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Last Updated: Friday, 29 April, 2005, 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK
Russia seeks greater Mid-East say
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

Russian President Vladimir Putin in the West Bank town of Ramallah
Mr Putin wants to boost Moscow's influence in the region
Russian President Vladimir Putin has met Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the West Bank on the final stage of a Middle East trip that has taken him to Egypt and Israel.

All sorts of labels - like "historic" and "ground-breaking" have been applied to this visit.

It's the first trip by any Soviet or Russian leader to the Middle East for 40 years and also the first ever to Israel.

But neither side had great expectations.

Re-acquiring influence

Mr Putin's brief visit to the Middle East is a signal of Moscow's widening horizons; but it has also demonstrated the limitations of Russia's new diplomacy in the region.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (left) and Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser during the opening of the Aswan Dam in 1964
Nikita Khrushchev was the last Kremlin chief to visit Egypt

Russia is eager to re-acquire some of the influence it once had.

Mr Putin wants his country to be seen again as a significant player on the diplomatic stage.

The Middle East was, during the Cold War years, one of the Soviet Union's key areas of interest.

Moscow armed much of the Arab world and enjoyed especially close ties with Syria and Egypt.

However, since then Russian influence has largely collapsed. The process began long before the waning of communism.

The peace process between Israel and Egypt prompted an increasingly strong tilt of the Egyptian government towards Washington.

Moscow's one-sided diplomatic ties in the region - it had broken off relations with Israel in 1967 - restricted its diplomatic room for manoeuvre. These ties were resumed only in 1991.

'Uphill task'

But with the collapse of communism, Russian foreign policy appeared to be on hold.

Its leaders' attention focused on domestic affairs and what the Russians call their "near abroad" - the network of former Soviet states that make up Moscow's backyard.

Now Mr Putin wants to get Russia's diplomatic show back on the road. But he faces an uphill task.

Russia's proposal for a peace conference in Moscow was brushed aside by the Israelis and the Americans.

It found favour with the Palestinians, but even they can have few illusions about the diplomatic weight that Russia can deploy here.

The visit, though, did cement a more normal relationship between Russia and Israel.

And that's important for both of them, given the very large Russian community that has now settled in Israel.


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