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Traditional Diplomacy Blooming in Moscow

There’s been a revolving door swishing in Moscow this week as Middle Eastern delegations show up to consult with Russia’s leaders. Mahmoud Abbas, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal have all trooped through for separate discussions and photo ops with Dmitry Medvedev. There is nothing sinister or freighted about this; it’s what we would expect when the policy emanating from Washington and the capitals of Europe is in disarray and seems to have no central theme.

But in the meeting with Netanyahu on Thursday, Medvedev was uncharacteristically enthusiastic and chatty. The state-media outlet Russia Today depicted a wide-ranging set of discussion topics and treated Medvedev’s warnings about revitalizing the peace process as almost perfunctory. In a particularly unusual move, Russia Today devoted several lines of respectful text to an Israeli explanation – after the strikes on Gaza this week – that the IDF avoids targeting civilians.

Medvedev’s main message from the meeting illuminates the reason for this friendly tone. His primary concern is Islamist terrorism and the increased likelihood of it in the wake of what he calls “tectonic shifts” in the Middle East.

“We are more than right to hold this meeting, as the terrorists must know that they do not achieve their wicked goals,” the Russian leader said, while also expressing his condolences for the terrorist attack in Jerusalem, “which harmed innocent people.”

Medvedev ended the meeting by urging Netanyahu to fight the terrorists, after both men had spoken of that as their common objective. The most interesting aspect of this is Medvedev’s implied interpretations: that the threat of Islamist terrorism arises separately from the Palestinian issue; that the turmoil in the Middle East could well put Islamists in charge of additional nations (a point he made explicitly in the meeting); and that Israel is not the problem in all this, but rather an ally in the fight against it.

It has taken a profound loss of foreign confidence in the United States to bring about this level of candor and pragmatism. The three delegations that cycled through Moscow this week were from clients of the U.S. who have relied on American power and diplomacy to back their positions. Of equal interest is who has not gone to Moscow (or received a high-level visit from Russia): Iran, Turkey, or Syria. Indeed, with the unrest rising in Syria, Russia’s deployment of supersonic cruise missiles with the Syrian forces may be on indefinite hold.

Bibi will not assign undue value to the diplomatic protestations of Russia; he undoubtedly recognizes Lord Palmerston’s axiom that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.” In Russia, he has a partner that is acting unapologetically in its own interest. The predictable pragmatism – even cynicism – of traditional nation-state diplomacy looks oddly like a port in a storm at the moment.