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Look Out, World: Mother Russia's Back With a Vengeance!

March 8, 2007 By:
Elliot Jager
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I used to be an avid Soviet watcher, but with the empire's collapse in December 1991 and the vanishing of the Soviet Jewry issue, I frankly lost interest. Absent the winner-take-all rivalry between liberty and tyranny, the travails of Russia didn't much interest me.

But what belatedly captured my attention was Russian President Vladimir Putin's in-your-face Feb. 10 speech at the Munich Security Conference before senior American and European leaders. Time magazine called it "a striking impersonation of Michael Corleone in 'The Godfather' -- the embodiment of implicit menace."

It was the tone as much as the substance that was so unnerving. Putin brazenly accused the United States of making the world more dangerous than at any point since the Cold War.

Sixteen years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Mother Russia is back -- more powerful than at any time since the empire's demise. Russia's foreign policy may be, as Winston Churchill's 1939 aphorism had it, a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

"But perhaps there is a key," continued Churchill. "That key is Russian national interest."

Start with the Slavic cultural mindset: a heritage of imperialism, a habitual distrust for -- yet envy of -- the West, and a disposition toward authoritarianism. Geography also determines foreign policy; Russia has interests extending from Europe to Asia and onto the Middle East.

Moscow is not the "mischief-maker" it once was, Russia expert Marshall Goldman, professor emeritus at Harvard University, told me. The Soviets used to facilitate terrorism and arm Israel's enemies.

The good news, according to Goldman, is that they're no longer promoting terrorism. The bad news is arms sales are brisk. Putin's goal is to play the geopolitical game and keep Russia's arms industry humming.

Today's Putin is a very different man from the one who took power some seven years ago, says Harvard's Goldman. Then, energy prices were low and Russia's power was at a nadir. The price of oil hovered below $20 a barrel. Today, it's around $60.

Russia is now the biggest producer of petroleum and natural gas. Oil brings Russia wealth; gas gives it leverage over a Europe dependent on a pipeline controlled by Putin, says Goldman.

Yet for Israelis, what matters is how Russia exercises its burgeoning influence in our part of the world, and in particular, vis-à-vis Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.

It's the Russians who are building the Iranian nuclear reactor; and they have plans to build six more similar facilities. Yet every expert I spoke with is convinced that Russia does not want to see a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran.

With all that, Moscow is prepared to allow negotiations with Tehran over its weapons program to drag on till the cows come home. But how can Russia facilitate Iran's nuclear program, stymie American-led efforts to impose sanctions against Tehran, and still be perceived as genuinely opposing a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic?

The answer demands a certain amount of Machiavellian thinking: The longer the crisis drags on, the greater is Russia's leverage.

To visiting Israelis, Putin intimates that he takes his commitment to Ariel Sharon to heart: Russia will not be the one to tip the strategic balance against Israel. At the same time, Putin is swayed by countervailing pressures to keep Russian factories in business, which is why Russia sold Iran nuclear technology in the first place.

The Russians say they feel a cultural affinity with Israel's large Russian-speaking population; and trade relations have never been better. There are daily El Al flights; Russian news bureaus maintain a presence in Jerusalem; a Russian consulate was recently opened in Haifa; and a cultural center is due to open in Tel Aviv.

So how should Israel relate to a resurgent Russia? The easy path would be to label Russia's political culture retrograde, term its Mideast policies "anti-Israel" and Vladimir Putin himself an "anti-Semite."

But nursing our grievances would be counterproductive. Our disagreements -- and this is where Time's Michael Corleone/'Godfather' allusion truly applies -- are in the realm of business and politics. In other words, they are not "personal." Putin is no anti-Semite. And what goes on inside an undemocratic Russia isn't our problem.

Pragmatically, Russia needs to be kept engaged with the West. For Israel, that means keeping ties on an even keel, even when Moscow's interests conflict with our own.

Whether on the Quartet, Hamas or Iran, realpolitik dictates that Jerusalem apply a variation of president Lyndon B. Johnson's first rule of Texas politics: It is better to have the Russians inside the tent urinating out, than outside urinating in.

Elliot Jager is editorial-features editor of The Jerusalem Post.

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