Two significant events happened last week – both of which carried more meaning than their literal interpretation. But they both had everything do with the New Cold War and the reality of American hegemony.
As Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, touched down in Israel last week, he became the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit Israel or the Palestinian territories.
Increasingly under siege at home on the domestic front over issues like privatization, cuts to social services and pensions, Putin has continued to push through economic reforms through his centralized political apparatus. He has also seen the pro-Western uprisings in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Mr. Putin has also been witness to the decline of Russian influence on the world stage for the past fifteen years.
But now there is a genuine Russian fear, that the oil rich Central Asian republics could very easily fall under American and Western European influence. It is as if there is a fear of the old domino theory happening in reverse.
There is very much a feeling that the push for democracy and free markets in the Arab and Central Asian world is a Western agenda that comes at a high price and involves a high degree of social rupture for the nations involved.
No longer a superpower, Russia is keen to redefine itself.
Having seen much turmoil since the days when an entire political and economic system was reduced to Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank in Moscow while leader Mikhail Gorbachev was held captive at his dacha on the Crimea, Russia seems ready to once again assume a significant role in international affairs.
Though its influence has waned since the collapse of Communism, its old connections to the Arab states still remain. More than a million Russians have moved to Israel since the mid-eighties. Russia is one of the Quartet, the four signatories to the Roadmap to Peace with the United States, the European Union and the UN. Russia was also once known as the chief patron of the Palestinians and always shared communist roots with many of its nationalist Arab allies.
As Putin visited with Israeli dignitaries last week including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav, he was widely criticized for Russia’s decision to sell anti-aircraft weapons to Syria and for continuing its support of nuclear development in Iran.
Later in Ramallah, Putin was greeted with a cheering crowd as he became the first foreign head of state to visit Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas since the Palestinian elections earlier this year. Putin laid a wreath at Yasser Arafat’s grave site and promised Abbas a helicopter and military equipment to help him rule over militant groups in the Palestinian territories.
"If we expect Chairman Abbas to fight terrorism effectively, he can’t do it with slingshots and stones. We must understand this," declared Putin.
Mr. Abbas, like many in the Palestinian leadership, studied in Russia and also speaks some Russian. Abbas knows that he can expect little from the Americans based on the peace process thus far.
Mr. Abbas also endorsed Mr. Putin’s plan for a Middle East conference which would be held in Russia despite the idea being rejected by the United States and Israel.
Meanwhile, at a conference of oil industry executives in Edinburgh, Matthew Simmons, an advisor to George W. Bush and an industry executive commented that the world was reaching "peak oil" and he expected the price to skyrocket to $100 by 2008 as supplies failed to meet demand. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is presently pumping at 25-year highs, with the extra supplies pushing world oil prices below $50 a barrel.
A number of commentators, however, predicted that the entire oil industry is in for an extended period of restricted economic activity.
It seems clear now that Russia’s role in international affairs will be to buttress American influence in the region while the US will be looking to secure its oil supply for the future while maintaining its role in the Middle East.
The new Cold War looks a lot like the old one, but this time it is about Oil and Palestine.