Saturday, October 12, 2013
Russia is Coming Back into the ''Great Game'' !
Russian President Vladimir Putin scored a diplomatic coup by proposing and shaping a United Nations-endorsed plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpile (See September 15th posting: Putin Pokes Powerful Presumptions at the President!), but this is only one example of Russia's newly aggressive Middle East policy. Russia, it appears, is pursuing a much broader agenda in the region. Russia's influence in the Middle East had been fading for years, one of many signs of the country's inability to play a major part in shaping world events after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Putin long has viewed Russia's loss of global status as a major embarrassment, and since his return in 2012 to the Russian presidency he has been looking for ways to enhance Russia's foreign policy presence. So while the American Congress is playing serious domestic political games with President Obama and rightly trying to come to grips with stopping a health policy not fully formed and an increasing a shockingly high debt ceiling, Putin is eagerly seeking to exploit the Obama administration's policy vacuum.
His success is far from assured given the many different alliances that exist in the Middle East. The United States and Russia have competed for influence in the Middle East for decades, dating back to the Soviet era. The tide turned strongly in favour of the U.S. in the early 1970s when Egypt, the Arab world's most important country, turned away from it alliance with the U.S.S.R. after the disastrous war against Israel to pursue a closer friendship with the West. By the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia had become a major supplier of weapons and military assistance to some Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, but wielded limited diplomatic clout. In contrast, the United States enjoyed strong relations with Israel, its long-time ally, Egypt, Turkey and moderate Arab nations in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia.
Major changes are unfolding in some of the region's most important nations, including those in North Africa. The Arab Spring hasn't brought the stability of democracy so far to the many of the liberated governments as was hoped. The smashing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the new president of Iran ( photo left ), Hassan Rouhani's ''charm offensive'' have all brought the possibility of shifting alliances. Putin's proposal on Syria caught Obama by surprise, forcing a major shift from his efforts to win congressional backing for the use of force. Experts at the Brookings Institution and media commentators alike concluded Russian prestige in the Middle East has risen sharply, especially since as part of the deal it became apparent that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has long enjoyed support from Russia, would remain in power under the agreement.
Russia is now pressing that diplomatic gain across the region at the same time U.S. influence is on the wane in the aftermath of its military withdrawal from Iraq, policy disagreements with Egypt and a general perception that Obama's foreign policy lacks focus and drive. In his September 24 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama tried to take the high road, stating that, ''we are no longer in a Cold War. There is no Great Game to be won.'' However, Putin sees the region in a much different light with Russia seeking to strengthen ties with Egypt new foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy. Putin sent a tourism delegation to Cairo, which has been trying to invigorate Russian tourism in Egypt, a mainstay of the Egyptian economy. While Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki has made two trips to Moscow and none to Washington since coming to power where he finalized a $4 billion arms sales deal.
Putin's world view may be old school as Obama sees it, but Russia is making substantial gains as its president plays a 21st century version of a Great Game that Obama does not even acknowledge. The Russian president embraces a power politics view of international relations in which nations compete to advance their political, security and economic interests. This often results in a zero-sum view of international politics and one in which Russia often seeks to be the spoiler rather than a leader, at least on issues of direct competition with the United States. Putin also understands that as a practical matter the expansion of Russia's influence in the Middle East serves to protect Russia's southern flank and has a sizable Navy harboured in Syrian ports.
The Way I See It.....Obama has spent much of his five years in office foolishly seeking to reverse or modify his predecessor's policy of engagement in the Middle East. The result has been confusion in U.S. policy and perceived weakness in the administration by friends and foes alike. The emergence of the United States as the ''indispensible'' power in the region did not occur overnight, and U.S. influence will not be lost completely in the near term. Many nations in the region rightfully view Russia with suspicion and recognize that the United States maintains a unique set of capabilities if they are applied competently.
In conclusion, Vladimr Putin is set on making Russia an international security broker, and he is succeeding. It is not clear whether Russian diplomacy can consolidate these gains in the long term: Its penchant for heavy-handed actions is never far from the surface. Nonetheless, there is an apparent strategy behind Russia's Mid-East forays, a stark contrast to the Obama administration's seemingly ad hoc policy approaches. What Americans need is another Ronald Reagan to lead them.