TCS Daily

Russia's Global Roulette

By Ariel Cohen - February 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Is Russia deliberately destabilizing the Middle East while benefiting from resulting higher energy prices? Sometimes it sure looks that way.

On March 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit Washington to discuss the Middle East. On March 3, a high ranking delegation of Hamas will visit Moscow at President Vladimir Putin's invitation to meet with Lavrov. A coincidence?

Russia is aggressively courting Iran and Hamas -- the two most destabilizing factors in the Middle East after Al Qaeda and Hizballah.

Last week, Russia conducted negotiations in Teheran on establishing a uranium-enrichment joint venture, which will supply nuclear reactor fuel to the Islamic Republic.

Moscow claimed success, while Iran conditioned the deal on security guarantees. It is unclear whether Teheran will agree to inspection of all its nuclear sites, which should be the only option acceptable to the IAEA.

In recent weeks Russia has distanced itself from common positions with the U.S. and the European Union on the Middle East. Moscow's actions in the Middle East are jeopardizing its G-8 presidency, its position in the Middle East Quartet, and its international role.

Moscow's policies have deep historic roots. Russia seeks to maximize its policy options in the Middle East, while restraining U.S. space for maneuver. Russia has joined Iran in demanding that the U.S. withdraw militarily from the Persian Gulf, where it ensures the security of the world's prime oil supply and shipping lanes.

A nuclear-armed Iran, allied with and armed by Russia and China, could become a regional challenger hostile to the U.S., its interests, and its allies in the region.

Today, Russia is the lead supplier for Iran's civilian nuclear efforts, while ignoring that country's military nuclear program. In December 2005 Russia announced that it would sell Iran $700 million worth of TOR-M1 (SA-15) short-range surface to air missiles, and is now reportedly negotiating a sale of long range anti-aircraft SA-10s (known by their Russian designation S-300). Buttressed by radars and computers, these missile systems could be arrayed in a nation-wide air defense system, which would render any future disarming air strikes all but impossible.

Russia also sold Iran a $1.2 billion nuclear reactor, Bushehr, to be completed in the fall of 2006. Russia plans to supply Iran as many as five more reactors at a cost of $8-10 billion, which can be used to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapons program.

Russia has trained hundreds of Iranian nuclear physicists and engineers, provided Teheran with ballistic missile technology, and launched an Iranian spy satellite. However, an Iran armed with nuclear missiles makes little sense for Moscow as it is likely to throw its weight around in Russia's own "back yard" -- the Caucasus, Central Asia and the oil-rich Caspian basin. And Russia has invited Iran to be part of a foreign policy "club" it is running jointly with China -- the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, where Teheran is an observer. Thus, Russia's actions placate Islamist extremists throughout the Middle East.

In February 2006, President Putin invited Hamas leaders to Moscow amid declarations that Russia never saw Hamas as a terrorist organization, and that Hamas' election was a great failure of President Bush's foreign policy.

Coddling Hamas, without securing a complete renunciation of terror and recognition of Israel, is nothing less than appeasing a terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians and the conditioning of thousands of children as young as four to become suicide bombers. Russian Chief of General Staff, Yuri Baluyevsky, has suggested that Moscow sell weapons to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Hamas.

Coming from Russia, which has suffered atrocities and hundreds of civilian losses at the Beslan school and Dubrovka theater in Moscow, this legitimization of Hamas is self-defeating. Policies of terror appeasement remind one of Joseph Stalin's dealings with Adolph Hitler, when the Soviet foreign minister Molotov called fascism "a matter of taste."

Appeasement will undoubtedly invite Islamist aggression against Russia, especially given expanding Islamist insurgencies in Chechnya and elsewhere in North Caucasus and a growing Muslim population throughout the country.

Russia dissented from the joint position of the Quartet (which includes the U.S., U.N, the EU and Russia) that forbids negotiations with Hamas or assistance to a Hamas-ruled Palestinian Authority until it renounces terrorism, respects past agreements, including the Road Map, and recognizes Israel.

Putin also broke with the West by suggesting that the media practice self-censorship in view of the row over the publication of the Prophet Mohammad cartoons. Russian authorities have already closed down two newspapers which published innocuous cartoons calling people of all faiths to be tolerant.

Russia is pursuing ? course detrimental to the solidarity and coordination of the G-8 and the stability of the Middle East. By selling nuclear reactors and weapons to Iran, Russia is empowering it to become a regional hegemon and restrict U.S. access to the Persian Gulf.

Negotiating with Hamas positions Russia as a co-equal party alongside the U.S. and placates radical Islamic forces. Providing arms to Iran and Syria stirs regional instability, driving up oil prices, and benefiting Russia as a high-priced oil producer.

The time for aiding and abetting Iran and Hamas, while paying lip service to solidarity with the West, is over. During Mr. Lavrov's visit, Washington needs to clarify that Russia's interests will suffer in the long term if solidarity with the West is broken.

Ms. Rice has to tell Mr. Lavrov that Moscow is jeopardizing its role as a bona fide member of the Quartet and its presidency of the G-8 if it stakes out a quasi-Soviet Middle Eastern foreign policy.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research at The Heritage Foundation and author and editor of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, 2005).


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