By George Friedman
Last Thursday, Feb. 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited the leadership of Hamas, the Islamist political party that won the recent Palestinian elections, to visit Moscow. Hamas quickly accepted, and the meeting is expected to take place later this month. As with many things diplomatic, the fact that the invitation was extended and that the meeting will take place is infinitely more important than what is said during the meeting.
The invitation has little to do with Hamas and less to do with Israel. On the whole, anything that strengthens the radical Islamist movement -- which would certainly include Hamas -- ought to be anathema to Moscow, given the trouble that the Russians are having in Chechnya. But Russia has bigger problems: namely, its own role in the world, and the United States. The invitation is not about Israelis and Palestinians. It is entirely about U.S.-Russian relations -- and as such, it represents a significant moment.
Backdrop: Russia's Strategy Reversal
On Sunday, Feb. 12, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeated what has now become a constant American theme on Russia, saying, "We are very concerned, particularly about some of the elements of democratization that seem to be going in the wrong direction." She went on to note, "I think the question is open as to where Russia's future development is going." To say that this theme irritates the Russians vastly understates the situation.
The Russians are, in fact, redefining their geopolitical position. Since the mid-1980s, the Russians have been of the opinion that abandoning a geopolitical confrontation with the United States would result in economic benefits. Put another way, the Russians were prepared to learn from the West and took their bearings from the West. Western advice and lectures were expected and, in some ways, even welcomed.
Today, the Russians' view of this strategy is divided. There are those who think that this arrangement has been a catastrophe for Russia. Then there are those who would argue that the process has been bad but can be redeemed. Finally, there is a very small minority who believe that the reforms would work if they would only go farther and faster. This faction has become irrelevant in Moscow. The debate is between those who want a complete reversal in policy -- a large minority -- and those who acknowledge that massive readjustments must be made on all levels but say the basic idea of private property and markets should not be completely abandoned.
What is going on, therefore, is a struggle over how far democracy should be curtailed and to what extent market reforms should be reined in. Overlaying this is a deep suspicion about the intentions of the United States. The dominant view is that Rice's demands for increased democratization are an attempt to weaken Russia further. Those who hold this opinion point to what they see as the behavior of U.S. intelligence in the areas of the former Soviet Union that they regard as being properly part of Russia's sphere of influence. In particular, they view events in Ukraine as evidence that the United States is committed to causing Russia's implosion, by forcing harmful reforms within it and then by surrounding Russia with hostile clients of the United States.
At the V-E Day celebrations in May 2005, U.S. President George W. Bush went out of his way to push both themes -- first by visiting Latvia and Georgia, two countries regarded as hostile to Russian interests, and then by publicly criticizing the failure of the Russians to democratize. Washington made it clear that it did not intend to relieve the pressure, and the Russians believed that. As a result, the Russians have been on an offensive, on multiple levels, to challenge U.S. influence in what they call "the near abroad." Since Jan. 1, shutting off natural gas flows to Ukraine and Georgia has been part of this process.
And this brings us to Moscow's invitation to Hamas. There are a number of reasons to make the invitation -- the single most important of which was that the United States did not want it to be done. The Russians also reached out to the Israelis, albeit belatedly: On Saturday, Feb. 12, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov invited his Israeli counterpart, Shaul Mofaz, to Russia in a gesture designed to show that the Russians were not tilting toward Hamas. But between the lines, the Russians wanted to deliver two messages to Washington.
The first was that Moscow no longer regards itself as a junior partner to the United States in foreign policy -- and, in fact, doesn't regard itself as a partner at all. Second, they wanted to make it clear that, just as Washington is making trouble for Russia in its own periphery, the Russians are equally capable of making trouble in areas that are of fundamental interest to the United States. Moscow's message is this: Do not assume that the failure of Russia to exercise its foreign policy options means that the Russians have no foreign policy options. Nothing Russia is getting from the United States in economic relations compensates for the geopolitical harm the United States is doing to Russia. In other words, this is about 2005, not 1995. A lot happened in the last decade, most of it not good for the Russians. The rules are changing.
There is another, more directly strategic reason for the move. Russia has, and has always had, strategic interests in the Middle East. Given the decay of Russia's strategic position in the formerly Soviet region, these interests -- which today include ties to Syria and a potential partnership with Iran on nuclear enrichment -- have become more important rather than less. The U.S. penetration of Central Asia, the Baltics and Ukraine cannot simply be countered in these areas; it is only by challenging the United States in the Middle East that Moscow can divert American attention from areas of great interest to the Russians. It is not just a matter of bandwidth -- meaning that the more trouble the United States has in the Middle East, the less time it has for the former Soviet Union. It is also the case that if Russia is to contain the American presence along its southern frontier, having influence and a presence to the rear of this region -- in the Middle East -- gives it leverage over some of the former Soviet republics.
Russia also sees a major diplomatic opening. The United States backed a political process in the Middle East that has resulted in the election of a government unacceptable to Washington. The United States does not have the means for negotiating with Hamas, given the rules of the game that Washington has defined. In some ways, Israel has expressed a less rigid view of Hamas than the United States has. The Russians, however, have no problem talking to Hamas, nor do they have a problem talking to the Israelis. The Israelis do not want the United States to change its position on Hamas; they welcome the rigid U.S. position. But they do recognize the need to deal with Hamas on some level. The Russians represent a useful intermediary. Thus, Russia could emerge as a critical mediator, at least for a time.
A New Dynamic
Russia's willingness to speak to Hamas creates a new dynamic in the Muslim world. Syria and Iran are seeking "great power" support against the United States. Indeed, we could expect an evolution in which the Iraqi government also would be looking for counterweights to American power. By inviting Hamas and possibly opening a channel between Hamas and the Israelis, Russia is positioning itself to become a mediator in other disputes, and to walk away with relationships that the United States has been unable to manage.
Given the robustness of Russia's arms industry, which is much more vital and advanced than is generally understood, the Russians could return to their role as arms provider to the region and patron of governments that are hostile to the United States. The situation from 1955 to 1990 was a much more natural geopolitical dynamic than the current situation, in which Russia is really not present in the region. Russia is a natural player in the Middle East.
Remember also that Hamas is very close to Saudi Arabia, with which Russia has an intensely competitive relationship in the energy markets. And then there is Chechnya. The Russians have long charged that "Wahhabi" influence was behind the Chechen insurgency as well as insurgencies in Central Asia. In the Russian mind, "Wahhabi" is practically a code word for "Islamist militants," including al Qaeda. The Russians also feel that, while the Americans have forced the Saudis to provide intelligence on al Qaeda, they have not elicited similar aid on the issue of the Chechens. In other words, Moscow perceives the United States not only as having neglected to help Russia on Chechnya, but as actually hindering it.
The Russians badly want to bring the Chechen rebellion under control without allowing Chechnya to secede. They believe that the Chechen insurgents, and particularly the internationalized jihadist faction among them, would not survive if outside support dried up. They believe that the United States is not displeased to see the Chechen war bleeding Russia, and that Washington has discouraged Saudi collaboration with Moscow. All things considered, this is probably true. In reaching out to Hamas, Russia is also reaching out to the Saudis. The Saudis cannot control the Chechens, but they may have some means of determining the level of operations the Chechens are able to maintain.
Of course, many of these things are amorphous, and some are certainly dubious. Nevertheless, the Hamas affair is of substantial significance, for several reasons. First, the Russians are clearly signaling that they intend to get back into the Middle East game. Second, they are aware that this will make the United States extremely uncomfortable. Third, that is exactly what they intend to achieve. Creating problems for the United States in strategic areas is what the Russians think is in their national interest right now.
Washington has been trying to get its arms around the evolution in Moscow for months now. Given everything on the Bush administration's plate, it is not clear that there has been time to look deeply at the emerging situation. At least publicly, the administration continues to maintain the same attitude toward Moscow that has been evident since Mikhail Gorbachev: The Russians are the students, and Washington the teacher. Washington is concerned about the Russian evolution, but at this point has no policy response.
Washington will have to choose one of two courses. First, it can try to close the noose on Moscow -- consolidating the U.S. position on Russia's periphery, blocking Russian counters and encouraging secessionist tendencies within the Russian Federation itself. In other words, the United States can go in for the kill and be prepared to live with the consequences of failure. Alternatively, it can accept that it has reached the high-water mark of U.S. influence in the Russian sphere, and then manage the return of most of that region to Moscow's orbit. In turn, it can then deal with Russia's re-emergence as a potential superpower in a generation or two.
What is not a strong option is what the United States is now doing. Wounding a bear without killing it is the most dangerous game of them all. Nothing the United States is doing now will kill the bear. It is, however, guaranteed to irritate him enormously and convince him that in due course, he will be killed. There are no good outcomes from this strategy.
In the end, Moscow's invitation to Hamas is intended to be a warning that Russia can make life increasingly difficult for the United States -- and that Russia plans to do just that.
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