Putin beneath the pyramids

Russia under President Vladimir Putin is returning to the Middle East after a relative absence during the 1990s. What assets does Russia have to offer, and what are its chances for regaining its previous status of counterbalancing power vis-a-vis American influence?

Russia has changed tremendously since the fall of the USSR, and so has the Middle East. A dozen years ago the visit to Israel that President Vladimir Putin paid in April 2005 would have been unimaginable. Its Cold War strategy prompted Moscow to sponsor and arm Israel’s enemies in the Arab world, and to assume superpower patronage of the Arab cause in general and the Palestinian cause in particular. In the 1970s and 1980s Moscow was powerful enough to counterbalance American influence in the Middle East by drawing together the so-called "progressive" Arab countries.

With perestroika and glasnost the situation changed dramatically. First signs of the change became evident in 1988 when groups of Soviet Jews left the Soviet Union for Israel. For the new Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Jews became a bargaining chip vis-a-vis Washington; as a result, nearly one million Jews migrated from the old Soviet republics to Israel. Russia itself went through a sequence of internal transformations that reduced the possibility of its playing an active role in the Middle East. In the Oslo process, Moscow was no more than a mute spectator.

Since the beginning of 2001, oil prices have increased sharply and Russia has obtained significant economic relief. It also gained politically after 9/11, when the issue of human rights in Chechnya was transformed into an issue of terrorism. Moscow was ready to return to the Middle East. It brought with it a pragmatic approach to foreign policy adopted by Putin, who is committed to converting diplomacy into business and then business into political influence.

Accordingly, Putin sees oil and gas as a lever to regain positions in Iraq. Russia plans to sell short-range air defense missiles to Syria and is participating in the construction of a nuclear reactor in Iran, where it wants to expand business. It also seeks a role in Afghanistan. Moreover, Putin wants to raise Russia’s profile as a peace broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even Saudi businessmen are now interested in exploring Russian markets. Russia has become the second-largest trade partner of Turkey, with $15 billion worth of bilateral trade projected for 2005. And, finally, Moscow is interested in selling more military equipment.

Russia launched its comeback to the Middle East by bitterly opposing the US campaign to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and then questioning the invasion’s legality. Events very soon proved, however, that Moscow is still a long way from regaining its previous status in the region. Weapons sales in the Middle East have become more sensitive now that an American military presence has been established. The proposed deal with Syria remains contentious for Israel, just as Moscow’s stance on Iran’s nuclear aspirations is highly controversial for both Jerusalem and Washington. The Russian president received little more than a polite acknowledgment of the proposal he made in Cairo to convene an international conference to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Israel, the proposal was simply rebuffed as premature and Putin was urged to abort the proposed sale of armored personnel carriers to the Palestinian Authority. Ariel Sharon and Hosni Mubarak apparently believe ! in the primacy of the United States in the peace process.

During the Cold War era, Eastern Europe followed the Soviet Union’s pro-Arab line. Poland, for example, condemned Israeli aggression in the June War of 1967 and severed diplomatic ties with Israel. After the Cold War, Poland’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact opened the road to Washington; it turned out that a desirable detour went via Jerusalem. Thus, Warsaw became one of the transit points for Soviet Jews migrating to Israel, and in February 1990 Poland restored diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. From the point of view of a sovereign country this meant pursuing a more balanced line in Middle Eastern affairs. But for some Arab countries this constituted a radical shift in Polish priorities that they did not like.

At that time, Polish foreign policy had a solid moral basis. Warsaw condemned Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait in 1990 and immediately implemented relevant UN Security Council decisions despite heavy economic losses. This position was appreciated by some of the Gulf countries and they established or reestablished diplomatic relations with Poland. Gradually, business started to promote state-to-state relations. Kuwaiti and other Gulf businessmen now visit Warsaw regularly.

Meanwhile, Putin’s recent visit to Egypt and Israel marks a reassertion of his country’s historic involvement in the region’s affairs. But Putin’s message from beneath the pyramids does not seem to have reverberated, thus proving that Moscow is still far from developing the capacity to counterbalance the United States in Middle Eastern affairs.