This week, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov went out of his way to demonstrate in his talks with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office and Condoleezza Rice at the State Department that the Kremlin was not inimical to US goals in the Muslim world, the Middle East and the war on terror. On the contrary, Moscow was happy to close ranks with the administration on all the controversial issues.
On the touchy Iranian question, for example, Lavrov vehemently refuted the charge that Sergei Kiryenko, head of Russia’s atomic energy agency, had promised Iranian leaders in their talks on February 22 that Tehran could enrich small quantities of uranium at home, simultaneously with their joint hosting venture in Russia.
There was no such plan, and no such agreement, the foreign minister asserted.
Tuesday, March 7, when they faced the media together in Washington, Rice sounded less positive. “The Russians did not tell us of any new proposal,” she said.
However, as Lavrov stood beside her and joined her in opposing any enrichment in Iran, at the other end of the world, Russian ambassador Gleb Ivashentsov stood before the Korean News Editors’ Association in Seoul and declared: “There should be dialogue, there should be consultation, but sanctions do not work either against North Korea, against Iran or against any other country.”
Then Lavrov himself, after heading out of Washington, echoed those sentiments. At UN headquarters in New York Wednesday, March 8, he announced that Moscow would oppose sanctions on Iran because such measures rarely work. He thus dangled Russian veto power to disrupt the US drive for UN Security Council penalties.
Is Moscow talking out of both sides of its mouth? So it sounds.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Russian analysts perceive a new two-dimensional formula behind President Vladimir Putin’s new political strategy: Moscow will go out of its way to avoid colliding with Washington – but not at the expense of good relations with the Muslim world. He will back off when accused by the Bush administration of a line incompatible with their shared understandings and accords and close ranks. On the other hand, Putin will not stick his neck out and clash with any Muslim government for the sake of siding with a disputed American policy position.
A non-confrontational posture with everyone
The Russian president believes his non-confrontational posture will gain him the comfortable – and profitable – middle ground between the two contemporary rival world forces.
The invitation he extended to the heads of the Palestinian Hamas terrorist group to visit Moscow soon after its election victory exemplified this strategy.
You are right, said Putin, when the Americans protested this formal gesture towards avowed terrorists. The Hamas are indeed terrorists, the Russian leader conceded. You, Israel, can’t talk to them. But I can.
When the Europeans broke off talks with Iran over the Islamic Republic’s intransigence on uranium enrichment, Moscow stepped in with a compromise offer to host some Iranian enrichment processing in Russia.
That initiative was endorsed by the US, Europe and the UN nuclear watchdog.
The Russian bridge-maker thereupon sent its nuclear program’s chief Kirienko to Tehran to sugarcoat the proposition with perks that the Americans found unacceptable but could hardly impede.
Similarly, when the US and France were at peak effort to bring defiant Syrian leaders to justice for complicity in the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri, the Russian navy’s flagship missile cruiser Moskva sailed into the Syrian port of Latakia in the last week of February.
This was a blatant gesture of support for the beleaguered Syrian president Bashar Assad.
Once again, Lavrov had a ready explanation: Moscow is trying to build a bridge, open up dialogue between opposing sides for a compromise solution.
Bush should not have been surprised by these zigzag maneuvers. For some weeks now, the Russian president’s favorite theme has been: “…in dealing with any, even the most acute, issues in world politics we invariably and consistently adhere to the policy of resolving them by politico-diplomatic methods and means, by searching for compromise and accord.”
A Russian foreign ministry position paper prepared for Lavrov’s last visit to Washington, which reached the hands of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources, states clearly where Putin’s bridge-making diplomacy is heading:
“Russia will not let anybody set it at loggerheads with the Islamic world.”
Europe has been sucked into the Islamic front
What this means is that dialogue and diplomacy are the tools. Rapprochement with the Muslim world is the goal.
Furthermore, Russia cannot and will not play the role of “a frontline state” in a new cold war – which Moscow sees as being fought between civilizations. As for Europe, “They have not fully realized that they have also become part of the Islamic world,” says the Russian paper dismissively.
Our Russian experts see in this thesis straight from the foreign ministry in Moscow the most notable and substantial policy departures the Kremlin has ventured since the end of the Cold War. Moscow is no longer willing to follow Washington’s lead on the Muslim world or its global war on terror.
Putin sees these conflicts in terms of a “cold war” between the civilizations, i.e. Christendom and the West versus Islam. In this clash, Russia declines to side with the United States or the European Union. Indeed, Moscow views Europe as having been swept up willy-nilly onto the front line of Islam rather than the Western Christian side of the conflict.
Russia’s role is set forth in the paper as predicated by these formulations.
“Russia by virtue of its history, geography and culture and the multinational and multi-faith character of its society cannot take any side in a global inter-civilization conflict being unleashed as a result of, among other things, extremist manifestations, provocations and violations of international humanitarian law.
“Neither does Russia intend taking the position of a detached onlooker.
“The only admissible approach for us is to pursue an enterprising foreign policy strategy, directed at the maintenance of international stability and the reduction of tension, for the sake of reaching lasting negotiated settlement options acceptable to all.
“Russia is ready to play that role, one of a bridge: it is this kind of cultural and civilizational bridge that our country has practiced throughout its existence.
“We can be part of efforts for achieving compromise, which always requires time and patience, but cannot be subject to diktats and ultimatums that would drive us all to a dead end.”
Internationalize the nuclear fuel cycle
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s analysts read this as a Russian refusal to kowtow to Washington. Moscow’s strategists are declaring an independent line and disengaging from what they perceive to be Bush administration efforts to impose its policies.
They state: “Our criteria for cooperation in international affairs are uniform for all of our partners, including members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), China and India, the US and Europe and other leading world states. They are complete equality and mutual engagement from the outset – i.e. common analysis of threats, joint decisions and shared implementation.
“Whether we like it or not, it is impossible to ignore the inter-civilizational dimension of almost every recent event occurring in the Near and Middle East. This applies to the rise in tension sparked by the accession of Hamas to power in the Palestinian National Authority through democratic elections. It affects the ongoing grave problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, the exacerbation of the situation around Syria and internal Lebanese problems, and the turmoil centering on Iran’s nuclear program.”
The Russian authors ask: “Do we need any further speeding up of these crises? Settlements (if that is what we are striving for) can only be achieved by engagement rather than isolation of certain states, regimes or political forces, which would automatically presuppose antipathy for them.
“There is no other choice: either we let tensions build up further towards a conflict of civilizations, or seek compromise, which would require all the international players to renounce outdated prejudices and simplistic, unilateral worldviews that do not square with the emerging reality of multi-laterality as the optimal method of conducting world affairs.”
The Russian document offers a solution for the Iranian nuclear impasse: internationalization of nuclear fuel cycle services, alongside diplomatic initiatives.
Similarly, Russian contacts with Hamas are offered as the means of easing this issue too. “Our contacts are designed to help lead this organization toward acceptance of the conditions laid down by the Middle East Quartet of international mediators (namely, recognition of Israel, disarmament renunciation of terror and acceptance of previous accords.)”
Our Russian experts conclude that although the latest round of talks held by the Russian foreign minister in Washington ended this week without jangling false notes, Vladimir Putin is turning Russia in the opposite direction from course pursued by Bush administration. He is bent on exploiting America’s preoccupations in ongoing conflicts to conquer new heights in the Muslim world.