Putin flexes his muscles

Moscow has turned the Syrian crisis into an achievement and is taking sides against Israel as it jettisons its evenhanded policy of the past two decades.

Putin with colorful flags370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Putin with colorful flags370
(photo credit: Reuters)
THE CRISIS-PRONE Middle East has proved a fertile hunting ground for Russian foreign policy. The latest gambit designed to enhance the Russian role was President Vladimir Putin’s call for the dismantling of Israel’s nuclear arsenal as a condition for successful regional reconciliation.
It is too early to say how this will play out, but it is virtually certain to have an impact on bilateral Russo-Israeli ties and could affect Israel’s most vital strategic interests.
Earlier, Russia played a leading role in brokering the compromise on the Syrian chemical weapons crisis – an achievement that brought it instant attention at the center of the international stage and earned it upgraded regional status. This Russian initiative, which was received in the international community with a collective sigh of relief coupled with skepticism over its implementation, should have come as no surprise. It was the fruit of a persistent Russian foreign policy endeavor aimed at enhancing Moscow’s international standing.
Russian policy from the very outset of the Putin era has been aimed at restoring past imperial glory, in an attempt to reestablish Russia as an important international player competing for influence on the global agenda. To promote this goal, it has shaped an assertive political strategy. This, in turn, has led to new confrontationalism between Russia and the West with deep mutual resentment and new challenges to the international order.
In the Middle East, the Russia-West rivalry has been conducted with growing intensity, as part of the overarching global competition. Especially since the “Arab Spring,” the Middle East has become a focal point of friction in the international arena. For Russia it holds both strategic opportunities and not inconsiderable strategic risks. This, in the view of the Russian leadership, called for a special effort to stave off the threat of declining regional standing.
Before the latest round of instability, Russia was able to consolidate its regional status partly by establishing a strategic anti-Western axis with the so-called “axis of evil” (Iran, Syria and Hezbollah).
In parallel, however, Russia worked at building a positive image as a responsible international actor, promoting solutions for regional crises and endowed with a capacity for dialogue with all the relevant regional and international players.
Most of these Russian assets were lost or compromised in the regional upheavals of the past few years. The regional turmoil also created new challenges: The accelerated process of Islamization threatens Russia directly; and the strengthening of the Sunni camp, which the Russians believe the West is backing primarily to force them out of the region, as part of the struggle with the Russian-backed Shi’ite axis, constitutes a serious threat to Russia’s regional standing.
Therefore, the Russians were quick to exploit the Syrian crisis to further their goals, specifically by supporting the radical Shi’ite axis as their last line of defense in the region. Syria became the most important link in the chain and its defense essential – both because a wide array of Russian interests is at stake, and because the fall of the Assad regime could lead to the collapse of the entire Shi’ite axis.
The Russians also realized that a high-profile international conflict had developed around Syria and that every Russian achievement in the Syrian theater would gain it heightened international status.
Their approach combined direct aid to the Syrian regime with prevention of foreign intervention, using both diplomatic and military means. They acted in full coordination with China, bolstering both the radical axis in the Middle East and the anti-Western global axis. This policy proved effective, at least insofar as Moscow has turned the Syrian crisis into an achievement and is taking sides against Israel as it jettisons its evenhanded policy of the past two decades Putin flexes his muscles ensuring the survival of both the Shi’ite axis and the Assad regime. But it came at a cost of more intense confrontation with the West and the Sunni camp.
The crisis-ridden Russian-American tensions were further exacerbated in early August by the Snowden affair, with Russia defying Washington in granting the CIA/ NSA whistleblower political asylum.
It seems that part of this “in your face” Russian conduct stems from a sense that America is losing its global status. US President Barack Obama’s perceived weakness is seen as a window of opportunity for Russia. Therefore, future relations between the two are uncertain, and there is a sense that they may be approaching a historic watershed with profound global implications.
STILL, IT should be borne in mind that Russia has in effect made its gains in the international arena without the necessary tools for genuine military and economic global competition. The effort has been based primarily on a policy of calculated assertiveness. But this cannot always serve as a substitute for the capabilities it lacks.
With the eruption of the crisis around the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in late August, and with the US poised to launch a strike that could have embarrassed Russia, the Russian leadership desperately needed to find new “creative” solutions.
Exploiting the West’s lack of appetite for an attack and their own capacity to force the Syrians to take tough decisions, they were able to promote the proposal to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons.
Russia’s success in brokering the chemical weapons’ compromise could pave the way for resolution of the Syrian crisis in its entirety. The Americans are now ready to convene the “Geneva 2” conference, based on a meeting of both the Syrian regime and rebel camps and the formation of a transitional government until democratic elections are held.
Obviously, even progress here will not end the overarching regional crisis; it will not impact on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or the Iranian nuclear program. And on Iran, Russia’s central ally in the region, there are signs of concern in Moscow in light of the conciliatory messages from the new Iranian leadership to the West and the American administration’s readiness to renew dialogue. The Russian offers over the past few weeks to supply war materials and help build a new nuclear reactor in Iran are part of an effort to retain pole position in Tehran.
It is with Israel that the Russians are performing a political somersault. The call for the dismantling of Israel’s nuclear arsenal – announced by Putin himself at the Valdai conference on September 19 – has several complex implications.
First, on the bilateral level, after years of positive relations between Russia and Israel, which Moscow saw as essential for advancing its regional goals, it is now clearly a case of Russia taking sides against Israel, jettisoning the evenhanded policy of the past two decades, even if this means destroying the delicate fabric of a carefully cultivated mutual relationship.
On the regional level, raising the issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenal is apparently designed to please Russia’s allies in the Shi’ite axis and convince them to remain loyal. It is also an attempt to pose a tough challenge to the US as part of the rivalry over a new regional order. In effect, what the Russians have done is to create a linkage between dismantling Israel’s arsenal of non- conventional weapons and those of Syria and Iran.
It seems that a new political page has been opened in the Middle East. But although Russia has achieved some success in its bid to help shape the region’s future and to upgrade its own global status, it is still a long way away from the parity it seeks with the US. Harming ties with Israel will not help in this respect.
Nevertheless, from now on, in all the regional developments in which Russia is involved, there could well be implications for Israel’s strategic interests. Zvi Magen, an expert on Russia at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, is a former ambassador to Moscow