Commentary / World

Putin of Arabia as America's foil

by Mai Yamani

BEIRUT — Almost undetected, Russia is regaining much of the influence that it lost in the Middle East after the Soviet Union collapsed. Ever since Russia invaded Georgia in August, Arab satellite television and Web sites have been rife with talk about the region’s role in an emerging “new Cold War.”

Is the Arab world’s Cold War patron really back and, if so, what will it mean for peace in the region?

With the USSR’s demise, communist ideology, which Muslims believe contradicts their faith, ended too. Communism never stopped Arab regimes opposed by the United States from accepting arms supplies from the Soviet-era Russians, but it did prevent Russia from securing the kind of intimate influence that America had secured with its regional allies.

Now, even Islamists are welcoming Russia back as a regional player in order to strengthen their struggle against American hegemony, conveniently forgetting Russia’s brutal suppression of Chechen Muslims during the 1990s.

This is a complete reversal of the pattern that prevailed in the 1950s. Back then, the U.S. encouraged Islam as a bulwark against communism. Its allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, justified U.S. influence on the grounds that Americans were Christian and thus part of the Ahl el-Kitab (people of the Book). The Soviets were regularly attacked as dangerous enemies of God.

Today U.S. power in the Middle East is at its historical nadir, and Russia is seeking to fill the vacuum. Even America’s closest allies — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel — are vulnerable as they face the aggressive expansion of “radical forces” represented by Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and the Iraqi resistance.

In the prevailing atmosphere of turmoil and confusion, radical Islamists attack Americans as barbarous Crusaders who have replaced the communists as the enemies of Islam. Indeed, for the conservative majority in the region, the U.S., with is pop culture and liberal democracy, is seen as a far more problematic ally than the autocratic and wealth-loving Russians.

Russia’s inroads in the region began with former President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Iran in October 2007 — the first visit by a Russian leader since Stalin’s trip to Tehran in 1943. Russia, of course, helped Iran kick off its nuclear program, and has often defended the Iranian regime from stiffer United Nations sanctions.

Russia views its relations with Iran as a means to leverage its diplomatic influence in the wider Middle East, where the U.S. has sought (successfully) to marginalize the Kremlin since the Cold War’s end. Russia’s other aim has been to exempt from U.N. sanctions the Bushehr nuclear reactor that it has been building for Iran. A full U.N.-sponsored financial squeeze on Iran would jeopardize Russia’s profits in providing nuclear fuel for the reactor, which is due to be commissioned soon.

Indeed, for the first time in Russia’s history in the Middle East, it can depend on genuinely powerful local allies. The Soviet Union lost Egypt in 1972, and its naval bases in Syria were abandoned in 1989. Now, Russia has signed strategic agreements with Iran and is reconstructing military bases in Syria in response to an appeal by President Bashar al-Assad (who visited Moscow in a brazen bid for Kremlin support just after the Georgian war ended).

Iran’s regime is eager to publicize its partnerships with Russia, and to make concessions to it in order to face the American and Israeli threat and to gain more time to pursue its nuclear program.

Hamas, too, is proud of its Russian connections — so much so that it was one of only three regimes in the world to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the regions that Russia has helped break away from Georgia.

In response to America’s failed policies in the Middle East, whether in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon or Palestine, Russia appears to be using its oil-fired wealth to knit together a new bloc to counter the U.S. presence. Even in Iraq, Russia is making headway. It has written off some $12 billion in debt dating from Saddam Hussein and is pushing to create an Iraq-Syria oil pipeline, which will further its bid to control much of the transport of oil and gas. Russia is also ready and willing to provide more developed weapons to Syria and Iran.

In the short term, Russia armed with high oil prices has nothing to lose, but in the long term, Russia’s policy in the Middle East appears to be doubly misguided. A nuclear-armed Iran on its doorstep is certainly not in Russia’s national interest, particularly given the increasing radicalization of Russia’s own 20 million Muslim citizens — the only part of its population that is actually growing.

Indeed, Iran was a keen backer of the Chechen separatists that Russia spent almost a decade fighting to put down.

With Muslims becoming a bigger factor in Russian domestic politics in the decades ahead, it may be wise for Russia to take an interest in Middle East affairs. But strengthening the hands of the region’s most radical elements will only empower them to turn their attention one day to the “oppressed” Muslims of Russia.

Mai Yamani is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut. © 2008 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)