Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Putin Keeps his Distance

The war in Chechnya has inspired new political sympathies between Russia and Israel - but President Putin is still wary of taking sides in the Middle East crisis
By Mikhail Ivanov

Russia's marked absence at the summit in Egypt last week has raised eyebrows both at home and abroad.


The war in Chechnya has apparently sparked a growing rapprochement between Israel and Russia, with both states suffering from Islamic terrorist tactics ranging from suicide bombings to hostage-taking. There are also mutual sympathies between PLO activists and the Chechen rebels - recently the Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev promised to send volunteers to the Middle East to help the Palestinians in their struggle.


But nevertheless, Russia preferred to stay away from the Egyptian summit even though, according to some sources, an invitation was sent to the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov. However, President Vladimir Putin had reportedly decided that Moscow would only agree to be represented at Sharm-El-Sheikh on the highest level - and then only if an invitation was forthcoming from both sides.


During last week's round of meetings with his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kuchma, in Sochi, Putin told reporters, "Of course, we'll take part if that's what the two parties want" - and the words were accompanied by his trademark smirk, as if to say, "Why should we get involved when we have enough problems of our own?"


This passive approach provoked stinging criticism from media sources close to the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, who boasts both Russian and Israeli citizenship.


Sevodnya, for example, boldly drew parallels between Israel's struggle in the Middle East and Russia's war in Chechnya then blamed the Kremlin's hesitation to espouse Israel's cause on century-old traditions of "state anti-semitism". The newspaper dubbed such policies "stupid" since, it said, foreign powers seeking an alliance with the Russian Federation were few and far between.


But, in fact, Putin can only be accused of pragmatism in his approach to the Middle East crisis - and in the world of international politics, this is a virtue rather than a vice. Now at least pragmatism prevails over ideology. Moscow's political elite has ceased to refer to Israel as "the stronghold of international Zionism". And gone are the days when Russia thoughtlessly pumped millions of dollars-worth of military hardware into the Arab states - then watched helplessly in 1967 and 1973 as "the hay missed the horse" (to quote the Russian adage).


But on the other hand, Putin would be ill-advised to dub the PLO "a trumpet-bearer of Islamic extremism" and declare Israel an official "ally" - as the hotheads at Sevodnya suggest. There are too many Muslim states with which Russia is keen to maintain economic and political ties.


Consequently, Putin preferred to keep his distance from Sharm-El-Sheikh and pay tribute to "Clinton's personal courage". Instead of focusing on international problems, he devoted his energies to issues closer to home - Ukraine's debts over Russian gas supplies and the former republic's "non-sanctioned use" of Russian gas from the pipeline (gas which is subsequently sold at world prices).


The pragmatic approach to the Middle East mirrors Putin's non committal attitude to the Nagorny Karabakh dispute (see Mikhail Ivanov's article in CRS No. 52) and his refusal to court controversy in Yugoslavia. The Kremlin seems to be adhering to the old principle of "keeping out of harm's way".


Of course, Yegor Stroev, the chairman of the moribund Federation Council, asserts that there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East without Russia if only because "there are so many of our former citizens on one of the warring sides" (or, to quote the singer Vladimir Vysotsky, "one quarter of their people were once ours"). And, the lack of tangible results at Sharm-El-Sheikh would seem to indicate that he may be right.


Sooner or later, the Russian foreign ministry and the presidential administration will be forced to define their policies in the Middle East and take practical steps. It's one thing to shun a rushed and badly prepared summit and let Bill Clinton take the flak. But this is no reason to totally withdraw from a politically vital region where Russia still boasts wide spheres of influence built up over several decades.


Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.