The Russia Profile Special Report is a quarterly publication that consists of a collection of articles by different staff and freelance authors dedicated to a specific central theme of the editors' choosing. Stories found in our Special Reports are the best-researched, most profound and comprehensive analytical pieces available at RussiaProfile.Org.
The Special Reports are an indispensible tool for any Russia watcher or researcher interested in taking a closer look at the pressing issues that affect the modern Russian society. The reports are a derivative of the print version of our monthly magazine that is no longer published on paper, but is available in various digital formats for the convenience of our readers.
We welcome all feedback and suggestions from our readers, so if there is a specific topic you would like Russia Profile to take a closer look at, please let us know!
President Vladimir Putin went to the Middle East this week, where he visited Israel – the second visit by the Russian leader to that country in less than two years. Russia has suffered considerable loss of influence and economic assets in the region as a result of the “Arab Spring,” while the smoldering civil war in Syria and Iran’s refusal to submit its nuclear program to international scrutiny are further jeopardizing Russia’s interests. What was Putin’s main challenge during his tour of the Middle East? Can he reverse the negative trends for Russia’s interests in the region? Could Israel become a more valued and even the principal partner for Russia in the region?
Syria and Iran topped Putin’s agenda as he sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. It is a sign of geopolitical chutzpah that Israel seems to be more sympathetic to Moscow’s cautious approach to Syria and its insistence on an internally negotiated political settlement than to Western and Arab calls for armed intervention. Like Russia, Israel is concerned with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a result of the “Arab Spring” and the role of some Gulf states (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) in fostering and actually arming Islamist forces that have deposed (or threaten to depose) secular regimes in the Arab world.
Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, which Israel regards as a “rational enemy” it could contain and deter, is on the brink of collapsing, with a proliferation of Islamist movements threatening Lebanon, Jordan and Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. Turkish armed support for the Syrian opposition and Ankara’s strong push to depose Assad have also angered Israel and Russia. For Israel, an international armed intervention in Syria could be a distraction from the focus on Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel views as a threat.
It is on the subject of Iran that Russian and Israeli minds do not think alike. Russia has made a great diplomatic effort to salvage the stalemated P5+1 talks with Iran at their latest round in Moscow, but failed to break any new ground as Iran dug in its heels on maintaining its right to unlimited uranium enrichment. Israel is considering various military options to take out the Iranian nuclear program and is probably relieved at Moscow’s inability to coax its Iranian partners into a deal. The talks’ failure opens the door to joint Israeli-U.S. air strikes, more likely to happen after the U.S. presidential election in November.
Russia has lost a lot of its clout in the Arab world largely as a result of its reluctance to embrace the “Arab Spring” and its longer-than-necessary support for deposed Arab dictators. Even Russian abstention from the UN Security Council vote to authorize a military operation in Libya has not won Moscow many friends in the Arab world.
Russian support for Assad’s tough reprisals against the Syrian opposition further aggravated Russia’s relations with key Arab states, particularly the Gulf monarchies. The same is true for Russian efforts to shield Teheran from international sanctions for its nuclear intransigence.
It is rumored in the oil markets that Saudi Arabia’s decision to maintain a ten billion barrels a day of oil production despite the global economic slowdown and growing inventories that have driven the price of crude below $90 per barrel, to a certain degree reflects Riyadh’s desire to make Russian and Iranian policies in the region more responsive to Saudi concerns. The irony, of course, is that Israel, with recent huge gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, is turning into a serious competitor for Russia in the European gas market.
What was Putin’s main challenge during his tour of the Middle East? Can he reverse the negative trends for Russia’s interests in the region? What could be a winning strategy for Russia in the Middle East, given the policy constraints that Moscow faces? Could Israel become a more valued and even the principal partner for Russia in the region, rather than the Arab states, since the “Arab Spring” brings to power Islamic forces that both Russia and Israel fear? Should Russia continue to shield Iran from international economic and military pressure to end its nuclear program? What does this policy do to Russia’s long-term interests in the Middle East? Are Russian interests in the region advanced by cooperation or competition with the West? Does Russia face competition from China in the area?
Dale Herspring, Distinguished Professor, Kansas State University, KS
First, let us ask ourselves: what is Moscow's primary interest in Israel? I am not an expert on Israel, but I would argue that one of the Kremlin's primary interests is military. The Kremlin has a very nice relationship with Tel Aviv – ergo its purchase of drones – even though they are not of the newest vintage. The Israelis work closely with the Russians in other military-related areas as well. For a country like Russia, with its military still in the 1980s in many areas, the Israelis are a blessing – even if one that is often in disguise.
I take a less aggressive view of Russian behavior in the Middle East than some. Right now, the Kremlin is hanging on by its finger nails. I seriously doubt that anyone in Moscow has any idea how matters will turn out in Syria. If the Assad government falls, as Frolov suggests, Israel could turn out to be Moscow's one friend left in the region. It would certainly be one of the ironies of history that after all of the money, time and effort invested in the region, Moscow could end up with one country in which it has not taken a leading role to be its only "friend." Yet, politics, like war, makes for strange bedfellows.
Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA
It seems to come as a surprise to some observers that Russia and Israel have been steadily improving relations now for quite some time. Without much fanfare, without red button props and grandiloquence, the two countries have reached consensus on many items while evidently maintaining separate positions on key regional issues. The relationship is now based on realistic and pragmatic perceptions and the recognition that partnership is possible even though some points of disagreement remain unsolved. There are tangible outcomes from this process that have a significant positive value for the citizens of both countries, for example visa-free travel.
The key for this genuine improvement has been the readiness of policymakers in both Israel and Russia to review and modify their mutual paradigms in response to a changing international environment. Both countries have a pragmatic and forward-looking approach to their mutual relations.
Putin’s visit to Israel, and the dignified yet warm welcome he received in that country is just one more episode in an ongoing exchange of working visits by senior policymakers – not too long ago, Israeli leaders visited Russia. Certainly, the shared tragic experience of death and destruction suffered during World War II is a very strong bonding factor between Israel and Russia.
In the context of the above, Putin’s visit to Israel might be considerably more routine than it may appear to those who somehow were not tracking the rapprochement of the past several years. To this latter contingent of observers Putin’s recent visit may seem more extraordinary than it was in reality.
Regarding Russia’s interests and influence in the Middle East, one needs to remember that for the last 20 years or so those interests and influence had been as inherited by Russia from the Soviet Union. Those Soviet goals in turn were shaped by ideologies, relationships and events that are even older. A revision of these old legacy settings by modern Russia is logical and inevitable. Therefore, at present one should speak of current “Russian interests” in the Middle East with great caution – the concept is in flux.
Some elements remain certain: Russia does not want destabilization and conflict in the region, and the present leadership in the Kremlin is firmly committed to non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means for their delivery. Other elements of Russia’s interests might be more fluid at this time and may shift in previously unused directions. The substance of Russia’s engagement with the Middle East may change. Israel is obviously seen by Moscow as a partner in many key aspects. Other shifts appear possible, albeit consistent with the basic premises listed here.
As to influence in the Middle East, Russia, like the Western powers, may be entering a dangerous period of reduced ability to shape events. The forces that prevail today in the Middle East, except Israel, are more autochthonous to the Arabic society and to Islam. Religious fundamentalism, which had been politically marginalized in the past by Arabic secularism, is returning in force and through democratic mechanisms. Western democracies welcomed the “Arab Spring” as a supposed victory of Baron de Montesquieu’s and J.J. Rousseau’s ideas, expected to be able to influence the resulting polities. But a loss of influence, rather than its increase, has been the reward for Western opportunistic cheers of “sic simper tyrannis.” Russia seems to be experiencing similar effects, but due to other causes. Reversing the decline in influence may be an impossible task for both Russia and the West because the causes of the loss of influence are more profound than international policies.
Dick Krickus, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC
With his visit to the Middle East this week, Vladimir Putin sought to temper anti-Russian feeling among the region’s people. With about one million former Soviet Jews who now live in Israel, Putin knew that he would be greeted warmly by the Israelis, who are not unmindful of Moscow’s veto in the UN Security Council. Both countries share concerns about Syria, but they disagree as to the nature of the Iranian nuclear arsenal.
In meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Putin hoped to secure Israel’s support for his warning to Barack Obama that should Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, be deposed, no one has any idea who will replace him. Indeed, Syria might find itself under the domination of radical Sunnis who wreak vengeance on their Alawite masters and their allies among the disparate minorities in the country. Furthermore, the fighting in Syria might spill over into neighboring countries and foster a firestorm of violence that could spread throughout the region – including to Israel.
Like Putin, many American analysts believe that the Israeli leaders find Assad a known quantity, one that they can live with, and that he is preferable to the radicals that might replace him. As a consequence of Mohamed Morsi’s victory in Egypt, fears in Israel about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and even more zealous Islamists have soared. Were people like them to gain power in a second neighboring state, Israel’s security would be placed in jeopardy.
But Russia and Israel are not in alignment over Iran, as Israeli officials and pro-Israeli pundits in the United States have warned Obama that time is running out and that once the Mullahs have enough enriched uranium to make several bombs, it may be too late to deny them that option through a military strike. With the strong support of the Pentagon, Obama has resisted that provocative move. Should he stumble in his reelection bid, a Mitt Romney administration would be more inclined to support the view of Netanyahu and many hardliners in Israel who assert that time is running out and an Israeli strike against Iran is inevitable. That said, many Israeli intelligence and military officials agree with Obama that this would be a blunder of major proportions and could do grave harm to Israel’s security.
Turning to the region’s Arabs, Putin is looking for a way to reconcile with the Sunnis who have savaged Moscow for refusing to join the Arab League and the West in an attempt to bring Assad down. Russia’s selling arms to Syria is deemed especially odious by many in the Arab world and a significant number of these people may never, ever forgive Russia for this move. At the same time, Putin indicated in his meeting with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, that, like Obama, he too believes the Israeli settlement policy that so angered the Palestinians is ill-advised.
The Americans, Israelis, and Russians all have incentives to work together to stabilize the Middle East, but there are serious points of dispute among the three parties making effective cooperation difficult. One more thing, Mohamed Morsi’s election in Egypt indicates that henceforth the “Arab Street,” and not Arab dictators, will have a greater voice in their county’s foreign policy than has previously been the case. This means that Washington, Tel Aviv and Moscow will not have the same opportunity to shape events in the region as they had for decades. That is an incentive for them to find areas of cooperation to promote stability there. That is a daunting task. Are they up to it?
You may place this material on your blog by copying the link.