Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip last week to Israel was the first ever by a Russian president. An elated Israel Vice Premier Shimon Peres described Putin’s visit as “historic” stating, “This is a sign of the changes that have occurred in Russia itself, in Israel-Russia relations and in Russian policy in the Middle East.”
During his visit to Israel, President Putin met with Israeli President Mosha Katsav, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Putin was also scheduled to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, meet with Jewish Red Army WWII veterans and visit the Russian Orthodox Church at Gethsemane.
Russia has a checkered history with Israel which made Putin’s visit extremely intriguing. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Russia helped Israel obtain arms to fight a contingent of hostile countries that included Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. However, after this initial cooperation, relations between the two countries quickly soured with Russia threatening to attack Israel during both the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Russia also strongly opposed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries remained icy for over forty years, with the former Soviet Union playing a key role in helping vengeful Arab states such as Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria and Iraq improve their military capabilities by providing state-of-the-art weaponry and training.
Seeing an opportunity to increase Russia’s influence in the Middle East, Putin now wants feelings of animosity extinguished and past threats to be forgotten. He is determined to transform Russia’s Cold-War image as a regional instigator and arms proliferator into one of a peacemaker and stabilizer.
Meeting in Cairo last week, Putin called for a Middle East peace conference in Moscow this year, “I am suggesting that we should convene a conference for all these countries concerned and the Quartet [the U.S., Russia, UN and EU], next autumn.” But even before Putin’s trip to the Middle East, there were noticeable signs that the frigid relationship between Israel and Russia was beginning to thaw.
Economic, defense and anti-terrorist cooperation between Israel and Russia has increased substantially over the past several years. Israel’s trade with Russia totaled $550 million in 2004, according to a survey by the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce. In addition, Israel purchased $1.5 billion worth of Russian energy products in 2004.
In April, Russia announced it would supply 100 RD-93 fighter jet engines to China as part of a $267 million deal for the new Ch FC-1 fighter developed by China, Pakistan, Israel and Russia. Anti-terrorist cooperation continues to be a key component of the Israel-Russia bilateral relationship, as the head of Israel’s National Security Council, Giora Eiland, has visited Russia twice recently.
Putin continues to reach out to leaders in the Middle East stating that he is ready to take a leadership role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In a statement to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Putin expressed his desire for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict stating, “Russia has sincere relations with Israel because so many Russians live in Israel [over 1 million former Soviet Jews now live in Israel]. We are interested in their fate and want them to live in a secure environment.”
But even with his visit to the Holy Land and expanded bilateral cooperation between Russia and Israel, critical questions remain unanswered concerning Putin’s real intentions in the Middle East and Russia’s ultimate role in the peace process.
In this regard, Putin has made two glaring political mistakes that have diminished his credibility with Israel and the global Jewish community, namely, the sale of advanced missile systems to Syria and Russian assistance in the construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran. In addition, Putin’s role in confronting his own country’s growing anti-Semitism problem and his questionable commitment to democratic reforms are lingering concerns.
Putin’s approval of the sale of SS-26 and SA-18 missiles to Syria in the face of persistent U.S. and Israeli objections has become a foreign relations nightmare for the Kremlin. Without question, the SS-26 and SS-18 missiles pose an immediate threat to U.S. and Israeli forces in the Middle East. The SS-26 is a highly mobile missile that uses satellite guidance systems to attain maximum accuracy. With a range of 180 miles, it can carry a 1,000-pound warhead to most targets inside Israel, including the nuclear reactor site outside Dimona. Even more deadly and threatening than the SS-26, the SA-18 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile uses its enhanced seeker to hit aerial targets, such as jet fighters, head-on.
Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s ultimate fear is that terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah could acquire and use the weapons against Israel. The Kremlin’s continued inflexibility on the subject of Syria has led Sharon to comment, “For the situation to be regulated successfully, Russia should consider Israel’s problems in a more objective and balanced way.” Sharon went on to say, “We would greet with understanding, for example, if Russia would take into account not only Arab, but Israeli points of view.”
Russia’s participation in the construction of Iran’s 1,000 megawatt Bushehr nuclear reactor and its planned shipment of nuclear fuel in the face of EU and U.S. concerns is an extremely troubling development and a serious blow to Israel-Russia relations. Causing further concern for Israel, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Deputy Hussein Musavia recently stated, “The enrichment of uranium is a given right of any nation.”
Under Putin, anti-Semitism has again gripped Russia. In January, 58 delegates in the Russian Duma voted against a resolution condemning anti-Semitic attacks. Instead, 20 legislators signed a shameful petition calling for the outlawing of all Jewish organizations and activities as “extremist.”
In March, Russia’s chief rabbi, Beri Lazar, called on Putin to do more to combat anti-Semitism saying, “The government needs to take concrete steps to confront the growing trend of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.” The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Alvaro Gil-Robles, has suggested that the Russian government devise legislation to deter radical political leaders from venting expressions of xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism stating, “Attacks on synagogues, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and assaults against individuals are examples of the serious criminal acts which are becoming more frequent in numerous regions of the Russian Federation.”
In his recent annual State of the Nation keynote address, Putin stated that, “The country’s main political task is to ensure democracy with European ideals and to strengthen the judicial and political systems.” However, observers who once hoped Putin would propel Russia into an age of “enlightened liberalism” have found themselves questioning the president’s commitment to democratic ideals and free-market reforms -- both necessary components for a free and stable Russia.
Early democratic reforms have inexplicitly stalled during Putin’s second term, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to comment that, “Russia is letting democracy slip away.” Meeting with Putin prior to President Bush’s visit to Moscow next month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi forces in WWII, Secretary of State Rice stated that Putin had “too much personal power” and that the pace of democratic reforms in Russia was “very worrying.”
It has become increasingly clear that Vladimir Putin is trying to sell the Russian people on his idea of a revived Russian empire. As part of his ambitious plan, Putin wants Russia to once again become a key player in Middle East politics. This may be appealing to the Russian people who have seen the country’s global influence decline precipitously.
When asked about Russian influence in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon noted, “I don’t think they [the West] adequately appreciate the importance of national honor in Russia, and the desire to restore the status of an immense empire with all its influence. I have a better sense of that.” Sharon also said he feels Russia is “eager to become an empire again.”
Taken collectively, Putin’s domestic and foreign policy actions paint a conflicting story. On one hand, he has described the collapse of the repressive Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” On the other hand, he has stated that Russia wants to facilitate the Middle East peace process.
Which Putin should we believe – the Soviet-era sympathizer or the professed peacemaker?
Frederick W. Stakelbeck, Jr. is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.