Moscow Poised to Push Washington Out of the Driving Seat
Russia Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is gathering his strength to take advantage of Obama Barack's run of tribulations for a major diplomatic and military-related swoop on the Middle East. His advance guard is President Dmitry Medvedev, who is to be dispatched on a Middle East tour in mid-January (as first reported by debkafile on Dec. 15 – see HOT POINTS below.)
The Russian leader also plans to exploit the weaknesses he perceives in Chinese President Hu Jintao's diplomatic passivity for a bid to promote Russian interests in the fields of energy and the pipeline industry.
(See separate item in this issue on Putin's supranational aspirations).
The unfolding Moscow offensive, therefore, goes beyond the bounds of the Middle East, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources disclose. It is a comprehensive scheme for Russia to step in and reap far-reaching benefits from the weakness of its two great rivals.
Moscow's offensive hinges on 13 essential initiatives and presumptions:
1. Expansion of the Middle East Quartet, the international body which sets guidelines for Israel's negotiations with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. Moscow wants to co-opt China and India to the present format of the UN, the US, Russia and the European Union, to give Russia a majority in decision-making and make it the Quartet's dominant power instead of the US.
Moves to displace dominant US influence in the Middle East
2. Getting rid of British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair as Quartet Middle East envoy is another goal. The position is not a permanent one and Moscow would like to see it rotating, especially since Blair is seen as President Obama's informal spokesman and trusted friend. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 461 of Sept. 16: Tony Blair – Obama's Favorite Englishman). Blair is made welcome in Jerusalem as well as a number of Persian Gulf capitals. His removal would help Moscow weaken America's hand in the region.
3. Moscow is planning a multilateral conference on the Middle East to take place in February and become a defining event for its Middle East offensive. Its purpose will be to draw an end to Washington's exclusivity as the pacesetter of regional diplomacy. In the Russian view, Tehran and Ankara have cut deep into that exclusivity and dictate Middle East developments at least as much as Washington.
4. The purpose of the January trip by Medvedev and the influential Mikhail Margelovis, head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Federation Council and chairman of Global Zero, is less to hold talks with Middle East rulers than to open a direct dialogue with economic and military leaders. Putin and his strategists have come to believe that these unelected leaders wield more influence over their countries' strategic policy-making today than officials appointed or elected for this task. The Middle East dialogue with these top influence-wielders is planned as a model for similar forums Moscow hopes to establish in other countries.
Palestinian problem is not the principal regional destabilizer
5. The Kremlin trusts it will have bought the credentials of honest peace broker between Israel and the Arabs when Medvedev ceremonially signs a half-billion-dollar contract for the purchase of military unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel and the abolition of visas for mutual travel between the two countries.
6. Russia wants it stated clearly that the Road Map, since 2003 Washington's principal diplomatic tool for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, is a dead letter.
7. The blind eye the Americans and Israelis are turning on Turkey's slide toward radical Islamism is pointless and non-productive.
8. Moscow thinks it is more favorably placed than Washington or Ankara for bringing Israel and Syria to the negotiating table. In recent talks with senior Russian administration personnel, Syrian President Bashar Assad said he isn't interested in an armed confrontation or war with Israel, but it is too early to talk about agreements between Damascus and Jerusalem. '"First, get an accord between Israel and the Palestinians,'" he said. "Only afterwards can we look for a solution to the Syrian-Israeli conflict."
9. Russia wants it to be generally recognized that the Palestinian problem is no longer the principal destabilizing factor in the region. In this sense, the Russian approach runs contrary to the fundamental premise underlying Washington's Middle East policy.
Oil interests will prevent civil war in Sudan
10. Moscow believes that its new approaches to Middle East policy-making are clear-eyed and cut through the murky undergrowth to reality instead of becoming entangled like Washington in misdirected activity which can only lead away from its goals.
11. Due to its counterproductive moves in the region, the US has lost its dominant standing in this part of the world.
12. Moscow is making sure Arab governments understand from the word go that there is no point in expecting from Moscow more than it can deliver. For example, there is no way Russia can sever the strong bonds between the US and Israel. They are also being advised not to expect Russia to match the quantities of arms the Americans can deliver – especially as Moscow does not think the Arabs really need them.
13. Unlike Washington, Moscow does not expect Sudan to be plunged into civil war between Khartoum and the South right after the southern referendum on secession on January 9. The Russians are convinced that neither will want to disrupt the arrangement whereby almost 75 percent of the current 500,000 barrels of crude pumped daily from wells in the South is sent to the North to be exploited and refined. Both regions are heavily dependent on oil revenues and, in the Russian view, will agree to set a line against full-blown armed hostilities which neither will venture to cross so as not to jeopardize this profitable arrangement.
For this reason, Moscow had no qualms about letting the army of the South have combat helicopters transported from Chad to establish its first air capability.
This last point is presented in Moscow as a concrete example of how Russia envisages its involvement in local Middle East conflicts from now on – especially when oil is at stake.