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Selling Putin's Mideast Policy

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 27, 2012

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Russian President Vladimir Putin early this week concluded a whirlwind trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, where he met with the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders. Russia's policies on Iran and Syria have put it at odds with most other countries in the region, says CFR Russia expert Stephen Sestanovich, who believes that Putin's trip was intended in part to explain those policies. "This is a time of real perplexity for Russia policymakers in the Middle East, because they ought to have more influence than ever before, and yet they find themselves criticized on all sides," Sestanovich says. For example, Russia advocates a cautious approach to the crisis in Syria, while Israel and many Arab countries fear that policy could lead to the kind of radicalism Putin says his policy is meant to avoid, says Sestanovich. On Iran, a similar tension exists, notes Sestanovich, who quotes a Russian commentator saying, "The West and the Arab world are on one side of the barricades, and Russia and Iran are on the other."

Russia is a member of the Group of Four [the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia] dealing with Israel-Palestinian issues; they're on the UN Security Council, so they're involved with the Iran negotiations, and they've been involved in Security Council actions dealing with Syria. But it's unclear where Russia's Middle East policy stands right now.

This is a time of real perplexity for Russia policymakers in the Middle East, because they ought to have more influence than ever before, yet they find themselves criticized on all sides. This is a time when their oil and natural gas role globally ought to create the basis for a dialogue with Middle East energy producers. It's a time when, with 20 percent of the Israeli electorate speaking Russian, they ought to have a natural constituency sympathetic to Russian policy in Israel. It's a time when across the region there are some anxieties about how the Arab Spring is playing out, yet Russian policymakers find themselves quite isolated. As one important and thoughtful Russian commentator, Fyodor Lukyanov, put it this week, "The West and the Arab world are on one side of the barricades, and Russia and Iran are on the other." They are taking tremendous heat for the stand that they've taken in support of the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria.

It's fair to say that more than anything else, this has been an "explaining" trip for Putin. He's got to say why it is [Russia has] taken the positions they've taken, and he's got to say why they are not listening to the complaints of most states in the region.

You're talking primarily about Syria?

Well, also about Iran.

But on Iran they have signed off on all six Security Council resolutions. What more should they be doing on Iran?

The Russians have been critical of Iran and supported resolutions to date, but they've also criticized Europe and the United States for adding unilateral sanctions beyond those contemplated in the resolutions that the Security Council passed. And they've said they're not prepared to sign on to more sanctions---this at a time when both Israel and the Gulf states are very nervous about the Iranian nuclear program and calling for more pressure. The Russians are saying, "No, this isn't a time for more pressure." They hosted the meeting of the P5+1 [the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany] in Moscow two weeks ago to try to move the diplomatic process forward, but that meeting broke up without any results. Putin is probably briefing the leaders he's talking to about these meetings and how the Russians see it, and surely hearing a lot of complaints from them about how now is the time for Russia to wake up and change its position.

Israel seems to be waiting for negotiations to run their course before they take some more drastic action. What could the Russians do to get Iran to stop uranium enrichment? Do they have much influence?

Russians say they don't think pressure will produce significant results from Iran--[that] the kind of influence they have is limited. Most of the governments that Russia is going to be talking to, however, not just on this Putin trip, are going to say that the only kind of influence that will make an impression on Iran is the influence that comes from a united circle of the great powers prepared to threaten Iran with more sanctions, more pressure, and the prospect of military action. That's not the Russian position.

What about Syria? Russia is really the only major power supporting the Syrian government right now, besides Iran.

Right. The Russians surely are confused by the way this crisis has unfolded over the past year. Their experts surely told them a year ago that most of the governments of the region were not going to turn against Assad, just as most regional specialists in this country did not expect Arab governments to turn on the Syrian government in the way that they have. But in the past year that is what's happened, and the Russians now find themselves being accused of supporting the Assad government for commercial reasons, for geopolitical reasons, and ignoring humanitarian concerns that the governments and the publics of the region take more seriously. I'm told that there are polls throughout the Middle East that show a sharply deteriorating view of Russia because of its stand on Syria.

According to the Israeli press, Putin, when he was in Israel, kept saying, essentially, be careful what you wish for: Look at the United States. It invaded Iraq, and now it has a pro-Iranian government there, and Afghanistan has not turned out well.

There is interest in investment possibilities in both countries [Russia and Israel]. What hasn't taken off is a sense of convergence.

The Russians have certainly got a good argument they can make about not plunging in mindlessly to try to overturn the Assad government. But in Israel, that's an argument that would have had many more supporters a year ago than now. In Israel, as in many Arab countries, the view has taken hold that the consequences of doing nothing may produce more of the disorder and radicalization that Putin is talking about, not less. Governments that fear radical Islamism or fear civil war or sectarian violence are now taking more seriously the idea that that is the result that Putin's support for Syria is likely to produce.

In 1948, when the United Nations voted on the partition plan, I think the Soviet Union was the first state to recognize the state of Israel, and the United States was right behind. But then Russia became pro-Arab and anti-Israel.

In the 1940s, supporting Israeli statehood was a way of opposing British colonialism, so that was the Soviet position. After that, opposing Israel was a way of opposing the West. Depicting Israel as a colonial implant was thought to be a way of reaching out to Arab publics and new Arab governments, so that became the line of the Soviet policymakers for decades--especially after the 1967 war [after that war, Israel occupied major parts of Egypt and Syria, and seized all of Jerusalem].

The 1980s brought about a change, as part of President Mikhail Gorbachev's new thinking. The Soviets started allowing Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel. The migration of more than a million Soviet Jews created an opportunity for Russian policymakers to speak to a constituency that could be sympathetic to them, and which could be the basis for an expanded commercial relationship. These days, Russians talk about Israel as a high-tech center that can partner with them in modernizing their military and their industry, so it's a country that they see as having potential points of common interest. Russian policymakers also like that Israelis are prepared to defy international public opinion, just as Russians are. That creates a further affinity, but it's not an affinity that's been very well developed in the twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russians keep talking about this as a relationship that ought to be more successful than it is. Ten years ago, Putin was one of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's sympathizers in putting down the Second Intifada, and people thought of the Russian-Israeli relationship as one that was finally going to develop. Ten years have passed and it's hardly developed at all, except a little commercially. Putin did visit in 2005.

There is interest in investment possibilities in both countries [Russia and Israel]. What hasn't taken off is a sense of convergence.

Though Putin only spent two days in Israel, he did bring three planeloads of officials and businessmen to Israel. That's part of an effort to expand relations?

There has been a development on the economic side. There is interest in investment possibilities in both countries. What hasn't taken off is a sense of convergence. The big issues that matter in Israeli foreign policy are Iran, where they and the Russians do not agree; Syria, where they're at odds; and negotiations with the Palestinians, where the Russians, of the members of the quartet, are generally seen as the least sympathetic to Israel.

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