Russian President Vladimir Putin received a truly imperial reception from the leaders of the UAE and Saudi Arabia during fleeting visits to their countries. Oriental luxury, accompanied by painting the Dubai sky in the colors of the Russian flag, a cavalry escort, camels with riders – all this was calculated to produce the necessary impact on the impressionable public.
What remained behind the footage, seen by tens of millions of viewers around the world, however, was the answer to a simple question: Why did Putin go?
Official reports of the negotiations in Dubai and Riyadh do not provide clear answers – reading prepared messages about a “67.7 percent increase in trade turnover” and admiring the “wise policy of [the current prince’s father], the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques of the King of Saudi Arabia” does not explain why Putin would go on such a trip, especially so quickly.
The trip was clearly rather urgent, given the record-breaking time between the Kremlin announcement about the planned visits (December 5, 3:00pm) and the visits themselves – both happening within 24 hours. The distance between the announcement of the upcoming Russian-Iranian negotiations and these negotiations themselves turned out to be almost equally short.
Putin’s stay with his Arab hosts also was incredibly brief as well – a couple of hours in Dubai and a little more in Riyadh. It’s not often that Putin spends only half a day in two states. The Iranian president’s visit to Moscow in the evening of the next day, December 7, turned out to be similarly short.
Two more events should be considered. A day after the Iranian president’s visit, on December 9, Putin spoke with the President of Egypt. And the next day, December 10, Putin called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In contrast to Putin’s treacly communication with the leaders of Islamic countries, he received quite harsh words from Netanyahu. It’s hard to remember when an official press release used the following language to describe negotiations between the leaders of the two states:
The Prime Minister expressed his dissatisfaction with the positions expressed against Israel by Russian representatives at the UN and in other forums.
Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed sharp criticism of the dangerous cooperation between Russia and Iran.
The Prime Minister emphasized that any country that had been struck with a criminal terrorist assault such as Israel experienced would have reacted with no less force than Israel is using.
In contrast to the Jerusalem press release, the Kremlin’s report on the conversation with Netanyahu was created in a pointedly conciliatory tone:
Vladimir Putin confirmed his principled position of non-acceptance and condemnation of terrorism in all its manifestations. At the same time, it is extremely important that countering terrorist threats does not lead to such dire consequences for the civilian population. The Russian side is ready to provide all possible assistance in order to alleviate the suffering of civilians and de-escalate the conflict.
In addition, mutual interest was expressed to continue to interact on issues of evacuation of Russian citizens and members of their families, as well as the release of Israelis held in Gaza.
It was agreed to continue contacts.
It should be noted that the Putin’s “rejection and condemnation of terrorism in all its manifestations,” on December 10 (that is, more than two months after October 7), was Putin’s first (albeit indirect) condemnation of the terrorist attack on Israel on October 7. Putin did not characterize the Hamas attack on Israel with the words “terror” or “terrorism” in any of his previous speeches, including his conversation with Netanyahu on October 16.
Moreover, in the just released (December 7) Joint Russian-Saudi Statement, Putin called Israel’s self-defense actions “aggression against Gaza”:
The Russian side… highly appreciated the Kingdom’s leading role in implementing the summit resolutions aimed at launching international action to stop aggression against Gaza.
The appearance of the last phrase in the Russian press release dated December 10 – about an agreement to continue contacts – seems especially demonstrative against the backdrop of the Kremlin press release about Putin’s previous conversation with Netanyahu on October 16, according to which Putin did not plan to continue contact with Israel.
Thus, the dramatic evolution of Putin’s position towards the terrorist attack on October 7, Israel, and Netanyahu over the course of two months is obvious – from deafening silence during the first three days after the attack – via “expressing condolences to the families and friends of the dead Israelis” – to “condemning terrorism in all its manifestations”; from the lack of desire to maintain contacts with the Israeli prime minister – to expressing hope on their continuation.
What caused this dramatic evolution?
What was Putin’s Middle East diplomatic blitzkrieg dedicated to?
And what were the results?
The fact that the subject of Putin’s negotiations with the leaders of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Israel was the Gaza-Israeli war is obvious. But what exactly?
Ebrahim Raisi’s remarks on December 7 shed some light on this. Raisi called on Putin to find a “quick solution” to stopping the IDF’s efforts to eliminate Iranian-backed terrorists:
The bombing must be stopped as soon as possible. This issue today is not only an issue for our region, it is an issue for all of humanity, so a very quick solution must be found for this issue.
Putin’s comments at a press conference on December 14 were even more informative:
When I was in the Emirates, it turned out that the Emirati side had created a field hospital there in Gaza, but not far from Rafah, from the checkpoint and from the Egyptian border. We talked about how it would be possible for Russia to open its own hospital at the stadium. But this, of course, requires the consent of both Egypt and Israel. I spoke with the President of Egypt, he is for it and supports it. I spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu, they consulted between various security agencies. The Israeli side believes that the opening of a Russian hospital in Gaza is unsafe.
But this does not mean that we will stop these efforts.
Currently known facts lead to the following picture:
- On December 1, after a short pause, the IDF resumed military operations to eliminate Hamas militants in the center of the Gaza Strip.
- By December 4, Hamas’ positions in the Khan Yunis area were falling apart. If the Israeli offensive is not stopped, Hamas’ organized resistance would collapse. The Iranian leadership is inundating Putin with demands to intervene and save the remnants of Hamas combat units.
- On December 6, during his visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Putin explores the option of creating Russian hospital in Gaza.
- On December 7, Hamas militants begin to emerge from hiding and surrender en masse.
- On the afternoon of December 7, Iranian President Raisi flies to Moscow with a desperate demand for Putin to save the remnants of Hamas.
- By December 8, the Russian plan of saving Hamas and establishing its own operative base under the umbrella of a hospital in the strategic location in the center of Gaza city at the stadium next to Rimal – a prestigious neighborhood where government ministries are located and in close proximity to the Gaza port – is being finalized. The hospital would have Russian personnel (possibly with extraterritorial status) and the possibility of using (or constructing) underground structures to house the remaining Hamas militants. Putin’s hospital location choice in the far north of the Gaza strip would enable free passage from the Egyptian border to Gaza. It is reminiscent of 1940, when Stalin created a Soviet naval base in Port Hanko, that allowed Soviet troops passage through all of southern Finland. Possible damage from Israeli (or other) strikes to the hospital and/or transportation there and/or injury/death of Russian personnel could be used as a blackmail against Israel or pretext for Russian intervention.
- On December 9, Putin discusses his plan with Egyptian President Sisi and receives consent.
- On December 10, Putin discusses his plan with Netanyahu and was refused.
- Failure of Putin’s initiative to save the remnants of Hamas forces militants to surrender.
- But Putin’s plan to set up a Russian base next door to Israel did not die.
- On December 14, he proclaimed to continue his efforts.
Senior Analyst for Russian and European Affairs.
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