Strange things are happening in Russia. Take a recent BBC report: The Russian military is investigating claims by a certain Pvt. Andrei Sychev that when he refused orders to work as a male prostitute in St. Petersburg, fellow soldiers hazing the new recruit so brutalized him that he developed gangrene in his legs and genitals, requiring amputation.
And pity the reporter who broke that story; since Vladimir Putin was formally elected as president in 2000, 13 journalists have been murdered - the latest, Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in the lobby of her Moscow apartment building last year.
I used to be an avid Soviet watcher, but with the empire's collapse in December 1991 and the vanishing of the Soviet Jewry issue, I frankly lost interest. Absent the winner-take-all rivalry between liberty and tyranny, the travails of a buckled Russia didn't much interest me.
But what belatedly captured my attention, beyond the poor soldier with the gangrened private parts, was Putin's in-your-face February 10 speech at the Munich Security Conference before senior US and European leaders. Time magazine called it "a striking impersonation of Michael Corleone in The Godfather - the embodiment of implicit menace."
It was the tone as much as the substance that was so unnerving. Putin brazenly accused the US of making the world more dangerous than at any point since the Cold War: "We are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper-use of military force in international relations. One country, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way."
America's unilateralist policies, he complained, were prompting "a number of countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction."
Russia has been unhappy with the US for some time over its handling of Afghanistan, its inroads into former Soviet republics, and particularly the US invasion of Iraq.
Putin's generals are threatening to abrogate Cold War-era agreements banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles in retaliation for Washington's plans to deploy an anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, ostensibly to counter new threats from Iran.
SIXTEEN YEARS after the breakup of the Soviet Union Mother Russia is back, more powerful than at any time since the empire's demise. Russia's foreign policy may be, as Winston Churchill's 1939 aphorism had it, a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
"But perhaps there is a key," Churchill continued: "That key is Russian national interest."
Start with the Slavic cultural mind-set: a heritage of imperialism, a habitual distrust for - yet envy of - the West, and a disposition toward authoritarianism. Geography also determines foreign policy; Russia has interests extending from Europe to Asia and onto the Middle East.
Moscow is not the "mischief-maker" it once was, Russia expert Marshall Goldman, professor emeritus at Harvard University, told me over the phone.
The Soviets used to facilitate terrorism and arm Israel's enemies. The good news, says Goldman, is that they're no longer promoting terrorism. The bad news is arms sales are brisk. The Russians recently delivered an anti-missile system to Iran worth $1.4 billion; last year Moscow sold Syria the Strelet anti-aircraft system. Russian-made (Syrian-supplied) Fagot and Kornet anti-tank missiles were reportedly used to devastating effect against the IDF by Hizbullah during the summer's Lebanon War.
Russia markets weapons to 61 countries. China and India are its biggest clients despite the not unreasonable expectation that they might be Moscow's rivals in future decades.
Putin's goal is to play the geopolitical game and keep Russia's arms industry humming. It keeps Russian workers employed and provides the necessary infrastructure for Putin's resurgent big-power ambitions.
MARK MEDISH, a top Russia-watcher at Washington's Carnegie Foundation, told me in an e-mail exchange that the old geo-strategic US-Soviet rivalry which once animated Russian behavior has lost its Cold-War intensity.
Gone are the client states and subversive activities. The ethos of Russian foreign policy today, says Medish, is "one of restored national pride, verging on over-assertiveness. Russia is still a relatively weak power and the Kremlin is traditionally good at playing the long strategic game with patience; the Russians know how to play black on the chessboard."
Israeli sources say Russia's main foreign policy goal is to keep the international community dependent on it. Moscow participates in every possible international forum - even holding observer status in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. An application for observer status in the Arab League is pending.
Goldman, who has met both Putin and George W. Bush, says the two men genuinely seem to trust one another. Even as Putin denounces Washington, he refers to Bush as a man he can do business with, echoing Margaret Thatcher's "We can do business together," referring to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Personal chemistry can, of course, prove deceptive. Harry S Truman thought he had Stalin all figured out: "I got very well acquainted with Joe Stalin, and I like old Joe! He is a decent fellow. But Joe is a prisoner of the Politburo."
Whether personality matters or not, today's Putin is a very different man from the one who took power some seven years ago, says Harvard's Goldman. Then energy prices were low and Russia's power was at a nadir. The price of oil hovered below $20 a barrel. Today it's around $60.
Russia is now the biggest producer of petroleum and natural gas. Oil brings Russia wealth; gas gives it leverage over a Europe dependent on a pipeline controlled by Putin, says Goldman.
Granted the economy has only recently begun to diversify, and it remains dependent on oil and gas revenues, but Moscow now has the third-largest reserve of hard currency in the world (close to $301 billion at the end of 2006). Not bad when you consider that eight years ago the country was bankrupt.
FOR ISRAEL, what matters most is how Russia exercises its burgeoning influence in our part of the world, and in particular vis-a-vis Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.
It's the Russians who are building the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr; and they have plans to build six more similar facilities. Yet every expert I spoke with is convinced that Russia does not want to see a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran.
With all that, Moscow is prepared to allow negotiations with Teheran over its nuclear weapons program to drag on till the cows come home. That message also came through loud and clear in Herb Keinon's February 16 Post interview with Andrey Demidov, Russia's top diplomat in Tel Aviv.
But how can Russia facilitate Iran's nuclear program, stymie American-led efforts to impose sanctions against Teheran - and still be perceived as genuinely opposing a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic?
The answer demands a certain amount of Machiavellian thinking: The longer the crisis drags on, the greater is Russia's leverage.
Putin does want to stop Iran from building atom bombs. He recognizes the danger. That's one reason, Goldman says, why Putin wants Iranian nuclear waste transferred to Russia so it doesn't wind up getting recycled into weapons.
On Monday, the Russians announced that further work on the nearly completed Bushehr facility was being delayed, ostensibly because of a dispute over monthly payment arrangements.
To visiting Israelis, Putin intimates that he takes his commitment to Ariel Sharon to heart: Russia will not be the one to tip the strategic balance against Israel. At the same time, Putin is swayed by countervailing pressures to keep Russian factories in business, which is why Russia sold Iran nuclear technology in the first place.
So is Russia, inadvertently, selling Iran the rope by which it will one day hang Moscow, together with the rest of us? Medish, the Carnegie expert, doesn't buy it: "Let's be frank: It was the US ally Pakistan, whose rogue scientist AQ Khan sold Iran most of the 'rope' since the mid-1980s, even as [the US was] rightly lecturing Moscow about the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program."
Medish grants that "Russia has underestimated the risk, and was certainly careless with technology transfers until the mid-1990s, but far less so in the past decade."
He agrees with Goldman that the Kremlin would strongly prefer not to see a nuclear Iran. "But they do not fear it. Nuclear Pakistan looks far riskier from Moscow."
According to Medish, "The real question is how much leverage the Russians have with Teheran. The answer could be less than some experts suppose; certainly less than the Chinese have in the North Korean case."
WHATEVER ITS clout, let's just say Russia doesn't always use it to Israel's benefit. As a member of the Quartet (along with the UN, EU, and US) Moscow's behavior can be downright unhelpful.
Take its reaction to the February 8 Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's spin was that the deal brought the Palestinians closer to meeting the Quartet's demands for recognition of Israel, renunciation of terrorism and acceptance of previous agreements - a very generous interpretation of what actually happened. And chances are this will remain Moscow's line at the Quartet's scheduled meeting today in Berlin.
The Russians like the Mecca deal because they've all along opposed isolating Hamas, arguing that the Islamic Resistance Movement needs to be enticed toward becoming a purely political force.
This is why, on his visit to the region last week, Putin said he hoped sanctions against the Palestinian Authority would soon be lifted. He also pushed for a regional peace conference that would, presumably, include Damascus, an approach neither Washington nor Jerusalem is keen on. To be fair, Putin also urged the Palestinians to honor the PLO's past commitments and return kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
Putin didn't come to Israel this time (he made an unprecedented visit to Jerusalem in April 2005), but he spoke with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by telephone after the Mecca agreement was announced. When he left the region Putin sent an emissary to brief Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on his talks.
ISRAEL UNDERSTANDS that Russia is a force in Middle East politics, being the only actor that can speak with all parties in the region including Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. Not much can be accomplished if Russia is not on board; even as Moscow realizes that not much can be achieved absent Jerusalem's acquiescence.
The Russians say they feel a cultural affinity with Israel's large Russian-speaking population; and trade relations have never been better. There are daily El Al flights; Russian news bureaus maintain a presence in Jerusalem; a Russian consulate was recently opened in Haifa, and a cultural center is due to open in Tel Aviv.
The message from Moscow is that whoever Israel has a problem with, Russia has entree. Of course, the opposite is also true: Russia's interests with Iran, the Palestinian Authority, Hizbullah and Syria often conflict head-on with Israel's.
And when it comes to what is arguably the preeminent crisis of our time - the Islamist threat - Russia's attitude is thanks, but no thanks: What Moscow does not want is to participate in the clash of civilizations. This allows Putin to dissociate his own little etho-Islamist uprising in Chechnya - to pick just one example - from the larger "war on terror" being waged by Washington.
BACK HOME, meanwhile, don't expect Russia to develop into a Western-style democracy. Its political culture makes that near-impossible. Elections are due to take place in the Duma (parliament) in December 2007, and for the presidency in March 2008.
This will be an essentially cosmetic exercise. A seven percent electoral threshold, not to mention an inability to validate signatures to get their parties on the ballot, makes it difficult for Western-oriented reformist parties - an anyway fragmented bunch - to make much headway.
Putin, now only 54, is Russia's indisputable godfather. He may have aspirations to play a kind of Deng Xiaoping role, remaining a permanent behind-the-scenes authority even after formally leaving office. One rumor has him moving over to Gazprom, the state-controlled gas monopoly.
As the Carnegie's Mark Medish explains, "Power groups within the Kremlin are probably struggling to agree on an acceptable formula to allow Putin to retire, while putting in place a new leadership that is strong enough to maintain the current power-sharing arrangements."
Think of it, he says, as a sort of "guided democracy."
GOLDMAN characterizes the cadre that wields power - this nomenklatura - as comprising KGB-types who sit in the Kremlin making governmental decisions, and in state-controlled industries like Gazprom calling the economic shots.
In a book due out soon, Goldman terms this interlocking directorate an "oilogopoly." They've essentially re-nationalized all the industries that matter. And while the media is not state-owned, it is controlled by those who don't want to get on the oilogopoly's bad side. For instance, Gazprom runs a number of newspapers, including Izvestia.
Mind you, the oilogopoly doesn't mind people making a ruble. But it draws the line at allowing anyone to combine wealth, power and a desire to influence Russian politics, especially in a direction at odds with the course Putin has set. Mikhail Khodorkovsky can confirm that.
SO HOW should Israel relate to a resurgent Russia? The easy path would be to label Russia's political culture retrograde - think the brutalized Pvt. Andrei Sychev - its Middle East policies "anti-Israel" and Vladimir Putin himself an "anti-Semite." Such labeling would make some Israelis who don't want to acknowledge Russia's influence feel smug.
But creating a broiges by nursing our grievances would be counterproductive. Our disagreements - and this is where Time's Michael Corleone-Godfather allusion truly applies - are in the realm of business and politics. In other words, they are not "personal."
Putin is no anti-Semite. And what goes on inside Russia isn't our problem.
Pragmatically, Russia needs to be kept engaged with the West. For Israel, that means keeping ties on an even keel, even when Moscow's interests conflict with our own.
Whether on the Quartet, Hamas or Iran, realpolitik dictates that Jerusalem apply a variation of president Lyndon B. Johnson's first rule of Texas politics: It is better to have the Russians inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.
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