The New Russian Diplomacy


Richard Moore

        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%

Original source URL:

Central Asia
     Feb 17, 2007

Russia straddles Sunni-Shi'ite divide
By M K Bhadrakumar

"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 

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 

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 

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 

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. All rights reserved.

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