|FROM ADVERSARIES TO ALLIES|
The summit between President Bush and President Putin represents a significant milestone in U.S.-Russian relations. Is this change a result of the Sept. 11 attacks and the war against terrorism? What is at stake in a friendly alliance between former adversaries?
from Niles, IL asks:
It would seem to be a good thing to have Russia as an ally in trying to resolve problems in the Middle East since both of our countries have been supplying arms to the Middle East for many years now.
What is Russia's role in the Mideast; could Russia facilitate a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians? How can Russia and the U.S. reduce arms sales to the Middle East?
Russia's role in the Middle East is negligible. The Soviet Union's role was large primarily for two reason: provision of arms to countries that could not buy from the West (and on credit or easy terms), and as an alternative political and security patron to the U.S.
Russia no longer sells arms for anything but dollars, and not at much of a discount. And the Soviet model no longer serves as the alternative role to the U.S. (that role appears to be played now by Islamic fundamentalism).
Consequently, while Russia can support U.S.-led efforts for Israeli-Palestinian peace, it is not much of a factor on its own in bringing about a settlement.
Russian arms sales to the Middle East are minor, because its obvious customers lack cash. Iraq is Russia's best customer (accounting for 60 per cent of Russia's regional arms sales), but the market is obviously very limited given UN sanctions.
Russia's relations with the Middle East have changed significantly since the collapse of the USSR-but perhaps becoming more complicated and nuanced than before, which will not necessarily lead to a partnership between the U.S. And Russia in the region.
Whereas the Soviet Union saw Middle East countries as client states in its ideological struggle against the United States, and favored the Palestinians over the Israelis in their ongoing conflict, Russia now stresses the repayment of Soviet era debts for military and other equipment provided by the USSR.
Russia's relations with Israel have also changed. Jewish immigrants to Israel from Russia now account for around 20 per cent of Israel's population and are a powerful constituency that tends to assume a more hardline stance on the Palestinian issue. Close ties between these immigrants and friends and relatives in Russia, and growing business ties between Israel and Russia in the 1990s, especially in the hi-tech sphere, have significantly changed the dynamic between Russia and Israel.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Russia has become a niche supplier of weapons to states such as Iran and Syria that can not purchase U.S. armaments, and has also developed significant energy interests in states like Iran and Iraq that are subject to U.S. sanctions. Both arms and energy sales have high economic as well as political salience for Russia and it will not be easy for the U.S. to shift Moscow's position on these issues. In the case of Iraq, for example, Russia has billions of dollars in potential investment in Iraqi oil fields, has already complicated U.S. efforts to modify the UN sanctions regime against Iraq, and is likely to oppose any extension of the war against terrorism to target Saddam Hussein and his regime.
As a further complication, Russia's relations with Middle Eastern states have been soured by the war in Chechnya. In spite of Russia's large Muslim population (around 10 per cent of the population), the status of Islam as one of Russia's "traditional" religions (along with Orthodoxy and Buddhism), and its relatively close relations with Iran, Russia is now seen as hostile to Islam by Muslim states-especially by Sunni Muslim and Arab states, which have lent some support to the Chechens in their conflict with Moscow.
All of this makes Russia a very uncertain ally for the U.S. in the Middle East, although it is clearly a state that is now in favor of stability rather than continued conflict in the region.
First, Russia turned around in its attitude towards the Middle East. In the Soviet era, it desperately tried to supply Arabs with arms to fight the US. Today it is much more balanced. It maintains better relations with Israel. Russia's position is very close to the US: radical terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Hizbollah, must stop their attacks against Israel; Arafat must do more to curb violence emanating from territories under his control; there must be a cease-fire and hopefully a renewal of some kind of a political process.
As for arms supplies, Russia's military-industrial complex has fallen on very hard times since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia wants to sell weapons to anyone who would pay cash. Unfortunately, once countries buy weapons, they often use them to kill people... So, weapons sales, especially to a radical Islamic theocracy like Iran, to which Russia contracted to sell up to $7 billion worth of weapons over the next seven years, do not help the cause of peace.