From Russia with Peace? The Rise of an Unlikely Middle East Broker

Recently, Egypt’s main newspaper got caught editing a photo of the five Heads of State gathered in Washington, D.C. to mark the re-launch of Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations. The newspaper, Al-Ahram, altered an image of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - who was actually trailing behind the others - to show a youthful Mubarak standing in front of President Obama and leading the charge. Rather than doctoring the positioning of the leaders, however, the newspaper would have been smarter to instead photoshop someone else into the photograph: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

That's because Russia is quietly beginning to emerge as a key player in the Middle East peace process. During the latest rounds of peace talks in Washington, D.C. and Sharm El Sheikh, Russia was not involved - at least publicly. But, a more active and visible Russian presence in the next set of talks is in everyone's interest.

Why Russia, which has often challenged American foreign policy and worked with countries that the U.S. considers unfriendly? Why Russia, a country perceived to have a culture that directly conflicts with that of the Middle East? Why Russia, a country that many Muslims in the Caucusus region distrust because of its long-standing conflict in Chechnya? And, why Russia, a country that is not reliant upon Middle East oil and gas?

No matter how we delude ourselves, America is not a neutral broker in the Middle East. Despite the honorable intentions of President Obama, America is not perceived as an impartial broker in the Arab world because of the long history of U.S. support for Israel. Russia, on the other hand, does not share the same history of involvement in the region.  This lack of a colonial legacy makes Russia a prime candidate to help lead the newest rounds of talks. 

Of course, Russia is no newcomer to the Middle East, boasting a deep history of involvement with both Jews and Arabs. Jews lived in relative peace and harmony in what is today modern Russia for hundreds of years. That changed with the reign of Catherine the Great and continued through the collapse of Communism. During this time, more than 80 percent of the Russian-Jewish population emigrated to avoid religious persecution. But, even after the creation of Israel and the purges under Stalin, Russia maintained the largest Jewish population in Europe and many Israelis have lasting ties.

Arabs also have a history with Russia. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union courted several Arab states including Syria and Egypt to help extend its influence. One of the most influential Arab leaders of the 20th century, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, relied heavily on Russian support to shore up his own nationalist agenda. To be sure, the relationship between Russia and many Arab states waned as communism fell, but Russia has worked hard to rebuild these ties.

More recently, the Russian government has entered itself directly into the Middle East peace process. For example, during the 2006 G-8 summit in St. Petersburg – which occurred during the height of the Lebanese-Israeli War - the Russian government laid out comprehensive plans for regional peace which stressed that all actors and conflicts in the region - Palestine and Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah - are interconnected. Since the summit, Russia has continued to play a significant role. Russia backed the Arab League’s failed proposal for a comprehensive peace conference involving all Middle Eastern groups. By contrast, the U.S. and Israel blocked the plan because it would have allowed Hamas and Hezbollah a seat at the table.

This willingness to adopt a more neutral and inclusive approach has given Russia special weight in the Arab world. Whereas America has alienated Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria by labeling them as terrorist states or organizations, Russia has worked to keep back channels constantly open. Moreover, by rejecting a peacekeeping role in Lebanon, and instead focusing on humanitarian aid, Russia has gained the trust of many Arabs and mitigated its negative image as an occupying force in Muslim Chechnya.

Russia is currently the only major world power not dependent on Middle East oil, and Russian corporations have made a strong effort to establish neutral economic ties in the region - working on deals with both Israel, for information technology (particularly military), and with Syria, for oil and gas operating rights. These efforts - coupled with Russia’s renewed potential as an aide donor - make it a potentially stronger broker that the U.S. in the Middle East.

Instead of Mubarak, Al Ahram might next time consider inserting an image of President Medvedev at the front of the pack, because it is Russia - and not Egypt or the U.S. - that has the best chance to bring all parties to the negotiating table.   

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons