Putin’s Mid East Visits Signpost Unfolding Russian Penetration

Israeli officials are not sure what to make of Vladimir Putin’s current Middle East tour, the first Russian president ever to initiate a visit to Jerusalem and the first world leader to call on Palestinian Authority leaders in Ramallah. Putin himself made much of the one million Israelis who understood every word he said in Jerusalem. Despite differences over key issues, he and his hosts basked in the warm friendliness of their encounters.
But while protesting he would never jeopardize Israeli security, Putin brushed aside Israeli objections to the supply of 50 Russian armored personnel carriers to the Palestinians -whose terrorist structures are still thriving, and to the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. President George W. Bush also said again Thursday that he was unhappy about the missile sale to Damascus. Bush and Putin are due to meet in Moscow in ten days.
Ignored most conspicuously was the enigmatic relationship revived in Ramallah, on Friday, April 29, ten minutes’ drive from the Jerusalem venues of the Russian leader’s Jerusalem talks the day before.
Just as the Russian president made sure to enunciate words Israelis wanted to hear on Thursday (“Tehran needs to do more to assure world it is not trying to build atomic weapons.” Returning spent nuclear fuel from Bushehr plant to Russia is not enough. Iran must also “abandon all technology to create a full nuclear cycle”), on Friday, he sang a tune that fell easily on Arab ears in Ramallah.
Putin was able to converse freely in the Russian language with Mahmoud Abbas, an old colleague from their Cold War days in the KGB First (Foreign Relations) Directorate. Last January, Abbas, newly elected to replace the late Yasser Arafat, chose Moscow for his first overseas trip outside the Middle East. There, as debkafile reported at the time, he held secret talks with his former KGB bosses on collaboration and settled with Putin on a Russian-Palestinian arms deal to be unveiled when opportune. The time for that is now.
The Kremlin has embarked on a cautiously evolving strategic drive to re-establish itself in the Arab world. Its anti-aircraft missile deal with Syria is believed by debkafile‘s strategic experts to be only a foretaste of much larger transactions to come. The deal happened at the very moment when Syrian president Bashar Assad’s fortunes are at their lowest ebb after his army was pushed out of Lebanon by a joint US-French shove. Putin sees long-term advantage in strengthening the Syrian ruler’s standing in the eyes of his military. And should a military coup unseat Assad, Russia will already have its foot firmly through the door of any future regime.
These are not the only irons in Putin’s Middle East fire. While rapping Iranian nuclear weapons aspirations in public, the Russian leader has formed a developed nuclear relationship with Tehran. Semi-clandestine ties (on the Abu Mazen model) are maintained with pro-Baath Iraqis actively running the guerrilla war against US forces from outside the country. The Russians are also in close contact with such Palestinian radical and terrorist groups as the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine.
Put together, these connections add up to a quiet political and military Russian penetration of Middle East forces close to the fringes of power in a way that will not arouse too much attention in Washington, but will at the same time provide Moscow with an inside track to regional developments and jumping-off points for broader penetrations.
This careful balancing act was aptly illustrated just before the Putin trip in an announcement by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia would begin withdrawing its troops from Georgia by the end of the year. This step came after a long period in which the Kremlin ignored demands from Washington and Tbilisi to eliminate the Russian military base in the former Soviet republic. But, when combined with a Russian initiative to gain a stronger foothold in the Middle East, this step signaled a tit-for-tat deal whereby Moscow would pull back from a key Caucasian region in Washington’s favor while pressing forward in the Middle East. This deal will most certainly figure high on the agenda of the Bush-Putin summit next month.
In the war on terror, cooperation between Moscow and Jerusalem is more sparing than Israel would like. The Russians command a rich fund of intelligence on the Arab world, the Palestinians and al Qaeda’s activities in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Iraq. Moscow has cut Israel out of its counter-terror loop for a reason. Gone are the days of late 2001 and early 2002 when, in the aftershock of the 9/11 attacks, Putin collaborated fully with Bush on data that helped the American-led coalition successfully invade Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda. These days, the Kremlin plays its cards very close to its chest. Jerusalem’s bid for intelligence-sharing with Moscow was rebuffed in early 2004 when the Russians indicated they were open only to one-way traffic from Israel, but offered nothing of value in exchange.
Another important dimension of Putin’s Israel visit comes from his attitude to the ex-Russian community. While most Israeli institutions and media treat Russian citizens as new immigrants to be absorbed in the overall fabric of society like all previous waves of newcomers, for the Russian president they are not ex-Russians but expatriates, exemplars of Russian culture, art, sport, language and education. Putin does not see a million Russian-speaking Israelis, but the largest Russian minority in the Middle East, which must be fostered, protected and sponsored. He is personally in regular contact with several Israel-Russian business figures and he rates these connections as highly as any political ties.

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