Saturday, February 10, 2007

Vlad l'Emballeur

Russian President Putin has some interesting speeches, and some more interesting moves. Oddly enough, Vlad’s talk is apparently out of sync with the walk;

The Talk…

Vlad talks tough; he “dropped all diplomatic gloss” to talk about “American domination of global affairs”, and revisited some old themes from NATO, to the West’s interference in Russia’s “pré carré”, to the Middle East

With the Americans stuck in Iraq and loosing more troops every day, this appears worrying at first blush.

The Walk…

According to Interfax, Vlad’s itinerary reads like a series of business meetings; over the course of 3 days, he will visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan. OK, it is not clear how much he can squeeze for the latter, but I am sure he will fiind something to sink his teeth into.

Syria may be doggedly following the wrong strategy; it has chosen to revert back to the dialectic of “Arab El-3ezz”, oppose Saudi interests, and stand squarely with Iran. At best, this is a gamble, at worst, a grave mistake.

Indeed, Arabs view the Persian challenge as increasingly existential, and now strongly support the United States’ “new strategy” in Iraq. For now, the Syrians realize this limitation, and they are vying for time, but they have little of it.

Syria's ally, Iran, may not hold all the cards. While Arab armies are weak, their business economic leverage is considerable, and they can count on their many friends in the world.

Iran is warned; if it wants “to be a leading power, [it] must respect the interests of others and cannot exclusively pursue [its] own strategy”, no matter their “good intentions”. Iran’s money can buy it some leverage, but the Saudis can still pull a few rabbits from their keffiehs.

Lavrenty Putin? (Updated Feb. 11th, 2007)

The Bear is not gone; it is changing. The new Russia is a pragmatic country, with a very commercially minded leadership. Vlad’s tough talk may only serve to raise his price; the Arabs are worried, and the Russians still have to make up for those lost Iraqi concessions

I think that, in many ways, 21st Century Russia is based on the story of the struggle among Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov ... after the death of Stalin; what if Lavrenty Beria had won that power struggle?

While some believe that it would have made little difference, others feel that it would. I think that today, we know; Lavrenty Beria effectively won, except that his name may well be Putin

my opinion, Russia would have taken a similar direction to today; a strongly centralized, national-capitalist state. The difference today is that this came about “an economic and social revolution”, not an evolutionary process, with the benefit of some democratic elements in the system, but not much more. An optimist would say that Russia’s democracy is still a work in progress. Indeed, while most economic power is concentrated in the hands of the state, there is a rising middle class and the society is progressing.

On the other hand, Russian rulers do have to contend with the fact that “Russia’s borders are drawn by its soldier’s bivouacs”. not all of them Russian "pure laine". The Russians remain essentially, “empire builders […]in terms of foreign policy […]albeit with decreased capabilities as a direct player”. In today’s multi-polar world, there is a lot they can benefit from; the United States may be a “Hyper power”, but their actions can still be checked, and a price exacted…

Evaluating the Outcome (Updated Feb. 12th, 2007)

Vlad’s peregrinations will be completed by February 13th. We will know how well he did by February 14th… Will the UNIFIL still be welcome in Lebanon? will Syria persevere? will Iran support it fully?

Can Iran and Syria continue to play their "pyromaniac fireman" game in Iraq? Interestingly, Michael Young apparently shares this lowly blogger’s skepticism about Iran's power, and agrees with Le Monde’s article, which notes that the UN sanctions will force the mullahs to divert resources from their program in order "an important social upheaval, which may cause a deterioration of thesignificant portion of the population".

As the answer to these question develop, we shall see who is really all hat, and who's cattle… Lebanon will serve as the "barometer" for the region; depending on the deals made, at worst, the aftershocks will be felt there, at best, the rot will continue to fester.

At least one good thing came out of the war and the destruction; there was an award. It only cost the entire country to set the stage for the camera ...

Freude Schöner Mutterf...

Si Vis Pace, Pare Bellum (Updated Feb. 12th, 2007)

Michael Young’s piece gives an excellent context to Putin’s trip.

In his view, the attitude of the United States in the Persian Gulf may be Brinkmanship, where the United States creates “the impression that war is a [smashing] good idea; Bush is stubborn enough, and infuriated enough by Iraq, that the Iranians can't be quite sure of what he will do next”.

Putin’s trip may be the Russian version of this Brinkmanship; his immediate objective among Arabs could be to leverage his influence onIran to extract juicy concessions. Aside from his Molodaia gvardiia, he has no forces, and no credible fleet to send over there.

An underlying objective of the trip is Iran. There, he could leverage two factors to extract more juicy contracts from the Mullahs, and maybe even sell them a few more overpriced toys; those reactors they sold need parts, accessories... and muy mucho protección.

1- The more successful his Arab trip is, the more the Iranians will try to outbid the Arabs. If we take into account the Iranian leadership’s increasing paranoia, the trip to Jordan makes more sense. Jordan may have little to offer the Russians, but it is King Abdullah of Jordan who first talked about the “Shiite Crescent” and cautioned that “a Shiite takeover [of Iraq would] mean a vast increase in the influence of the current regime in Iran”.

2- Putin can also leverage the increased American presence in the Persian Gulf. The more the carriers, the more the merrier he will be; while the United States have pare bellum, there are hints that they may actually vis pace… Indeed, Michael Young points out that “until now, […] the administration has dealt with Iran within the context of an international consensus, through the UN and in accord with its Arab allies - everything it avoided doing before invading Iraq”.

The paranoids will pay...

VD Gift? (Updated Feb. 15th, 2007)

Thanks to Anonymous for pointing this out. It seems that Vlad’s trip was successful after all. Enough for him not to like a nuclear Iran anymore? Or was their Ambassador’s speech just Russian double-dealing aimed at making Iran fork out more dough?

Russia believes it is "crucial" to have a nuclear-free Iran, Andrey Demidov, currently Russia's top diplomat in Israel, has said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, distancing Moscow from those saying a nuclear Iran is inevitable

The Russians may still be empire builders, but empires cost money, and Great Nations have no friends, only interests. And the interest of Russia today is to retool its industry, away from military manufacturing, and into civilian sectors.

I guess we‘ll know more soon enough.


ghassan karam said...

I am afraid that I am in the camp that does not worry too much about Putin and the Russian influence either in the Middle East or in the world as a whole.

Putin is a great pretender. He deserves credit for his valiant attempts at regaining for Russia the clout that it had under the Soviet system. But as we all well know that will never be. Has he managed to become at times a more serious player? Well yes Russia has endeared itself to Iran by offering to supply nuclear technology but Russia was not consulted by the Israelis when they waged war in the summer and Russian suggestions through the quartet are bound to fall on deaf ears.

The major speech by Putin two days ago in which he attacks unipolarism falls way short of what the French have been saying since the days of the Clinton administration when they labelled Madeleine Allbright and the US as "Hyper power" which is even a notch above being a unipolar power. Dominique de Villepin has waged a much more eloquent critique of what a unipolar power means than an ex KGB agent will ever be able to present. Only last week de Villepin reiterated that the US needs to understand that a multipolar world is better for all and that a unipolar one is actually counterproductive even for US interests. He is absolutely right but then he is not running for President Sarkozy is. Back to Putin. He attacks the US for being a Unipolar power but then he stresses that "shrub" is a decent man and is a very close freind of his.
Putin , just like so many other Russian leaders in history wants Russia to join the West and to be taken seriously. He will pay any price for that .

The Russian trip to the ME cannot bear too many fruits. He can act as the spoiler by arming Algiers, closing his eyes as Russian Grads and other war maeriale are passed to Hamas and HA but that will not inratiate him with G7 nor will it be his ticket to WTO membership. Putin's Russia is no longer the hapless country that it was half a decade ago but neither is it ready to resume playing a pivotal role on the world stage. The world cannot move fast enough from this destructive phase of unipolar power but Russia will not be a major player in this transition. I believe that the Kantian EU would play the constructive role in restoring a semblence of balance to geopolitical affairs. At least I hope so.

ghassan karam said...

Two minor issues that you do not have to respond to:-)
(1) Where is the shot of that red sun tanning machine taken? It couldn't have been the Dahieh could it?
(2) You obviously know Latin, and I am curious whether you learned that in Lebanon. I know that it could not have been the public schools, but neither could it have been the English schools which leaves only the schools run by Monks and other Christian orders. Was it the Jesuits?

Jeha said...


I understand your point, and I have to admit that it is all based on facts. My objections are not based on facts, but more on a gut feeling related to history. There are two elements in this;

1- I do not think that any czar "wants Russia to join the West", but rather to lead it. The Russian are not "team players" as much as empire builders, and I think that they are still in this mindset. It is from this mindset that I see Putin's moves. In our region, I think we see some of this in Israel's increasingly assertive stance. To be sure, they were always assertive, but the current Russian immigrant wave strengthened/exacerbated this tendency... I think.

2- While I agree with you that, on the face of it, "Putin's Russia is no longer the hapless country that it was half a decade ago but neither is it ready to resume playing a pivotal role on the world stage", I have a feeling that Russia's underlying strength lies far deeper. There is a typical Russian doggeness, and a sense of greatness among Russians. I forgot who summed it up this way; "Russian is always weaker than it looks, and stronger than it looks". Back in Soviet times, Russia was in reality "Congo, plus the Atom Bomb" as DeGaulle pointed out. Of all the western analysts, only Carrere d'Encausse understood this. Based on purely historic reasons, I feel that the current apparent mess is a far more solid structure than many suspect.

As you see, those two points are not solidly grounded on facts, but too many things in history are "fuzzy", and only clear in hindsight. As to your latter questions;

1- I think it was the daheyh; it got an award. Somehow, this image summarizes our modern Lebanon

2- I will say this; definitely not the Jesuits or the Christian schools. Schools can be overrated; a few good books and a lot of time to kill can do wonders, especially if they come in different laguanges. I've said enough, but I have a feeling you can relate.

R said...

In a way, Russia has still not found its way in post-USSR times. It has huge internal problems that either did not previously exist or were hidden beneath the surface. They have increased poverty, lower education and life expectancies and such issues as epidemic alcoholism and human trafficing to deal with. What I am trying to say is that Russia is ailing and has failed to find a way forward. As Jeha said in terms of foreign policy they are empire builders and always seem to play cynical games whereby they prop up certain regimes only to have a say in what goes and what doesnt. While the "Western political mind" may have moved from a post-soviet mentality to a post-September 11 mentality, I am not sure that the russians have albeit with decreased capabilities as a direct player... In any case, as Lebanese, we cannot afford to neglect them and we need to understand their relationship with Syria and Iran and to at least attempt allay Russian fears with regards to (M14) Lebanese intentions towards those two states and their regimes...

Roman Kalik said...

Russia is still an empire-builder. One needs but to closely examine how it undermines every ex-Soviet country it borders with, if said country doesn't ally itself with Russia to the point of vassalage.

It's extremely sad, to tell you the truth. The old 'provinces' were always pacified in the Soviet days, and all they managed to achieve, all they managed to build while the Bear was licking its wounds, all this the Bear still covets...

Amir in Tel Aviv said...

With $11,041 GDP per capita (2005), you can have Imperial fantasies, but you need more than that to achieve it.
As a Jew, I have no sympathy for Russia. My mother (born in Poland) says that Russians do not shiver when they see blood.
About 1/5 of Israel's Jewish population comes from Russia ; they are extremely talented people, and I like them very much (not all Israelis like them as I do, unfortunately).
If you have time ("..a few good books and a lot of time to kill"), I recommend "The Oligarchs" by David Hoffman.
The revenge of the Jews: most of Russian wealth is now in the hands of Jews (and large part of it lies in Israeli and Jewish banks).

Jeha said...


Thanks for the book suggestion; I'll look it up. Though at the rate Putin is going, some of those chapters may have to "adjusted". Allow me, however, to take exception with the perceived tone of your comment;

I could just as easily say that, as a Lebanese, I too have no sympathy for Israel... Or for Turkey, who wiped out 30% of us during WW1 through the famine it provoked. Or even Greece, who did that number on Tyre back in the day...

Though I understand the depth of feeling, and I myself indulge in bouts of "Shadenfreude", I caution against "revenge"; I remind myself that "an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind". Indeed, We all have blood in our past; the one we spilled, and the one we exacted. For this reason, I feel it is wiser to "forgive, but never forget".

Amos said...

Interesting theory about the Russian immigrants, but it's still too early for them to have that kind of influence on the political sphere. True, Liberman is now in the government, but most of the Russian immigrants have not made it into the civil service or the higher positions in the military.

fubar said...

The Cold Warrior knows how to send a message. And it seems the Reds still speak the language. LOL

ghassan karam said...

The unprincipled positions based on the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend often leads to strange bedfellows. You might be right in suggesting that there are some similarities between Beria and Puin but the latters consolidation of power and his increased comfort level owes a lot to the policies of GWB. Instead of holding Putin's feet to the fire over Chechnya and other numerous domestic and international affairs this White House chose instead to buy the support of a dictator, a terrorist if you will in its fight against terrorism. I have always thought that was paradoxical and even more importantly wrong. You reap what you sow. Lending comfort to a cold blooded dictator might earn you some relief at times but the price of such support is the strengthening of dictatorial tendencies that will end up in exacting a heavy price from democrats.

We have nothing to gain from aligning ourselves with the Putins of the world who are driven only by political expediency. Putin cannot play a constructive role in the Middle East because he will insist on propping up the Syrian dictatorship and maintaining strong commercial ties to Tehran and its two clients Hamas and HA.

Nobody said...

i think jeha that you gave too much weight to russian economic interests... its not about economy .. and the russian government is not commercially minded ...

i find it's difficult to explain ... but it's more about psychology and imperial nostalgia... in russian political perception, still shaped by the soviet textbooks on history of imperialism and colonialism , being a superpower means pursuing economic interests in a violent and aggressive way .. what really drives russians is more the games of ego ... they will get themselves in a mess under pretext of economic interests where there are none of them ...

because of the cold war experience the russians' idea of being a superpower is confrontational... that's why they are always looking for this 'controled' tension with the west and the US .. it is these low scale confrontations that give them a feeling that they are back in saddle...

but in my view its plainly about ego games .. there is very little real economy involved

Nobody said...

good post by the way

Anonymous said...