Why Donald Trump's Jerusalem move might have made Russia a lot stronger

  • U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is likely to have strengthened Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • Moscow could even take over the role of "honest broker" in the stalled peace process between Israel and Palestine, given its close ties to both Israel and the Arab world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin

U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is likely to have the unforeseen consequence of strengthening the hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moscow's role in the Middle East, according to experts.

When Trump said last week that he recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and that he would move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv, much of the Western world and Middle East reacted with shock, fearing that the move will damage any prospect of peace in the region.

Putin also expressed dismay. Last Thursday, following a meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said that Trump's decision "does not do anything to help settle the situation in the Middle East and is instead destabilizing an already complicated situation."

However, Russia could benefit from the move and see its influence in the Middle East grow, analysts told CNBC, noting that Moscow could even take over the role of "honest broker" in the stalled peace process between Israel and Palestine given its close ties to both Israel and the Arab world.

"Putin has established Russia as perhaps the single-most important external actor in the Middle East," Christopher Granville, managing director of EMEA and global political research at TS Lombard, told CNBC on Wednesday.

Granville agreed that Russia could assert itself as a key player in a regional peace process, although tensions are running so high between Israel and Palestine, let alone the wider Islamic world, that the process looks unlikely to see progress any time soon.

"Russia is certainly better positioned to have constructive contacts with different countries and players on both sides of the barricades… whereas the U.S. has cast in its lot — lock, stock and barrel — with one side, broadly that of Saudi Arabia and Israel," he said.

Russia the peace broker?

Trump's decision sparked violent protests across the Arab world, mass confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinians deeply aggrieved by the move, and condemnation and disapproval from many international leaders.

Putin said that the move could, "in fact, ruin the prospects for the Palestine-Israel peace process," adding that Russia hoped that the "specific terms of the agreement on Jerusalem's status are the subject of direct talks between Palestine and Israel."

But as the U.S. makes itself look partisan with regards to complex and fraught Israeli and Palestinian relations, Russia has a good relationship with the Arab world, most notably being an ally of arch rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has already taken a key role in brokering a peace process in Syria.

Granville said that while Russia was in a good position to deal with all parties involved, it might not want the difficult role of peacemaker, or "honest broker," in peace talks.

"Russia is better placed to deal with everyone — although the role of an 'honest broker' in the peace process is an invidious and somewhat doomed role," he said.

Russia has cordial relations with Israel with the countries enjoying solid political and cultural ties. As a key player in Syria's reestablishment after a prolonged civil war, Russia has also accommodated Israel's requests for a new buffer zone along its border with Syria that Iranian soldiers would not be allowed to enter — thus helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Moscow.

With complex relations at play and at stake, one Russia analyst believed that the country would rather not get involved in messy Israeli-Palestine politics, despite the opportunity the U.S.' controversial action had presented.

"To some extent, anything that's damaging U.S. relations with the Arab world gives someone else the opportunity to slip in, but Putin is a fan of Israel," Jason Bush, Eurasia Group's senior analyst specializing in Russia, told CNBC on Wednesday.

"He's done a lot to improve relations. They have a lot in common, such as a commitment to combating Islamic extremism. But Russia doesn't want to take sides in the Middle East, it sees itself as friendly towards both Israel and the Arab nations around it."