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Russia and the Middle East By: John Elliott and Igor Khrestin
Middle East Quarterly | Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Where does Moscow stand in the fight against Islamism and the global war against terror? Facing the Chechen threat at home, the Russian government might be sympathetic to U.S. and even Israeli concerns. Not so. Despite U.S. declarations that Washington and Moscow were "increasingly united by common values" and that Russia was "a partner in the war on terror,"[1] examination of Russian president Vladimir Putin's policy toward the Middle East suggests that Moscow has become an impediment both to the fight against Islamist terror and Washington's desire to promote democracy in the Middle East. The 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy reinforces that U.S. policymakers should not only "encourage Russia to respect the values of freedom and democracy at home" but also cease "imped[ing] the cause of freedom and democracy" in regions vital to the war on terror.[2] While Russian officials denounce U.S. criticism, the Kremlin's coddling of Iranian hard-liners, its reaction to the "cartoon jihad," its invitation to Hamas to Moscow, and its flawed Chechen policy all cast doubt on Moscow's motivations.

While President Bill Clinton had focused his Middle East policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, his strategy toward the broader Middle East was more detached.[3] He was content to pursue dual containment toward Iraq and Iran and follow a status quo policy toward North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The 9-11 terrorist attacks focused U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East. President George W. Bush asserted that the region "must be a focus of American policy for decades to come" and declared a "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."[4] Putin, too, made the Middle East an area of increasing focus. But in contrast to his rhetoric of cooperation--he was the first foreign leader to call Bush on 9-11--he has pursued a contradictory strategy to bolster Russian influence at U.S. expense.

The Chechen Lens

Nothing shapes Putin's thinking about terrorism and the Middle East more than Chechnya. While Islamist terrorism threatens U.S. security, the Chechen conflict threatens both Russian security and its territorial integrity. The conflict in Russia's Chechnya province has claimed over one hundred thousand lives since President Boris Yeltsin ordered the Russian military into Chechnya in 1994.[5] After the 1996 cease-fire, Chechnya dissolved into anarchy, becoming the "Somalia of the Caucasus."[6] Foreign jihadists infiltrated the Chechen leadership.[7] In 1999, Vladimir Putin, newly-appointed prime minister, ordered Russian troops to reassert order. His tough stance catapulted him into political prominence and, eventually, the presidency.

Putin and Bush initially cooperated in the war against the Taliban. The Russian leader complied with U.S. requests to build bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for use in the war against the Afghan Islamists. In April 2002, U.S. and Russian militaries cooperated to dislodge terror groups from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.[8] The following month, the two leaders declared, "We are partners, and we will cooperate to advance stability, security, and economic integration, and to jointly counter global challenges and to help resolve regional conflicts."[9]

Putin's domestic war on terrorism enjoyed only limited success. Russian security forces did impose some order in Chechnya, but the Kremlin was unable to stem Chechen and Islamist terrorism on Russian soil. In 2002, 120 died in a rescue attempt after Chechen rebels took 800 people hostage in a Moscow theater. Two years later, several hundred children died after terrorists seized a school in Beslan. Even after the subsequent crackdown, Russian forces have not been able to stop Chechen Islamist raids into neighboring provinces as they seek to build an "Islamic Republic of the North Caucasus."[10] Terrorists continue to take advantage of endemic Russian corruption.[11] An independent Russian daily observed that "a police officer or soldier is killed in the Caucasus practically every day"; a senior military official admitted that the situation in Chechnya is "far from ideal."[12]

Faced with only marginal gains at home, Putin changed tack. Rather than continue cooperation with Washington on the broader war on terror, he sought to cut a deal. In 2003, he asked to join the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), even though with only 20 million Muslims--about 15 percent of the population--Russia lacked the required 50 percent minimum Muslim population.[13] While the OIC did not grant Russia full membership, it did grant Moscow observer status.[14] The relationship was symbiotic: the OIC saw Moscow as a patron that could offset U.S. pressure while Moscow received de facto immunity from criticism of Russian policy in Chechnya as a result of OIC reluctance to interfere in the internal affairs of member-states, even honorary ones.[15] Putin further outlined his vision of alliance with the Islamic world when, addressing the newly-elected Chechen parliament in December 2005, Putin called Russia "a faithful, reliable, and dedicated promoter . . . of the interests of the Islamic world" and "its best and most reliable partner and friend."[16]

Arming Iran

The desire both to cut a deal and stymie Washington also explains Moscow's policy toward Tehran. Russian and Iranian interests are historically divergent. The two countries fought intermittently throughout the nineteenth century, and Soviet leaders supported separatist movements in Iran in the twentieth century.[17] Their perceived spheres of influence overlap in the Caucasus and the Caspian. The 1979 Islamic Revolution may have torn Iran away from alliance with the United States, but it did not bring Tehran and Moscow any closer. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini considered the Soviet Union to be "godless" and purged leftists from the revolutionary coalition.[18]

But a February 1989 visit by Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and a reciprocal visit to Moscow by then-Majlis speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani four months later cemented a détente. Relations expanded with Moscow after the Soviet Union's collapse. On August 25, 1992, Tehran and Moscow signed an US$800 million deal for Russian companies to build two nuclear reactors at Bushehr.[19] While this contract predates Putin's presidency, the Russian leader turned a blind eye to signs that the Iranian program was not entirely civilian. Five years after Rafsanjani threatened to use nuclear weapons against Israel,[20] and despite an International Atomic Energy Agency finding that Iran was in noncompliance with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty's safeguards agreement,[21] Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov insists that the Iranian program "is conducted fully in accordance with international norms."[22]

So what explains Russian behavior? Maintaining nuclear trade with Tehran enabled Putin to cement a tacit agreement in which Iran declines to interfere in Chechnya and other Islamist causes which threaten Russia. Winning Iranian acquiescence is especially important given its proximity to Russia's troubled south. In exchange, the Kremlin shields the Iranian government from Western pressure. Russian unwillingness to accept sanctions against Iran for its nuclear noncompliance has vexed Washington,[23] as has Moscow's refusal to force an Iranian reaction to the May 2006 European Union and U.S. package of incentives.[24]

Any Middle Eastern government which seeks Moscow's support understands it must either side with the Russian struggle against Chechen separatists or, at a minimum, agree not to meddle. With the end of the Cold War, the Israeli government has sought to better its relations with Moscow. Since 1999, Israeli intelligence has shared information with their Russian counterparts and has assisted Russian forces in training and border security. Israeli officials have likened the Chechen separatists to Palestinian terrorists.[25] Damascus, too, has assisted Russia diplomatically. In September 2005, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad welcomed the pro-Moscow president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, to Damascus, granting the embattled Chechen leader some international legitimacy.[26]

The commercial factor is also a bonus. The Russian government has secured lucrative contracts with several states that Washington considers pariahs. In December 2005, the Iranian government signed a billion dollar arms deal that included twenty-nine Tor M1 missile defense systems to protect the Bushehr nuclear facility.[27] The Russian government has also sold Strelets missiles to Syria.[28] Putin halted sales of even more sophisticated weaponry only after vigorous U.S. and Israeli protest.[29] That Iran is also oil-rich is added incentive; Russia has $750 million invested in energy projects there.[30] The Russian oil firm Lukoil seeks to move 23 percent of production to the Middle East by 2015.[31]

Russia's Cartoon Jihad

Bush characterizes the U.S. fight as a "war with Islamic fascists."[32] Putin, too, has cracked down on Islamist terror in Russia. But what works at home is not necessarily what Putin embraces for those outside Russia. On February 4, 2006, protests erupted in many Muslim countries against cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which had been published months before in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. In Lebanon and Syria, mobs sacked the Danish embassy and, in Libya, they attacked an Italian consulate. But rather than stand up for free speech--as did many outside the Middle East--the Russian government sided with the Islamists.

Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma's (parliament) International Affairs Committee, chided the Danish government for allowing such cartoons to be published. "The [Danish] prime minister washed his hands of the whole matter, with the usual comments, chapter and verse, about freedom of speech," Kosachev said, before chiding the Danes for citing the right of free speech as reason not to crack down on "anti-Russian hysteria over Chechnya in Denmark"[33] a few years earlier. Then, three days after the mass protests erupted, Putin said, "One should reflect 100 times before publishing or drawing something . . . If a state cannot prevent such publications, it should at least ask for forgiveness."[34]

To drive home the point, on February 17, Andrei Dorinin, acting mayor of the southern Russian city of Volgograd, shut down the local paper Gorodskie Vesti, after it printed a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad along with Jesus, Moses, and Buddha.[35] The government also charged Anna Smirnova, editor of Nash Region in Vologda, with "inciting racial hatred"--an offense punishable by up to five years in prison, according to article 282 of the Russian criminal code--after her paper republished the original Jyllands-Posten cartoons. She was fined 100,000 rubles (about US$3,700). The paper's owners, citing concerns over the "safety of the journalists," shut down the newspaper.[36]

What makes the Russian government's actions curious is that they initiated the crackdown absent any significant public outcry, let alone riots, against the cartoons. According to a nationwide poll conducted by the Levada Center, only 14 percent of respondents were "outraged" by the Prophet Muhammad cartoons; the plurality simply did not care.[37] The reactions of Russia's religious leaders were likewise muted. Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, head of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate, noted that "in a cultured society, it is necessary that there be cultured people."[38]

While local politics played a part in the crackdowns,[39] the general Kremlin reaction showed that the fight against Islamism was relative. While Putin will neither tolerate terrorism nor the ideology behind it at home, he will at times justify that same extremism abroad if it wins Moscow points in the Islamic world, prolongs the tacit agreement against Islamic countries' interference in Chechnya, and undercuts the general U.S. and European diplomatic position in the Middle East. Andrei Serenko, an expert at the Fund for Development for Information Policy, explained, "To prove Vladimir Putin's thesis that ‘a strong Russia is a defender of Muslims,' [the Kremlin] can sacrifice a regional newspaper."[40]

Hamas Tours Moscow

Perhaps nothing underlined the relativity of Moscow's fight against terror as much as the Kremlin's 2006 invitation to Moscow of a Hamas delegation. In February 2006, Putin announced, ‘‘We are willing in the near future to invite the authorities of Hamas to Moscow to carry out talks."[41] The State Department reacted cautiously. Spokesman Sean McCormack warned that "as a member of the Quartet, we would certainly expect that Russia would deliver that same message" to Hamas, namely to renounce violence, recognize Israel, and respect previous Palestinian and international agreements.[42]

While Moscow had long supported the Palestine Liberation Organization and lobbied for the creation of the Palestinian state, Putin's outreach to Hamas broke with tradition. Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the international relations committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house, had praised the Israeli assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yasin.[43] When a Hamas suicide bomber killed seventeen people in Beersheba in August 2004, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning "the new barbarous foray by the extremists," and declaring, "We are convinced that no political or other purposes can be reached by means of violence and terror."[44]

Hamas leaders seized the opportunity proffered by Putin. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, "We salute the Russian position and . . . accept it with the aim of strengthening our relations with the West and particularly with the Russian government."[45] The Hamas delegation met with Lavrov, toured the capital with the leaders of Russia's Muslim community, and had an audience with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.[46] The Russian government's engagement with Hamas did not lead the group to abandon terrorism.[47] One Russian journalist concluded, "Moscow invited the Palestinians just to invite them, and Hamas came just to come."[48]

The Russian press was less forgiving than the Kremlin. In the press conference, an Izvestiya reporter asked Hamas delegation leader Khalid Mashaal to comment on his June 2000 pronouncement that children should be trained as suicide bombers. The Hamas leader defended his comment. "We have our own symbols, our own examples to imitate. And we are proud of this,"[49] he told the assembled press. So what did Putin's outreach achieve? Again, Chechnya played front and center in his strategy: Hamas promised not to meddle in the North Caucasus.[50]

What does the Hamas visit signal for Russian-Israeli relations? Under Putin, ties between Moscow and Jerusalem initially blossomed. The Russian president appreciated Jerusalem's no-nonsense approach to terrorism, as well as its technical assistance with regard to Chechnya. That one million Israelis speak Russian facilitates business. Economic relations between Moscow and Jerusalem thrived; hundreds of Israeli businesses operate in Russia.[51] Russian business leaders look to fill Israel's growing energy needs.[52] Today, direct trade between the two states is valued at approximately $1.5 billion.[53] In April 2006, the Russian government launched an Israeli satellite capable of spying on the Iranian nuclear program.[54] But while some writers once celebrated Putin's new approach,[55] the enabling of Iran's nuclear program and the invitation to Hamas suggest that optimism regarding Russia's president is premature. While the Russian government is willing to criticize its Iranian and Arab clients to placate the
West, it seldom translates harsh words into action. The Russian Foreign Ministry's contradictory statements[56] following the July 12, 2006 Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon seemed designed to obfuscate rather than stake out a clear position against terror. The Russian government may appreciate the fruits of economic relations with Israel, but when it comes to standing on principle against terror, Putin draws a line. Russia does not consider Hamas or Hezbollah to be terrorist groups; to stand too much with Israel against terror might mean undercutting Putin's Faustian bargain with Islamists over Chechnya.

Conclusions

The post-9-11 U.S.-Russian honeymoon did not last. While some tension resulted from Putin's growing authoritarianism,[57] more responsible was Putin's decision to place Russia squarely in opposition to Washington's desire to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions, delegitimize terrorism, and promote democracy.

That Washington and Moscow diverge on the Middle East should not surprise. A June 2000 foreign policy concept paper approved by Putin defines Moscow's priorities in the Middle East "to restore and strengthen its position, particularly economic ones."[58] Putin has pursued this strategic pragmatism even when it puts Moscow in the position of arming Iran and Syria while strengthening economic relations with Israel.

How wise is Putin's policy? Not all Russian analysts are convinced it will further Moscow's interests. Dmitri Suslov, an expert with Moscow's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, explained, "[T]here is a big risk here, that by providing greater legitimacy for Islamists, Russia could invite greater instability in the Middle East and at home."[59] Prominent Russian columnist Yulia Latynina argued that "by holding talks with rogue states, Russia comes perilously close to being perceived as a rogue state in its own right."[60]

Nor is success assured for Putin's gamble that he can appease external Islamists to win space for Russian actions in Chechnya. In June 2006, Islamists in Iraq kidnapped and murdered four Russian diplomats--including one Muslim. They issued a tape declaring, "God's verdict has been carried out on the Russian diplomats … in revenge for the torture, killing, and expulsion of our brothers and sisters by the infidel Russian government." [61] Simply put, Putin may subscribe to Realpolitik, but Islamic extremists are not well-versed in its intricacies.

NOTES:

1. Introduction, "The National Security Strategy of the United States," Sept. 2002.

2. "The National Security Strategy of the United States," Mar. 2006, p. 39.

3. Robert O. Freedman, "U.S. Policy toward the Middle East in Clinton's Second Term," Middle East Review of International Affairs, Mar. 1999.

4. George W. Bush, remarks, National Endowment for Democracy, United States Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C., Nov. 6, 2003.

5. "Russia: Annotated Timeline of the Chechen Conflict," Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty, Feb. 7, 2006.

6. Leon Aron, "Chechnya: New Dimensions of the Old Crisis," AEI Russian Outlook, Feb. 1, 2003.

7. Lorenzo Vidino, "How Chechnya Became a Breeding Ground for Terror," Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2005, pp. 57-66.

8. The New York Times, Apr. 30, 2002.

9. Joint declaration, President George W. Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin, Moscow, May 24, 2002.

10. "Timeline of the Chechen Conflict," Feb. 7, 2006.

11. The Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2004.

12. Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Moscow), Aug. 22, 2006.

13. Kommersant (Moscow), June 29, 2005.

14. Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister, remarks, Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Sept. 1, 2005.

15. Shahram Akbarzadeh and Kylie Connor, "The Organization of the Islamic Conference: Sharing an Illusion," Middle East Policy, June 22, 2005.

16. Izvestiya (Moscow), Dec. 13, 2005.

17. Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin, Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (New York: Palgrave, 2005), p. 60.

18. Baqer Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), pp. 125, 217-8.

19. Vladimir Orlov and Alexander Vinnikov, "The Great Guessing Game: Russia and the Iranian Nuclear Issue," The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2005.

20. Kayhan (Tehran), Dec. 15, 2001.

21. "IAEA Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," GOV/2005/77, Sept. 24, 2005.

22. RIA Novosti (Moscow), July 13, 2006.

23. The Washington Post, Mar. 25, 2006.

24. Associated Press, July 21, 2006.

25. Ilya Bourtman, "Putin and Russia's Middle Eastern Policy," Middle East Review of International Affairs, June 2006; The Washington Times, Sept. 7, 2004.

26. Mark Katz, "Putin's Foreign Policy toward Syria," Middle East Review of International Affairs, Mar. 2006.

27. RIA Novosti, July 13, 2006.

28. Lee Kass, "Syria after Lebanon: The Growing Syrian Missile Threat," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2005, pp. 25-34.

29. Kommersant, Jan. 14, 2006.

30. Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty, Feb. 10, 2006.

31. Alexandr Zaslavsky, "Russian Production in the Middle East," Pro et Contra, Mar.-June 2006, pp. 45-53.

32. Remarks at Austin Straubel International Airport, Green Bay, Wis., White House press release, Aug. 10, 2006.

33. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Dec. 22, 2005.

34. Agence France-Presse, Feb. 8, 2006.

35. Novye Izvestiya (Moscow), Feb. 20, 2006.

36. Lenta.ru (on-line), Apr. 14, 2006.

37. "Rossiyane o Karikaturnom Skandale," Levada Center, Moscow, Feb. 27, 2006.

38. United Press International, Feb. 7, 2006.

39. Novye Izvestiya, Feb. 20, 2006.

40. Novye Izvestiya, Feb. 20, 2006.

41. The New York Times, Feb. 10, 2006.

42. Associated Press, Feb. 10, 2006.

43. Kommersant, Mar. 4, 2006.

44. Kommersant, Mar. 4, 2006.

45. Agence France-Presse, Feb. 9, 2006.

46. Izvestiya, Mar. 6, 2006.

47. Izvestiya, Mar. 6, 2006.

48. Novoye Vremya (Moscow), Mar. 12, 2006.

49. Izvestiya, Mar. 6, 2006.

50. Novoye Vremya, Mar. 12, 2006.

51. Itar-Tass news agency (Moscow), Apr. 30, 2006.

52. FK Novosti (Moscow), July 21, 2006.

53. Bourtman, "Putin and Russia's Middle Eastern Policy."

54. Associated Press, Apr. 25, 2006.

55. See, for example, Mark N. Katz, "Putin's Pro-Israel Policy," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2005, pp. 51-9.

56. Associated Press, July 20, 2006; "Nachalo Vstrechi s Ministrom Innostrannih Del Saudovskoi Aravii Princem Saudom al'-Feisalom," official website of the president of Russia, July 25, 2006.

57. Dick Cheney, 2006 Vilnius Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania, White House press release, May 4, 2006.

58. "Kontseptsia Vneshnei Politiki Rossiyskoy Federatsii," Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, June 28, 2000.

59. The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 21, 2006.

60. The Moscow Times, Mar. 15, 2006.

61. Associated Press, June 26, 2006.

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Igor Khrestin is a research assistant at American Enterprise Institute. John Elliott is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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