THE BLOG
10/21/2007 09:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Putin Won't Toss Away His Relationship with the US to Satisfy Iran and Syria

Among the most important items offered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during this week's Caspian Sea Summit in Tehran was a rescue of the latter from encirclement, a rehabilitation of this strategic friend, and the sending of a picture of the two of them together as a greeting card and a warning to US President George W Bush in Washington. This portrayal of the Russian-Iranian relationship does not at all reflect the deep hatred toward the US that distinguishes the alliance between Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, who is angry at everything American. Chavez is not Putin, because Putin is a statesman, even if he has dictatorial tendencies. Thus, he does not act randomly or arbitrarily, but makes his calculations regarding Russian-US relations and weighs things precisely, even when he escalates things from Tehran. Politicians who act haphazardly mix anger and hatred, and are dangerous for their countries and for others. The former mayor of New York, who is dreaming of the Republic Party's nomination for president, Rudy Giuliani, belongs to the category of haphazard hatred and studied hatred, at the same time. He was proud to expel Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from the Lincoln Center in 1995 during a diplomatic ceremony and symphony performance of Beethoven, and says that it was a blow against al-Qaida. He oozes poison against the Palestinians and Arabs in general, surrounding himself with neoconservative extremists and people known for hatred. Just like Hugo Chavez, Rudy Giuliani is not Vladimir Putin.

Another Republican presidential hopeful, Senator John McCain, said that Putin's face reminds one of the KGB, which the latter headed during the Soviet era, and this is true. But Putin does not act haphazardly or based on obsessions, like the Iranian president. He has nostalgia for the Cold War, since it made Russia into a superpower, one of the only two in the world at the time. Russia today is trying to recover some of this prestige and Putin is reviving some old alliances and old rivalries. His big mistake was in trying to revive the Soviet era, even though the components of this structure today mean that he doesn't need it - he can engage in another type of qualitative leadership, which puts Russia on the map. There are many tools for such a task and Putin must consider them, such as reviving the Cold War, with very harmful alliances to the new world and Russia itself.

Of course, Putin can become the leader of the angry of the world and raise the flag of international hatred of the US. It might be said that it would bring great fame to Russia and international popularity to its president. The question that Putin should ask himself is whether he really thinks such a course would suit him and his aspirations for his country. Will it help Russia to lead a wave of anger and hatred? What will he do when the anger rebounds upon him, because of his policies toward Chechnya and Muslim minorities in Russia? What will his alliances reap for him if they leave behind a collapse of democratic opportunities in regions such as the Middle East, accompanied by anger at Russian-Iranian cooperation in the area of regional hegemony?

During this phase, Russia appears to be toning down its interests with cold pragmatism, and leading these interests is Russian-Iranian cooperation in oil in a manner that guarantees Russia superpower status, especially since its strategic relationship with China has oil as a foundation. Russia has no objection to seeing Venezuela join the oil alliance, thanks to Chavez' love of the regime in Iran, and his hatred of the US. During this phase of history, Putin wants to benefit from the weakness of the world's only superpower today, the US, which is acting unilaterally in this role. Thus, Putin might see that saving the US from the Iraqi predicament is not in his interest; being partners with the US in warning Iran to halt its nuclear aspirations will put Russia in the passenger seat, and not the driver's seat.

In the era of Putin, the Russians want respect, and a lot of it. They want a prominent place in the international order, not an ordinary one with special status. Putin's Russians want the country to be taken very seriously and not see its stances taken for granted. Putin wants the pleasure of delivering this surprise, and doesn't want to be surprised by others. One of the most important things Putin wants is for the US and Europe to deal with important issues for Russia in a way that suits Moscow, and if not, he is prepared to use the tools available to him to seek revenge, if he cannot use them in bargaining.

Since the UN Security Council is dealing with issues important to Russia, such as Kosovo and Georgia, in a way that doesn't please Putin, the Russian president and his diplomatic team are preparing to show Moscow's ability to use its vote, or abstain, or veto, to block resolutions in order to hinder things or present a suitable response to certain countries on issues that are important to Russia. And this is its right. In fact, Russia, like the other five permanent Security Council members, is constrained by resolutions that have become attached to it, and become a part of it; Russia cannot act totally freely since it must live up to certain commitments, by virtue of these resolutions. This state is serious, and the Security Council is not a forum for letting off steam. Each state, including the permanent Security Council members, is responsible for international peace and security, which makes them unable to move with complete freedom of maneuver.

The US has paid a high price for taking over and disdaining the Security Council, when it opposed the invasion of Iraq. Britain has decided to climb down, in relative terms, after incurring a high cost from its partnership with the US in paving the way to war against Iraq and waging it. After the two countries fell into the Iraq quagmire in occupying that country, the Security Council has not rushed to extend help or rescue them. Even today, the American predicament in Iraq continues, despite all of the efforts made by the current US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, to turn Iraq into an international predicament, or international salvation effort.

During the Cold War, there was a period of "veto wars" in the Security Council. However, recently, the five permanent members have made intensive efforts to produce consensus. The indications today are that Russia might not be in the mood for consensus; it might be headed in the opposite direction. The rhetoric of the Russian ambassador, Vitali Churkin, has become more strident regarding various issues, accompanied by a hint that there is a link between these matters before the Council, in terms of doing some bargaining. It would be a considerable error to explain this as a ticket for Iran or Syria to work against Security Council resolutions, with Russian protection deterring punishment for the two states. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is wagering on a Russian veto to prevent the Security Council from establishing an international court to try those involved in political assassinations in Lebanon, a step that Syria opposes. His wager has been a failure, since it misunderstood Russia and the Security Council.

Russia is no newcomer or irresponsible actor when it comes to international politics. It understands the bases of commitments and the margins of maneuver; therefore, it negotiates seriously and resists forcefully. However, it will either go with consensus or abstain from voting, when pushed into a corner. This is not due to fear, negligence or boredom, but results from the type of issues being raised today. Russia is unable and unready in fact to take positions against the trial of those involved in political assassinations in Lebanon, which the Security Council has deemed terrorist acts, with Russian approval. Moscow is not ready to approve Iran's possession of nuclear weapons, however much Putin defends Iran's right to have nuclear capabilities for peaceful ends, as he did this week.

Putin is buying time for both Iran and Syria, and this in itself is a big service to the two and harms the international efforts at deterring these states. However, Putin cannot be a shield that protects Syria from being held accountable and Syrian officials from being tried, if the international investigation proves their involvement in assassinating the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, and other assassinations that the investigation has shown are connected to the terrorist assassination of al-Hariri. Putin will not be able to protect Iran from sanctions or a military strike if Tehran refuses to submit to the demand to halt uranium enrichment and fully implement all of the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency, without stalling. Despite this, Russia's help in allowing Syria and Iran to buy time helps, in the end, to put these two countries in a predicament. Russia will not fight the US if Washington decides to launch a military strike that does away with the regime's infrastructure in Iran. Russia will not bomb the international court in the Netherlands to prevent turning it into a court to try the regime in Damascus.

The best thing for Moscow is to avoid repeating its advice or stances that it adopted in the countdown to the war against Iraq, when it mis-advised and Saddam Hussein and allowed him, on purpose, shoulder all the responsibilities of misreading and miscalculating, since it didn't have another choice. History will repeat itself with Iran and Syria, if the leadership in Moscow doesn't play a truly constructive role regarding Iran and Syria and give them sound advice to the two regimes, instead of hinting wrongly that it will stand with them until the very end. Russia also has a moral debt to the Palestinian people since this people wagered for decades on the Soviet Union and then Russia, believing that these entities were fairer to it than the US. Today, Putin must think long about this people under occupation when he sits at the table to decide tactics and strategies. He has the responsibility of not sacrificing the Palestinians just because he sees that his needs and alliances during the miniature Cold War require him to ally with Damascus and the Palestinian factions opposed to the Palestinian Authority. He has another option.

He can exploit the opportunity available in Bush's readiness to push for a Palestinian state, which will give the Russian president the chance for his country to play its natural role as a sponsor of Palestinian-Israeli peace and a father of the new Palestinian state. In this way, Putin will serve the Palestinians and serve Moscow, not by listening to those who want to derail the Palestinian-Israeli peace in the name of seeing all negotiating tracks move together in "global" fashion. Syria has every right to negotiate with Israel to recover the occupied Goaln Heights, whenever it wishes. This is Syria's right, and the Palestinians don't have the right to ask Syria to not negotiate the recovery of the Golan until after a Palestinian state is established or after the conclusion of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

Syria, like any other Arab country invited to the conference in the fall that is aimed at establishing a Palestinian state, can attend the conference to provide full support to the Palestinian side and strengthen its hand in negotiations with Israel. In this way, it would be behaving like a truly credible and responsible Arab state, by considering Palestine the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus, it could help in extricating the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation. This would prove that it has halted using Palestine and the sufferings of the Palestinians as a way to wreck and bargain at the expense of the Palestinians, as well as Lebanon.

Russia is being asked to pressure Syria to halt this exploitation; if not, Putin is sending a message from the Soviet Era, namely that anything goes when it comes to this new mini-Cold War between the US and Russia, in areas such as the Middle East and at the expense of Lebanon and Palestine. Russia is being asked to pressure Israel to prove that it is truly concerned with saving the Palestinians from occupation and setting up a Palestinian state, living next to Israel in peace.

If Putin wants to play a positive role in Lebanon, he should task his foreign minister, Sergei Lavarov, with the task of ending the occupation of the Shebaa Farms and removing the Syrian vagueness about the ownership of this region and the justifications that Hizbullah uses to show that armed resistance is necessary to liberate the area from Israeli occupation. Each item has a whiff of deceit, since Syria has not presented documents about the identity of the Shebaa Farms to prove that they are Lebanese, and thus, Moscow has an opportunity to say to Damascus: it's time to come clean about the documents, and not just make claims. Israel has not indicated its readiness to put Shebaa temporarily under UN jurisdiction until its ownership is settled either way. Thus, Moscow has an opportunity to say to Israel: logically, the time has come to rob the Hizbullah of the pretext of resistance, and practically speaking, we need such a withdrawal from Shebaa because we want to play a constructive role in Lebanon, as represented by supporting the building of a state and institutions and disarming Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.

Why is it useful for Russia to play this role? Because the US is unable to play it, because saving Lebanon from chaos is in the interest of stability in this region, and because stability in the region is in Russia's economic interest. Of course, the Russian leadership might be thinking in Machiavellian terms, seeing that turning Lebanon into a Syrian-Iranian base will benefit Moscow, especially since Israel is a quasi-US base, at the end of the day. Everything is possible in a period of reviving the formula of superpower competition. But there is nothing on the horizon that indicates Russian-Israeli hostility to the degree of the Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance against Israel. There is a vital relationship between Russia and Israel, and most of it is secret. Therefore, it would be a mistake to read Russian-Syrian relations as strategically positioned against Israel; there is a tactical relationship in a different strategy.

The danger of the Russian positions lies in tactics more than strategy. Putin is too mindful to toss away US-Russian ties in order to satisfy Iran or Syria. He is well-aware that the Caspian Summit's declaration is merely a political stance and that these states will not provide any military assistance for a US strike against Iran; in any case the US might not need their help for strikes that it might be considering. Putin's tactic until now has been Soviet in rhetoric, but his capacities will enable him to make a new start in international relations and an international role for Russia, if he opts for renewal and not nostalgia for the old days of the Soviet Union. I hope he does this, and before it's too late, especially in Palestine and Lebanon.