The lead: ‘Few illusions about Erdogan’ in Moscow
The mood in Russia about the Ukraine war is "much less pessimistic" than Western media may be reporting, says Dimitri Simes, one of the top American experts on Russia, president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, and publisher of its foreign policy magazine, The National Interest.
Simes, who was born in Moscow and speaks fluent Russian, spent more than two weeks in Russia meeting and talking with the country’s leaders and citizens.
Some of his observations from Moscow:
The mood in Russia is "much less pessimistic" than accounts in Western media.
Disappointment and skepticism regarding the failure of Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine has morphed into a "tacit acceptance" of a long war, with more limited aims in the east and south.
Many Russians have taken at face value comments by US and Western leaders that the purpose of the war is to weaken Russia, and there is increasing acceptance of the view that Russia is at war with the US-led Western alliance, not just Ukraine.
The political opposition is sizable, perhaps in the "hundreds of thousands," but a "significant majority" support Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin also faces pressure from hardliners who promote an even more aggressive posture toward the West, and fault the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for being overly "Westernized" and accommodating, at the expense of ties with Asia — not unlike the criticism that former Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif faced from their hardliners over the Iran nuclear deal.
In Moscow, restaurants are full, shops and pharmacies are well stocked, and there is more hard currency in the system, at least for now, due to high energy prices.
"This may not be sustainable," however, as sanctions continue to take their toll on the economy, and many entrepreneurs, tech experts and other professionals with transferrable skills look to leave the country.
And on the Middle East:
With regard to Iran, Moscow is "not in the driver’s seat" and can’t block a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if there is a deal, and therefore "can’t be more Iranian than the Iranians."
With regard to Israel, there is frustration in some circles with the increasing Israeli tilt toward Ukraine, that Moscow has cultivated close ties with Jerusalem at the expense of relations with Iran, and may be willing to explore other options with Iran, if Israel veers closer to Ukraine (Ben Caspit reports that Israel is ready for that possibility — see below).
And "there are few illusions" about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seeking to take advantage of Russia’s predicament to advance Turkey's goals in Syria and reset ties with the US and NATO. "It’s not a game the Russians like," says Simes, but there is little they can do about it.
Read: Simes’s April 26 interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov here.
Listen: Our March 10 podcast interview with Simes here.
From our regional correspondents:
1. Russia-Israel tensions ease after Lavrov incident
Ben Caspit goes behind the scenes of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s high-stakes phone calls to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week. Upon Zelenskyy’s request, Bennett pushed Putin to allow the evacuation of the women and children from a besieged factory in Mariupol.
During their phone call, Putin apologized for anti-Semitic comments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov days earlier. “It surprised both Bennett and [Housing Minister Ze’ev] Elkin, who had planned to raise the issue themselves toward the end of the call with a request to Putin couched in diplomatic language about correcting distorted comments,” writes Caspit.
2. Hamas eyes new battlefront in Israel
Hamas is calling on Arab Israelis to carry out attacks inside Israel, reports Rasha Abou Jalal. In late April, Hamas leader Yahya al-Sinwar urged the Arab community in Israel to take part in operations inside Israel using guns or knives. The militant group reportedly sees individual attacks as an effective way to confront Israel without having to drag the Gaza Strip into another military confrontation.
Israel is currently reeling from one of its worst waves of terror attacks in years. On May 5, two Palestinians killed three Israelis in the town of Elad, marking the sixth such attack inside Israel since mid-March. Meanwhile, the Islamic Jihad’s military wing claims to have built a new armed drone designed to strike Israel.
3. Syrians skeptical of Erdogan's refugee return plan
In what Fehim Tastekin dubs “hardly more than a return to an already failed project,” Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced a new plan to resettle Syrian refugees inside parts of Syria controlled by the Turkey-backed opposition. Erdogan’s plan, which calls for the construction of thousands more cinder block homes, comes as his election rivals say they’ll negotiate with Damascus for the return of most refugees now living in Turkey.
Meanwhile, Sultan Al-Kanj reports that the Syrian opposition is wary of any plans to move refugees into parts of northern Syria that are already overcrowded and impoverished. Amid continued violence and economic strife in Syria, polls show most of Turkey’s Syrian population is unwilling to go back.
4. Unclear if Egypt’s national dialogue includes Brotherhood
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is calling for a national dialogue with the opposition, which is seeking the release of more political prisoners. Rights groups estimate that thousands of journalists, lawmakers and activists are jailed in Egypt as part of Sisi’s clampdown on dissent.
In the past month, Sisi has reactivated a presidential pardon committee, and 41 political prisoners have been released from pre-trial detention. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has many of its key figures behind bars, has so far remained silent on Sisi's invitation for dialogue.
5. Israeli company develops psychedelic-based nasal spray
An Israeli biopharmaceutical company has unveiled a nasal spray featuring psychedelic mushrooms. The spray emits nanoparticles that encapsulate molecules of psychedelic substances, including psilocybin and ketamine. The Beersheba-based drugmaker says the spray is designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other issues. Adam Lucente has more on the use of mushrooms to treat mental health disorders.
Multimedia this week: Iraq’s Sinjar operation, Palestinian violence
Listen: In the wake of Lavrov’s comments, Ben Caspit interviews Dani Dayan, the chairman of Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.
Watch: Joe Snell explains the Iraqi army’s operation in the Yazidis' ancestral homeland of Sinjar, which has forced thousands of civilians to flee.
Listen: Al-Monitor columnist Daoud Kuttab and Andrew Parasiliti discuss what motivated the confrontations at the Al-Aqsa mosque and what comes next.
Watch: Arabian horse owners in northwest Syria are unable to register their animals, endangering their historical bloodlines.