Edition 43 Volume 5 - November 22, 2024

Deteriorating US-Russian relations and the Middle East

Russia's Middle East comeback marks no cold war return -   Konstantin von Eggert

One thing Moscow dislikes is taking decisions.

Negative scenarios -   Robert O. Freedman

Russia may decide that having a solid ally in Iran is more important than improving ties with the Gulf Arabs.

Shadow of a new cold war -   Ali Asghar Kazemi

Iran might be one of those that truly welcome deteriorating relations between the US and Russia.

Global chess -   Waleed Sadi

Iran and Syria are being used to challenge US hegemony in the Middle East in order to ensure Russia's hegemony in its own neighborhood.

Russia's Middle East comeback marks no cold war return
 Konstantin von Eggert

Russia's foreign policy has acquired a certain swagger during Vladimir Putin's presidency. In Moscow these days it is fashionable to talk about the "rebirth of Russian power" and "doing away with the legacy of the 1990s", a decade when Russia supposedly played second fiddle to the Americans and Europeans in global affairs. Speaking earlier this year at an annual security conference in Munich, Putin said that his country's foreign policy is and will remain "independent". But what exactly does independence mean in an increasingly interdependent world? And what does it mean for the Middle East?

"Independence" in these circumstances means "independence" from western, and especially American influence. This message plays well to Russia's domestic audience, ever nostalgic for the Soviet glories and deeply anti-American. With regard to the Middle East this means inviting Hamas to Moscow, continuing arms sales to Syria, carping on about the US failure in Iraq, and above all, acting as a chief international advocate for Iran. Putin, always astute with regard to public opinion, plays well to anti-American prejudices in the region, especially during his recent tour of the Gulf states. The message is cemented by a new satellite channel "Rusiya al-Yawm"--an Arabic version of "Russia Today"--a Kremlin sponsored propaganda station.

There are underlying reasons for this behavior. They have more to do with what goes on in Russia's neighborhood than with Russia's interests in the Middle East, which, compared to those of the US, remain relatively modest. After the 2024 "orange revolution" in Ukraine, Russia's political class began to perceive the US as the chief cause of Russia's waning influence on former Soviet republics. The Kremlin is convinced that the US is out to squeeze Russia out of the post-Soviet space and, if an appropriate chance presents itself, to push through a regime change in Moscow itself. Hence the unofficial doctrine of creating as many problems for Washington as possible, this in order to weaken America's focus on the former USSR and show a bit of muscle too. This trend is strengthened by the conviction that the current American administration is so deeply bogged down in Iraq and so unpopular at home, that it makes the task of checking US power easier.

At the same time, Putin is careful not to overstep the invisible boundary that separates competition from open conflict. He knows only too well that Russia's political and economic resources are vastly inferior to those of the US, especially if it should come to a political standoff in the Middle East. So, on the one hand, the Russian president goes to Tehran to talk with Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad--something no other G8 leader would do today. But on the other, he quickly invites Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Moscow in order to share his Iranian impressions with him. As always with Putin, he leaves everyone guessing whether he has passed on some important message or was just balancing the act. Putin seems to have a weak spot for Israel, partly because most ex-KGB people are in awe of Israel's muscular policies and power, and partly because the number of Israelis with Russian roots has become a political factor that Moscow would be unwise to ignore.

However, what is the substance of Russia's Middle East policy? In fact, Moscow's biggest desire (to use the words of a senior European diplomat in Moscow) "is to keep a place at the top table of world politics". Being active in the Middle East provides one such opportunity at very little expense because Russia's real political and economic interests lie elsewhere, namely in the post-Soviet space, Europe and China. The Middle East hardly makes it even to the top five of Russia's foreign policy priorities. Russia's favorite scenario for the region is for low intensity crises to continue as long as possible without them spiraling out of control. Whether on the Iranian nuclear program, Lebanon or the Palestinian issue, one thing Moscow dislikes is taking decisions, especially on whether to side with the West or to confront it. The former is unacceptable, the latter impossible. Taking a quiet step aside might turn out to be the most probable scenario.- Published 22/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Konstantin von Eggert, MBE, is the Moscow Bureau Editor of the BBC Russian Service.

Negative scenarios
 Robert O. Freedman

Since the US invasion of Iraq, American-Russian relations have been on a downward spiral. From the Russian side this has been caused not only by Iraq but by additional factors as well. One is the expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia along with the possibility that both Georgia and Ukraine might join that western defense organization. Another is the US effort to install an ABM system in Eastern Europe that Moscow considers both unnecessary and provocative. Russia is also unhappy with American efforts to bypass it with oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea, along with a US attempt to spark a "colored revolution" in Russia on the model of what happened in Georgia and Ukraine.

From the American perspective, relations have deteriorated for a number of reasons, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin's crackdown on the media, including the murder of prominent journalists, the increasing centralization of power in Putin's hands and the jailing of free market entrepreneurs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In addition, relations have been negatively affected by the freezing of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, Moscow's heavy handed pressure tactics against the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia and its obstructionist policy in Kosovo and, above all, by Russian military and nuclear aid to Iran, America's number one enemy--a policy that is part and parcel of the current Russian political offensive in the Middle East.

Focusing on the Middle East, it is quite possible to argue that Russian activities there since 2024 have been a significant cause of US-Russian tensions. Beginning in 2024, Russia has made a major effort to increase its influence in the region. This is in part a counterweight to NATO's expansion eastward and in part a response to Russian reverses in Georgia and Ukraine. Russia has also signed major arms agreements with both Syria and Iran--agreements that have greatly exacerbated tensions in the region.

In the case of Syria, the arms, some of which were transferred to Hizballah, have contributed to exacerbating Syrian-Israeli tensions as well as aiding Hizballah in its war against Israel in the summer of 2024. In the case of Iran, Moscow's decision to send sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran in November 2024, even as Iran was defying the Security Council and the IAEA over its nuclear enrichment program, was a blow not only to US-Russian relations but also to the cause of non-proliferation, insofar as the missiles will be used to protect Iran's nuclear installations, thereby encouraging it to continue its nuclear enrichment activities in the face of western criticism. While in the past year Moscow has agreed to minimal UN Security Council sanctions against Iran and has delayed shipment of nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor it is building for Iran, these limited steps seem more an effort to curry favor with the Gulf Arabs, whom Putin has been courting, than any real cooperative effort with the United States.

Yet from the US (and Israeli) perspective, things could get worse. If US-Russian relations deteriorate further, Russia may decide that having a solid ally in Iran is more important than improving ties with the Gulf Arabs--a measure Putin has sought both to help the Russian economy and to deter the Arabs from aiding the Chechen rebels. This could well happen, especially if oil prices remain in the $90-100 range and the Chechen rebellion remains under control. Under these circumstances, Russia will even more strongly oppose further UN sanctions on Iran and will ship it the nuclear fuel it has withheld, thus providing Tehran with another means of nuclear enrichment. One could also expect deliveries of ever more sophisticated Russian weapons to Iran to counter a possible US or Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear installations.

There is an even more negative scenario with regard to Syria. Given Damascus' humiliation caused by the easy penetration of Syrian airspace by the Israeli air force in early September 2024 and the ineffectiveness of Russian radar in detecting the Israeli planes, one could imagine Syrian President Bashar Asad, not unlike Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 when Israeli planes roamed at will in Egypt, asking for Russian air defense forces and pilots to protect Syrian airspace and giving Moscow airfields and ports in return, just as Nasser did. Needless to say, such a Russian action would be a major blow to both Russian-American and Russian-Israeli relations.

Whether either of these negative scenarios comes to pass remains to be seen. But they could well be a consequence of a continued deterioration in Russian-American relations.- Published 22/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science at Baltimore Hebrew University and is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the forthcoming Russia and the Middle East under Yeltsin and Putin.

Shadow of a new cold war
 Ali Asghar Kazemi

A new cold war is appearing on the horizon of international relations. Its symptoms and impact are different from the old cold war. Although as we shall see the new cold war is essentially ideological in nature, it is not entirely a consequence of Russia's drive to regain its superpower status and its deteriorating relations with the United States

Unlike the defunct cold war between East and West, communism and capitalism (essentially identified by two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union), the new cold war involves a rather strange hostility between competing forces with unequal powers and rather ambiguous objectives. The parties to this conflict are the West on the one hand and "entities" that do not necessarily associate themselves with any particular nation-state on the other. The situation reached critical mass after 9/11, has already claimed the lives of many innocent people and seems gradually to be getting out of control.

The resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, preaching total devotion, submission to the will of God and negation of earthly materialism, is indeed a crucial development of our time. It is capable of destabilizing the international system and world order. The demand for social, economic and political change and the expectation of a world different from the existing one have caused people to look for alternatives. Religion is re-emerging as a source for hope, inspiration and salvation. At the same time, a trend toward harsh fundamentalism is clearly observable. People are losing faith in their political system and politicians; they are seeking refuge in religion in pursuit of their cause.

The new cold war is a bizarre conflict in which the hostile parties do not necessarily engage in a classic face-to-face confrontation and feel no obligation to abide by the rules of war, humanitarian laws and norms. Their main goal is to change the prevailing norms and status quo in the current world order. The Middle East is the main arena of this confrontation; there the rival parties seem to have no intention of ceasing hostilities.

While China seems too busy to enter into this conflict because of its economic miracle, Russia's resurgence as a superpower and its recent tensions with the United States could be a source of concern for the US. However, Washington does not seem prepared to consider Russia a party to the new cold war. Notwithstanding a number of mutual discontents, including NATO's extension to the east and the proposed US missile defense system in Eastern Europe that is supposedly aimed at the perceived threat from Iran's nuclear ambitions, the United States still considers Russia a strategic partner not to be alienated from world affairs. This is mainly due to a geopolitical perception that an antagonistic Russia could be detrimental to US interests around the world, especially in the Middle East.

In fact, Russia as heir to the main elements of Soviet power is now capable of checking US power and impeding it from achieving its global strategic aims. It took the Russians almost two decades to recover from the paralyzing shock of the ill-fated disintegration of the Soviet empire. Now Russia's economic recovery and its attempt to re-emerge as a superpower permit it to tackle US unilateralism in the world. Yet Moscow is not yet prepared to engage in global competition with the United States.

Viewed from a different angle, Russia could potentially be used as a shield by some states that are known as defiant actors in current world politics and that earnestly insist on a redefinition of world order from their own perspective. They would like to see an escalation in US-Russian tensions with the hope of containing unilateral American expansionist policies. In their view, only Russia can match US power and impede its evil strategy in the Middle East. Iran might be one of those that truly welcome deteriorating relations between the US and Russia with the hope of benefiting from a new East-West competition, e.g., by escaping new UN Security Council sanctions or avoiding a possible American preemptive strike.

While the neo-con hawks in Washington are pressing hard to isolate Iran in the hope that it will abandon its nuclear venture, the Russians are playing a bipartisan role and exploiting the escalating gloomy situation to reestablish their superpower position with respect to regional and global affairs. American entanglement in the Middle East, and especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, makes it quite difficult for Washington to deal with Moscow from a position of strength.

Russia's nuclear ties with Iran have instilled the confidence needed by the Islamic hardliners to use it as a shield for their nuclear ambitions. Yet the Kremlin seems attentive not to lose sight of its fragile relations with the US and the West. That is to say, despite President Vladimir Putin's recent trip to Tehran and the signing of a joint declaration with Iran regarding the Caspian Sea and other security matters, he may still go along with the 5+1 and agree on a long-awaited third Security Council resolution imposing further sanctions against the Islamic regime. China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, is in the same position.

As a clever leader and legitimate child of the KGB, Putin is well aware of the rules of the game regarding the global distribution of power. He seems to be taking advantage of the new situation to regain Russia's old superpower position as an equal partner with the United States.

Whether we can label the new emerging situation as a cold war is a simple question of definition. What is certain is that the world is experiencing an unprecedented challenge that, if not properly managed, could end up in disaster. Still, it is not certain that countries like Iran can achieve their ambitious nuclear objectives behind the smoke screen of these new conditions.- Published 22/11/2007 bitterlemons-international.org

Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of law and international relations in Tehran.

Global chess
 Waleed Sadi

Russia has in the past few years been busy regrouping and redrawing its role vis-a-vis the outside world. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the driving force behind these dramatic changes on both the internal and external fronts.

Part of Putin's motivation comes from his imminent departure as president. While he may or may not retain some significant influence, an endeavor he is currently busy ensuring, he wants to leave a legacy that will serve Russian strategic interests as he sees them and especially as they pertain to the countries within the Russian sphere of interest. In addition, and in spite of his fascination with the liberalization process, Putin also yearns for the "old times" when Russia was unquestionably a superpower whose global influence matched that of the US. Finally, Putin has his hand on the national pulse, which seems to be hankering for a return to the pride of the old days.

Undeniably, much of Russia's realignment is thus tied up with Putin's personality. Having come through the ranks of the KGB, Putin used all his cunning to curry favor with his predecessor Boris Yeltsin and position himself as Yeltsin's undisputed heir. Nevertheless, he was ruthless enough to eschew the latter's financial and business interests when they seemed to contradict his vision of Russia's role on the world scene. Specifically, the unchecked economic liberalization of Russia of Yeltsin's time was jeopardized when Putin saw these as tilting the country too far in favor of US and western interests.

What concerned Putin most was the steady encroachment of western military and political alliances, i.e., NATO and the EU. He often refers to NATO's expansion policies and military deployments so close to the Russian heartland as a real threat. The fall of the Baltic states after they broke away from the former Soviet Union marked the beginning of this concern. The domino style fall of many Eastern European countries increased his anxieties. When Georgia not only broke from the old Soviet order but tilted ever closer to the US, Putin saw the danger getting too close for comfort. Then came Ukraine's change of direction when the so-called orange revolution put it squarely within the western alliance. This steady erosion of the Russian sphere of interest climaxed when the US wanted to introduce a new missile defense system in Poland and the Chezch Republic. Putin became convinced that the real US aim was to encircle Russia and forever render it at the mercy of the West.

Putin has employed different means to counter this US influence. Notably, he has utilized traditional Russian links with Syria and Iran to engage the US in a kind of global chess game. Putin wants the US to realize that it cannot play hard and fast in Russia's backyard without Russian approval. Thus Iran and Syria are only pawns in a much bigger game and are used to challenge US hegemony in the Middle East in order to ensure Russian hegemony in its own neighborhood. By the same token, Russia is not playing along easily with US efforts to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table. And what applies to the Palestinian question applies equally to Iraq where the US is in a quagmire and is being bled financially, militarily and politically. Finally, Moscow is also using the western standoff with Tehran rather masterfully. Putin knows how important the Iranian nuclear program is for the US and its chief ally in the region, Israel, and he happens to hold some important keys to break the deadlock.

Against this backdrop US initiatives in the Middle East, including the Annapolis peace meeting, are not likely to bear fruit without a minimum of support and cooperation from Russia. Moscow still has many strings to pull and Putin is determined to do just that in the absence of some more conciliatory moves from the US with regard to Russia's own strategic security concerns. The stakes are obviously formidable for the US. Without Russia, Washington may not succeed in bringing its policies in the Middle East to fruition.- Published 22/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers.

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