Russian President Vladimir Putin is enjoying a resurgence in the Middle East. But Russia's position as a powerbroker - at the expense of a passive US - could well be both illusory and short-lived.
Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, deposed the US president at the top of Forbes magazine's world power list, and about to go and visit the pope - it hasn't been a bad fall for Vladimir Putin.
To consolidate Russia's new position as a Mideast powerbroker, Putin has been pressing the flesh. On Monday (18.11.2013), he spoke by phone to both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel visited Moscow two days later, and a further visit from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is about to be finalized.
"The Russians are enjoying a resurgence throughout the Middle East," said Jonathan Eyal, international director at the UK's Royal United Services Institute. "There is a high level of frustration with the Americans, particularly with the negotiations with Iran, which a lot of Arabs believe are going against their own interests."
"It is clear that Putin seized on a number of factors that created a huge opening for Russia," added Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Three channels: Syria, Egypt, Iran
The most spectacular of these factors was the triumph of striking a chemical weapons deal in Syria, when Putin deftly turned an off-the-cuff remark from US Secretary of State John Kerry into salvation for his ally Bashar al-Assad. "That was pretty remarkable," said Aron.
Meanwhile, Russia has slotted into a power vacuum in Egypt, where the US stopped its financial assistance to the Egyptian military after a coup deposed President Mohammed Morsi. After a polite interlude, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Cairo last week to discuss a deal to sell missile defense systems to the Egyptian military.
At the same time, Russia is also taking advantage of the unexpected progress in discussions with Iran over its nuclear program. Ushered in by the friendly face of Hassan Rouhani, the potential deal - easing sanctions with Iran in exchange for nuclear inspections - has put strains on US relations with both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
"There is a clearly a discord among the coalition that stood by the sanctions against Iran," said Aron. "The French have dissented, the United States Congress is unlikely to support any relaxation of sanctions. So the US is weakened again. And Putin has always seen Russia's definition as a great power largely in opposition to the United States."
Russian strength or US weakness?
Stephen Sestanovich, Russia specialist at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, says Putin's view of his own role is shared by many Americans. "By far the dominant American feeling about Putin is negative: he's considered reflexively anti-American," he told DW in an email. "That view, of course, magnifies his accomplishments. When he succeeds, it's seen as an American setback."
On the other hand, Putin's foreign policy is subject to its own pressures. Netanyahu's visit to the Kremlin was also a last ditch attempt to influence an international deal with Iran. But Russia, as a member of the P5+1 group currently locked into the delicate talks, is unlikely to threaten the possibility of a deal, particularly after Putin told his Iranian counterpart on Monday that "a real chance has now emerged for finding a solution to this longstanding problem."
Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow center, points out that Russia's foreign policy is hamstrung by other limitations too. "Moscow does not have enough resources or soft power to give them permanence," she told DW.
She also pointed out that Putin, just like Obama, does have domestic concerns too. "For Putin, foreign policy is just a means to secure his own power," she said. "A lot of people who don't support his domestic policy do support the growing importance of Russia in the international arena. Russia is sinking into a crisis and is trying to compensate for that with foreign activities. But that is happening, by coincidence, while the West is crippled."
Sestanovich suggests that the Syria deal success masked Putin's other shortcomings. "In general, Americans tend to overrate Putin's skill," he said. "In most respects, his foreign policy has foundered - alienating Europeans, his immediate neighbors, major Middle East governments, and the US too. If Putin can re-establish a serious security relationship with Egypt, that would be an impressive result."
The pendulum swings
But of course there are good reasons why Washington's current "softness" in the Middle East is likely to be short lived. If nothing else, US policy is expected to change tack once again once Obama leaves office in 2016. "US policy is highly personalized," said Eyal, "I remember it was said after the Vietnam War, 'it'll be 20, 30 years before the United States does anything.' Well, five years after Vietnam Reagan was elected and the whole intellectual climate changed overnight."
Moreover, Eyal sees plenty of flaws in the common view that the US is in long-term decline. "If you look at American defense expenditure, for instance, they have the biggest punch of any nation in the world, and will continue having that for decades to come."
"There's a 101 reasons why the idea that America will forget about the Middle East is nonsense," he added, and listed three he considered the most important: the survival of Israel as a domestic issue in the United States, the importance of securing energy resources for the global economy - even if the US is less dependent on the region's fossil fuels - and thirdly the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and Islamic extremists remains a security threat.
All this of course, does not stop Putin enjoying his moment of diplomatic glory - however long it lasts.