Claws of the Bear: Vladimir Putin and His Old KGB Associates Seek to Restore Russia's Influence in the Middle East While the US Flounders in Iraq

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A longtime observer of the Middle East might have been forgiven for discerning a whiff of Cold War gunpowder when the Israeli military and Hizbullah squared off last summer. During the decades of confrontation between East and West, tile Americans and Russians used the constant wars in the Middle East as a laboratory for their weapons systems and military doctrines: the Israelis fighting with US arms, the Arabs with Soviet hardware.

What the Israelis call their Second Lebanon War, fought during the dog days of July and August 2006, turned out to be more of the same, although the Russians were not directly arming Hizbullah themselves. Iran and Syria, two states reliant on Russian arms, provided the missiles and rockets that allowed Hizbullah to fight the Israelis to a standstill.

But that 34-day conflict underlined how Moscow, its coffers brimming with enormous oil and gas revenues, is once again asserting itself in the region, seeking to revive its superpower status of the Soviet era to counter the US in what some see as a new Cold War.

Putin threw down the gauntlet to the US with his forceful speech at the 43rd Munich Security Conference in February. "Unipolarity is not only unacceptable but is also impossible in today's world," he declared, defining that as a situation in which there is "one centre of force, one centre of decision-making ... one master, one sovereign."

He went on: "I am convinced that we have reached the decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security. We must proceed by searching for a reasonable balance between the interests of all participants in the international dialogue."

The Americans were flabbergasted. Some US commentators saw Putin's speech as the declaration of a new Cold War. But veteran Middle East analyst Patrick Seale disagrees: "This is a mistake."

He wrote in the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper, "It is a call for a healthier multi-polar international system, based oil a balance of power and underpinned by a balance of deterrence, in which conflicts are resolved not exacerbated, in which the strong are contained and the weak no longer live ill fear."

Many disagree with Moscow's new strategy. Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister of Ukraine and currently leader of its opposition, argues that "Russian policy, based on immediate monetary gain and hope of diplomatic influence, is dangerously short-sighted ...

"By enfeebling diplomacy, Russia is taking the world into more dangerous territory ... This is doubly short-sighted as a nuclear-armed Iran on Russia's border is not in Russia's national interest, particularly with Russia's own 20m Muslim citizens becoming increasingly radicalised."

Whether a new Cold War is indeed in the making remains to be seen, but Putin's speech certainly evoked echoes of that costly 50-year ideological struggle and definitively marked the demise of the often uneasy post-9/11 alliance between Moscow and Washington. Putin's analysis, according to Jane's Intelligence Digest, "amounted to little more than a diatribe against US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East".

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region fell firmly within the US orbit. But since 9/11, and particularly since the ill-starred March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Muslim hostility has mushroomed and Moscow, having regained much of the confidence lost with the Soviet collapse nearly two decades ago, has seen this as an opening to be exploited to the hilt.

Russia's new assertive foreign policy rests in large part on the extent to which Putin, a former colonel in the KGB, has packed the senior echelons of the Russian leadership with veterans or serving members of the Soviet intelligence community. A study of the leadership conducted under the auspices of Russia's respected Academy of Sciences, released ill December 2006, showed that 80% of the top posts were held by such people. …