Friday, December 26, 2008

Russia bids for control over the Middle East

Russian FM Lavrov announced the upcoming financial support for Palestinians during Abbas’ visit to Moscow. As his presidential term expires on January 9, this seems Abbas’ last official visit - significantly, to Chechnya.

Russian support to Palestinians will come largely in military sphere. In Lavrov’s diplomatic speak, Russia supports Abbas’ “security measures.” The only Fatah’s security measures we see in Israel are related to terrorist attacks: scores of Fatah policemen are vacationing in Israeli jails for terror activity. Not a single Palestinian terrorist was intercepted by Fatah policemen. The few terrorists comfortably jailed in Palestine were arrested by IDF and released to Fatah.

Russian pledge to Palestine has nothing to do with humanitarian concerns. Russians never delivered food or other humanitarian supplies to Palestinian refugee camps, but look for “security cooperation” with Palestinians. In plain English, Russians seek a military foothold at Israeli borders. To that end, they pledged ten MIG-29 jets to Lebanon’s Hezbollah government free, and build a mammoth navy base in Syrian port of Tartus. The navy base will host S-300 and later S-400 anti-aircraft defense which would protect most of Syria against Israeli reprisals. Under the Russian ABM umbrella, Syria can develop its nuclear weapons without fearing Israeli preemption.

Russia’s Middle East policy also includes TOR-1M and S-300 deliveries to Iran and joint nuclear program with Egypt.

Russian expansion comes despite that country’s economic troubles. Russian economy relies on oil, gas, and other natural resources almost as much as Saudi Arabia. Oil and gas revenues account for about 60% of Russian budget (both directly and through taxes on businesses which thrive on high oil prices). During the years of windfall oil profits, Russian government built currency reserves, but they dwindle quickly as oil prices fell.

Instead of minding its own business and building a modern economy, Putin-Medvedev’s government grew increasingly hostile. Domestically, the regime amended the high treason law: the new formulation easily includes all dissidents. The tax administration hunts down crisis-stricken businesses: the reduced tax revenues are blamed on evasion rather than economic downturn. In the “near abroad”, Russia continues military incursions in Georgia and introduced gas blockade of Ukraine. Russian Gazprom monopoly refused transporting Asian gas to Ukraine, and slapped it with gas prices substantially higher than those offered to West European customers.

Russia cannot gain rich or advanced countries on its side. They are either not interested in Russian overtures, or prefer relations with the West, if only for economic reasons. Russians have nothing to offer Saudi Arabia or Emirates, but court the world’s outlaws such as Iran or Venezuela.

The Old Europe also falls victim to Russian bullying: France and Germany, the EU cheerleaders, depend on Russia for gas supplies, as are most other European countries. Staunchly anti-American EU embraces Russia if not for any other reason than to slap the United States. In its latest meeting at FM level, NATO discussed Georgia: not the way of defending it from Russia, but how to get over it and re-establish ties with Russia.

US-Russian nuclear cooperation, arms reduction, and anti-missile treaties are practically abandoned. Russia threatened to stop dismantling its nuclear warheads and selling the uranium to America, though the deal went on smoothly for fifteen years. Putin resumed militarily useless but highly provocative flights of Russian nuclear-armed strategic bombers around Europe.

Russia’s increasingly strong relations with Hezbollah, Hamas, and PLO are best viewed on the background of its worldwide strategy. Lacking funds to buy clients with aid, having too little economic clout to obtain friends with trade advantages, Russia resorted to the old Soviet tactics of stirring trouble. That policy amounts to racketeering: if Russian role is not acknowledged, regional troubles ensue. Propping the miscreants like Iran or PLO is way cheaper than staging conflicts and immensely cheaper than any civilized way of spreading one’s influence.

Unless Russia breaks again into the post-democratic anarchy, it is out to create major troubles for the world.

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