Misguided in Moscow

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

medvedev erdogan bff 311 (photo credit: AP)
medvedev erdogan bff 311
(photo credit: AP)
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 ofrealpolitik, and one that appears to have few moral qualms aboutsupporting rogue states, Israel’s concerns are intensifying. Anyexpectation that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman might be able towarm relations has proven empty, not because of a provincial biasagainst the Moldovan-born minister but because he has unable topersuade Moscow of where not only Israel’s, but also Russia’s,strategic interests lie.
Putin and Medvedev might notdeliberately do anything to harm the million or so Russian speakersliving in Israel, one of the largest Russian expat communities in theworld. That might explain why last year Russia, implored by Israel,suspended the planned sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran thatwould have greatly bolstered Teheran’s ability to protect its nuclearfacilities from an air strike. Russia has also refused to sell thesemissiles to Syria. Nevertheless, as it pursues its goal of counteringUS dominance in the Middle East, Russia, a country that, despiteMedvedev’s claims to the contrary, has not fully thrown off itstotalitarian Soviet roots, is severely undermining Israeli interests.
PresidentShimon Peres spent part of this week in Moscow trying to communicatesome of these concerns. Medvedev heard him out and then flew off to seeAssad and Mashaal. From our perspective, it made for a bleak 65thanniversary.