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The Trouble with Russia

Barry Rubin
September 23, 2008

The return of Russian power in the Middle East, next to Iran’s nuclear weapons’ campaign, is the region’s most important new issue. While far less threatening than the Soviet bloc’s Cold War backing for radical Arab states, this development poses some major problems for U.S. leaders, Israeli interests, and Middle East politics. Between 1956 and 1990, the Soviet Union bestrode the regional stage like a colossus, the alternative model and sponsor that indirectly inspired, armed, and protected the domination of radical Arab nationalist regimes, groups, and ideas. Moscow’s goals were to win the competition with the United States, extend its influence, and gain access to strategic locations and resources. It’s called power politics, the kind of thing that isn’t supposed to exist in this era where being a community organizer is supposedly the main qualification for being president and no problem is deemed unsolvable if enough concessions or apologies are made to one’s enemy. Though many in the West seem to have forgotten, ambition, ideology, and realpolitik have not vanished from this world. If one team plays the game like rugby and the other like solitaire, the former has some natural advantages. Or, if you prefer a different metaphor, sort of like a shark facing off against a preening goldfish. Today, Russia’s ambitions are much diminished. Indeed, while it desperately seeks money, the goal that seems to dominate President Vladimir Putin’s thinking is not so much world domination as a sense of grievance and a desire for respect. Unfortunately, these last two qualities have been shown in the Middle East to be among the most dangerous of all. Putin’s basic view seems to be that the West humiliated Russia, which gave up the Soviet Union’s sense of purpose, tight discipline, and empire without getting much in return. Russia is demoralized. Moscow is flooded with luxury stores forming a kind of army of occupation. Democracy proved to be messy; poverty has grown (or more accurately, just come to the surface). Throwing out communism brought no rose garden. Putin responded approvingly to a Russian educator who complained, “In exchange for our disarming ideologically we have received this abstract recipe [from the West]: you become democrats and capitalists and we will control you.” He views himself as Russia’s savior, ready to employ tough methods for that purpose. Certainly, he doesn’t seek to return to the old days. There’s a much wider margin of freedom, yet journalists who dig too deep end up in a hole in the ground, and industrialists who challenge the regime quickly find themselves facing criminal charges. In a remarkable and important article, “The Problematic Pages: To understand Vladimir Putin, we must understand his view of Russian history,” Leon Aron writes in the, September 24, 2008, New Republic: Putin’s view, “is that the Soviet Union was a `besieged fortress,’ forever under threat of attack by the West, and that the machinations of the West were responsible not only for Soviet foreign policy but also for a great deal of domestic misfortune.” The new textbooks he has commissioned and closely overseen erase the mass murders and concentration camps of the Stalin era and view the Cold War as a plot by a hostile America to destroy the USSR. Regarding the Middle East, the whole story of Moscow’s own machinations is omitted and students are falsely told that the UN branded Israel as an “aggressor” in 1967, a war that the Soviet Union is largely responsible for starting. Today, there are two concerns about Russian policy. Most directly are its moves toward alliance with Iran and Syria. Tehran has been careful to keep in Russia’s good graces, keeping mum about the struggles of Russian Muslims in Chechnya and elsewhere. For its part, Russia has to some extent shielded Iran from sanctions and provided it with a nuclear reactor, albeit with safeguards. Russian arms to Syria go to Hizballah, a fact that Russian leaders deny but obviously know quite well. So will Russia become the patron of the radical forces in the region? That kind of estimate would be going too far, but the extension of some Russian protection and help for the Iran-led bloc would be an additional problem in the already uphill battle against these forces. The second problem is Russia’s rebuilding of empire, visible most clearly in its attack on Georgia using local ethnic disputes as an excuse. Similar techniques could easily be used against a number of other former possessions, ranging from the Baltic states through the Caucasus. The American diplomatist George F. Kennan wrote in a key document alerting U.S. leaders to the Soviet threat in the 1940s that the USSR’s neighbors could only chose to be its enemy or a satellite. Today, fears of Moscow-as well as their own more successful drive for modernization–push former satellites and captive nations into the arms of the European Union and NATO, a process intensifying Russia’s anger at them. For Israel, the problem is that Russia is, in fact, following a relatively even-handed policy. It deals with both Israel and its enemies, in both cases ignoring complaints by the other side. Up until now, the level of problems posed by Moscow is not too distant from that of benefits brought by having a good relationship. This situation, however, must be carefully monitored, the relationship nurtured if possible but also with awareness that a more critical stance might be required if things get too far out of balance. For example, if Russia keeps attacking Israel’s good and profitable relations with states in the Caucasus, blocking sanctions on Iran, providing intelligence on Israel to Hizballah, or escalating links to Syria, at some point Israel must react to push-not just hope-for a more equitable Russian policy. To the United States, Russia is going to be one of the most important and delicate issues in the next presidency. One would think this prompts the need for a president who can be tough when necessary. After all, Moscow does not believe in tears, and from it come things other than love. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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