US look like a peacemaker, the US now runs the risk of appearing to condone its key ally's murder of women and children, which will only make things worse. This plays into Putin’s propaganda hands.
Most of the crazy stuff Putin has said about Ukraine since the war started just over 600 days ago about Nazis and “fascist coups in Kyiv” was aimed at his domestic audience. It’s meaningless – a line designed to play on the deep wellspring of emotions Russians have for their victory in the Great Patriotic war. Putin has already dropped “denazification” as a result of last April’s aborted peace talks, confirmed by Lavrov’s UN speech at the end of September.
However, now Putin is back at the international lectern with a strong message. He is positioning himself as the voice of reason, repeating the Western catchphrase “Israel has every right to defend itself” on one hand and insisting that “any solution must create an independent Palestinian state” on the other.
Just as Putin plays to his gallery when commenting on Ukraine, to divine his rhetoric these days you have to understand that few of his comments are aimed at the West. That is a lost cause. His international audience now is the Global South and other BRICS+ members.
Russia’s business with the West is finished and is unlikely to be revived in his lifetime. That relationship is permanently broken. Russia’s plan now is to build a new order in a fractured world where the emerging markets trade with each other and work to catch up with Western technology; to break the perceived US hegemony over the global order.
And it is going well, at least as far as politics are concerned. Russia’s list of friendly countries is already pretty long as it uses its arms and commodity exports to build alliances. The G20 has also expanded to include the African Union during the G20 summit in August. China and Russia were hoping to capture this body too, but India ended up walking off with it as an emerging market alternative pole. But both Beijing and Moscow can live with that, as long as the G20 better represents non-aligned countries’ interests. And a reported 40 countries are lining up to join the BRICS+ at next year’s summit that will be hosted by the Russian city of Kazan (although their names have not been released).
Economically, inter-BRICS+ trade is also flourishing, led by oil and gas as the global energy markets are remade as a function of Western sanctions. As bne IntelliNews reports, oil sanctions are increasingly a spent cannon, allowing Russia to muddle through.
Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said yesterday that not only will his 2% of GDP federal budget deficit hit its full year target after the first ten days of March target thanks to rising oil revenues, but now he is predicting it will be less than 1%. When huge record-breaking deficits were reported in January after the G7’s twin oil sanctions went into effect, economists were certain the 2% target would be missed, forecasting instead 3-4% deficits and in one case a catastrophic 12% of GDP.
Catching up with Western technology will take longer, but China’s recent breakthrough of creating a commercially usable 7nm chip shows progress is being made there as well.
In this context, Putin’s Israel peace deal proposal that was rejected by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on October 17 was largely aimed at the global south; the Kremlin wants to be seen as a “honest broker” by the global south, and by the Middle East in particular, by offering a balanced solution that acknowledges the attack by Hamas as terrorism, but also promotes a pro-Arab solution.
And Putin’s regime has already invested heavily in resuscitating its relations in the Middle East in recent years: the fact it has good working relations with all of Jerusalem, Riyad, Damascus and Tehran means it was already seen as an honest broker.
Russia’s peace deal proposal was specifically rejected by the UK, the US, France and Japan – all G7 nations – and supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and two African countries (Gabon and Mozambique), which will go down badly with the global south, adding credence to Putin’s claim that the West is out to keep the global south down.
And the motion being blocked just by G7 members will only play to Putin’s line that the US is protecting its garrison in the Middle East. The destruction of the Al-Ahli Baptist hospital (irrespective of who is actually to blame) will only shred US credibility further. Biden arrives in Israel the day after the tragedy and will be unable to say anything that remotely looks like calling Israel to account, which will make him look complicit in the deaths of hundreds of women and children.
The White House is already playing the incident down as an “explosion” rather than as an “attack”, and the waters are rapidly being muddied as Israel blames the incident on a stray Hamas rocket. But for the global south this will all look like prevarication.
More dangerously, what was simply a clash between the unipolar and multipolar geopolitical world views has now been flavoured with religious hatred of a Judo-Christian vs Muslim divide that could radicalise the general conflict. From his perspective it is irrelevant who was to blame for the tragedy, as the reputational damage has been done and so threatens to destabilise the region for years.
The brutal police reactions in Europe and the wider region to the large-scale pro-Palestine demonstrations that popped up in the last 24 hours will only inflame things further. There were large protests in Turkey last night as well as in the UK, France and Germany, where the knee-jerk reaction was to ban the protests and arrest anyone with a Palestinian flag. Here in Berlin police were particularly heavy handed, beating peaceful protestors with batons, bne IntelliNews can report. The German public has been particularly shocked after some anti-Israeli protesters daubed the Star of David on the walls of Jewish residencies and shops, something not seen since the 1930s.
The “explosion” that killed more than 500 people is reportedly one of the worst losses of life in the decades-old conflict between Palestine and Israel, if not the worst ever. This is for the Arab world a disaster on the scale of 9/11 and won’t be forgotten.
This religious element obviously applies to the Middle East, but it will also be relevant for many countries in the emerging world as well and SE Asia in particular where many large countries, such as Indonesia, are also overwhelmingly Muslim.
Putin is carefully pushing his advantage and has the added advantage of currently being in Beijing for the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) along with 130 other countries, all from the global south. The only EU representative there is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. It’s the perfect platform, as not only does Putin sound like a reasonable mediator, but standing next to Chinese President Xi Jinping also makes him look powerful
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