MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin stood alongside Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu in a Kremlin side-room fit for a prince on Wednesday, looking
very much like a man in charge.
He looked supremely confident and spoke
without warmth, all business. He stood motionless, expressionless, even when
Netanyahu praised him for the role he played in hammering out the agreement to
dismantle Syria’s chemical arms; even when Netanyahu took strong issue with the
direction of the Geneva talks on Iran, a direction Putin actively and openly
And he has reason to look, and sound, confident.
is currently riding high in the saddle, even in the Middle East.
weeks ago his foreign minister traveled to Egypt for the first time in years; on
Wednesday Netanyahu came calling and, even in his criticism, was deferential;
and on Friday he will meet Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Russia, which many
people a few months ago said was clinging onto Syria for dear life because it
was its last foothold in the Middle East, is now actively sought after by
America’s Middle East policies – its hesitancy, its
lack of clear redlines, its apparent weakness – have set its allies scurrying
about looking for other partners.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman could
have been speaking for many countries in the region when he said at the Sderot
Conference Wednesday that it was unwise to rely on the US as much as Israel has
in the past, and that Israel’s foreign policy should not look only in one
direction: toward Washington.
Indeed, with some major US missteps in the
Middle East over the last three years raising questions for many regional actors
about Washington’s reliability, many of Israel’s neighbors are looking in other
The Turks are looking at the Chinese, not the US or NATO, for
a major missile defense contract; the Saudis are looking to France, not the US,
to upgrade part of its navy; and Egypt is toying with renewed security ties with
Russia, at a time when the US has cut some of its annual $1.3 billion military
aid because of unhappiness with the direction the country took over the summer
in its lurch toward democracy.
And the Egyptians are not the only ones
looking to the Russians. The Saudis and the other Persian Gulf countries are
poised to look to Moscow for help in keeping the Iranians away from nuclear
weapons, if they deem that the US is unable, or unwilling, to do so.
the surface it seems that the Saudis and the Russians do not share common
interests in the Middle East. The Russians are backing Syrian President Bashar
Assad to the hilt, while the Saudis – and other Persian Gulf countries – are
trying to dislodge him. But that issue is, in Riyadh’s thinking, secondary to
its main concern, which is Iran.
The Saudi calculations on Iran and Syria
are not that different from Israel’s. For both countries, potential threats from
a Shi’ite or chaotic Syria pale in comparison to the threat of a nuclear-armed
They are both opposed to the propping up of Assad, but they are
both even more concerned about Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in Syria is
to keep it from falling further into the Shi’ite arc starting in Iran and moving
through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But if you neutralize the threat of a nuclear
Iran, you are dealing with the problem at its source, not only one of its
Are the Saudis sore at the Russians for propping up Assad?
Certainly. But being sore is not policy. If the Russians demonstrate an ability
to get the Iranians to indeed roll back their nuclear program, the Saudis will
be able to get over their soreness.
And what do the Russians want?
Influence in the region, stature in the region, military contracts in the
region. If they could get more from the Saudis and the Persian Gulf countries
than from Iran and Syria, then why not ditch one for the other?
At one time this
type of reasoning would have been dismissed as completely unrealistic, but
American policy has everyone in the region rethinking alliances. And if there is
one region where interests make for strange bedfellows, it is the Middle
A few months ago Russia was on the ropes in the Middle East. Now,
American policy – frustrating so many of its traditional allies – is creating a
vacuum, and it is into this vacuum that Putin now comes galloping, presently
riding very high and confident in the saddle.