Moscow Rules?

Jewish Light Editorial

What an interesting, vile and wholly hypocritical leader is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He has no problem with supporting the overthrow of Ukraine’s government and his own incursion into Crimea.

But this week at the United Nations, he blasts the United States and other Western nations for intervening in Syria. And he’s condemned the West for encouraging democracy in the Middle East.

At the same time, Putin is working with Iraq, Iran and Syria on an anti-ISIS coalition in Baghdad.

What the heck is going on?

Well, one thing seems pretty clear. The great Russian bear growls the loudest when there’s a major thorn in its paw. And right now the pain is coming from a pretty bleak financial picture. Low oil prices, a shrinking economy, sanctions from the West due to Putin’s forays into Ukraine and frayed relations with China are all contributing to the messy situation.

So for Putin, what better way to distract the world from Russia’s own frailtythan to create as much commotion as possible in the most volatile part of the globe? Nothing new under the sun.

But the plot thickens in this newest iteration of attempted Russian hegemony. The ISIS part of the equation in particular is interesting, if in a highly malevolent way.

In Cold War days, the equation was markedly different. The aggressiveness of the then-Soviet Union was marked by grabbing and exploiting as many pawns as possible. Through financing, military “advisers” and propaganda, Moscow built as many anti-Western friends as it could. All that was required was to play on anti-Western and often anti-Israeli sentiments.

Friendly toward Israel at its inception, the Soviet Union turned to other sources when the Jewish State did not become the compatriot in the region that Moscow desired. So arming Syria and Egypt during the Six-Day War and others over time presented a way to flex its muscle in the oil-rich, warm-port region.

But it was a pretty simple chess game, as the United States’ relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and, at least until the 1979 revolution, Iran, remained strong and able to thwart first the Soviet Union, then Russia, from dominating the region.

Then many things happened that prompted fragmentation across the Mideast: U.S. determination that it had had enough with Saddam Hussein and the decision to move into Baghdad during the second of two wars; the resulting destabilization between Iran and Iraq; and the perils associated with the Arab Spring.

Lots of perspectives have issued about which of these historical incidents caused the development and growth of ISIS, but it’s probably safe to say they all contributed. And the regionalization of the morally corrupt ISIS now provides Russia and Putin with a new leg to stand on.

Another interesting aspect to Russia’s new insertion of itself into the quagmire of Syria is the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Moscow with Putin. The two leaders reportedly agreed to “de-conflict” Russian and Israeli military and security actions in the region. While Israel remains technically at war with Syria, a majority of its leaders prefer that Bashar Assad remain in power in Damascus, because he is the “devil we know,” in contrast to the expected chaos that might follow in the wake of his overthrow—just as the ousters of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Mummer Qaddafi only increased the instability in the already volatile neighborhood in which Israel resides.

Think of the situation like a bicycle that has sprouted a new wheel. Russia wants to grab attention and allies. It can divert financial resources from home, but it doesn’t even have a great deal of discretionary resources to expend.

So Putin, ever the despotic gamesman, develops a strategy that might best be called “the enemy of my enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

He builds a coalition of Islamic and Islamist states terrified of, and in need of combatting, the rogue and arguably even worse ISIS, which threatens the sovereignty of those nations in its path. He undoubtedly promises to arm them (what else is new?).

He blames the United States for causing the chaos in the Middle East. Whether partly, fully or not at all true, it plays well with those nations that resent Western intervention, nations that by and large share a common hatred of Israel as well.

So in this tripartite scenario, by playing the “middle” (Iran, its Shiite allies in Iraq and the predictably loathsome Syria) against both “ends” (the United States and ISIS), Putin reestablishes himself as a player in the region.

It’s of course disgusting, but from Putin’s perspective, its just another gambit to take in the evolving game of geopolitics. He thrives on unsettling his foes, and this exercise, coming on the heels of the Iran deal in which Russia was a partner, is yet another effort to curry favor with those states Putin believes will be players in the Middle East of the future.

It’s maddening, and its patently offensive. But given Putin’s and Moscow’s history, it’s not even remotely surprising.