Asia Time Online - Daily News
              Click Here
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Central Asia
     Aug 30, 2006
Russia and the 'rogues'
By Federico Bordonaro

In early August, when Israel expanded its ground offensive in southern Lebanon against Hezbollah, several Israeli military intelligence analysts warned that the Shi'ite militia had some of the most advanced anti-tank technology in the world.

Immediately, Israeli and international media released articles that pointed the finger at Russia as the main supplier of such sophisticated military equipment, although Moscow - most of

experts maintained - provided the weaponry to Syria and Iran, which subsequently smuggled it to Hezbollah.

In particular, both Israel's Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Defense Minister Amir Peretz claimed on August 10 that Hezbollah's guerrillas made use of the Russian-built rocket-propelled-grenade RPG-29 Vampirs with a tandem HEAT (high explosive anti-tank) PG-29V warhead, which proved effective against the Israeli Merkava tanks.

Other military sources maintained that Hezbollah has also acquired the Russian-designed anti-tank missile system Metis-M, the anti-tank wire-guided missiles Sagger AT-3, Spigot AT-4 and even the Russian-made Kornet AT-14, also provided by Damascus and well suited to destroy low-flying helicopters. [1]

Promptly, a spokesperson for Moscow's Foreign Ministry said Russia honored its international obligations and had not been supplying modern anti-tank weapons to Hezbollah, a response that few in Israel consider convincing.

While Israel reflects on the tactical troubles encountered in the 32 days of conflict, two main political and strategic questions deserve to be addressed. The first, of course, is that of Russian military supplies and diplomatic support to Middle Eastern state and non-state actors (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas) that Washington considers the worst enemies to its proposed "New Middle East" project and to Israel's security.

The second question, however, is that of Russia's grand strategy. Failing to understand the broader picture prevents observers from correctly assessing Moscow's controversial moves, thus putting the opportunity of a positive grand bargain between Russia and the US at risk.

Russia's return on the world stage
One of the main trends in today's world politics is the return of Russia as an influential player. This is a result of a vigorous restructuring of domestic power by President Vladimir Putin.

During the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's foreign policy reflected much the country's internal fragility. Powerful corporate groups (later labeled "oligarchs" and mercilessly fought by Putin's administration) dominated the political life while centrifugal forces shook the Russian Federation.
As a result, Russia's foreign policy was mainly concentrated on having good economic relations with the United States and the European Union and on trying, by this way, to maintain or augment Moscow's influence on the global stage. The results were disappointing. Resentment against the oligarchs was coupled by humiliation (among the citizens, but also among many political and military power brokers) as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) continued to expand eastward - notwithstanding then-US president George H W Bush's promise to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev not to do it back in 1990.

Such a US policy had considerable impact on the Russian elite's psychology. While Washington promoted the eastward expansion of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture officially in a friendly way, in fact it behaved as a self-confident hegemon.

What many in Moscow perceived was that Russia was "invited" to join a broad Russo-Western security partnership as a weak junior partner - hence almost forced to choose cooperation with the superpower. Such a feeling would have then reached the climax a few years later, when Russia understood that NATO's expansion had practically no boundaries, and that Russia's historic core itself, Ukraine, was targeted by such enlargement.

Therefore, the years under president Boris Yeltsin, marked by the politics of accommodation and the rule of corporate business, left Russia with a widespread sensation of unacceptable inferiority.

Putin's political strategy took the opposite road - a road that many in the West consider to be a tough, brutally realistic one. To be strong and enhance its security, Russia had to re-establish the absolute primacy of politics over business at home, at the expense of the so-called oligarchs. It had to restore a strong centralized power and use its strong cards (fossil energy and military technology) for political as well as economic ends.

The president knew, as he took office in 2000, that Russia's fossil energy reserves would increase its political weight as the alleged primacy of consumers over producers (a widespread belief of the mid-1990s) proved blatantly wrong. He also knew that Russia's military technology, a legacy of the Cold War, was able to change the balance of power among regional actors in key geopolitical areas.

To put it simply, Putin believed that to speak effectively to the US and rest of the West, endless accommodation wasn't needed. Tactical disturbance and the political use of resources and military exports were a better - if annoying - way. Russia's rigid stance on Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia in the wide former Soviet area going from northeastern Europe to the Caucasus is, in fact, the other side of the same coin: Moscow's foreign policy is at odds with Washington's grand strategy based on fostering regime changes to promote pro-Western elites and the expansion of the Euro-Atlantic security community.

The inability of the administration of US President George W Bush to engage Russia effectively in global security policies only added to Putin's determination to restore Russia's power and influence in a tough way - often siding with China rather than the US, and practically ending the dramatic Sino-Russian split that had lasted since 1962.

Thus, cultivating good relations with US regional enemies in the world's most delicate geopolitical area, the Middle East, appeared in line the new Russian course. In fact, looking at Moscow's Middle Eastern policy as far back as Cold War times, Putin's strategy looks familiar, but with some interesting new features - such as better relations with Tehran. This brings us to the second question: the scope and aim of Russia's diplomatic and strategic relations with Damascus, Tehran, and non-state actors in the region.

Courting the 'rogues'?
The overwhelming majority of US, British and Israeli observers and analysts show irritation as they comment on Moscow's diplomatic and strategic relations with so-called rogue states. Apart from North Korea, which is a specific geopolitical and diplomatic case, Russia's good relations with Iran and Syria (but also, until 2003, with Saddam Hussein's Iraq) have exasperated Washington and its closest allies.

Israel's intelligence community has repeatedly blamed Russia for dangerously supporting Jerusalem's deadly enemies. To begin with, Moscow has implemented a complex anti-terrorist policy, which resembles US hard stances against terrorist groups in some aspects - such as zero tolerance and total de-legitimization of Caucasian Islamists in Chechnya and Dagestan - but at the same time refuses to join Washington in putting Hezbollah and Hamas on the blacklist.

In a way reminiscent of Cold War times, Moscow seems to differentiate between "radical groups" accused of being purely terrorist organizations that the civilized world must annihilate, and national-liberation movements, which may have recourse to terrorism, that help Russia to achieve its political aims in areas of interest.

While some analysts believe it is possible to retrace the route of a long-term, direct Russian support for Hezbollah, [2] Israel's official stance is that by supplying advanced military equipment to Syria and Iran, Moscow indirectly reinforces Hezbollah's capabilities.

Back in February 2005, for instance, the administration of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon actively tried to prevent a Russo-Syrian US$70 million deal being signed. The contract foresaw the selling of 20 9K38 (SA-18 according to NATO terminology) Soviet-made man-portable, infra-red-homing surface-to-air missiles.

Russia's military support to Damascus is accompanied by diplomatic support, and there are reasons to think that such a stance serves the Russian goal of putting a wedge into Washington's aggressive Middle East policy in two ways: first, and most obviously, by countering the US diplomatic offensive against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime; second, by courting Syria and paving the way for a stable Russian military presence in the region.

Notwithstanding Russia's official denial, the newspaper Kommersant reported in June about Moscow's decision to establish naval bases in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia. According to the sources, Moscow would proceed with the installation of an air defense system with S-300PMU-2 ballistic missiles.

On August 15, the Russian newspaper Mosnews reported that Israel had "found evidence" that Hezbollah fought the Israeli army with "Russian weapons" provided by Iran and Syria: "In a garden next to a junction used as an outpost by Hezbollah lay eight Kornet anti-tank rockets, described by Brigadier Mickey Edelstein, the commander of the troops who took Ghandouriyeh, as 'some of the best in the world'.

"Written underneath a contract number on each casing were the words: 'Customer: Ministry of Defense of Syria. Supplier: KBP, Tula, Russia.' Edelstein said: 'If they tell you that Syria knew nothing about this, just look. This is the evidence. Proof, not just talk.'"

Russia has undoubtedly signaled that it is able to change the military balance in selected regional contexts. For instance, and almost unnoticed by the Western media, Moscow is adding significant arms deals to its energy-cooperation projects with Algeria, in such a way that could dramatically change the regional equilibrium in North Africa (which is - let's not forget it - included by Washington in the "Greater Middle East").

But deducing from such a fact that Moscow is structurally hostile to the West would be a serious mistake. On the contrary, Russia's tough message is a call for a fresh start in the Russo-Western security relations on a global scale.

As a consequence, the US and its Western allies should reconsider their strategic ties with Moscow. Thinking that it is possible to enlarge NATO and the EU by following an exclusively Western agenda, and by ignoring Russian security concerns, will only push Putin and his followers toward a more unfriendly foreign-policy strategy, behind the diplomatic jargon and the official stances, with dire consequences for global stability.

1. Andrew McGregor, Hezbollah's creative use of anti-tank weapons, Terrorism Focus, the Jamestown Foundation, August 15.
2. See, for instance, Dangerous liaisons: Covert 'love affair' between Russia and Hezbollah, Axis Global Challenges Research.

Federico Bordonaro is senior analyst with the Power and Interest News Report (www.pinr.com).

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Russia spins global energy spider's web (Aug 25, '06)

Moscow making Central Asia its own (Aug 25, '06)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110