Russia is succeeding in the Middle East where the US has failed, winning friends and influencing governments through open, measured diplomacy that exposes Washington double-speak and seeks to unite rather than divide. This is the region where tensions in Russia-US relations are sharpest, and Moscow, without having to confront Washington directly, has ample scope to operate in the power vacuum left by the loss of US influence.
Feb 17, 2007
Russia straddles Sunni-Shi'ite divide
By M K Bhadrakumar
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
"We see that new 'Berlin Walls' are being erected. Instead of a common space, what we see is that this 'Berlin Wall' is simply being shifted further east and that new bases are being established." These were Russian President Vladimir Putin's words in a media interview in Moscow last week.
Never before had Putin come so close to acknowledging that he has heard the drumbeat of the "cold warriors" in the West. That Putin chose an Arab media outlet to make such a stark description should come as no surprise. Of all regions, it is in the Middle East that the tensions that have been accruing in Russia-US relations over recent years have begun outstripping other turfs - the Black Sea, the Caspian, the Caucasus, Central Asia.
The Middle East is also a region where it is to Russia's advantage tactically to differentiate its policies from those of the West. Russia-US discord in the Middle East has picked up the thread from where the two powers left off some two decades ago. But Russia is returning to the region with a visage that bears hardly any resemblance to the Soviet era. Russia today is vastly leaner, more agile, resourceful and imaginative than previously. It has evidently done a lot of homework as to where things went wrong in the Soviet era.
Putin's visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan in the past week harnesses a one-year period of extraordinary success in Russia's Middle East policy.
It all began last March when a Hamas delegation led by Khaled Meshaal was hosted by Moscow. The event was a loud declaration that Russia was returning to big-time politics. Israel promptly protested that the Russian act was a "real knife in the back". But Moscow was undeterred. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov affirmed, "The talks in Moscow are not a one-off action."
Moscow put on public display all the justification for its initiative - Hamas had come to power through fair and free elections; Russia was only doing what Egypt and Turkey had done; isolation would only force Hamas to become more radical; Hamas sounded reasonable during the talks in Moscow; the international community would have no option but to deal eventually with Hamas and Russia's contacts would prove useful.
Then came the body blow to US policy in the Middle East. Moscow said, first, the talks with Hamas were held "within the framework of the Quartet's decisions" (the Middle East Quartet comprises top diplomats from the United States, the United Nations and the European Union). Second, Moscow was only trying to lead the Middle East crisis out of its deadlock. Third, Hamas should become an equal partner if any peace talks are to be meaningful.
By projecting itself as a bridge between the West and the Muslim Middle East, Moscow neatly served its own interests. It is making an ambitious bid to restore its traditional position and influence in the Middle East. It is wading into a power vacuum resulting from the loss of US influence in the region. And it is forging links with the Islamic world as a partner ready to make promises and willing to listen to Muslim opinion with respect. As Lavrov put it, "We will not let anyone put us at odds with the Islamic world."
Actually, Russia didn't have to say so explicitly. In Muslim Arab perceptions, Russian policy stands in sharp contrast with the Western (primarily US) approach that is characterized by pressure and the ever-threatening prospect of the use of force.
The thoughtfulness of the Russian policy became evident when, at the personal invitation of Putin, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited soon after Meshaal. The emphasis during the visits of the Palestinian leaders, no matter the concrete outcome, was on Russia making a visible attempt to restart the peace process at a time that Washington was patently uninterested.
Abbas told Putin, "When on Russian territory, we always feel that we are in a friendly state ... Russia is always at our side, even in the most critical times." But it was not a matter of atmospherics alone. In the interim between the visits of the two Palestinian leaders, Russia also persuaded the Quartet to adopt a decision to create an international mechanism for the direct transfer of aid to Palestine authorities. Russia compelled a furious Washington to go along with the collective Quartet decision.
But what infuriated Washington more than anything was Moscow's audacity to suggest that regional states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the Arab League should be made full participants of the Middle East peace process, rather than looking on. The Russian proposal (which is still on the Quartet's table) is glaring: Moscow is championing the cause of pro-American Arab regimes in the Middle East! In essence, Moscow is merrily hunting in the heartlands of the traditional US preserve in the Middle East. Russia is exposing US doublespeak, which is one of holding Israel's hand while shepherding the Arab protagonists on a case-by-case basis at random, a tactic that precluded the possibility of a common Arab position ever effectively challenging Israeli interests.
Moscow, which was bogged down with the baggage of ideology during the Soviet era, didn't have such a freedom previously to be in the vanguard of Arab aspirations. In the Soviet era, Moscow also had to make a pretense of exporting its ideology. After Abbas' visit to Moscow last May, a string of visitors went to the Russian capital - the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the prime minister of Lebanon, the president of Syria, the secretary general of the Arab League, the king of Jordan, the president of Egypt, etc. Putin himself visited Morocco and Algeria.
Russian diplomacy is one of great openness. First, Moscow began asserting that there is no alternative to a collective international effort in solving regional or global problems, meaning that Russia cannot be ignored any longer in conflict resolution - be it in the Middle East, Afghanistan or Kosovo. Lavrov told the Arab media soon after Meshaal's visit, "The contemporary world is such, and the Middle East all the more so, that without collective efforts, nothing can be accomplished. Collective efforts presuppose a joint elaboration of position, which cannot admit extremes in either direction, which cannot unambiguously state: 'in this crisis, this is the culprit, and this is the victim' ... There can be no stable settlement in which one party declares 100% victory, and the other side has to accept 100% defeat."
Second, there can be no prescriptive approach by outsiders to the Arab world as to how they ought to go about restructuring their political life. "Trying to get everyone to move at one speed or to follow one particular model, be it democracy or the market, is unrealistic and impossible," Lavrov has said. This Russian pragmatism is causing problems and constant embarrassment to Washington.
Third, unlike Washington's, Moscow's policy in the Middle East is well balanced. While building relations with Arab regimes, the so-called Arab street, Russia is also maintaining a sort of strategic partnership with Iran and a high level of relations with Israel.
Fourth, apart from realizing geopolitical goals, the sheer fact of having warm and cordial political relations at the bilateral level with Arab regimes also provides Moscow a chance to develop close economic cooperation with the Persian Gulf countries, above all. For the first time, Russia is seriously viewing the pro-Western countries in the region as a potential market for its arms exports.
It is an important distinction from the Soviet era that Russia is no longer seeking alliances, but is content with partnerships. (Conceivably, Russia will learn to live with a US-Iran or US-Syria normalization.) In plain terms, Russia's Middle East policy is not meant to be a geopolitical extravaganza. It is cost-effective and it is "self-financing". It cannot become a strain on Russian resources - a vital lesson learnt from the Soviet era.
Finally, it is apparent that the Russian policy acts independently of the Quartet, but at the same time not ruling out participation in the Quartet. This also annoys Washington. But with the Iraq war weighing like an albatross, Washington can hardly keep pace with Russian diplomacy. The fatigue is beginning to show.
Without being confrontational with Washington, Moscow has all but succeeded in creating the impression in the Arab world that Russia and the US are rivals in the Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world. This suits Russia. It is even necessary, since Russia's image has been one of a weak nation that is only too willing to curry favor with Washington.
Putin went out of his way to assert on the eve of his tour last week that Russia does not seek conflict with anyone, but "Russia knows its worth. We will work towards creating a multipolar world. We do not want to return to the era of confrontation between competing blocs. We do not want to split the world into different military and political groupings. But Russia does have enough potential to influence the formation of the new world order and to ensure that the future architecture of international relations is balanced and takes the interests of all the members of the international community into account."
What remains to be seen, of course, is what this "rivalry" is based on, and how far it may go. As Russian presidential adviser Aslambek Aslakhanov put it, "That Russia is turning into an independent player in the world arena has come as a surprise to our [Western] partners ... It is only fair that Russia does not want to play the role of a junior partner of the US in Middle East affairs and in questions pertaining to the destinies of the Muslim world. But Russia can and must be a partner of the US and the West when its national interests are not prejudiced."
Admittedly, Russia is not gloating over the US setbacks in the Middle East - not openly, at least. It insists it is interested in regional stability, and that aggravation of the situation in Iraq has a destabilizing influence on the entire region, and that could have negative fallouts eventually in the direct vicinity of Russia - the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia says that it is still possible to freeze the domestic conflict in Iraq and that Russia has good prospects of success in promoting an Iraqi dialogue involving all political and ethnic communities.
But Russia has not spared any effort in drawing a line of distinction between it and the United States, to the effect that Washington is yet to come up with a new strategy for the Middle East. Arab perceptions of Russia have dramatically changed in recent months. Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, articulated this collective Arab opinion when he told Putin at the Kremlin recently, "Relations between Russia and the Arab world are flourishing today and we greatly value Russia's policy in the Middle East. The policies of other countries regarding our region have not proved as successful, perhaps. Russia is one of the few countries whose policy is distinguished by an understanding of the reality of our region" (emphasis added).
Russia has undertaken an exhaustive stocktaking of the Middle East crisis. First and foremost, Russia has assessed that the quagmire in which the US finds itself in Iraq is virtually hopeless. Washington cannot reconcile its support of a Shi'ite government in Baghdad with its regional policy in the Middle East and the Gulf. At the same time, US interests within Iraq cannot be secured except with Shi'ite and Kurdish allies.
But this alliance infringes on the interests of the Sunnis, which in turn aggravates tensions between Iraqis and complicates US-Iraqi relations, fuels the resistance and destabilizes the entire region. However, even with regard to the Shi'ite camp, there are serious limits to US influence, as evident from the fact that Washington couldn't dictate the nomination of Ibrahim Jaafari as prime minister.
In other words, Moscow has concluded that the political process in Iraq has almost come to a standstill and the current crisis is likely to be followed by more problems for Iraqis and the Americans. In an interview with Al-Jazeera last week in Moscow, Putin asserted with a new vehemence: "The solution is simple: strengthen Iraq's own capacity to ensure its security, withdraw the foreign contingent from Iraqi soil, and give the Iraqi people the chance to decide their own future ... When our American partners talk simply of boosting their military contingent, we do not consider this to be a new strategy ... it will work only if a date is set for the withdrawal of the foreign contingent ... a date should be set for the withdrawal of the foreign troops."
In the Russian understanding, Iraq is not the only area where US regional strategy has misfired. Moscow sensed far ahead of most others that the future of resistance in the Middle East is fast becoming a central issue. Furthermore, Moscow could associate the resistance primarily with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the situation in Iraq. But Moscow was perceptive enough to note that armed resistance is not only due to occupation but is also a resistance to Western, primarily US, influence in the internal affairs of the region, as well as resistance to globalization. As a perceptive Russian expert commentator on the Middle East put it, "In fact, the growing number of Muslim women wearing headscarves is a challenge to Western civilization comparable to the actions of such movements as Hamas and Hezbollah."
This level of understanding has led Moscow to conclude that any external influence can only trigger further strengthening of local resistance, deepen divides in Arab society, and alienate pro-Arab regimes from their people even more. That is to say, Washington's policies virtually ensure that the pro-American regimes cannot remain long, and any US attempt to prop up these regimes can only meet with tactical, not strategic, success.
Moscow has sized up that the US-sponsored peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis are going nowhere. Moreover, the capacity of the US and the European Union to act as go-betweens has greatly diminished because of their stubborn refusal to have any dealings with Hamas. Also, in the Russian view, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be resolved without Syrian and Lebanese participation (and neither can the Iraq problem be resolved without Iranian and Syrian involvement).
A note of urgency has entered Russian pronouncements of late. Moscow seems to size up that Washington is getting ready for a possible war, and in the resolve to defend its interests in the region, the US administration is increasingly talking in the language of force rather than seeking compromise. But Moscow doubts whether the US is still able to reassure its allies in the region. It perceives that Middle Eastern equations are more nuanced than the crude lineup that propaganda would have us believe: the US, Israel and the pro-Western regimes versus Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Shi'ite elements.
Moscow senses that the pro-Western Arab regimes have extended only conditional support to US regional strategy. They will be content that US forces remain in Iraq. And they may be relieved that the administration of President George W Bush does not want to involve Iran in an Iraq settlement. Having said that, they are not happy that tensions in the region are mounting and that an armed US-Iran conflict may ensue. They are worried that a US defeat in Iraq will be a disaster for the Middle East. But, at the same time, they are not prepared to tackle the problem created by the US in Iraq, they are prepared to go so far and no further. And they will bargain hard with Bush.
In sum, Russian policy in the Middle East is a kind of mirror image in reverse of the string of mistakes that Washington has committed in the region. Prominent among such mistakes is the tragic error on the part of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to give an inter-civilizational character to the "war on terror". Moscow realizes that the consequent sense of hurt and alienation in the Islamic world is profound. The Russian leadership has spared no occasion to harp on the fact that Moscow has nothing to do with the Western leadership's characterization of "crusades" and "Islamo-fascism".
On the contrary, Moscow is projecting that Russia's Muslims can and should feel that they are an organic part of the Muslim world. Last year's initiative of starting a broad-based dialogue between Russia and the Muslim world in the nature of the so-called Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group was evidently a decision made at the highest level of leadership in the Kremlin, as evident from the fact that great Orientalist and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov heads it.
The association of Primakov, who is familiar with the Western strategy of pitting Islam against the Soviet Union, implies that Russia is wary of Anglo-American intentions. Post-Soviet Russia has indeed done a great deal of thinking on its own tactics and strategy toward political Islam. Primakov has expounded on the theoretical foundations of Russian thinking. He wrote last year in a fascinating essay that it is very important to differentiate between Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic extremism.
Primakov explained, "Islamic fundamentalism is about building mosques, observing Islamic rites and providing assistance to the faithful. But aggressive, extremist Islamic fundamentalism is about using force to impose an Islamic model of governance on the state and society. History knows of periods when Christian fundamentalism grew into Christian-Catholic extremism. Remember the Jesuits or the Crusades. Today we have to deal with the manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism."
Uncluttered by the ideological barriers that came in its way in the Soviet era, Moscow visualizes that "there are no countries in the Arab world now with which we have contradictions of any kind", as Putin said recently. The Arab world feels comfortable with the knowledge that post-Soviet Russia is not seeking superpower status, either.
Equally, Moscow shares a relationship with both the Shi'ite world and Sunni Arab countries. With a strategic partnership, albeit limited, with Iran under its belt, Russia finds itself as an agent of dialogue in respect of both Shi'ites and Sunnis, "an asset that the Americans do not have", the Jerusalem Post grudgingly admitted last week. The Israeli daily viewed with despondency the ease with which Moscow is crisscrossing the so-called Shi'ite-Sunni divide in the region, something that might dispel suspicion among Sunnis concerning a Shi'ite takeover in the region.
Russia has no doubt put itself in a unique position that will give it a clear advantage over the other players in the Middle East. Putin's tour of the region last week was a "coming-out party for the Kremlin's influence in the Middle East", as the Jerusalem Post wryly observed.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd.