Although the Russian press regularly rebukes the West for double standards regarding terrorism, such as supporting the insurgents in Chechnya, media outlets have not pointed out that Moscow is taking a similar stance regarding the current Middle East crisis.
Western reports clearly indicate that Hezbollah, an openly terrorist organization acting with Iranian and Syrian support engaged in provocations against Israeli military and civilian targets and drew a forceful Israeli response. In his various responses to the issue during the July 15-17 G-8 conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that Israeli concerns were “well-grounded” and that Hezbollah’s actions were provocative (Itar-Tass, July 15). He also stressed that “Russia has made efforts through all channels” to seek ways in which the Israeli soldiers taken prisoner could be returned to Israel (Kremlin.ru, July 17). Putin’s interest in Hezbollah seems part of a wider pattern to counter U.S. positions in the Middle East.
The Russian president angered many Western leaders when he invited members of the newly elected Hamas government in Palestine to Moscow in February. But Putin recently went on to say that these latest events show that “we invited Hamas [to Moscow] for a good reason and regret nothing” — even subsidizing Hamas (Kremlin.ru, July 17). Even though Hamas is also considered a terrorist organization that is devoted to the extermination of Israel, Russia does not recognize it as such. Moreover Putin argued that Hamas is a legitimate political movement that enjoys “a legitimate vote of confidence of its people” (Kremlin.ru, July 17). Therefore Russia should engage it in discussion. Another benefit of talks, according to Putin, is that it gave Moscow the opportunity to talk to every player in the Middle East.
Putin’s real motive for inviting Hamas earlier may be to raise Russia’s profile in the Middle East. Moscow seeks recognition as a legitimate player in any subsequent peace process and regional diplomacy. This objective would explain Moscow’s willingness to entertain the possibility of participating in any future peacekeeping force in Lebanon to help resolve the Israel-Hezbollah conflict (Moscow Times, RIA-Novosti, July 18). Simply put, Russia’s main objective is likely to get back into the Middle East as a counterweight to the United States and to restrain its ability to act there. Putin dismissed similar efforts for negotiations when he invaded Chechnya in 1999, and it is hard to see why Israel or the West should embrace talks now.
Likewise, Putin further said that he was not aware of Israel’s plans but that Arab sources had told him, “Strikes against infrastructure have no direct relevance to the search for abducted soldiers or any other goals declared by Israel” (Kremlin.ru, July 17). He echoed these reports saying, “We have the impression that apart from bringing back the kidnapped servicemen, and Israel is pursuing other, broader goals as well” (Channel One TV, NTV Mir, RTR Planeta TV, July 16).
While Putin criticizes Israeli actions as being excessive and disproportionate, he does not seem to have bothered to contact the Israeli government or its embassy to get any explanation first hand. Again by comparison to Chechnya and the activities of the Russian forces there, this looks like another invocation of those double standards he and his supporters love to criticize so much. Other members of Putin’s cabinet have voiced similar judgments against Israel. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Israeli actions disproportionate and argued that the G-8 statement about ending the attacks should not be interpreted as casting “blanket accusations against one of the sides” (Itar-Tass, July 16; Moscow Times, July 14). With this comment, Lavrov seemed to equate the terrorists with their victims. The Kremlin has not embraced this moral equivalency argument when the subject is Chechnya.
This Russian attitude can only be explained by Moscow’s desire to counter America’s potential for action in the Middle East and by its eagerness to protect Iran from the consequences of its nuclear program. Even though Moscow claims that it opposes Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, Russian leaders have resolutely sought to protect Tehran from the consequences of its refusal to negotiate in good faith with the EU-3 or, potentially, the United States. While the motives behind Russian support of Iran are complex, it seems clear that Lavrov and Putin are working hard to prevent Iran from suffering as a consequence of this latest provocation. So even though the foreign ministers of the parties involved in the negotiations with Iran were finally driven by Iran’s dilatory tactics to announce their willingness to bring it to the Security Council and impose sanctions for refusing to negotiate in good faith, Lavrov went out of his way to say that Russia would oppose any sanctions on Iranian-Russian military trade (Interfax, July 13). Even though Tehran has violated the non-proliferation treaty and is sponsoring terrorism across the Middle East in an effort to deflect attention away from its action, Russia intends to keep supplying Iran with weapons, some of which ultimately may end up in Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s’ arsenals.
If this is not a double standard with regard to terrorism, it is difficult to see what is. Certainly no Western power has ever sold guns to Chechnya or to the rebels there. Neither has any Western government ever interfered with Russian activities in Chechnya beyond the occasional remonstrance with Moscow. But here it looks like the desire for status as a major player in the Middle East and to retain the tie with Tehran at virtually all costs supersedes Moscow’s commitment to the quest for a lasting and genuine peace in this troubled region.