The Middle East and Russia's return as a 'post-ideological' power


Russia's bold stroke in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia last month has added a new dimension to the resurgence under way for the past few years. The Kremlin has signaled that it is back as major player on the world stage, a prospect that carries far-reaching implications for many regions - the Middle East in particular. Governments and peoples in this part of the world have much to gain from a shakeup of the international order as it has existed since the collapse of the former Soviet Union. To do so, however, they will have to recognize that this new Russian challenge to American supremacy is very different from the one that kept the Cold War going for decades.

For one, today's Russia might be described as "post-ideological." Its tussles with the United States (and some other Western countries) are no longer potentially existential ones that lead inevitably to zero-sum games. In addition, despite its growing energy wealth, Moscow no longer has the strategic wherewithal to engage in dozens of far-flung contests with Washington. What it retains includes a determination to protect its own interests (especially close to home) and, increasingly, a willingness to be assertive in doing so. It also has a relatively large population infused with considerable amounts of ability and no shortage of national pride. In short, the days when post-Soviet Russia could be ignored are definitively over.

It cannot have been a coincidence that the first foreign leader to visit Russia after the humiliation of Georgia (and its American ally) was another individual with a long history of defying US demands, Syrian President Bashar Assad. This demonstrated that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the real power behind his throne, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will not shy away from taking their struggles with Washington to venues in the Middle East. The Russians also have grand plans to leverage their huge reserves of natural gas into even greater riches by increasing cooperation with other key producers. In addition, Moscow has sought to slow the flow of sanctions against Iran over that country's nuclear program and is scheduled to complete a reactor for the Islamic Republic in 2009.

A new Cold War is not unavoidable, and Russia does not need one to effect the gains its seeks. The United States is badly over-extended militarily, and its influence has been sharply diminished by years of unilateralism. Apart from those in Georgia, recent developments in Lebanon have also made it clear that expressions of American "support" are no guarantee of victory over one's rivals. Situations like these will offer Russia openings to spread its influence, and while most Middle Eastern governments should have learned by now that serving as proxies in a wider struggle can be a thankless business, each would do well to re-examine the new realities. Needless to say, the same applies to the next president of the United States.

[Source: The Daily Star, Editorial, Lebanon, 08Sep08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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