Is Russia living its Suez moment?
In October, 1956, France, Britain and Israel attacked Egypt in an attempt to reverse President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The United States and the Soviet Union strong armed the three attacking nations into pulling back.
Today, that conflict is widely seen as the bitter, historical turning point when Britons realized they were no longer a world power.
It is also seen as the dawn of Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, a region distant from its pre-Cold War sphere of influence.
Now, half a century later in Syria, we may be witnessing the sun setting on Moscow’s sway over the Arab world. For Russians, it is a painful reminder of Russia’s reduced reach in the world.
Last year, Moscow stubbornly clung to it Soviet legacy allies in the Arab world. One by one, they wobbled, and eventually fell: Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and, finally, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. Now the Kremlin seems to making a last stand with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad.
Russia is threatening to veto a United Nations resolution calling for a political transition in Damascus. If Mr. Assad goes, the Kremlin seems to reason, Russia has nothing to gain, and a lot to lose.
Moscow’s 40-year alliance with Assad family has concrete benefits today: $4 billion in arms contracts for future delivery, $20 billion in gas investments, and Tartus naval station, Russia’s last military base outside the former Soviet Union.
On March 4, Russians vote for president. For the next month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the leading candidate, has no interest in alienating a key electoral constituency, Russia’s military-industrial complex. (The real foreign policy votegetter is to keep the beaches of Egypt, Tunisia, Israel and Turkey open for the millions of Russian vacationers who now flee there every winter.)
On the world stage, Mr. Putin is determined not to be pushed around by the West. In Moscow, officials talk darkly about “the Libya scenario” and “the Libya precedent.”
Russian officials still see geopolitics through the old simplistic, Soviet zero sum lens. The fall of Gadhafi was a victory for Washington, and a setback for Moscow.
It rarely occurs to Russian journalists to talk to real Libyans, and ask them what they want. It rarely occurs to Russian diplomats that if they keep complaining about Libya’s revolution, Russian businessmen are going to stand at the back of the line in Tripoli.
(Two days after this Russia Watch was posted, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued this statement: “After 14:00 Moscow time on February 5, an unauthorized rally under anti-Russian slogans was staged in front of the Russian embassy in Tripoli to protest against Russia’s position while voting a resolution on Syria at the United Nations Security Council. The protesters, numbering several dozen, climbed onto the roof of the embassy building, damaged surveillance cameras and hauled down the Russian flag.” On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a second statement: “That gross violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was committed by persons, who misinterpreted Russia’s principled position on Syria at the UN Security Council.”)
Part of this stems from a deep skepticism in Russia today about revolution. After two traumatic revolutions in the 20th century, this allergy is shared in Russia by both the rulers and the ruled.
But there is also a disdain for Arab public opinion.
In Libya and Syria, Moscow has taken stands opposing the will of the Arab League. Of course, Russia, the world’s largest oil producer, has no need to tiptoe around the big oil producers that dominate the Arab League.
But, now Arab newspapers and internet sites are peppered with a novelty: anti-Russian cartoons and protest images coming from Syria and from Syrian exiles. On Wednesday, the Facebook page of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suffered a spam attack that experts attributed to Syrian opposition hackers.
In Moscow, Russia’s plummeting stock in the Arab world is a non-issue. Beneath this lack of concern may be the unspoken understanding that Moscow is wrapping up its big power role in the region.
The half century that started with Suez, may end with Syria.