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The Russian Bear Returns

November 24, 2008
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Instead of a Moscow welcome for Olmert, Russia announced it was undergoing renovation work in Tartus, the Syrian port, and the Russian fleet would be stationed there “permanently.” What is more, Russia and Syria had already planned “real and simulated” naval exercises. Earlier in 2008, Syrian military officials met with Russian defense officials in Moscow to discuss bilateral military and technical cooperation. That seemed to be just the beginning. Lebanon officials reported an influx of “Russian intelligence officers” into the Russian Embassy complex in Beirut. “The Russians apparently are justifying their increased presence to Lebanese security officials by claiming the United States is providing Georgian and Chechen militants material aid to target Russian interests abroad,” Stratfor Intelligence Agency said.

Awakened from Hibernation

What awakened the Russian bear from its hibernation?  During the 90s, Russia was in the doldrums. It had been severely weakened militarily and economically. An August 2008 story, “Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: The Great Nationalist,” published by the Russian newspaper Pravda, described Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin as criminals: “They betrayed the people of the then Soviet Union with their immature and jaded view of the West.”

It was certainly under the single-minded Putin, a former KGB chief, that Russia became energized and fostered dreams of one day returning to its former superpower status. “Russia is going to be the richest and greatest super power in the world, far exceeding the combined wealth of the United States, Europe, South America and the Middle East. I believe there will never be a greater or wealthier nation than Russia in a century,” enthused Tecola W. Hagos, author of the Pravda story.

President Medvedev declared his foundational five-point plan early in his presidency:

1.      Russia recognizes the primacy of the fundamental principles of international law…We will build our relations with other countries within the framework of these principles…

2.      The world should be multipolar. A single-pole world is unacceptable. Domination is something we cannot allow. We cannot accept a world order in which one country makes all decisions, even as serious and influential a country as the United States of America. Such a world is unstable and threatened by conflict.

3.      Russia does not want confrontation with any country. Russia has no intention of isolating itself. We will develop friendly relations with Europe, the United States, and other countries, as much as possible.

4.      Protecting the lives and dignity of our citizens…is an unquestionable priority…Our foreign policy decisions will be based on this need. We will also protect the interests of our business community abroad. It should be clear to all that we will respond to any aggressive acts committed against us.

5.      As is in the case of other countries, there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests. These regions are home to countries with which we share special historical relations and are bound together as friend and good neighbors. We will pay particular attention to our work in these regions and build friendly ties with these countries, our close neighbors.

That five-point plan is a determined, well-rehearsed plan, which Medvedev–Putin have started to put into dedicated implementation.

An Angry Bear Rises

Make no mistake, the Russians are angry. They watched when three Baltic states were admitted into NATO, despite earlier promises made by President Bill Clinton that NATO would not expand into the former Soviet Union. In March 2004, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania―all former Soviet republics―joined NATO. “The alliance’s growing roster has been eyed warily by Russia, which also expressed alarm at NATO’s first expansion in 1999, when the alliance welcomed the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland,” wrote Washington Post correspondent Thomas E. Ricks in 2004. That article caused grave concern in Jewish circles.

US President George W. Bush championed the entry of Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. Russia reacted. “Georgia and Ukraine’s joining of the alliance cannot fail to influence our relations with those countries and with NATO as a whole,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denison said. “It will not help strengthen the atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding in Europe,” he warned.

In Moscow, the expansion of the NATO clan was seen as the USA closing in on Russia through the former Soviet states. In September 2008, Pravda wrote: “‘The US is bent on spreading its power by “buying leaders and organizing state coups” throughout the former USSR,’ says Yevgeny Ivanov, chief ideologist for the pro-Kremlin group Nashi, Russia’s biggest youth movement. He’s referring to the recent wave of pro-democracy ‘colored revolutions’ that wrenched Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan from Moscow’s orbit. ‘Their type of globalization is aimed at having the right to decide the world’s destiny,’ he said.” A January poll, conducted in Moscow, found that 57% of Russians regard the US as a “threat to global security.” Another Pravda report said the rise of Russian aggression and defiance has the West “surprised and scared.”

Russia Reacts Aggressively

When the surge was applied in Iraq, the Kremlin believed the United States had become heavily extended. Stratfor analysts said Russia saw “a window of opportunity.” They held a not-too-secret meeting with Iran. Russian support for the Iranian nuclear program hit the headlines. The Israel ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor said Russia should not express anger with Israel over its support of the Georgian government as a pretext for selling weapons to its “adversaries.” A story published by the Tehran Times said, “Meridor claims that Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria is ‘destabilizing and dangerous for Israel.’”

At a global conference in Cernobbio, Italy earlier this year, US Vice President Cheney said, “Russian arms dealing in the Middle East has endangered prospects for peace and freedom in the region. This chain of aggressive moves and diplomatic reversals has only intensified concern that many have about Russia’s larger objectives.”

In their assessment on the Russian return to Lebanon, Stratfor analysts wrote, “The Soviet Union had a carefully orchestrated policy in the Middle East during the Cold War, mainly consisting of developing relationships with a slew of left-wing militant groups and nationalist movements, designed to sow chaos in the region and undermine regimes friendly to the United States.” Stratfor experts called the latest activities Cold War II. There have been open gestures from Russia to Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

A Threat to Israel

Not only are eyebrows raised in Washington, but these developments also cause grave concern in Israel. In a September 2008 article, Stratfor analyst George Friedman divided Israeli strategic interests into four separate but interacting pieces: (1) the Palestinians living inside Israel’s post-1967 borders, (2) the so-called “confrontation states” that border Israel (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and especially Egypt), (3) the Muslim world beyond the region, and (4) the great powers able to influence and project power in these first three regions.

On the first issue, he said, “The Palestinians do not represent a strategic threat to Israel.” They can be a persistent and painful irritant, but “they cannot threaten the existence of the Israeli state.” Concerning “the confrontation states,” he singled out Syria, who through the use of “surrogates in Lebanon” can gain resources to threaten Israel with chemical and nuclear weapons. Within the wider Muslim world, Friedman felt Israel has considerable security. Faction groups within the Muslim world keep them watching themselves. It is a fact that Israel intelligence has saved some of those powerful factions by providing timely information, which even avoided would-be assassinations and uprisings.

However, in the broader world, he referred to two significant concerns: “The first is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a power that cannot be deterred―in other words, a nation prepared to commit suicide to destroy Israel. Given Iranian rhetoric, Iran would appear to be such a nation.” He indicated that Iran is some time away from having a deliverable weapon, which means Israel does not need to deal with that problem “right now.” But then he wrote: “The second threat would come from the emergence of a major power prepared to intervene overtly and covertly in the region for its own interests and, in the course of doing so, redefine the regional threat to Israel. The major candidate for this role is Russia.” 

Some may have banished Russia to Siberia in recent years, but after declaring a new foreign policy, they have very quickly begun to implement their intentions. Just a brief assessment of the whirlwind moves from Moscow would indicate that the emerging Russia has much more than Georgia on their mind.

(Please note my summary of the August 2008 “War and Peace Index,” an ongoing survey project that tracks trends in Israeli public opinion on the regional conflict. It indicates the way many in Israel are beginning to feel. For me, it indicates the importance of our call to comfort the people of the Lord at this time of emerging threats).

The August 2008 “War and Peace Index

The question asked: When you think of the Middle East, what is the first word that comes to mind?

“I can’t take it anymore!”

“God help us.”

“What the hell are we doing here?”

“A nutcase region.”

Professors Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann oversee The “War and Peace Index,” funded by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research and the Evens Program in Mediation and Conflict Resolution of Tel Aviv University. When the monthly report was released, it began: “The world of images that the concept ‘Middle East’ arouses in the Israeli Jewish population is mainly negative and includes adverse opinions, perceptions, and emotions.”

On the positive side of the response, came a strong desire for peace in the region. While peace is an aspiration, 71% said they did not believe Israel will succeed in integrating into the Middle East politically; 52% were negative about future integration economically; and 59% saw no chance of merging culturally even over decades.

While Israelis want their Jewish culture, they prefer to relate to the West (Europe–United States) in all three areas: politically (63% are interested in integrating with the West versus 28%, who are interested in integrating with the Middle East), economically (74% vs. 18%), and culturally (69% vs. 15%) When analysts crosschecked the surveys taken about a decade ago (February 1995), when the Oslo process had just commenced, they found the preference for integration with the West has strengthened. The 2008 report states, “It is also worth emphasizing that the tendency to prefer the West is especially pronounced among young people up to age 29, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, third-generation Israelis, and seculars.”

Those surveyed declared their pro-Western preference without shifting from their unique Jewish identity. In response to a question concerning which of the three cultures―Western, Jewish, or Arab―one feels closest to, over two-thirds (64%) said they felt closest to the Jewish culture, compared to 31% who felt closest to the Western culture.

The press release provided by Tel Aviv University contained what I believe is the biggest shock at the end of the report: “The findings on the Israeli Arabs’ positions on these questions are particularly thought-provoking…the majority prefers integration with the West (Europe–United States) and not with the Middle East. In the political sphere, 49.5% prefer integration with the West vs. 39% with the Middle East; in business and economy, 63% vs. 39%; and particularly surprising is the preference for the West over the East regarding cultural integration—49.5% vs. 23%…Yet, when asked about their closeness to one of three cultures that were mentioned, an overwhelming majority, 88%, said they felt especially close to the Arab culture…”

For the entire report: http://www.tau.ac.il/peace

By Ron Ross, BFP Israel Mosaic Radio Host


Photo Credit: Photo: www.flickr.com

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