Putin Olmert 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Russia and Israel are inexorably heading toward conflict - violent conflict, and very soon. Passions will be roused, national pride will be at stake, and the consequences for the loser in the international arena will be severe.
Fortunately, that arena right now is only the Euro 2008 soccer championship, with Russia scheduled to play Israel in the qualifying rounds next month. A loss by Russia to Israel might endanger their chances of making the final round next year.
It's only sport, but no small matter. The top news story in Russia yesterday was not President Vladimir Putin's meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, it was Putin's annual televised call-in interview broadcast to the Russian people.
He opened the program by praising the national team's recent victory over England: "The victory was a result of team spirit, the professionalism of the trainer and the support of the entire nation," he said.
How would Putin feel about a defeat at the hands of the Israeli squad?
Well, at the last meeting between Olmert and Putin almost exactly a year ago, the former sought to break the ice in their discussion by noting a recent game between their respective national teams in which Israel had surprisingly tied Russia 1-1.
"I want you to know, Mr. President," said Olmert jocularly, "that in Israel we are very appreciative that in the sphere of sports, at least when it comes to soccer, you did not demonstrate convincing superiority over us."
The Russian leader, as the Post's Herb Keinon noted, was not amused. "Olmert, as did many in the room, looked at Putin for some kind of reaction. But Putin stood there sphinx-like, as if Olmert's words in Hebrew were not translated for him, or that the translator mistranslated and Olmert had said something of utmost earnestness."
Maybe, one journalist quipped, he just doesn't like soccer. Now we know he likes soccer. What Putin presumably does not like is the presumption of leaders of small nations equating themselves with a superpower such as Russia.
Putin has made it increasingly clear in recent years that's how he regards the portion of the former Soviet Union over which he rules - and that's how everyone else should, too.
He left no doubt about it in his television interview yesterday, especially with his announcement that Russia will spend some 6 billion rubles ($240b.) of its oil-riches to fuel a military buildup he himself described as "not simply big, but grandiose."
Grandiose, indeed; it will be Moscow's biggest arms drive since the Cold War. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Russia is primarily arming itself to challenge the supremacy of the United States in a way that constitutes a return of sorts to the Cold War. As Putin himself put it: "Russia, thank God, is not Iraq, and Russia has enough forces and funds to defend itself and its interests both on its own territory and in other parts of the world."
This would not be the Cold War as we knew it, of course, at least certainly not for Israel. It would have been unimaginable in the old USSR days for an Israeli prime minister to suddenly fly off to Moscow for a face-to-face meeting at the Kremlin (or for a foreign minister to jet off to Beiing just days later) in an attempt to influence its foreign policy in this region.
Today, there are links between Israel and Russia - political, economic, cultural, social - which would have been unimaginable when the hammer-and-sickle flew over Moscow.
Russia's Middle East policy today, some experts assert, is not driven as it was in the past by an ideological bias that makes it innately antagonistic to the Jewish state.
Rather, Putin is motivated by pure realpolitik to protect Russia's national interests. If the democratic West - including Israel - engages the Kremlin with sufficient skill and wisdom, the relationship can be competitive, without necessarily being antagonistic.
With sufficient diplomatic persuasion and economic sticks and carrots, this reasoning goes, Moscow can be steered away from its current policy of providing military support to such regimes as Iran and Syria - just as Olmert tried to do Thursday in his talk with Putin. Maybe.
But there's another way of interpreting Putin's actions in the past few years - one that suggests that the way ahead with Russia may be far more problematic for such nations as Israel. Back in the early 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, political philosopher Frances Fukuyama published a hugely influential essay entitled "The End of History."
Fukuyama didn't mean the end of historical events, of course, or even of wars between democracies and dictatorships. But he did think that democracy as an ideology had emerged triumphant: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
In retrospect, Fukuyama's thesis looks overly optimistic, and has been criticized especially for overlooking the rise of radical Islamism.
Fukuyama in response has pointed out that Islamic extremism as an ideology - unlike Marxism - holds little attraction for the non-Muslim world, nor does it has much chance of seizing the reins of government in any of the globe's most militarily powerful nations.
A more serious intellectual challenge to Fukuyama's view has come, perhaps not surprisingly, from here in Israel. Just this summer, Tel Aviv University Prof. Azar Gat published a piece in the prestigious periodical Foreign Affairs, entitled "The Rise of Authoritarian Capitalism."
While not downplaying the radical Islamic threat to democracies, Gat writes, "The second, and more significant, challenge emanates from the rise of nondemocratic great powers: the West's old Cold War rivals China and Russia, now operating under authoritarian capitalist, rather than communist, regimes... China and Russia represent a return of economically successful authoritarian capitalist powers, which have been absent since the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945, but they are much larger than the latter two countries ever were."
This would be bad news not just for the United States, but for Israel as well, because as Gat puts it: "Beijing, Moscow and their future followers might well be on antagonistic terms with the democratic countries, with all the potential for suspicion, insecurity and conflict that this entails - while holding considerably more power than any of the democracies' past rivals ever did."
In this view, Putin's support for Iran and Syria is not just intended to achieve the short-term objectives of thwarting American goals in the region, or shoring up Russia's southern flank. It is also because the new Russia he is creating, just as the old USSR he once served as a KGB spymaster, is ideologically committed to authoritarian-dictatorial regimes, and innately hostile to those such as Israel that uphold liberal democratic values.
If so, Prime Minister Olmert's trip to Moscow Thursday, despite the polite welcome he received in the Kremlin, was likely destined to be in vain from the start. And if Putin succeeds in tightening his grip on the Kremlin in the years to come, it might not only be on the soccer pitch where Russia and Israel find that achieving their respective goals unavoidably means pitting each one's national interests against the other.