The POSTman Knocks Twice: The view from the Bosphorus and the Kremlin

Russian strategists spring from a long history of champion chess players.

By
February 25, 2016 20:54
Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan greets religious leaders at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, November 26. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Russia and Iran gain from the unprecedented tsunami of millions of Muslims shattering the peace and complacency of Western Europe and rocking the foundations of European society. The flood of refugees weakens Turkey as well.

Russian strategists spring from a long history of champion chess players. The game itself is a Persian creation. Russia and Iran saw that not just Europe but the Middle East itself can come under greater Russian-Persian influence or control if Sunni Muslims flee the merciless devastation of the Syrian combatants.

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Why is Turkey trying to steer a new course with Israel? President Erdogan has said, “The Middle East needs Israel.”

He meant, of course, Turkey needs Israel. The Sunni extremist Daesh (ISIS) and al-Qaida both are a threat to Turkey. (And to Sunni Saudi Arabia, the emirate states, Yemen and Jordan as well.) Willy-nilly, Muslim Brotherhood Turkey must join Israel in facing these threats. Thus a weird alliance based on a confluence of interests is rising in today’s Middle East. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” pushes the Sunni states toward Israel, an island of strength, stability and anti-Iranian policy.

Iran is in a double-win situation: While lessening the number of Sunni Muslims in the region, the refugee flood creates immense strains for Turkey and economic and deep social rifts in Western Europe.

What about the view from the Kremlin? Forget the internal corruption and cronyism. Look at the world with the cold eyes and cool mind of an amoral practitioner of statecraft.

Russia has been engaged in wars since its beginning in the ninth century, that is for 1,200 years. Paranoia and suspicion should thus be ingrained in the leadership. But perhaps this paranoia today is more than just a mental aberration.

Here you are sitting in the Kremlin, and on your Western flank NATO pushes up against your borders. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were once part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. The three Baltic states admitted into the European Union in 2004 are under the wings of the NATO alliance. In brief, the West has pushed into a border enclave with hundreds of miles of border with Russia, and where one out of six citizens are ethnic Russians. And these three states have no land contiguity with the rest of NATO. In other words, the European Union and its US ally skipped over a few squares on the chessboard, threatening the queen directly. What in heaven were they thinking? That Russia is a paper tiger and President Putin is a pushover? The Russian chess move was then to create a buffer zone in its largest western neighbor. Ukraine, which until recently included Crimea, was part of the USSR until its collapse in the early 1990s. Crimea is the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, its entryway through the Bosporus to the Mediterranean. The fleet was based there in the days of the Soviet Union, and when Russian and the Ukraine separated, the Russian fleet remained at Crimean ports under a treaty between the neighbors.

Ukraine then became a battleground between Western and Russian interests. Doubtless both the CIA and its Russian equivalent waged a battle for control of the country. When pro-Westerners won Ukrainian elections, and cast longing eyes on joining the European Union, Russia saw another, even greater, threat next door.

Sitting in the Kremlin, you protect your naval bases, you order your forces to return Crimea to Mother Russia. The peninsula is anyway about 60 percent ethnic Russian. Then you create a buffer zone in eastern Ukraine by raising a proxy force supplied and backed by your own army. This is especially easy due to the number of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, somewhere close to 10 million.

In a nutshell, President Putin perceived a real threat from NATO, breathing down Russia’s neck from Estonia in the north across to Ukraine and Crimea in the south. NATO overplayed its hand. It and the Obama-Kerry duo did not recognize that the old theories of balance of power and zones of influence were still very much alive.

In our neighborhood, Syria was the last bastion of Russian influence in the Middle East. Putin stood by his ally, Assad. The US and Europe diddled and daddled. The brave US president issued “redline” threats that Assad should not cross. When Assad crossed the lines the US shook its finger at him.

Western weakness and lack of coherent policy has led to the bleeding of Syria, and to a refugee crisis in the millions, swamping Western Europe as well as Turkey and the almost forgotten Jordan. Given the birthrates of the young arrivals, Europe will be kept in internal turmoil for several decades.

Did Russia and Iran create the refugee crisis intentionally, or is it a beneficial side product of their actions? One assumes it is the latter. But good chess players see ahead, and the checker players of the West founder.

Obviously the Israeli leadership is busy with these dynamic changes which have immense impact on Israel. We are seeing a decline of the West. But history is not immutable. Russia is weak – more like a mess – economically, and its major asset was the export of oil. Saudi Arabia has vast dollar reserves and has struck Russia’s economy another blow by flooding the market, forcing oil prices down from over a hundred dollars a barrel to around $30.

Oddly enough, because of all this ugly turmoil Israel’s position is perhaps the most stable, and the most important in the eyes of Washington, Paris-Berlin and Moscow.

(By the way, while Russia sells advanced arms to Iran, Israel is not on the list of Russia’s enemies. Putin needs the dollars his arms can earn, and there may be hidden clauses in the sales which are not public information. And in the last analysis, if Russia can survive its internal weaknesses, as I believe it will, Putin knows how strong Israel is.) It is hard to see why Assad or his Russian-Persian allies should sustain the cease-fire about to go into effect. They only gain from fewer Sunnis in Syria, more Muslims in Turkey and Europe. They probably will find reasons for continuing the battle and keep flooding the West and Turkey with refugees. As long as Assad, Russia and Iran so desire, the flood of these poor pawns, the refugees, will continue to swell.

Avraham Avi-hai has been a careful observer of international affairs and their impact on the Jewish people and on Israel for many decades, in both official and academic avenues.2avrahams@ gmail.com


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