by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
When term limits threatened to end the reign of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2008, he deftly changed his title from president to prime minister while still giving himself the most powerful position in the country. When he was legally allowed to hold the presidency again, he used that position to maintain control. Yet, his actions in the Middle East make it seem that the president-turned-prime-minister-turned-president has a different title in mind for the long-term: emperor of a Russian world power. Moreover, after his unsurprising re-election as president earlier this year, Putin can now continue his vision for the Middle East—which is both a threat and a potential opportunity for Israel.
Russia has some very dangerous and nasty friends in the Middle East—Syria and Iran. The reason? Power vis-à-vis Europe and the United States (US). Zvi Magen, former Israeli ambassador to Russia and now senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that Russia has long supported Syria and Iran as part of that global confrontation with the West. “Putin’s long term goal is not just an empire, but the global superpower status, at least equal to the US,” said Magen in an email to The Mideast Update. “Promoting this goal, he has to achieve influence in every regional crisis on the international arena.”
That ambition means that the Russia–Iran–Syria alliance runs deep and seems to be worth keeping, no matter the material—or moral—cost. While the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly been accused of using chemical weapons on its own people in Syria, Russia has continued to assist a dictatorship accused of war crimes, both with military support and diplomatic backing at the United Nations (UN). After another chemical attack in April, US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert went so far as to say that Russia’s pro-Assad activity “calls into question its commitment” to stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
An unnamed State Department spokesperson, speaking on background with The Mideast Update, said Russia’s military actions in Syria have shown a “callous and self-serving disregard for human life.” Among the US’s concerns are Russia restricting the arrival of aid to certain areas and an “indiscriminate bombing campaign” in a Damascus suburb.
“For decades, Russia has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons, ammunition, training, equipment and logistical support to Syria,” the anonymous State Department spokesperson told The Mideast Update. “It has had a military presence in Syria since the 1970s. Russia should exert its influence over the Assad regime to stop the indiscriminate bombings, stop using chemical weapons, implement the agreed upon ceasefire” and adhere to UN peace-making efforts and agreements.
Magen said Russia’s more recent involvement in the Middle East—such as its active backing of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war—is both a piece of the broader Russia–West conflict and a response to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West over Moscow’s interference in Ukraine. “Continuing its conflict with the US, Russia actually does not need Syria and Iran, except using it as a leverage and a bargaining chip,” explained Magen.
The willingness of Russia to ignore war crimes and to even actively support the regime committing them—just to gain influence and diplomatic negotiating power—is disturbing enough. That Russia is also involved in growing nuclear programs in the Middle East makes its regional actions even more concerning.
The Russians were a key part of Iran’s nuclear energy program and continue to be so. The Bushehr nuclear power plant was built by Russia and Al Jazeera—citing Russian news reports—said in 2014 that the Russians signed a deal with the Islamic Republic to build two more nuclear reactors in the country, with the possibility of constructing half-dozen more. Of course, nuclear power is not the same as nuclear weapons. There are protocols in place to limit the Iranians’ use of the nuclear material for militaristic purposes. Nonetheless, the possibility of nuclear reactors in Iran numbering in the double-digits increases the danger of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons if they ever abandoned the nuclear agreements.
Egypt is another nuclear patron. In December last year, the Russians signed a contract to build a nuclear power plant for Israel’s southern neighbor, according to the Egypt Independent, translating a report from Al-Masry Al-Youm. Retired Israeli Lt. Col. Dr. Raphael Ofek—in an article for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies entitled “Egypt’s Nuclear Deal with Russia”—noted in January this year that this power plant was not a viable path to nuclear weapons. However, he wrote that it could make it politically easier for Egypt to justify additional nuclear facilities that could open doors to making the world’s deadliest weapons. For Russia, the advantage is clear. Magen said Russia isn’t replacing Iran or Syria with Egypt, but rather its goal is “to achieve maximal influences in this region, pushing out the USA.”
Despite all this, “for some reason Russia is very cautious about conflicting with Israel and will continue to avoid it as much as possible,” said Magen in April. That doesn’t make Russia a non-threat, but it also opens opportunities. The former ambassador said Russia’s support of Iran and Syria is “definitely harmful” to Israel, “but it has positive aspects as well, by being able to influence and to calm down the anti-Israeli ambitions of its clients.” In other words, as long as Russia wants to keep things quiet on the Iran–Israeli front, they have influence there. Perhaps that will keep the peace for now.
But when a powerful man like Putin is building a global empire, peace is all too often a means—not an end.
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