Monday, May 25, 2009

Russia Makes a Mess

By Barry Rubin

Nowadays, lots of world leaders act almost as if they’re trying to sabotage any serious effort to make the Middle East a better place that isn’t controlled by homicidal ideological maniacs, wracked by violence, and sunk in stagnation.

In some cases, though, this may not be due exclusively to their lack of understanding the region, absence of judgment, or egomaniac grandstanding.

Regarding Russia’s case, it is possible that the sabotage is due to intelligent design rather than the unnatural selection of bumblers.

Perhaps it isn’t that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who like all other Russian officials is to Vladimir Putin as Pinocchio to the puppeteer, doesn’t know what he’s doing. The problem is that he does. Even so, their policy does have an element of self-smiting buffoonery.

Russia wants to play a big role in the Middle East, including the peace process, which is the diplomatic equivalent of a gold rush. In order to do so, Russia has two beachheads. First, it is a member of the International Quartet (also including that keenly competent United Nations as well as the United States and the European Union), the supposed focal point of efforts to salve—or rather, solve—the problem.

Unfortunately, this quartet always managed to sing off-key.

Second, Russia is promoting a big international conference in Moscow on the conflict for later this year. (Right, that’s going to be real productive.) And the Obama administration has already signed on.

The Quartet has agreed—and even put it in writing—that none of its members will engage with Hamas until it recognizes Israel, rejects terror, and accepts existing Israel-Palestinian Authority (PA) agreements. Of course, Hamas says every day it has no intention of doing any of these things.

Which, of course, didn’t prevent Lavrov from meeting Hamas leader (and a hardliner even in that group’s context) Khalid Mashal in Damascus, where he hangs out under Syrian regime protection and Iranian regime financing.

Memo to Quartet: Perhaps you should refuse to engage with Russia until it accepts previous Quartet agreements.

Not only did Lavrov meet Mashal but he, in effect, handed to the terrorist chieftain the keys to the dacha. Lavrov said: "It was the first very important step on the way to overcoming the present stagnation in the negotiations process."

In other words, according to Lavrov, it is Hamas—not Israel or the PA or the great powers—that’s in the driver’s seat. They have power of life or death (the latter being something they are particularly good at) over whether progress can be made.

Isn’t there some course you have to attend to become a foreign minister? Is no certificate required as a qualification for the job?

Showing a fine sense of evenhandedness, Lavrov said after the meeting:

“The two main aims are to stop Israel's current policy on the settlements and from the Palestinian side to rebuild and reunite the people."

In other words, the way you make peace is to smite Israel and help the Palestinians. And they wonder why Israel won’t accept them as mediator!

But it gets worse. When Lavrov says “reunite the people” he means that Fatah, the leading party of the PA, and Hamas should unite. This is probably the worst idea since the leaders of the early Soviet Union were having a party and after a few rounds of vodka someone said, “That Stalin guy seems very nice and considerate. Why don’t we make him our leader?”

Let me put it simply: to bring Hamas into the PA will not make Hamas more moderate, it would make the PA more extreme. You can wave goodbye to any hope of peace in our lifetimes—and I intend to be around for a while.

So is Lavrov and Russian policy really stupid? That’s the more comforting alternative. The more likely one is that Russia is increasingly aligned with Iran and Syria, viewing radical Islamist forces in the region as allies.
Moscow is already one of the main barriers to raising sanctions higher against Iran on the nuclear weapons’ program.

I wouldn't say that Russia wants Iran to have nuclear weapons but it certainly doesn't seem very bothered by that outcome. And it certainly appears that Russia wants Hizballah to become the key governmental force in Lebanon. It wants Hamas to take over leadership of the Palestinians. The idea is to sabotage U.S. policy and elevate Russian influence.

One would expect that the Russians, of all people, have a certain experience with groups following a rigid ideology which use it to justify mass murder. Hopefully, something has been learned from that little detour into Communism, there’s some relief that it’s over, and some revulsion toward organizations which think their total monopoly on truth gives them license to do horrible things.

Of course, Russia is also a country which has already made a pact with the real Great Satan once before and found out where such things led.

On September 28, 1939, when signing the agreement to divide up Eastern Europe, Stalin told the German foreign minister:

“I know how much the German nation loves its Fuhrer; I should therefore like to drink to his health. The Soviet government takes the new pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honor that the Soviet Union would not betray its partner.”

Nineteen months later, however, the Germans betrayed their partner. On June 21, 1941, on receiving their declaration of war, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov replied, “Surely we have not deserved this.”

One day, after Iran has nuclear weapons, the Islamists rule a much bigger chunk of the region, and both the revolutionaries own successes and their direct subversion inspire Russian counterparts into bloody rebellions against Moscow, Lavrov or his successor may get the chance to utter similar words.

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