Vol. 4, No. 22 5 May 2005
Putin Leads Russia's Return to the Middle East
and the Arab Embrace
Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to support Egypt's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and insisted that his country sell advanced missiles to Syria, while continuing to aid the nuclear development of Iran, particularly the Russian-built, 1,000-megawatt, Bushehr nuclear reactor.
The real reason for Putin's visit and for Palestinian enthusiasm seems to be an attempt to restore previous Russian or Soviet policies. "The Soviets were always keen on the Middle East. The region was practically their backyard," said Reda Shehata, a former Egyptian ambassador to Russia.
With former Soviet Central Asia today dotted with American air force bases, Putin's best option is to skip over this tier of American influence and re-engage the Arab world. The Middle East is the natural area for Russia to be active, if Moscow is to regain some of the influence that the Soviet Union once enjoyed. However, past Russian diplomacy, aid, and weapons offers have sometimes spurred wars and arms races, not peace.
Abbas is not very different from the Ba'ath party officials in Syria who believe in a Russian counterweight to U.S. policies. Abbas did his advanced university training in Moscow, speaks fluent Russian, and once served as the PLO ambassador to the Soviet Union.
The chosen instrument that both Russia and the PA hope to employ to neutralize American power is the Quartet, where a united front of Russia, the EU, and the UN can be depended upon to offset the position of the U.S. After Putin met Abbas in Ramallah, he called for strengthening the role of the Quartet.
The renewed Russian drive for influence in the Middle East raises serious questions about the entire idea of relying on a multilateral Quartet for peacemaking. Given Putin's harsh critique of U.S. support for Middle Eastern democracy, how can he be a partner for President Bush in the Middle East? Why empower those who oppose you?
Putin Visits Israel and the PA
When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Israel and Egypt in April, he offered to host a Middle East peace conference in Moscow and, in return, he offered the Arab/Islamic world several things. Putin made his bold offer even as he promised to support Egypt's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and while insisting that his country sell advanced missiles to Syria - missiles which Israel fears will alter the power balance in the region.1 He, in fact, came to Syria's defense, calling for conciliatory policies toward the regime in Damascus. Putin has also reasserted Russia's right to sell the Palestinians armored personnel carriers, while continuing to aid the nuclear development of Iran, particularly the Russian-built, 1,000-megawatt, Bushehr nuclear reactor - something which deeply concerns both the United States and Israel, which Iran has pledged to destroy.2 At the end of his visit to Israel, Putin placed some minimal caveats on his support for the Iranian nuclear program, insisting that Russia's "Iranian partners" put all their nuclear programs "under complete international control." But no cutback in Russian involvement in Iran's nuclear infrastructure was proposed.
Israel and the United States both demurred on the Russian peace conference, while Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the PA media immediately welcomed the Russian initiative warmly. Why was Putin so eager to invite, and why were the Palestinians so overjoyed to come?
Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Abbas supplied a tentative answer in interviews with Palestinian radio and official PBC television, noting, first, that "this visit has great importance because it is the first time the president of the Russian republic has visited the region."3 Despite Abbas's initial analysis, however, this was not the real reason, although similar comments came from some Israeli officials who seemed overjoyed at the latest photo opportunity.4
The real reason for Putin's visit and for Palestinian enthusiasm seems to be an attempt to restore previous Russian or Soviet policies. "The Soviets were always keen on the Middle East. The region was practically their backyard. Today the Russians, under Putin, are trying to regain their presence, if not influence, in the Middle East," said Reda Shehata, a former Egyptian ambassador to Russia.5 As one life-long student of Middle East politics wrote 30 years ago, "what the tsars seized, the commissars never gave up."6 Putin's visit was viewed as significant, as an official Egyptian newspaper noted, because it was the first visit of a Russian/Soviet head of state to Egypt since Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev attended the funeral of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970.
Russia Re-engages the Arab World
Foreshadowing the Russian reentry into the Middle East, two days earlier Putin gave a state-of-the-Russian Federation speech in Moscow in which he enunciated a theme that is popular both on the Russian Left and the Russian Right: The fall of the Soviet Union was, according to Putin, "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."7 In his nationally televised speech, Putin unabashedly and nostalgically returned to the Great Power themes that dominated the Communist era. As one observer remarked: "Putin, who served as a colonel in the KGB, has resurrected some communist symbols during his presidency, bringing back the music of the old Soviet anthem and the Soviet-style red banner as the military's flag."8
With the extension of NATO to the Baltic states in the 1990s, the resurrection of Russia's Great Power status is not going to come through Eastern Europe. Even former Soviet Central Asia is today dotted with American air force bases. Like Khruschev in the late 1950s, Putin's best option is to skip over this tier of American influence and re-engage the Arab world. The Middle East is the natural area for Russia to be active, if Moscow is to regain some of the influence that the Soviet Union once enjoyed.
This hasn't been lost on the Palestinians. When Abbas explained to a Palestinian radio and television audience more fully the importance of the Putin trip and the Putin invitation, he said, "This is especially so because we have historical relations with the Soviet Union which has become Russia, and because it is one of the Committee of Four Nations (the Quartet)."9 Why would Abbas hint at any sentimentality toward the Soviet Union?
Arab diplomats with historically close ties to Moscow are hoping that Putin's entry into the Middle East can help offset what they view as American hegemony over the region. Tired of Washington's critique of their lack of democratic institutions and need for political reform, they have an interest in a counterweight to the U.S. that can help alleviate pressure to curtail corruption and open up their political systems. Putin picked up on this sensitivity during his Israel visit, declaring that it is the U.S. that is destabilizing the Middle East with its support for democratization of the Arab world: "with their policies the Americans are supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt."10 Putin probably picked up this line of argument in Egypt, but it rang well with other Arabs including Palestinians.
Abbas is not very different from the Ba'ath party officials in Syria who believe in a Russian counterweight to U.S. policies. After all, Abbas did his advanced university training in Moscow. He is part of a generation of Fatah leaders who share strategic, historical, and personal links with the old Soviet elites and even shared their goals. Abbas speaks fluent Russian and once served as the PLO ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Russia and the PA: Shared Areas of Interest
With Putin, both the Russians and Abbas have a number of shared areas of interest. Putin and the Russian leadership are eager to regain political and economic influence in the Middle East region that is in Russia's backyard, while the Palestinians are eager to curtail the "pro-Israel" role of the United States in the Arab-Israeli arena. The Arab world gained global power by playing the superpowers against one another during the Cold War. Additionally, the "anti-American" side of Palestinian politics is frequently on display in mosque sermons and newspaper editorials and cartoons, all controlled by the PA.
The chosen instrument that both Russia and the PA hope to employ to neutralize American power is the Quartet, where a united front of Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations Secretariat can be depended upon to offset the position of the U.S. After Putin met Abbas in Ramallah, he called for strengthening the role of the Quartet in the future. Putin asserted: "There is no alternative but that the Quartet monitor the implementation of the Roadmap, the renewal of permanent status negotiations, and assisting the Palestinians in establishing institutions and a state." Abbas also looks for the Quartet to provide a "political horizon" and articulate positions calling for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, contrary to the Bush commitments to Sharon.
Putin and the Palestinian leadership are both suffering from serious domestic problems and disappointments, according to public opinion polls. Russia is suffering a huge public health crisis that includes spiraling AIDS deaths and infant mortality.11 The average young Russian male is nearly ten times likelier to die a violent death than the average Israeli.12 High-powered summitry is especially attractive to Putin because it meets the Russian populist desire to reassert Great Power status. For Abbas, it distracts from his relative inability to improve the Palestinian quality of life or to make any major inroads in reducing corruption or internal Palestinian violence. Abbas can also present an advantage over Hamas to the Palestinian public, showing that he is capable of mobilizing international support on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
Both Putin and Abbas, each of whom were trained and/or employed by the Soviet KGB for significant periods in their lives, are both past masters at the KGB tactics of disinformation and "peace offensives." During the 1980s and early 1990s, after his return from doctoral studies in Moscow, Abbas was in charge of PLO contacts with the Israeli "peace camp."
While both Abbas and Putin have talked about peace and democracy, their records are somewhat more modest. Putin has used the Russian legal system to rein in press critics, while Abbas's election victory in January was attained during a two-week election campaign in which none of the other candidates were interviewed or covered significantly in the Palestinian broadcast media, and when gunmen from Abbas's Fatah faction intimidated election officials into opening polls so that Abbas backers could "vote" repeatedly.13
Both men have promised to curb incitement against Israel and against Jews, but anti-Semitism is rife in both regimes. Anti-Semitic laws are regularly offered in the Russian national assembly, while Abbas's radio, television, and school textbooks deny the existence of several major Jewish holy places such as Solomon's Temple and Rachel's Tomb, with mosque sermons still full of anti-Semitic references.
Both men have also had difficulty in curbing domestic terrorism and internal violence. In theory, Putin should have serious reservations about Abbas's willingness to embrace Hamas and Islamic Jihad, since Russia is at the forefront of the war against jihadi movements in Chechnya. Moscow's concern with militant Islamic terrorism should equally draw it closer to Israel. But if Putin is seeking to restore the old Soviet position of strength in the Middle East, he will take a less critical stand toward Arab or Iranian leaders harboring terrorist groups, just like his Soviet predecessors. Indeed, Putin's defense of Syria and Iran is really a throwback to Soviet-era diplomacy.
Is there an alternative course for Russian diplomacy? The post-9/11 world, in fact, has created new joint Russian interests with the West. Russia was a primary target of al-Qaeda long before the U.S.; indeed, al-Qaeda was born in the wake of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in 1989. Today, Putin views the regional threat to Russia across the Caucuses as part of the threat of international terrorism. Furthermore, if the energy factor is taken into account, new Russian interests become evident. With the massive increase in the energy needs of China and India, Russia has a strategic interest in meeting this demand. This puts it in competition with Middle Eastern states like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia is already using Israeli pipelines to transport its oil from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, thereby bypassing the Suez Canal, in order to reach these new Asian markets. Putin must be torn between adopting policies toward the Middle East that were fashioned by the Soviet bureaucracy fifty years ago, and fashioning an entirely new Middle East approach based on cooperation with the U.S. and Israel. Putin's recent visit indicates that he still prefers Soviet "old-think."
Putin and Abbas seem to share an ambivalence about confronting terrorism, except if it is directed at them. For his part, Abbas has promised Israel and the United States to curb Palestinian terrorists, but he has not arrested any gunmen, preferring to spend his first 100 days in office demanding increased American and Israeli financial support as well as Israel's release of all convicted Palestinian terrorists and arms merchants.14 It is ironic that Putin can embrace Abbas, who is a self-declared ally of the Chechen mujahidin, while Abbas has chosen a path of legitimizing an armed Hamas and making it a part of the Palestinian political system.15
Abbas has also talked to his own people about ending "the militarization of the intifada" and the "anarchy of weapons." In real terms, this means putting an end to internal Palestinian violence which has increased along with Palestinian-Israeli violence. "People are being killed every day in the street," observed Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Group. "Mostly it's not collaborators [people accused of cooperating with Israel]," declared Eid, explaining, "Many Palestinians are killed, and our people don't even know why."16
The renewed Russian drive for influence in the Middle East raises serious questions about the entire idea of relying on a multilateral Quartet for peacemaking of any sort. The idea of an international conference touching on permanent status issues is a vehicle for skipping over the first stage of the Roadmap - that calls on the Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure - and moving already into establishing a Palestinian state. Given Putin's harsh critique of U.S. support for Middle Eastern democracy, how can he be a partner for President Bush in the Middle East? Why empower those who oppose you? The Quartet was conceived as a way of obtaining international support for the U.S. prior to the Iraq War. Clearly, participation in the Quartet didn't alter Russia's position on Iraq in any way. It may be that this entire approach needs serious reexamination.
* * *
1. Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the missiles were only defensive, that they would be used to "guard Syrian President Assad's palace," according to several Israeli press reports. However, some Western analysts suspect that Putin has basically agreed to sell Syria two weapons systems: SS-26 and SA-18 missiles. The SS-26, also known as the "Iskander," is a highly mobile ground-to-ground missile that uses satellite guidance systems and can be re-targeted in-flight. With a range of 180 miles, it can carry a 1,000-pound warhead to most targets inside Israel. The SA-18 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, known also as the "Igla," uses its enhanced seeker to hit aerial targets, such as jet fighters, head-on. Israeli press reports have claimed that Putin, under Israeli pressure, offered to sell a vehicle-based version of the SA-18, but the Israeli army says it would be easy to re-convert back to a mobile version with parts available on the open market. Such a missile could then find its way to Hizballah, the Lebanon-based and Iranian-supported terror group that has assumed a great share in the planning and financing of Palestinian terror in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli defense establishment is especially worried that such missiles could be used to attack Israeli military helicopters and civilian aircraft. See Claremont Institute reports on missile threats at http://www.missilethreat.com/missiles/ss-26_russia.html, and http://www.missilethreat.com/threat/syria.html, as well as an October 2004 report from Janes Missiles and Rockets. See also Michael Mainville, "Crisis Is Brewing Over Russ Missiles," New York Sun, January 13, 2005, http://www.nysun.com/article/7612.
2. Israel's Channel 10 television reported on April 28, 2005, that Putin indicated he might cancel a deal to provide the PA with armored personnel carriers, which Israel has opposed as being counter to the terms of the Israel-PA accords.* * *
3. Voice of Palestine radio in Arabic (Sawt Felasteen) from Ramallah (hereafter VOP), as well as Palestinian Television from Gaza (hereafter PBC), April 28, 2005. All Arabic and Hebrew translations are by author unless otherwise indicated.
4. Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made almost identical remarks in an interview with the Voice of Israel, April 28, 2005, and similar remarks were made by Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Israel's Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres once again saw visions of a new Russia and a new Middle East: "This is a sign of the changes that have occurred in Russia itself, in Israel-Russia relations, and in Russian policy in the Middle East."
5. Al-Ahram, April 28-May 4, 2005.
6. J.C. Hurewitz, Middle East Politics: The Military Dimension (New York: Octagon Books, 1974).
7. See Alex Nicholson, "Russia's Putin: Soviet Collapse a Tragedy," AP/Washington Post, April 25, 2005; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/04/25/AR2005042500537_pf.html.
9. This was a reference to the "Quartet" or the informal American-Russian-European-UN oversight of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
10. Yediot Ahronot, April 29, 2005.
11. Cesar Chelala, "Russia wastes time as AIDS crisis builds," Japan Times, April 5, 2005. See http://www.japantimes.com/cgi-bin/geted.pl5?eo20050405a2.htm.
12. David Brooks, "Mourning Mother Russia," New York Times, April 28, 2005. See http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/28/opinion/28brooks.html.
13. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who served as an international observer, and the PA's own election commission made these charges.
14. Abbas promised to release Fouad Shoubaki from British custody in Jericho, the man behind the "Karinne A" arms transport from Iran to the Palestinians, as well as the men who planned and carried out the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehav'am Ze'evi in Jerusalem in 2001.
15. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror and David Keyes, "Will a Gaza 'Hamas-stan' Become a Future Al-Qaeda Sanctuary?" Jerusalem Issue Brief 4- 7, November 8, 2004, http://jcpa.org/brief/brief004-7.htm; Lt. Col. Jonathan D. Halevi, "Undermining Mahmud Abbas: The 'Green Revolution' and the Hamas Strategy to Take Over the Palestinian Authority," Jerusalem Issue Brief 4-21, April 14, 2005, http://jcpa.org/brief/brief004-21.htm.
16. Interviews by Michael Widlanski with Bassem Eid, April 2005.
Dr. Michael Widlanski teaches political communication and comparative politics at the Rothberg School of Hebrew University. He is a former reporter, correspondent, and editor, respectively, at the New York Times, Cox Newspapers-Atlanta Constitution, and Jerusalem Post. He has also served as strategic affairs advisor to the Ministry of Public Security, editing secret PLO archives captured in Jerusalem.
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