Diplomacy: Premier pilgrimage to Putin

Olmert went to Russia this week with relatively low expectations. He thus was not disappointed with his visit's less-than-grandiose results.

October 19, 2006 22:10
Diplomacy: Premier pilgrimage to Putin

Putin 298 88 ap. (photo credit: AP [file])


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In a an oval, green-gilded room in the Kremlin, where the life-sized statues of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the czars Alexander II and Nikolai I immediately catch one's eye, Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Wednesday with a jovial "shalom." Catherine, Alexander and Nikolai, who caused the Jews no small amount of trouble in their day, would have blushed. But there he was, the president of the Russian federation - successor to the czars, who oppressed the Jews, and the Soviets leaders, who oppressed the Jews even worse - meeting in the Russian capital with the prime minister of the Jewish state. Considering everything that those bronze statues represent, considering Israel's long, tortured history with Russia through its various permutations, any meeting between Israeli and Russian leaders in the Kremlin still - 15 years after the re-establishment of diplomatic ties - becomes the message. And even more so this time around, because of the paucity of any real diplomatic achievement. After three days in the freezing-cold Russian capital, after a four-hour meeting with Putin, a 90-minute meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who is widely considered a possible Putin successor, and another meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Olmert left without any notable diplomatic achievement. Olmert briefed the press for an hour after the meetings, but really didn't have any solid achievement to report. The Russians understand the threat of a nuclear Iran, Olmert said. They are not doing anything that could be interpreted as helping push forward Iran's nuclear weapons program. But still, Putin's public silence on this matter during declarations to the media contrasted mightily with Olmert's warnings in his statement that Israel could not come to terms with a situation in which Iran has nuclear-weapon potential. While Olmert said he was convinced that Putin had a better understanding of Israel's perspective after their meeting, Putin didn't give any public indication in the least that this was the case. On the contrary, Lavrov was quoted that same day as saying that Russia did not share Israel's doomsday concern that Teheran was - as Israel and the US maintain - a clear and present danger to world peace and security. The Russians remain quite skeptical, according to diplomatic sources in Moscow, about the timeline Israel consistently presents indicating that the point of no return regarding Iran - the day Iran masters all the technology needed to build an atomic bomb - is just a matter of months away. "The problem," the official said, "was that Jerusalem has been saying this now for a couple of years, and no one here takes it seriously anymore." The Russians didn't make any promises to Olmert that they would support UN sanctions on Iran; they didn't pledge to boycott Hamas; and they didn't say they would consider stopping arms deals to Syria or Iran, arms deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Truth be told, however, no one expected any of the above. Hoped, perhaps. Expected, not at all. RUSSIA HAS its own strategic and economic interests, and they don't necessarily jibe with Israel's. These interests include a huge economic stake in Iran. The Russians are building a nuclear reactor at Bushehr that is worth almost a billion dollars, and are negotiating deals to construct others as well. And once the reactor, which Israel now seems convinced will not be of any benefit to Teheran in its march towards developing nuclear weapons, the Iranians will need to buy weapons systems to protect it. These weapons systems, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, will, of course, be purchased from Moscow. Sanctions would put an end to all that. The Russians also view their relationship with the Arab world as a strategic asset. These ties are essential in building alliances that help Moscow deal with its own regional problems, from Azerbaijan to Chechnya to Georgia, and close ties with the Arab world gives them one-up on the US, which does not enjoy such a cozy relationship with the same Arab regimes, and which Moscow still views as a rival with less-than-sincere motives across a wide range of issues. In spite of their strategic relationship with the Arab world, the Russians have come to realize that in order to be a player in the Middle East, they need ties with both sides. Russia's Middle East policy is marked by a desire to just to be involved as an active, appreciated, respected player. And you can't do that by having relations with the Arabs but not with Israel. Olmert quoted Putin this week as telling him that while Moscow's relationship with the Arab world will remain strong, it will never again be the one-sided relationship that exited under the Soviet regime. Nevertheless, they are clearly not going to do anything that would jeopardize their relations with the Arab world. Russia's invitation to Hamas head Khaled Mashaal earlier in the year, and the continuation of their contacts with Hamas through their representatives in Ramallah, must be seen through the prism of wanting to score points in the Arab world. Russia of October 18, 2006, when Olmert met Putin in the Kremlin, is decidedly different from Russia of October 18, 1991, the day Israel and Moscow re-established ties. While Russia still has a long road to travel before coming close to being the super-power it was under the Soviet regime, Russia is no longer the new "sick man of Europe." Rather, the dramatic increase in the price of a barrel of oil, which Russia supplies aplenty, has suddenly increased not only its wealth, but it s world stature - especially during today's energy jitters. Moscow is again feeling its oats as a major player on the world stage. This is a country, as one top Israeli diplomat confided, that Israel has very little leverage over. Indeed, he said, pointing to Russia's continued resistance to backing sanctions on Iran, it is a country that neither the EU nor the US has much leverage over, either. WITH THAT as background, Olmert went to Russia this week - in stark contrast with the way he went to war in Lebanon: setting unrealistic expectations about smashing Hizbullah and stopping the missile fire on Israel - with the bar set relatively low. "There was no impressive achievement here," one Israeli diplomatic source said of the visit. "But that doesn't mean the trip was a failure. The trip was meant to show that Israel and Russia have normal relations, and are continuing forward." The diplomat's message was clear. Left without any major accomplishments to note, what was most significant about the visit was precisely its routine nature. Reciprocal visits to each other's capitals are the norm among leaders whose countries have strong, healthy ties. Despite the problems between Moscow and Jerusalem, the official said, the relationship is growing. "We are very much engaged with the Russians." Indeed, Israel's policy toward the Russians was defined by a senior diplomatic source this week as "containment through engagement." With a capacity to cause Israel a great deal of harm, both through arms deals and as a result of its role as a veto-casting member of the UN Security Council, Israel would much rather have disagreements with Putin inside the framework of a good, normal, healthy relationship than from the standpoint of an adversary, as was the case in the past. For instance, Olmert said that he was satisfied at Russian assurances he heard during his meetings that steps were being taken to prevent a situation in which Russian weaponry ended up in Hizbullah hands and were used to kill IDF soldiers, some of whom were Russian-born and even have parents still living in Russia. It is difficult to imagine any such Russian concern at this transfer of arms were Israel and Russian not so closely engaged. The same is true of UN Security Council resolution 1701 regarding the cease fire in Lebanon. Russia, according to Israeli officials, was supportive at the UN on this issue, something that would have been unheard of a few years ago. This type of support cannot be taken for granted. Rather, it is the product of continuously engaging the Russians. Putin praised Olmert publicly this week for continuing the policy of former prime minister Ariel Sharon toward Russia. The degree to which Putin has a soft spot for Sharon became clear to officials in the delegation when the Russian leader mentioned him numerous times during his meeting with Olmert, and during their two public appearances. Sharon's policy toward the Russians was simple: pay them respect and engage them continuously, even when the steps they take - such as dragging their feet with the Iranians, or selling state-of-the-art weaponry to Israel's worst enemies - are infuriating. Why? Because the Kremlin can cause Israel much more harm if left frustrated outside the tent, than if it is invited inside and made to feel important.

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