Israel and the Russian “Spring”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions correspond to his words. In a speech to the Russian Duma (Parliament) last March, after the annexation of the Crimea, Putin declared: “If you compress a spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard”. Russia considers its near-abroad as a vital security belt in between its own forces and the NATO alliance. In a somewhat similar way, Israel’s security is totally dependent on its military control of the high ground of the West Bank and the Jordan River Valley. Russia understands Israel’s security concerns better than the Obama administration and certainly a whole lot better than the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

Sanders himself is no surprise. A left-wing socialist in the Noam Chomsky mode, Sanders has gone even farther than Obama to turn the Democrats into America’s new party of isolationism. Obama, on the other hand, still appears willing to challenge the Russians in Europe and the Chinese in Asia. However in the Middle East, the Obama administration has never had a Syrian policy and therefore whatever regional policy it had ever possessed, is now in complete disrepair. The Democrats still maintain that after seven years in power in the White House, that everything that has happened in the Levant during that time can still be placed at the feet of the last Republican administration. Obama fails to mention the aftermath of the Bush surge and the concomitant Sunni defeat of the Jihadist extremists. And once this “Bush surge” was accomplished the party of Obama never mentions the incredible Iraqi election of 2010. In fact, the Democrats speak not a word of American negligence to elect as prime minister a true Iraqi moderate, Ayad Allawi. Obama’s motivations here are indeed quite murky, but the rapid rise of Iranian influence throughout Iraq can certainly be traced from this colossal US misstep.

But just like President Putin’s “spring” in Europe, the success of the Bush experiment in democracy within Iraq had a strong “spring”, as well. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain and Syria the success of the Bush democratic opening in Iraq ushered in the very hopeful Arab Spring. The Arab world had long been crippled by US and Russian-Soviet support for authoritarian governments. However with the Bush initiative, followed by Obama’s own Cairo speech, and what appeared at first hand to be a very successful 2010 Iraqi election, the Arab Middle East sprung into full democratic bloom. And for some reason (think Iran nuclear deal) this was followed by Obama’s strong support for the pro-Iranian al-Maliki government and its eventual repression of the Sunni community in Iraq.

The Sunnis felt betrayed by Obama’s tacit cooperation with Iran throughout the Levant. In Syria, the Assad reaction to democratic forces was brutal. But the Obama administration never followed up its words of condemnation against Assad, with any real action. Meanwhile the Assad, Hezbollah and Iraqi links to Tehran eventually led to a region-wide Sunni response against a perceived US tilt toward Iran (once again think Obama and his nuclear deal). This perception enraged the Sunnis and brought back the Jihadi extremists. A full-fledged proxy sectarian war ensued, as all the Sunni Arab states and even NATO member, Turkey, felt abandoned by Washington. These states were compelled to stop Iran (by any possible means) in its drive for hegemony throughout the region.

Enter Russia. Moscow has never believed in a unipolar, US dominated geopolitical structure. In the aftermath of the Cold War, US promises not to expand NATO eastward, were promptly broken. Once the Ukraine turned toward the EU, whatever permanent security architecture the Americans thought they had in place in Europe, fell like a house of cards. As I commented earlier, the Ukraine is to Russia, as the West Bank is to Israel. But Syria is another matter altogether. The effect of US policy toward the Sunnis within the Levant enabled a second, and far more tumultuous, rise of the Jihadi extremists within Iraq and Syria. Islamic State (ISIS) became a far more potent danger to Moscow then the initial peaceful democratic opposition in Syria or a successful electoral process in Iraq. Once the Islamic State eliminated the borders of the modern Middle East and claimed to represent a Caliphate; Moscow understood the real and abhorrent danger they posed. This encompassed not only the Middle East but Afghanistan, central Asia and the Russian Federation itself. With the possibility of central Asia being in play, Beijing became alarmed as well. Meanwhile alarm bells about Islamic extremism had gone off in India long ago.

The vacuum created by the Obama de-linkage of the Iran nuclear deal with a stable conventional balance within the Middle East has unleashed unprecedented Sunni Jihadi extremist forces; forces that Russia felt were far more dangerous than the Shiites and Iran. But Moscow must certainly realize that for there to be a serious political settlement in Syria, Iranian influence needs to be vastly reduced and its links to non-state actors (Hezbollah) eliminated. Russia claims that it has some kind of understanding with Israel, but Iranian hegemony is as serious a threat to Jerusalem as it is to the the Sunni world. And Moscow must also understand that the Sunni world is by far more populated than Iran. In fact, Iran’s demographic future is as dismal as Russia’s. Sunni Islam will fight a “holy war” in Syria and Iraq in order to stem a Russian-Iranian alliance. Meanwhile the US elections are only a year away, and President Putin cannot count on an isolationist US administration to be installed. In fact, both Hillary Clinton and nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates are more like Cold Warriors than the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

But a second Cold War is in no one’s interest. Yet, in a world of superpower quid pro quo, the Russian “spring” must now require some sort of an American “spring back”. This could happen in the Middle East; because that is exactly what most of established Washington is now calling for. Whether it be a no-fly zone or some other mechanism, the US position on the Russian “spring” — now directly into the Syrian sectarian conflagration — has caused its own political position to harden. The same is true for Washington’s allies. Turkey has begun to lean more heavily on NATO, while Germany, France and especially eastern Europe are all deeply concerned over Russian actions and the continued flow of Syrian immigrants into their territory. The eastern European countries are in a special quandary because they remember the Soviet era all to well. None of these countries have the inclination or the independence to move toward a more balanced European security structure. And their political nervousness is a direct result of Russian actions in both the Ukraine and Syria. This has placed the future of NATO under severe pressure.

Meanwhile events in Taiwan and in the South China Sea (as well as the Ukraine and Syria) propel the world into very dangerous territory. Obama might appear weak, but a Russian or Chinese miscalculation might spur him towards some kind of action. After all, his legacy is now on the line as his potential successor, Hillary Clinton, has strengthened her position against both his Pacific trade deal and his lack of a coherent policy in Syria and the Middle East. Could Obama test both Russia and China in Asia or Europe? Or could his test be in the Middle East?. Now, for the first time, a Chinese aircraft carrier sails off the coast of Syria, along with a flotilla of Russian warships. And both Moscow and Beijing have promised Iran much greater military cooperation in the Gulf. Could an Iranian resupply of its proxies in Yemen become the theatre of a superpower showdown?

Whatever Putin told Netanyahu at their recent meeting remains a secret, but Israel is an ally of the US and a bifurcated world order (a second Cold War or worse) is a direct danger to the Jewish state. Any attempt at Iranian conventional hegemony supported by Russia and China would mean a certain nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This would go way beyond anything which took place during the Soviet-US era. Since Israel has nuclear weapons, Iran could not achieve dominance within the region without such a force. However, President Putin is no fool. He knows that Shiite supremacy will be fought tooth and nail. And Iranian nuclear weapons are not in his interest. Only a positive political settlement in Syria can prevent inevitable chaos. But a political settlement in Syria requires a broad regional and global superstructure in order to be implemented on the ground. Moscow needs Jerusalem to help build that regional structure through an understanding on the future of nuclear weapons within the region. President Putin also needs the cooperation of US in order to establish such a regional settlement. And this implies US cooperation across the globe.

Yes the Russian “spring” has occurred. The question is where do we go from here? We might be headed toward an extremely dangerous time in world history. It certainly looks that way. However with the help of a visionary Israeli policy directed toward the abolition of nuclear weapons and the cooperation of all the world’s powers; the end of state to state conventional conflict in the Middle East could also be achieved. One road is apocalyptical and the other road is very utopian. But there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, middle ground.

Without a middle ground, utopian solutions become the realistic alternative. The Middle East could continue to deteriorate into superpower proxy client states, all with a destabilized nuclear arms component; or the region could seek genuine peace. Iran’s recent missile test and its now documented underground missile bases assure movement toward an apocalyptical nuclear scenario. The region could further fragment into near mini-states run by non-state actors. Worse still, terrorists might also have access to weapons of mass destruction. To put it simply, the region of the Middle East will either help to establish a multipolar cooperative world order; or continue on the path it’s already on and pay the consequences. The same is true for many other states in Europe and Asia, like France, Germany, India and Japan. But the three superpowers, Russia, China and the US must also begin to cooperate. And most importantly, they need to lead the way toward a durable world peace. We all do not need a repeat of the last century!

Israel should choose a true, genuine and complete peace above nuclear weaponry. Praise the L-rd, the author of history, and pray for a new unprecedented era without war!

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).