In the recent weeks, Russia has been remarkably self-assertive, suspending its participation in the CFE Treaty and sinking its flag in the North Pole, staging large-scale strategic exercises and putting gas pressure on Belarus. In the Middle East, however, Moscow has preferred to keep a low profile at a time when multiple parties to the region’s overlapping conflicts are hectically positioning themselves before the peace conference provisionally scheduled for November. Russia had been advocating the idea of such a conference for a long time, but since reluctantly agreeing to the appointment of former UK prime minister Tony Blair as special envoy for the international “Quartet” (the EU, the UN, Russia, and United States), it has lost interest in this format. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied rumors that he had tried to block this appointment, but Yevgeny Primakov, who remains a top authority on the Middle East in Moscow, asserted that Blair could not be a conductor for the Quartet, since he would stick to U.S. “policy” (RIA-Novosti, July 10, June 28). The Kremlin has apparently decided to give this position an unhindered opportunity to run into a dead end, while preparing detours and emergency exits for itself.
One key deviation that Moscow has been exploring goes in the direction marked “Hamas,” which most prospective conference participants interpret as a “no-go” sign. In the last days of July, Mahmoud Abbas, the battered president of the Palestinian National Authority, held protracted talks in Moscow seeking to convince Putin that after the “bloody coup” in Gaza, no relations could be maintained with those responsible for the “greatest crimes” against the Palestinian people (Vremya novostei, August 1). He was reassured that Moscow did not plan any personal contacts with Hamas, even if the telephone lines were being used regularly, but reminded about the urgent need to restore Palestinian unity (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 10). The promised charitable gift of 50 armored personnel carriers would hardly contribute much to this hypothetical unity, but it could set the stage for a new escalation of the Palestinian civil war where Moscow might reasonably claim the role of mediator.
There was scant reporting in the Russian media on the Kremlin meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, secretary-general of the National Security Council of Saudi Arabia, but it is obvious that Russia has a slim chance in this saturated arms market (Izvestiya, August 3). The recently announced U.S. proposal for exporting weapons and technologies worth up to $20 billion to this country has been interpreted primarily as an effort to strengthen the Gulf allies vis-à-vis Iran (Gazeta, July 30; Expert, August 10). Moscow remains ambivalent about the contract on delivering modern MiG-31E interceptors to Syria, allegedly financed by Iran, but basically it is not interested in the role of key supplier for the “other side” (Kommersant, June 19). Algeria and Libya are seen as places where there is money available for the Russian arms industry, but Moscow is far more interested in the nuclear ambitions expressed by a number of Arab states.
The recent agreement between France and Libya on constructing a nuclear reactor for a water desalination plant has added a new urgency to Russia’s maneuvering. It is possible to argue that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a rather dubious international debut, rushing to shake hands with Muammar al-Qadhafi, who recently ransomed the long-imprisoned Bulgarian nurses, accused of deliberately spreading AIDS, for a nice profit (Gazeta.ru, August 2). Moscow can now feel safe against any accusations of being too friendly with various questionable characters in the region, but its key dilemma is that close ties with Iran might damage its reputation with the Arab states. Hence the rather unexpected new condition for the already delayed delivery of nuclear fuel for the newly built Bushehr reactor: according to unconfirmed diplomatic sources, Moscow now demands that Tehran restore cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including a full disclosure of its nuclear program (Lenta.ru, August 8; Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 9). Iran has indeed become more cooperative towards the IAEA, and it is certainly significant that Russia does not ask for any curtailing of its uranium enrichment program, but nevertheless the crucial strategic watershed set by the launch of the Bushehr nuclear station is most probably postponed into the second half of next year.
Avoiding the political limelight, Russia has also refrained from spinning macro-level energy intrigues in the Middle East. Last week’s visit to Moscow by Hussain al-Shahristani, Iraq’s oil minister, was rather disappointing, because Lukoil did not receive any hint of a possible confirmation of its priority rights on developing the giant West Qurna-2 oilfield (Kommersant, EDM, August 10). The Kremlin has barely noticed that setback, first of all because it does not consider the sitting government of Iraq as a credible partner, and secondly since Lukoil is not as intimately involved with the tight circle of Putin’s lieutenants as Rosneft, not to mention Gazprom. For several months already there has been hardly any mention of the gas OPEC or any other Russia-led cartel-type arrangement of the gas-exporting states, so apparently this far-fetched proposition is also put on the expanded Middle Eastern back burner.
It was only the statement of Admiral Vladimir Masorin, commander of the Russian Navy, about restoring a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean that stands apart from these cautious procrastinations (EDM, August 9). The visionary admiral might well have been overtaken by dreams of past glory, but the pre-sentiment on the inevitable multi-party squabble in the Middle East to be triggered by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is certainly widely shared in the Putin-centric political circles in Moscow. In the envisioned no-holds-barred power play, Russia would not have any allies but could enjoy a perfect freedom of maneuver and exploit the advantage of not being afraid of any oil crisis. Declaring its adherence to pragmatism, Moscow, in fact, is increasingly adopting anti-Americanism as the guiding political idea, so the U.S. plans are seen as cabals but risks miraculously transform into opportunities.