Commentary Magazine


RE: The Middle East Vacuum

The Michael Young piece cited by Emanuele Ottolenghi in his insightful post echoes the concerns a number of us have had for some time. Russia’s inroads in the Middle East have been expanding for several years; in 2010, we are seeing an acceleration of moves that Moscow would once have been more tentative and covert in undertaking.

The civil-nuclear deals with Syria and Turkey continue a trend that has been underway since 2006-2007. It’s more efficient today to list which countries in the region do not have civil-nuclear agreements with Russia. Since 2007, the Russians have concluded civil-nuclear cooperation deals with Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Algeria, along with Syria and Turkey. Russia is training nuclear engineers, bidding on reactor contracts, and mining uranium.

Nuclear cooperation takes a back seat only to oil and gas deals and arms sales. Turkey’s geographic position has long made it an object of Russian gas strategy. As the Wall Street Journal points out today, the deals signed this week represent the culmination of a years-long Russian effort to co-opt Turkey as a pipeline partner, potentially compromising Ankara’s commitment to European pipeline sponsors. Russia’s intensive cultivation of natural gas giants Libya and Algeria gives Moscow leverage over nearly 100 percent of the natural gas supply to much of central and southern Europe. The sale of big-ticket weapon systems to Algeria, Libya, and Syria serves to isolate Israel – and to complicate any U.S. effort to provide military support to Israel if it becomes necessary.

Now Russia is negotiating a huge arms sale – including the S-300 air-defense system, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and assault helicopters – with U.S. partner and long-time client Saudi Arabia. This development and others are disquieting harbingers of a Russia unconstrained by worry about either offending or alarming the U.S. Two recent events highlight this loss of diffidence. One is the announcement in March 2010 that Russia and Greece would conduct joint naval exercises in the Aegean Sea this year. Turkey is not the only NATO ally being aggressively courted by Moscow.

The other event is Dmitry Medvedev’s May 12 meeting in Damascus with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. There could hardly be a more overt declaration of Russia’s posture and interests in the Middle East. The Russia of Medvedev and Putin intends to join forces with the regional actors who want to disrupt the status quo; their targets are Israel and the U.S. network of partnerships and influence in the region.

We will see Russia engaged in more unabashed maneuvering in the coming days. The pace of events is quickening. One thing we must understand is that Russia’s influence over Iran’s nuclear program is no longer being exercised primarily as a dynamic in Russia’s relations with the U.S. The Arab nations that fear a nuclear Iran are Moscow’s audience now. The implication is that Russia is the great power that can keep Iran in check. Obama’s America is sitting on the sidelines.