By all accounts, events in the Middle East are moving in a direction that could lead to significant breakthroughs in Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestinian relations. Yet Moscow, while claiming support for them, seems eager to undermine these moves toward peace and democracy in order to get back into the ring.
To a very large degree, Russia has hitherto been excluded from these events due to its own weakness and inability to offer anything positive to most or all of the various players. But recently Russia seems to have hit upon two tried and true methods of augmenting its influence, namely arms sales and nuclear technology transfer. Russia’s recent agreement on spent fuel with Iran for the reactor at Bushehr is well known (see EDM, March 3). But it, like the new arms deals in the Middle East that are being announced, must also be seen as attempts to strike directly at important American interests. And these arms sales to unreliable partners certainly do not add to the positive trends now taking place in the Middle East. Thus the deal on Bushehr was signed just two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s summit with President George W. Bush at Bratislava.
Moscow’s list of clients for conventional weapons spans the entire region. It is selling the Tunguska M-1 combined gun/missile self-propelled air defense system to Morocco. Recently Russia also announced its first-ever arms sales to Saudi Arabia, further cementing a tactical partnership between these oil giants. Apart from the reactor at Bushehr, Moscow is selling large numbers of conventional systems to Iran, making it the third-largest customer for Russian weapons after India and China.
Similarly, despite the recent treaty with the United States not to sell man-portable anti-aircraft missiles that could be used to shoot down commercial airliners, and despite the scandal that broke out in January over the potential sale of the Iskander anti-aircraft missile, Moscow now plans to sell Syria the Strelets anti-air defense missile. This system is allegedly immobile, not man-portable, and apparently cannot be used without special means of transport. Still, at a time when Syria is clearly implicated in supporting terrorism and is under pressure to get out of Lebanon lock, stock, and barrel, as mandated by UN resolutions, such overt support is bizarre to say the least. This is especially the case, as it seems these missiles have limited utility and it is not clear how Syria will pay for them. Indeed, Moscow recently forgave most of Syria’s unpaid debts for Soviet-era weapons, so how will it pay for new ones?
Moscow seems to believe that Syria truly wants to contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly stated that Syria might render great assistance to Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ peace efforts and to the consolidation of all Palestinian groups in a future Palestinian state. Although his remarks antedated the bombing in Tel-Aviv on February 25 that was carried out by a Syrian-backed group, Islamic Jihad, Lavrov’s statements made no sense even when they were made.
Even more strangely, Moscow is showing its support for the Palestinian peace process by offering to sell the Palestinians arms. Whatever Moscow’s motives might be in this case, again the questions arise: How does such a transaction contribute to the possibilities for peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Second, who will pay for arms, since the Palestinians’ accounts are generally derived from foreign subsidies, not independent revenues? Third, exactly what does Moscow gain from the deal?
Despite 50 years of arms sales to Middle Eastern regimes, Moscow still has little to show for its expenses and exertions. Unfortunately all these moves seem to evoke posturing rather than a mature or well-conceived policy concept based on Russian national interests. As the Russian commentator Andrei Piontkovsky observed, “Russian policy is largely driven not by rational national interests, but by this complex of former greatness. Any leader in the Middle East or elsewhere knows about this complex and can take advantage of it by helping Russia to continue to play this role for a perk or a privilege.”
This mindset, along with the urgings of the nuclear and arms lobbies that make money off these deals, underscores the reasons behind Russia’s quest for influence in the Middle East through the medium of arms sales. But more likely than not, this latest version of Russia’s quest for influence, like its earlier manifestations, will turn out to be merely a mirage.
(Los Angles Times, February 2; Jane’s Defense Weekly, March 2; Interfax, February 9, 16; Moscow News, February 23-March 1; National Review Online, February 18; Agence France-Presse, February 16; Washington Times, February 10)