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Moscow’s Play on the Middle East

There’s some interesting views here on the Russian invasion of Georgia and the attempt to parlay these events into increased leverage in the Middle East. From Lebanon’s Daily Star:

Russia has not only been threatening, blackmailing and – now in the case of Georgia – occupying neighboring countries, it has also been trying to reclaim its status as a great power beyond the borders of the infamous “near abroad.” For three reasons, the area where Russian ambitions and local expectations appear most to coincide seems to be the Middle East. First, Russia has been playing in the Middle East on old Cold War sympathies. It makes the Arab street and wide circles of uninformed but opinion-shaping actors believe that the past glory of the Soviet superpower is still alive. It actively plays on anti-Americanism, promoting the concept that the days of confrontation with the United States were in fact the good old days.

At the ideological level, Russia made its entry as a Muslim nation by becoming a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Supported by various Arab states, this has facilitated Russia’s whitewashing of its negative record in the wider Middle East. Gone are the days when Arab mujaheddin fought against Moscow’s wars in Afghanistan or even more recently in Chechnya, where a quarter of the population was annihilated. Likewise, throughout the Levant in particular, the Kremlin supports the Russian Orthodox Church, utilizing its clergy to counterbalance the largely Greek hierarchy.At the secular end, Moscow cultivates friendship associations that regroup tens of thousands of graduates from former Soviet universities. Many among them are deeply convinced that Moscow’s antagonism to Washington will benefit the Palestinian cause. Russia Today – by satellite television and online – carefully underlines this topic.Second, as with its image strategy in Europe, the Kremlin presents itself as a reliable partner in business and politics: as modern and efficient as anybody else but not seeking to dominate the region. Russia consults with the oil countries of the Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia, on production figures and target prices. In addition, the Kremlin is silently building up a gas cartel resembling OPEC, with emphasis on Qatar, Iran, Algeria and Egypt. Qatar ranks high on the Russian list of priorities, not only because there were complications resulting from the murder by Russian agents of Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbayev in Doha in 2004. More importantly, the tiny Gulf state has the potential to compete with Russia in the global gas market. While the Kremlin commands a pipeline network based on long-term contracts and pricing, Doha is investing in liquefied natural gas that can be delivered by ship to any place in the world with re-gasification installations.Keeping energy prices high is a key concern for Russia: Its upstream operations are more costly than in the Gulf Arab states, and it was income from extractive industries that allowed Moscow to flex its muscles in the first place. Maintaining a high price level also serves the purpose of converting Arab petrodollars into Russian arms sales. With this, Moscow benefits twice from soaring energy prices.Third, just as Russia has painstakingly tried not to appear as antagonizing the US, so it has cultivated close ties with Israel. Moscow’s role in the Quartet overseeing the Middle East peace process is not that important regarding a settlement of the Palestine issue. Rather, this is a vehicle to convey to the Americans and Europeans that Russia does not in any way harm Israel’s interests. At the same time, this multilateral instrument allows Moscow to conceal – at the Arab street level – that its direct relations with the Israelis are in fact more substantial than they appear to those who think of the Kremlin as defending the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, Russia’s coquetry with organizations such as Hamas and Hizbullah allows it to score points in the Arab region. Another way of not arousing suspicion is Moscow’s attempt to forge ever-closer ties with those Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel, notably Egypt and Jordan. Here, too, cooperation in arms and energy diffuses the impression that Russian activities may ultimately turn into threats.