Diplomacy: Moscow's man in Israel

Russian Ambassador Petr Stegniy tells the Post why his government is talking to Hamas, and why his country's not convinced that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Stegniy 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Stegniy 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
In Russian ambassador Petr V. Stegniy's Middle East, Iran is not trying to acquire nuclear weapons; the democratic choice of the Palestinians needs to be respected; and the sale of state-of-the art defensive arms to Syria and Iran is accepted under agreed-upon international conventions. Once those premises are comprehended, the rationale behind some of Moscow's actions in the region can be better understood, even if one finds them difficult to agree with. For instance, why doesn't Russia go more whole-heartedly and energetically along with US sanctions against Iran? Because it is not convinced that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. (If you think that notion is completely absurd, refer back to Washington's own controversial National Intelligence Estimate from last year that, more or less, drew similar conclusions, saying Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003.) Or, why does Russia continue to speak to Hamas, while most of the rest of the world boycotts it? Because Moscow respects democracy, and the Palestinians spoke in democratic elections. Or why does Moscow sell arms to countries that it realizes are not among the world's most constructive actors? Because the international system says it is OK, and because if Russia doesn't sell the arms - with restrictions on their transfer to third parties - then those countries would easily turn elsewhere for them. Stegniy, Russia's personable ambassador to Israel who freely quotes Arnold Toynbee, Francis Fukuyama and Anwar Sadat, should know something about Russian policy and the Middle East. With a doctorate in history from Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and fluency in Arabic, English and French, Stegniy has, since 1968, spent the bulk of his life living in Arab and Muslim capitals. Under the Soviets, he was stationed alternately in Sudan, Yemen, Egypt and Libya. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he became Russia's ambassador to Kuwait and then to Turkey. Stegniy, who has been Moscow's envoy here since March 2007, likes and respects Israel, or at least that is the clear impression one walks away with after sitting with the ambassador in his Herzliya Pituah residence for some 90 minutes. He respects its democracy and resilience, and gives the government - even the current government - much more credit than the vast majority of Israelis would give. The collapse of the Soviet Union has given Russia a much greater appreciation of what Israel faces, he says. But this is not necessarily a result - as some argue - of Russia's now looking at the situation here through the prism of an array of ethnic conflicts it has to grapple with - from Georgia to Chechnya, and other points in between - but rather because of the sheer number of Russian immigrants who moved to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "We sometimes underestimate these people as a communication link," Stegniy says, sitting at the edge of a heavily pillow-laden couch, wearing a light sweater on a blistering hot day. "But the people shuttling between Moscow and Tel Aviv bring to and from my country informal understanding on a human, individual level of what is going on. It is a new dimension of understanding your problems, your complexes, your mistakes, your breakthroughs, your strong and weak points. It is a different picture, but it brings life and responsibility into the process." It is this "responsibility," Stegniy says, that has motivated Russia to propose a Moscow conference as a natural follow-up to the Annapolis conference convened last November by US President George W. Bush. Moscow is not interested in this conference to raise its prestige in the area, or to reap dividends, Stegniy says, attempting to counter critics who say those are precisely the reasons why Moscow wanted to convene the parley. Rather, he says, Moscow just wants to do its share in moving the process forward. And he is a true believer in the "process," in any process - it sometimes seems - that entails dialogue. Stegniy says the Moscow conference, an idea not enthusiastically embraced either by Israel or the US, was put forward "to try to assist the Annapolis process, because from the very beginning we were on board, are on board, and will stay on board. We believe in the dialogue, and don't see a sound alternative to a difficult, time-consuming, energy-consuming, risky exchange of opinion, and building of a new vision of coexistence in this region - on the legal internationally recognized basis." That need for dialogue, he says, also extends to the necessity of talking to Hamas, with Russia and Turkey continuing to talk to the terrorist organization, even as most of the rest of the democratic world continues to shun it. "We are speaking with Hamas, keeping in mind that we are part of the Quartet," Stegniy says, adding that while Moscow has not been formally entrusted to do so, it informs the Quartet, the Americans, Israel and the PA of the contacts. The ambassador says these "sporadic" talks have a dual purpose. The first is to get Hamas to accept the international community's three conditions for recognition, and the second is "trying to avoid double standards as far as democracy is concerned. It is a democratically elected political entity. That's the point." While admitting that no practical results have yet come out of the talks, as far as getting Hamas to recognize Israel, forswear terrorism or accept previous Israeli-PA agreements are concerned, he says the contacts have helped in the "general amelioration" of the atmosphere. "They listen more attentively," he says. "And their attitude is a bit more balanced," adding that the cease fire in Gaza is a "very positive development." Stegniy stresses that Russia talks only with Hamas's political leaders, and not the "military people who are launching missiles against you." As to why Moscow makes that distinction, he responds, "Because official representatives have to talk to official representatives, that is the only reason." Although a June date was originally considered for the Moscow conference, Stegniy says this was premised on some kind of framework for an Israeli-PA agreement already having been reached by then. Since that hasn't happened, there is no point now in such a meeting. But, Stegniy says, the conference will be held when the time is ripe. "The main reason we think it may be useful is because it is always important to send additional signals of regional and international support of the peace process. That is the main aim." Or, as one Israeli diplomatic official quipped this week, it is one of a number of "conference-building measures" in the works. Following Annapolis in November, the Paris donors conference in December, the Bethlehem Investment conference in May, the Berlin conference on Palestinian security next week, and the pending Moscow conference, an impression has been created whereby the conference is the thing. "All of us need more time because of the unexpected developments in Gaza, and the domestic complication in Israel," Stegniy says. "We are still discussing an appropriate time for convening the conference, but are still 100 percent sure that it would be a positive development to move the process forward." THE CURRENT indirect Israeli-Syrian talks being conducted through the Turks could potentially lead to the placement of he Syrian track high on the agenda, an idea that has been mentioned several times in the past - and rejected by Israel. "We are positive about Israel-Syrian contacts, under Turkish mediation," Stegniy says, adding that Russia had previous knowledge of the talks before they were officially announced. To be sure, Russia has more than just a passing interest in Syria, with the Soviet Union for decades being Damascus's main backers, and Russia even today still considered one of its main arms suppliers. Indeed, a high-level Syrian military delegation was in Russia a few weeks ago, amid reports they were looking to buy submarines, S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, the latest MiG fighters and ballistic missiles. Stegniy says he has no knowledge of arms sales to Syria, or to Iran, but warns against believing everything printed about the matter in the press, Russian or otherwise. Regarding the overall military connection with Syria, Stegniy makes the following telling comment: "Once I was asked why the Russian aircraft carrier was stationed for some time in Syria, and I told the person that if you invite us to Haifa, we will come. If you order S-300's, welcome, any time." The sale of arms by Russia to Israel's enemies is nothing new - the US, by the way, also sells billions of dollars of arms to enemy countries, such as Saudi Arabia - and the Russian counterargument, one which Stegniy repeats, is always a very legalistic one: The Kremlin is doing nothing that contravenes international law or convention. "Our military-technical cooperation with regional countries is completely transparent. We send all the information to the UN," he says of the various arms sales. "Generally speaking, we are trying to send to the region only defensive weapons, under strict control of the UN, and we don't see any problems." Stegniy admits that arms sales are not only a political operation, but also a commercial one, and that if Russia didn't provide the arms, other countries would. "When you stop selling arms, the markets are being filled in by others - immediately." Turning to Iran, Stegniy frames the problem not in terms of a maniacal ruler trying to get his hands on an A-bomb, but almost as a rather mundane nuclear-proliferation issue, similar to other proliferation issues. Asked whether he is worried about Iranian Middle East hegemony, Stegniy chooses not to reply directly, but says instead, "We are very much worried about the proliferation process, above all. The Iranian nuclear program for us is a primarily a case of proliferation problems. That is where our real concerns start. We have to strengthen the [international non-proliferation] system." He says there is a need to be concerned about any number of "nuclear threshold" countries. "Iran was never an anti-Semitic country," he says. "My impression was that it was on the contrary. I don't want to be critical of our American partners and their policies, but they just damaged the triangle of stability in the region. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq counterbalanced each other. It took a couple of centuries for such a triangle of stability to be built. It was crushed as a result of Iraq." Stegniy says that every country has a legitimate right to a peaceful nuclear program. He also says Moscow doesn't have information persuading it that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. "If we had any concrete information about military programs we would behave differently," he says. "Of course nuclear arms in Iran is bad for Russia. We are trying not to repeat mistakes. Before the Iraqi operation, we were confident that they did not have WMDs, but after [the US's] famous statements in the UN, we had to respect our partners. But are you sure now that you possess information? According to our information, it is not true. They keep all the options open, but at this stage they are not going to nuclear weapons." Preempting the obvious question about why a country with Iran's abundant oil would need nuclear energy, Stegniy says there are "a lot of countries rich in natural resources that still switch to alternative energy programs. That's wise policy planning." He says that the political efforts should continue regarding Iran, and that it is important that the IAEA continues to watch the situation. He says it is "artificial" to speak of a difference between Russia and Israel and the US on this issue. The difference is over how to achieve the goal, he says, but not the goal itself. And as to what that goal is, his reply is simple: "To keep Iran or any other country out of the reach of nuclear weapons." Stegniy is respectful, but unconvinced, in the face of Israel's claims that Iran may pass the point of nuclear no-return by the end of the year. "We are having consultations on the expert level on a regular basis," he says. "I am not competent in this field, but our experts do not believe that Iran will make nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. I don't want to connect it with a statement or positions of the Israeli government. We are trying to understand your logic." Regarding that logic, he is asked about whether Israel is paranoid. "Of course not," he replies, very earnestly "Of course not."