Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official visit to Spain last week was not a great success. Spanish journalists asked too many direct questions, and senators at the closed-door meeting were not shy about raising unpleasant issues like judicial independence and human rights (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 10). Spain does not import Russian gas in any significant quantities, so Putin was unable to press forward his favorite theme: “energy security.” Even the chairmanship of the G-8 was a slightly awkward subject, since Spain wants to join this elite club, but Russia is firmly set against any enlargement that could dilute its privileges (Vremya novostei, February 9). At the final press conference, Putin clearly needed a diversion, and a statement about a forthcoming invitation to the leadership of Hamas to come to Moscow provided just that.
It was certainly not a Yeltsin-style impromptu, since Putin had mentioned earlier that Russia “has never regarded Hamas as a terrorist organization” and sent up several other trial balloons (New York Times, February 10). Nevertheless, he apparently rushed the invitation in order to escape from a tight diplomatic corner, and it took all concerned parties by surprise. The Spanish hosts politely acknowledged Russia’s key role in the Middle East peace process but refused to comment on the legitimacy of Hamas. The reaction in Washington was sharper, since the “Quartet” (UN, EU, US, and Russia) was supposed to stick to the common position that had been agreed upon during the January round of negotiations, during which Moscow did not mention any plans of this sort (Gazeta.ru, February 10). Israel has been simply outraged by the invitation, interpreting it as a step toward international acceptance of the Hamas government without any conditions focused on denouncing terrorism and revising its charter, which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state (Kommersant, February 11). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had some explaining to do in the telephone conversation with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov had a much harder time at an emergency meeting in Italy with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (Gazeta.ru, February 11).
Clearly disconcerted by this barrage of criticism, Moscow could only stick to its position that Hamas was democratically elected by the clear majority of Palestinians and so “sooner or later” must be accepted by all parties as a fact of political life (Polit.ru, February 7). While references to democracy coming from the Kremlin may appear not entirely convincing, its initiative could be interpreted as a pragmatic step aimed at scoring a few points by taking on a necessary job that nobody else wants to do. Indeed, Russia often positions itself as a communicator between the West and the regimes it finds too unpleasant to deal with, like North Korea (Ekho Moskvy, February 10). By establishing a dialogue with Hamas, Moscow might expect to improve its very marginal position in the “Quartet” and become an important player in the “major league” of Middle Eastern politics instead of merely “pulling chestnuts out of the fire,” as Putin bitterly noted. His very strong condemnation of the publication of “blasphemous” cartoons in European newspapers was also clearly aimed at gaining a bit of extra credibility in the Muslim world (Kommersant, February 10).
This “pragmatic” policy might appear simply unscrupulous and shortsighted, but there is a deeper layer of quasi-ideological aspirations beneath the readiness to embrace the “untouchables.” This layer was momentarily revealed in Putin’s remark at his annual press conference last month, when he characterized the Hamas victory as “an important setback for American efforts in the Middle East.” It was more than quiet satisfaction that the U.S. drive in promoting democracy had brought results directly opposite to those desired in that repetitive statement; it was also the perception that a U.S. setback meant a Russian victory.
From this “realist” perspective, the success of the European “troika” (France, Germany, and the UK) and the United States in convincing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer the Iranian “case” to the UN Security Council was a setback for Russia’s policy of forging a “strategic partnership” with Iran. The maneuver of opening a channel of direct communications with Hamas is seen as compensation for that forced concession, which still can be withdrawn during the debates in New York among the “veto” holders, and also as a way to exempt Russia from the brewing confrontation between the West and Islam. It comes as no surprise that Hamas has enthusiastically accepted the invitation, announcing that Russia, which has shown readiness to talk without any conditions, would replace the United States as the key peace broker in the Middle East (Vedomosti, February 10; Newsru.com, February 12). The delegation led by Khaled Mashal, the head of the Hamas “political bureau” in Damascus, could rush to Moscow in a few weeks, defying the travel ban maintained by Israel.
Why is the Kremlin ready to negotiate with the Palestinian terrorists but not with the Chechen separatists? (Kommersant, February 10). Apparently, the answer has been prepared well in advance: The only possible partner for such negotiations could have been Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, and he was murdered last March. The new leadership of the Chechen resistance is professing more hardline views than his predecessor, so Moscow can ask with sincere indignation: Who could possibly negotiate with the likes of Shamil Basaev? Offering the West the unsolicited advice “not to go the easy way of burning bridges” in the Middle East, Putin has determinedly burned his own bridges in Chechnya (Vremya novostei, February 10). He may still discover that a small domestic war could make an irreducible stain on his reputation — and cause great deformities in the politics of the state that still refuses to accept responsibility for its choices.