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Published on: December 13, 2013
Nature Abhors a Vaccuum
Russia’s Return to the Middle East

U.S. fatigue and distraction in the Middle East has made ample room for Russia to step in as the new patron, power-broker and custodian of the region. Washington should think twice about welcoming this development.

Russia is back. At least that’s what they say—especially the Russians. 2013 marks the year that the Kremlin reasserted its power abroad in ways not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and nowhere has this reassertion been more obvious than in the Middle East. From Syria to Egypt to Iran to Israel, Moscow is now seen to be moving in on America’s turf, usurping the only superpower’s traditional role as safeguard of a region that, whether or not it cares to admit it, has always looked to the United States to solve its problems. But now a new patron has arrived in the neighborhood with the offer of advanced weaponry and a cold disregard for how dictatorial regimes choose to conduct their “internal” affairs. Unlike Washington, this patron has shown a willingness to stand by its friends in extremity and is more than happy to wage diplomatic war with the West if those friends’ survival is ever called into question. Russia’s restoration in the Middle East has been built upon America’s abdication.

Without a doubt, the crowning ceremony was the Kremlin’s deft ownership of international diplomacy on the 18-month crisis in Syria, one that has so far killed more than 120,000 people, including by the repeated use of chemical weapons, and yet has remarkably culminated in the re-legitimization of the person responsible for it, Bashar al-Assad.  The Syrian civil war— particularly the White House’s inept and improvisational response to it—has accidentally transformed Putin into a major power-broker for the post-Arab Spring Middle East. (This is no small feat considering that Sunni Muslim antipathy toward Russia is at a record high because of Syria.)  It has turned Moscow into the new hub for geopolitical influencing in the region, the world capital where the Egyptian general staff, the Saudi intelligence chief, the Israeli prime minister and even now the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition all feel they must pay call in order to get things done. And while it’s true that Russia hasn’t the GDP, military reach, or reputation to completely hobble U.S. influence in the Middle East, it doesn’t need to do that to pose a threat to U.S. interests. Putin’s objective is to offer himself as a steady alternative to a fickle Obama: a partner in arms deals and Security Council obstruction who won’t run away or downgrade a relationship over such trivia as human rights, mass murder or coups d’état. Putin has apologized for and facilitated the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century under the guise of international law and a respect for state sovereignty. This is an invaluable friend for a dictator to have in his corner.

An old anecdote has it that in the dying days of Communism, a senior Syrian official was found wandering the halls of the Kremlin saying, “We regret the Soviet collapse more than the Russians do.”  The Syrian-Russian relationship was always rather complicated, full of mutual suspicion and attempts by Moscow to impose an ideology that Hafez al-Assad didn’t much care for, in exchange for military and intelligence assistance that Syria couldn’t do without. But Damascus isn’t just a resurrected strategic ally following years of desuetude under the Yeltsin government; it is Putin’s last-stand client in the region against what he sees as American hegemony. The Cheka’s old hold on Damascus looms large in Putin’s imagination, as does the precipitous collapse of Moscow Centre’s influence abroad. In interviews, he often recalls how, as a young KGB officer, he was stranded in Dresden when the Wall came down and Germans tried to storm the KGB rezidentura. “Moscow [was] silent” was his ashen-faced pronouncement on that occasion. Putin then famously “joked” upon assuming the presidency in 2000 that the security organs had now seized control of the government. Moscow won’t be silent again. Syria has amplified its voice.

It has also given Putin the joy of watching as Assad’s many enemies come begging and scraping before a Kremlin they see as a rising new custodian of regional stability. Before the Saudi government decided to vent its anger with the Obama Administration’s Syria policy by issuing statements in the Western press and by refusing to join the United Nations Security Council as a rotating member (after two years of lobbying vigorously for the post), Riyadh tried an alternative method of advancing its interests in the Levant. It dispatched its intelligence chief and former U.S. bosom buddy Prince Bandar bin Sultan to Moscow in early August, weeks before the August 21 sarin gas attacks on Ghouta, to negotiate with the one actor who might bring the Syria crisis to an expeditious and satisfactory close. Bandar allegedly offered a $15 billion arms purchase of Russian weaponry, plus assurances that the Gulf states wouldn’t interfere in Russia’s energy dominance in Europe, in exchange for the guarantee that the Kremlin wouldn’t block future Security Council resolutions on Syria. The Kremlin refused, but the details of the offer were leaked to the press by Middle Eastern and Western sources, and then subsequently denied by the Russian Foreign Ministry. It must have been the happiest denial the ministry has issued in years. Not only did Prince Bandar’s abortive brokerage furnish additional proof that Putin sticks by his clients even when offered Dane geld to abandon them, but it also helped isolate and embarrass Syria’s main antagonist in the Gulf, which happens to be one of America’s most powerful and seriously pissed-off allies. A fine double play without expending much energy.

Putin’s next step was then to directly humiliate the United States. September 11 marks the day of the worst attack on American soil since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Putin was once known as the first world leader to ring up George W. Bush and offer his condolences and support on that grim occasion. But 12 years on, the Russian president used the anniversary of 9/11 to issue indirect threats against U.S. national security, rub Washington’s nose in its foreign policy failures, and remind Americans that there isn’t anything really “exceptional” about their country at all in the emerging new world order.  He did this with a troika of passive-aggressive moves.

First, via the Ketchum public relations company, Putin published an op-ed in the New York Times—it went live on the newspaper’s website on September 11—in which he cautioned against getting involved in Syria. He cited recent U.S. experiences in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that it should sit this Middle Eastern quagmire out and not interfere with the Kremlin’s tried-and-true dictatorship-promotion in the Levant. The op-ed was the perfect example of what the KGB used to call “active measures”: misinformation and agitprop designed to sway public opinion against the West and principally the United States, typically in contested Third World countries. Though this turn was especially brilliant considering that it was American public opinion Putin was now swaying. Obama’s decision to give a badly divided legislature the task of choosing how to respond to the use of chemical weapons presented a rare opportunity for Russia to directly influence and shape the American policy debate. The op-ed was visible to millions on the anniversary of a national tragedy, run in the U.S. newspaper of record, and tailored exclusively for a war-weary and isolationist electorate to emphasize the virtues of thinking more like Russia. Conveniently left out of Putin’s appeal for “caution” was his continued military support for a regime that has carpet-bombed whole cities, slaughtered infants, gang-raped women and men in dungeon prisons, and used chemical weapons more than a dozen times. Putin even managed to get past the Times editorial board’s fact-checkers a recapitulation of the serially debunked conspiracy theory that Syrian rebels, rather than the regime, deployed sarin gas against thousands in Ghouta.  (That Russia knows full well who was really responsible is evidenced in a superb Wall Street Journal reconstruction of the attack from the point of view of U.S. intelligence, which intercepted freak-out communications from Moscow to Damascus on August 21.)

Next came Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, who on September 11 suggested to his colleagues in Russia’s sycophantic parliament that, in the event the United States did bomb Syria, Russia should reconsider selling high-tech weaponry to Iran and put an end to the northern distribution network to Afghanistan by which the Pentagon transports men and materiel through Russian territory. (This was a feint, as Russia is gravely concerned about a full U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, not least because it considers the country’s burgeoning heroin trade a national security threat.) How better to commemorate 9/11, after all, than to warn the victim that Russia would gladly arm a leading state sponsor of international terrorism and acquiescence to the reconstitution of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the country where the attacks were first plotted?

Finally, the Russian Foreign Ministry ended the day by leaking news that its formerly cancelled deal for to sell S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Iran had been reactivated, rendering moot a multi-billion dollar lawsuit initiated by Tehran for breach of contract. That much-discussed arms deal, nixed in 2009 during the inaugural days of the “reset” and thought to be an encouraging sign of Russia’s sincerity in helping the United States and Europe stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, was in fact a cleverly executed stratagem for getting something for nothing out of a new and untested White House. Putin, acting through his marionette Dmitry Medvedev, got a more accommodationist posture from Washington—gone were any outspoken criticisms of Russia’s human rights abuses—as well as congratulations for not helping to bolster the defensive capabilities of a heavily sanctioned rogue regime. A friendly source on the Hill describes this as the apogee of the Putinist method for hoodwinking the Obama administration: “Create a problem, solve it, then take a bow.”

Russia’s real victory on Syria, however, was the chemical disarmament accord it first suggested, which the White House spun as the accidental fruit of a Secretary of State John Kerry’s “gaffe”, an off-the-cuff speculation that a Congressional vote on airstrikes could be forestalled if Assad handed over his nerve agent stockpiles. However, subsequent press reports  (including David Rohde’s recent profile of Kerry) have revealed that Putin broached the idea repeatedly for more than a year in a geopolitical wrangle between Washington and Moscow—the last time directly to Obama himself at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg in early September. Obama then informed his national security advisor Susan Rice, who then relayed it to a supposedly improvisational Secretary of State.

Putin’s triumph here was in offering a compromise that not only precluded an act of American military “aggression” but also re-legitimized Assad as a necessary international partner in counter-proliferation. Syria now has until the end of June 2014 to comply with the total cataloging and neutralization of its chemical stocks, now set to be burnt up at sea—assuming they can be safely transported out of an active war zone. (That’s not only questionable but the conditions for doing so will involve more scorched-earth military operations by Assad and his Iranian-trained proxies — more atrocities against civilians.) Washington and Moscow are therefore lawfully wedded to Assad for the foreseeable future, rendering any pressure that the “Friends of Syria” coalition might bring to bear on the regime negligible and any proposed plans to hold a meaningful peace conference in Geneva, now scheduled for January 22, as laughable. Moreover, Russia earned congratulations for fashioning the very loophole through which the U.S. Commander-in-Chief escaped his own policy muddle on Syria, a muddle that evidence now suggests may have owed to his wariness to upset a grand bargain with the Iranians.

The only thing better than Russia’s re-emergence as a great power is predicating that re-emergence on America’s exhaustion and self-evident ambivalence about its future role in the world. As Alexander Rahr, a Putin biographer and analyst at the German-Russian Forum, told Bloomberg: “If Russia’s proposal stops the U.S. from conducting war, it will be a major diplomatic coup.” So it was. And nowhere was this coup better celebrated than in Russia’s pro-government press. An editorial in Izvestia was ecstatic about Russia’s return to global prominence by its eleventh-hour deal-making. “Suddenly it turned out that everybody needed Russia and with it, it was impossible to move the issue beyond an impasse,” Boris Mezhuyev wrote, perhaps forgetting that actually bombing Syrian military targets in order to degrade them was an alternative way to move the issue beyond an impasse. “Of course this was a brilliant diplomatic step, immediately resolving an entire number of international conflicts.” On the contrary, it didn’t even resolve the one in Syria.

Unfortunately, the person who should have felt most chastened when outmaneuvered by Russia welcomed it the most and seemed eager to reassure his opponent. President Obama’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September, in which he articulated once more with feeling his unwillingness to involve the United States in “someone else’s civil war,” was also designed as another milksop to Russia. The speech used precisely the language that the Kremlin uses whenever it wants to accuse the United States of acting like a superpower: “This is not a zero-sum endeavor,” Obama said of the current geopolitical landscape. “We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won.”

The best adversary a KGB agent could hope for is one who doesn’t believe himself to be an adversary. And Putin no doubt takes extra comfort in the fact that American folly has lately been dressed up as the premeditated policy agenda for the Obama administration’s second term. As dutifully explained by Susan Rice to the New York Times, America’s role in the Middle East will now be confined to the narrower prerogatives, in the words of the Times, of “eschewing the use of force, except to respond to acts of aggression against the United States or its allies, disruption of oil supplies, terrorist networks or weapons of mass destruction.” Stopping an Iranian nuke, solving the Israel-Palestine problem, and “mitigating the strife in Syria”—though not trying to end it—are to consume the President’s attention in the region for the next three years.

Yet three years is a long time to fill a power vacancy in the Middle East. And while Leon Aron exaggerates slightly in his assessment that, after the Syrian chemical deal, “Russia is on equal footing now as a power in the Middle East,” he rightly discerns Moscow’s energetic efforts to make that characterization true. Just look at how Arab states have been lining up to do business with Russia in the past several months—most conspicuously, Egypt.

Following his categorical and embarrassing defeat in the Six-Day War, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, already a Soviet client, reaffirmed his fealty to Moscow Centre by telling Nikolai Podgorny, the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet: “What is important for us is that we now recognize that our main enemy is the United States and that the only possible way of continuing our struggle is for us to ally ourselves with the Soviet Union… We are ready to offer facilities to the Soviet fleet from Port Said to Salloum and from al-Arish to Gaza.”

With Nasser’s death in September 1970, and the inauguration of Anwar Sadat as Egyptian President, the Soviet-Egyptian relationship quickly deteriorated. The KGB then resorted to active measures to try to undermine Sadat’s rule, including portraying the president’s 30-year-old son-in-law and Foreign Minister, Ashraf Marwan, as a CIA agent, an embezzler and the man responsible for cuckolding Sadat. The 1979 Camp David Accords, upon which the U.S.-Egyptian strategic relationship was founded, represented the end of Soviet influence in Egypt. Any KGB officer worth his epaulettes won’t have forgotten the loss to Washington of what was once a highly valued prize in North Africa.  The unraveling of the Arab Spring made that prize attainable again.

As Georgy Mirsky, a pro-Kremlin Arabist, told the Financial Times: “Our government was always very apprehensive about the Muslim Brotherhood and might feel that with Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi [the defence minister and de facto leader] in power, Egypt could resume its status as the leading Arab nation and help Russia restore its influence in the Middle East.” Not for nothing did Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy choose Moscow instead of Washington as the destination for his first overseas trip after being appointed by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s new junta—the added insult being that Fahmy was formerly the Egyptian ambassador to the United States. Fahmy later denied this indicated anything amiss with the old friends in Washington; the Russians, he said, were simply the first to respond to his offer for a visit. He met directly with Putin in Moscow in September. A month later, following the U.S. decision to freeze a sizable chunk of the annual American military subsidy to Egypt—this included 10 Apache helicopters collectively worth $500 million dollars, M1A1 tanks, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, F-16 warplanes and about $260 million in other aid packages— Fahmy took to CNN to threaten that in this rescission of aid would prompt Egypt to “find other sources” to safeguard its national security. “If your friends in the region, when they’re facing terrorism in particular, cannot depend on a continuous supply of equipment that deals with terrorism,” Fahmy told Christiane Amanpour on October 17, “then you are obviously going to raise questions in the mind of those friends about your dependability.” Putin is dependable because not only does he not care if you arrest members of the opposition or stage show trials for them or shoot protesters dead, but such actions endear you to him.

Britain’s Sunday Times reported in October that Russia had already begun to present itself as just such a willing and happy benefactor. Putin has set his eyes on Egyptian ports (recall Nasser’s promise to Podgorny) for hosting Russian naval ships, likely as an improved backup in the event that the Syrian regime does collapse and Moscow loses its only warm-water port at Tartus. “Tartus is vulnerable and not good enough and the Egyptian ports are perfect for the Russian navy,” an unnamed Israeli defense official told the Sunday Times. And an advisor to new Egyptian President Adly Mansour added that Russia’s stock was rising in Cairo as a direct result of its government’s support for the still-popular military regime: “The positive stance of President Vladimir Putin towards the June revolution was behind the rise in his popularity.”  Portraits of Putin today hang alongside those of Sisi in Cairo.

The Russian-Egyptian relationship has only strengthened in the months that followed. In late October, an Egyptian public diplomacy delegation traveled to Moscow, including its Writers’ Union whose head hailed the Kremlin’s “cautious and objective positioning” with respect to the coup. According to Ruslan Pukhov, a member of the Russian Defense Ministry’s advisory board, Egypt is now set to purchase $2 billion worth of MiG-29 jets, anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems from Russia, building on earlier reports that suggested such arms deals would be partly financed by Saudi Arabia (if true, this would show that Riyadh is not so distraught over the failure to terminate Putin’s support for Assad that it won’t facilitate Sisi’s shopping for another arms broker). Lieutenant General Igor Sergun, the chief of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, went to Cairo on October 29 for high-level talks with Egyptian intelligence officials. Then, on November 11, the Russian missile cruiser Varyag docked at the port of Alexandria—the first time a Russian warship has done so in twenty years—amid the announcement that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu would be traveling to Cairo that same week for talks with their Egyptian counterparts on “military-technical” cooperation. To mark that fruitful confab, Fahmy went on the Kremlin-controlled propaganda channel RT to reaffirm Egypt’s  and Russia’s commitment to a “political solution” for the Syria crisis, an alignment of interests that was happily picked up by Assad’s Syrian Arab News Agency.

Sisi may only be trying to put the Obama administration on notice that he’s a dissatisfied spouse not afraid of taking an attractive new lover; and Russia may only be interested in delighting at how Washington squirms over the affair. Regardless, Rosobonorexport, Russia’s state arms dealer, is set to make more money and Egypt will receive the weapons it wants no matter how many people it throws in jail or shoots dead in the street. Moreover, given the imaginative accusations that all segments of the Egyptian political class have leveled at the United States—namely, that it ideologically supported the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi’s presidency—Moscow has ample material to work with to further vitiate Washington’s stature in Egypt. Russian state media, after all, has perfected the art of dressing up conspiratorial nonsense about the crimes and follies of the United States, and trafficking in 9/11-denialism and elaborate theories about clandestine American support for jihadist groups—all of which will not go unnoticed or unappreciated in paranoid Cairo.

Moving eastward, Russia hasn’t shied from making money and new friends with other states thought to be beholden to a tenuous Pax Americana. Despite Putin’s well-known opposition to the Iraq War, he is also cultivating a strong military and energy-based relationship with the post-Saddam government in Baghdad. Gazprom and Rosneft have moved in to capitalize on Iraq’s increased oil and gas outputs. Last summer, contracts were signed for Russia to sell Iraq $4.2 billion worth of military hardware including 36 Mi-28 “Night Hunter” attack helicopters, 42 Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems and 28 Czech aircraft for training purposes. The deal was to have made Russia second largest arms dealer to Iraq after the United States. But then the deal was abruptly cancelled in mid-November, owing to what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s spokesman told the BBC were suspicions of “corruption.” The Russian press has tried to lay blame for this on U.S. pressure exerted on Maliki during his visit to Washington last October, his first ever since winning the premiership in 2006. (He had had already traveled twice to Moscow in the past year.) But while it’s true that the White House wasn’t happy about the deal, a financial scandal was indeed the real reason for its cancellation, according to Kirk H. Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk consultant and the editor-in-chief of Inside Iraqi Politics. “The bottom line is that the original deal was negotiated by Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaymi, and it was burdened with commissions/kickbacks,” Sowell emailed me. “Maliki voided the deal, and had National Security Adviser Falih al-Fayyad renegotiate it. As best as I can tell, Maliki got more weapons for the same price, the ‘Night Hunter’ choppers have started arriving in Iraq, Dulaymi and a wide range of others remain nominally under investigation, and parliament to this day has not been able to question an executive branch official over the scandal.” Moreover, the Iraqis are especially eager to receive the F-16 fighter jets the Pentagon agreed to sell them in 2011 for the purposes of maintaining air sovereignty (those Russian-sold Czech planes are meant as place-holders until the American F-16s arrive). But the slow delivery of these jets has got Baghdad now entertaining alternate vendors. “We will look for another source if Iraq cannot get the arms systems that were agreed with Washington,” one official told Al-Hayat newspaper. Guess which one he had in mind.

Russia also has nuclear know-how to hawk. In October, Jordan announced that it had selected two Russian firms to construct and maintain its first nuclear power plant, a project slated at around $10 billion. Rusatom Overseas will do the operating; Atomstroyexport will send the technology to the Amra, a desert area north of Amman, where the plant will be built by 2023. Just days earlier, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that Russia had agreed to construct a second nuclear power plant for the Islamic Republic, just as it was handing over operational control to the Iranians for the first facility it built in Bushehr. Russia is a vocal opponent of any additional international sanctions on Iran (now on hold anyway following the the interim “freeze” deal inked between the P5+1 nations and Iran in Geneva last month), as well as a willing banker for Iranian institutions implicated in the nuclear program. The U.S. Treasury Department has warned Russia about Mir Business Bank CJSC, a Moscow-based subsidiary of Bank Melli Iran, the largest commercial bank in the Islamic Republic, which is sanctioned by Washington but not by the U.N. Russia responded by calling the restrictions of “certain Western countries” on trade with Iran “one-sided.” Sensing a softening approach by Washington toward Tehran, if not outright attempts at a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, the Kremlin may continue to spoil or harry international efforts to uphold the core sanctions that were unaffected by the Geneva deal and get away with it.

Russia’s centrality in Iran’s nuclear program has also lately made it a destination for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who traveled to Moscow to lobby the Kremlin to stop the Geneva deal from going forward. This may have been wishful thinking on Netanyahu’s part, but he evidently thought it worth a try. “The Russians have already surprised us in the past,” one senior Israeli official told YNet, “and they don’t like the idea that America is the hero of this story. They also don’t like the idea of a nuclear bomb in their own backyard.”  That Israel would be willing to exploit Russia’s desire to rob the U.S. of “hero” stature on Iran is both interesting and worrisome.

The one accusation that even his vehement critics cannot level against Vladimir Putin is that he’s an anti-Semite. He is genuinely impressed by the survival of the Jewish people throughout history as he is by Israel’s martial prowess, counterterrorism savvy and the perceived—and much caricatured—hyper-masculinity of its culture. Bad behavior in this regard is even championed by a Russian elite which thinks a whale-harpooning, amphorae-diving, tiger-tagging president a thing of pride. When former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was charged with multiple counts of rape and sexual assault in 2007, Putin was given to remark: “He raped ten women. We never knew he had it in him. We all envy him.”

When Putin traveled to Israel in June 2012, he was the guest of honor at an unveiling ceremony in the coastal city of Netanya. What was unveiled was the first monument to the Red Army ever to be constructed since the fall of the Soviet Union. This memorial, which underscored Russia’s indispensable role in World War II and in ending the Holocaust, had first been suggested by Netanyahu on a previous trip to Moscow and, in a fitting tribute to the country he meant to honor, was then designed by three Russian artists. The monument at once appeals to Israel’s growing number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union—calculated at over a million in 2009, or some 20 percent of the total population—as well as to Putin the nostalgist who infamously said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century.

Both Israel and Russia have in fact been growing closer to each other for several years, with small gestures of mutual accommodation. Israel agreed to return the Sergei courtyard in Jerusalem to Russia in 2008, a small strip of land in a religiously and ethnically divided city that had been sold in 1964 for a load of oranges. It then halted arms shipments of defensive weapons to Georgia following the 2008 war with Russia, and owing to Kremlin pressure. Zvi Magen, the former Israeli ambassador to Russia, credits this warming bilateral relationship in part to the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, the former Moldovan nightclub bouncer turned Israeli foreign minister who was just cleared of corruption charges. Lieberman not only congratulated Putin on his party United Russia’s parliamentary “victory” in 2011—he was the first foreign politician to do so, in fact—but declared that the election “absolutely fair, free and democratic,” something which no independent internal or external monitors of that poll could not bring themselves to do, much less any high-ranking politician from a non-dictatorial state. (Rigging of that election was so notorious that it led to Russia’s largest anti-government protest movement since the fall of Communism.) The overt anti-Arab racism in Yisrael Beytenu’s campaign in 2008, and the fact that it has now merged with Likud, may be a national embarrassment to many Israeli liberals, but it, too, illuminates another tempting pathway for Putin’s outreach to a changing Middle East. A fellow traveler who commands a hugely influential political party in the Jewish state, as well as a growing constituency of Soviet-born Israelis, and may even stand a chance someday of being elected prime minister—all this without even trying.

Indeed, according to a U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks, in June 2009 Lieberman traveled to Moscow where, in the assessment of one Israeli diplomat present, he comported himself like an “old friend.” “Lieberman conducted his meetings in Russian, shared stories about Moscow, and smoked, creating a comfortable atmosphere with his Russian interlocutors,” the diplomat relayed.

A current member of the U.S. intelligence community, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that American spies are increasingly concerned about the Russian penetration of both the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli intelligence services. A concomitant fear is that Israel doesn’t yet take this threat seriously enough. The source described what he sees as a plausible future “drug deal” made with the Russians in which U.S. secrets are traded for “whatever the Israelis want from Moscow”—a scuttled defense arrangement with a rogue state, or a favor at the Security Council pertaining to the conflict with the Palestinians. Furthermore, there is zero confidence that the current White House has devoted any real attention to this hazard. The phrase my source kept using was “collective denial.” Whether or not it originates in the zombie-corpse of the U.S.-Russian “reset” or in Washington’s shrugging indifference is open to speculation.

According to John S. Schindler, a former NSA agent and now a professor at the Naval War College, it’s not quite true that the Israelis have adopted a see-no-evil-hear-no-evil attitude to Russian interest in their security services. “Shabak is really worried about this,” Schindler told me, referring to Israel’s FBI. “But there’s not much they can do. It’s political football. Russians vote Likud or are aligned with Likud.” Also, there’s plenty that Russia stills does in Israel’s backyard that exercises Jerusalem. Positioning itself as protector of Christians in the Middle East, for one, a self-anointment that dates back to the Treaty of Kutchuk-Kainardji during Ottoman Empire and led to several attempts at imperial adventurism, from Greece to Syria to Bulgaria, which did indeed result in a Russian intervention in the 1877. And Russia’s continued arms sales to Syria and Iran, both of which pass on such materiel to Hezbollah and—at least until recently—Hamas. Yet as Israeli internal politics changes, so too will its weltanschaaung. “Israelis are not stupid, they understand what’s going on,” Schindler said. “There’s a huge human connection between Israel and Russia that never existed before. They’re not partners per se, but there’s a cozier relationship than there’s ever been.”

So where might this cozier relationship lead?  Probably not to a rupture in the U.S.-Israeli special relationship (which is at its worst crisis-point in decades but will endure beyond the Obama presidency and the Netanyahu premiership), but to Israel’s quest for alternative patrons or back-up allies. Jerusalem may also gain more leverage with the Kremlin as time goes on and as America’s footprint disappears in the Middle East. When Netanyahu met with Putin in Sochi last May, he prevailed upon him not to deliver S-300 missiles to Assad. At the time, Putin reportedly refused to comply, citing an outstanding contract for the anti-aircraft systems which, in his characteristic excuse-making, he said was fully consistent with international law. Yet the full S-300 system has not yet reached Syria (rumor has it that Netanyahu might have got the deal squashed at his most recent meeting with Putin over the Iran negotiations in Geneva), nor has the Israeli Air Force’s destruction of newly arrived Yakhont missiles in Latakia several months ago jeopardized Israeli-Russian relations.

Another incentive for Israel to court the Kremlin is that it clearly admires Russia’s approach to combating its enemies. In 2004, Russian secret agents assassinated Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a warlord and vice president of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, as he ferried his 13-year-old son down the streets of Doha and away from the mosque where they had just participated in Friday prayers. An intense diplomatic row ensued between the Kremlin and the Qatari government after the latter arrested three suspects, one of whom was the first secretary in the Russian embassy in Doha (he was freed from jail but not allowed the leave the country). In retaliation, Russia then arrested two Qatari nationals who were members of the emirate’s Olympic team at Moscow’s Sheremeteyvo Airport on the pretext that they were involved in Chechen terrorism. A phone call from Putin to Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, the then emir of Qatar, secured the first secretary’s transfer back to Moscow and the release of the two detained Qataris in Russia. But the other two assassins in Doha were tried behind closed doors and sentenced to life in prison, then convicts were released to Russian custody on the condition that they serve their jail time in their native country. Instead, they were flown back to Moscow, given a hero’s welcome, then let go.

According to Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, authors of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, this operation—equal parts targeted assassination and diplomatic blackmail—“helped create a new strategy, one that would launch operations beyond the borders of the country. Russian officials said they were impressed by the Israeli example of hunting down enemies abroad. After Yandarbiyev’s assassination, one FSB colonel in the elite group Vympel told Soldatov: ‘Take a look at the Mossad. Why cannot we do the same with our terrorists?’”

Of course, what Russia can do with its terrorists, it can also do with its dissidents. Ask Marina Litvinenko, now denied a state inquest into the 2006 polonium poisoning of her husband in central London owing to what the British Home Secretary has admitted would spell a real headache for bilateral relations. Or ask the family of Leonid Razvozzhayev, an opposition figure associated with the radical Left Front movement, who was snatched by Russian security agents in broad daylight on the streets of Kiev, outside the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, just as he’d finished inquiring about gaining asylum in Ukraine. Razvozzhayev was shoved into a black van, tortured for two days, and driven back to Moscow, where he says he was coerced into signing a confession that he was trying to destabilize the Russian government by organizing mass riots at the behest of Tbilisi. He later retracted this confession. Razvozzhayev has languished in jail for a year. He was even sent to a gulag in Siberia on specious charges of hat theft dating back to 1997, the statute of limitations on which have expired. He’s now in pretrial detention in Moscow.

Clearly, Russia has benefitted more by America’s pivot away from the Middle East than by its own pivot toward it. There are indications that Washington may even welcome this development. Whether by openly endorsing Russian rhetoric about an end of the Cold War and the Great Game, as President Obama did at the U.N. General Assembly in September, or by coining new euphemisms for a reluctance to involve itself in regional wars (“leading from behind”), the current administration has created a void in one of the most strategically vital regions on the planet into which a refractory and revanchist regime has wasted no time in rushing. Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East, therefore, should be graded on a curve whereby a little performance can look like a lot simply because the competition has performed so poorly.

Michael Weiss is the editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, an online journal that translates Russian news content into English. He’s also a columnist for NOW Lebanon and Foreign Policy.
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  • Anthony

    Very interesting overview/assessment of Russia’s Middle East honing strategies and tactics. “Usurping the only superpower’s traditional role as safeguard of a region” appears to be function to not supplant but to strengthen Russia’s power gradient among “wily collaborators”. Essay certainly compels one to question vitality of United States and Israel’s historical political, cultural, and religious connections ( yet in Middle East Israel remains strong ally).

  • ttaerum

    It’s remarkable it has taken Obama and the Foggy Bottom this long to realize our CIC is a babe by comparison to Putin. I warned about this a year ago (not that I care if anyone listens), particularily in relation to Syria but the Obama flock bleeted out their approval for the WH. I was accused of hate – why else would I disagree with the great One. It couldn’t be because of his limited intellect, his lack of experience, his arrogance, what else could it be? As we recently saw, China doesn’t worry in the least about this administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia know they’re out in the cold. Oh yes, I was right about South Africa’s multiple layers of incompetent security (as demonstrated by Obama’s sign language expert – wake up Secret Service). But the left will argue, once again, that my observations are based on hate. Really?

  • bscook111

    Good job AI in getting a few of the more obscure facts on the table. America needs a break from the MI; especially from ourselves and the ever perfidious house of Saud. I supported Bush’s project in Iraq and learned a great lesson. America was unprepared to take the long hard view and support the effort longitudinally across administrations and politics for as long as it takes. Ironically those Americans that opposed Iraq often supported the same objectives in Afganistan and vice-versa. The support and opposition were clearly and simply a matter of which presidential ideologue was in charge, facts be damned. The Vulcans must be (certainly should be) astounded by our own fecklessness. The liberals less so as I think their program in Afganistan was never more than cynical personal agrandisement (as you can see I am in camp R. I have friends in camp D who espouse exactly the converse of my opinion). I digress. God bless the Russian and here’s to his success in the MI and Central Asia for that matter.

  • Beatrix17

    Russia’s time in the sun has come and gone. The sad thing is that America acts as though our time is over when it isn’t.

  • TommyTwo

    Putin might be an amoral self-interested SOB, but at least he is consistently so, and one can thus work with him. When it comes to the U.S. however, friends are abandoned, enemies courted, red lines discarded, interests unfathomable… How is one supposed to work with such a wildly unpredictable country?

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