Misguided in Moscow

Post-Soviet Russia has not fully internalized history’s lessons.

May 13, 2010 21:56
3 minute read.
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, right, reacts

medvedev erdogan bff 311. (photo credit: AP)


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Ahead of celebrations this week of the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazism, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, attacked attempts by nostalgic fellow Russians to reassert the legacy of Stalin.

“The regime built in the Soviet Union can be called nothing other than totalitarian,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was a regime where elementary rights and freedoms were suppressed.”

Medvedev’s description of the Soviet era is accurate, indeed. Unfortunately, post-Soviet Russia has not fully internalized history’s lessons.

Russian society, unschooled in the arts of liberalism and democracy, is plagued by its own human rights abuses. In recent weeks two reports, one by Freedom House and one by Reporters Without Borders, have accused Moscow of severely limiting freedom of the press. Between 2000 and 2008, when Vladmir Putin was president, 17 reporters were murdered for engaging in investigative reporting, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Perhaps the most famous was Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote a book, Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, describing rampant corruption in the judicial system.

Most disturbing for Israel are Russia’s overtures to Iran and Syria, which actively support Hamas and Hizbullah. During a trip to Damascus this week to meet with President Bashar Assad, Medvedev said, “Cooperation on atomic energy [with Syria] could get a second wind.”

Assad said the two had discussed possibilities for developing nuclear power plants inside Syria. (In 2007, the IAF reportedly destroyed a nuclear reactor in east Syria built with North Korean assistance and intended for weapon-making.) Medvedev also met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, and subsequently suggested that Hamas, a terrorist organization avowedly committed to destroying Israel, be included in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

While Medvedev’s comments grabbed headlines, they represented no real surprise. Although a member of the Middle East peacemaking Quartet, Russia has consistently defied the Quartet consensus and called for engagement with Hamas. And Russia has offered technical aid to several Middle East countries, including Saudi Arabia, to build “peaceful” nuclear energy facilities, while playing a critical role in the Iranian nuclear program. Russia has also provided Syria with weapons such as AT-14 Kornet-E anti-tank guided missiles, ultimately used against IDF soldiers with deadly consequences by Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War.

Medvedev’s latest visit to our part of the world is consistent with Russia’s intensifying bid to reassert its role in the Middle East, seeking a Cold War-era style counterbalance to US hegemony. Analysts such as Matthew Kroenig of Georgetown University argue that it is the desire to counter and weaken the US presence in the Middle East that lies behind Russia’s stance on Iran, including its ongoing involvement in the nuclear program and its resistance to the US-led drive for effective sanctions to thwart an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity. An Iran with nuclear capability would certainly help neutralize the US, though a rapacious nuclear Iran on Russia’s doorstep could only be construed as a positive development for a thoroughly narrow-minded and short-sighted Moscow.

IN THE face of what seems from here to be a misguided Russian sense of realpolitik, and one that appears to have few moral qualms about supporting rogue states, Israel’s concerns are intensifying. Any expectation that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman might be able to warm relations has proven empty, not because of a provincial bias against the Moldovan-born minister but because he has unable to persuade Moscow of where not only Israel’s, but also Russia’s, strategic interests lie.

Putin and Medvedev might not deliberately do anything to harm the million or so Russian speakers living in Israel, one of the largest Russian expat communities in the world. That might explain why last year Russia, implored by Israel, suspended the planned sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran that would have greatly bolstered Teheran’s ability to protect its nuclear facilities from an air strike. Russia has also refused to sell these missiles to Syria. Nevertheless, as it pursues its goal of countering US dominance in the Middle East, Russia, a country that, despite Medvedev’s claims to the contrary, has not fully thrown off its totalitarian Soviet roots, is severely undermining Israeli interests.

President Shimon Peres spent part of this week in Moscow trying to communicate some of these concerns. Medvedev heard him out and then flew off to see Assad and Mashaal. From our perspective, it made for a bleak 65th anniversary.

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