Stealing a suggestion from Mr Obama, making it his own and enhancing Russia’s credibility in diplomacy and international intrigue – not a bad week’s work for an ex-KGB Colonel!
In just a few days, Mr Putin seems to have defused a potentially explosive (excuse the pun) international crisis, endeared himself to those members of the West who are not as war-mongering as some and presented a softer, more negotiable front than Britain, France or the US combined. What a nice, moderate man. How nice that he hates chemical weapons as much as we do and only wants to see peace for the embattled Syrian people.
Don’t be fooled for one moment! President Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have played a very clever diplomatic game, which has increased Russia’s influence in the region while rubbing Mr Obama’s political face in his own rhetoric. So just what is Russia’s game and what are its implications for the Middle East and the West?
Those if us who lived (and in my own case prepared for war) in the Cold War period had no illusions about Russian diplomacy. Russia wanted power and the spread of communism across the world. It’s not for nothing that the nation is likened to a bear, nor that she controls a land mass covering most of the Northern part of the Northern hemisphere. Historically, Russia has always been expansionist and the loss of so many previously Soviet republics with the fall of communism was a supremely embarrassing blow to Russian pride.
Ever since the early nineties, Russia has made attempts to expand both her empire and her influence again. The conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia and Afghanistan were more about increasing Moscow’s influence than anything else. Vladimir Zhirinovsky was a loud Russian politician, who came only third in the 1991 presidential elections with strident calls for expansionism and security of the state. He garnered so many votes because he echoed the hopes and dreams of many Russians for the proud return of “Greater Mother Russia”.
Similarly today we see a Russia that has lost much influence fighting back again. She has seen previous client states fall one by one; Libya and Egypt were once effectively an extension of Russian power into the Mediterranean region. Let’s not forget that the 1967 and 1973 wars fought by Israel were tantamount to proxy battles between Communist Russia and the West. At Sandhurst, we avidly studied the relative merits of Russian and Western weaponry fired in anger across the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights (the West came out tops, by the way)!
Ever since the days of “the great game” between the pre World War 1 imperial nations of Europe, when Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Austro-Hungary played diplomatic chess around the world, Russia has fought hard to maintain both a strategic foothold and a diplomatic hand in Middle Eastern politics – as well as a warm-water Mediterranean port. While ignominiously kicked out of Afghanistan (anyone ever thank Bin Laden for that?) and now losing Libya and Egypt, Moscow has fought tooth and nail to keep her alliances with Syria and Iran in one piece. These are her surviving links into Middle Eastern politics. If she loses influence in that part of the region, her attempts to regain superpower status could be set back irreparably.
Let’s be clear; any agreement between the US and Russia over Syrian chemical weapons is not the friendly agreement of two allies reading from the same ideological page. Once the Gorbachev era in Russia passed, we may not have returned to a Cold War, but for much of the time it has been a chilly peace. The US and Russia are still distrustful and wary of each other, which makes last week’s flurry of talks between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov surprising (at least on the surface)
A Sunday Times article this weekend (“Look Who’s Calling the Shots” in the Focus section, 15th September) reminds us that President Obama had suggested the idea of Syria placing its chemical weapons under international control to Russia back in 2012. When the unthinkable red line was crossed however, on August 21st, all that came from Washington was a pledge of military action. Barak Obama faced a refusal from Congress to let him attack Assad and went to the G20 intent on raising international support for his plans. What he got was his own idea caught by Russia and thrown back in his face as being their own! Not only has he been defeated at home, but Obama is now having to hang onto Russia’s coat-tails to salvage some credibility on the world diplomatic scene.
Both Syria and Iran now know that their erstwhile supporter against Western sanctions packs a greater punch on their behalf. Iran in particular will be emboldened in the mooted direct talks with Washington, if they ever take place. Syria meantime, while hiding as many of her chemical weapons as she can, will get her long-awaited cache of S-300 air defence missiles from Russia as a sop for signing the Chemical Weapons Convention. But then, whenever have signatures meant anything to dictators?!
Perceptions of international events vary from country to country, but many in the Middle East will perceive that Russia has pulled a big one over on the mighty US. I believe that this will have repercussions for some time to come and will adversely affect any leverage Washington currently has over Egypt, Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At the same time, Russia’s ability to influence events in the region has been enhanced in the eyes of many, to her great advantage.
(Oh and by the way, Russia has no problems with chemical weapons – that’s why I suffered many hours living in a gas mask on the plains of Germany as a British soldier!)