Analysis: Is Russia as ‘orderly’ as we think?

There is a tendency in Israel to romanticize how other countries – the world’s so-called “orderly countries” – do business.

lavrov 311 (photo credit: AP)
lavrov 311
(photo credit: AP)
MOSCOW – There is a tendency in Israel to romanticize how other countries – the world’s so-called “orderly countries” – do business.
For instance, in a country like Israel, where every minister from the labor and the social services minister to the minister-without-portfolio will discuss events and matters that go far beyond his or her jurisdiction, people look with longing toward nations where it is assumed that the government is much more disciplined.
Take, for example, Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled’s comment last month about a possible war in Lebanon. Why, many people asked after he made those comments and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was forced to issue an immediate retraction, can’t Israel be like other countries, where the various ministers speak only about what is within their jurisdiction, and everyone is on message?
Armed, therefore, with the impression that Russia is an “orderly” country where high-level comments necessarily reflect the government line, many viewed with consternation comments made by a high-level Russian official – just hours before Netanyahu came to Moscow on Monday – that Russia would sell state-of-the-art S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.
According to this school of thought, no official in Russia “just talks,” there are no “wildcat statements” and the remarks made by the deputy head of Russia’s National Security Council, Vladimir Nazarov, invariably reflect the opinion of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and were choreographed from above.
The same is assumed when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Nicaragua, says that Israel’s settlement construction moratorium was “insufficient” and that all east Jerusalem building must stop.
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We hear this and don’t think that Lavrov, like our own Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, might just be articulating his own opinion. Rather, we immediately take the critical tone of his comments as being a mirror-like reflection of Medvedev and Putin’s thinking.
But Russia is not monolithic, there are different focuses of power in this enormous country – as there are in our small one – with each at times trying to nudge policy in opposite directions.
So when Nazarov is quoted by Interfax as saying that in regard to the S-300s, “there is a signed contract which we must follow through on,” both the speaker and the institution he represents must be examined in order to interpret how much weight to give the comments.
According to one senior official accompanying Netanyahu to Moscow, Nazarov is close to the Russian military-industrial complex, and the military-industrial complex has a keen interest in delivering the system to the Iranians, both because of the money involved and also out of concern that if Moscow reneges on this deal after a contract was signed, other countries may think twice about signing arms agreements with Russia, not knowing for sure whether it will follow through with them.
But just because the military-industrial complex is in favor of supplying the anti-aircraft missiles to Iran does not mean that the political decision has been made to do so. And, indeed, though it signed the agreement in 2007, Russia still has not delivered the weapons system to Teheran, something that is causing more than just a little frustration inside Iran.
Likewise, a similar lens must be used in looking at Lavrov’s statement. Israeli diplomatic officials say that Lavrov is consistently harder on Israel than either Medvedev or Putin, just as the US State Department has long been viewed as having a more Arabist slant than the White House. His comments, these officials say, must therefore be placed in the proper perspective, and do not necessarily reflect the thinking of his bosses, just as Lieberman’s comments don’t always match Netanyahu’s thinking.
The problem in Israel, however, is that while we realize that in Jerusalem many ministers and government officials speak without the authority to do so, and do not necessarily reflect the view of the prime minister who will ultimately decide policy, we don’t think that same phenomenon happens in “orderly countries” around the world. But it does.