Russia’s Putin seeks clout in Middle East and to soothe Arabs

By Steve Gutterman, Reuters

MOSCOW — Arab ambassadors delivered a clear message to Russia’s special Middle East representative this month as Syria’s envoy watched in silent discomfort: You are on the wrong side of history. Russia’s envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, differed during the radio discussion with the Moscow-based ambassadors. He and President Vladimir Putin say Russia is on a mission to stop the world making a historic error over Syria. Friday’s shooting down of a Turkish military aircraft by Syrian air defenses may only widen the rift between the two schools of thought. Turkey has called a meeting of NATO allies on the incident and plans to approach the U.N. Security Council. By using its U.N. Security Council veto in the past to blunt efforts to force out President Bashar al-Assad during 16 months of bloodshed, Russia has shown the United States and Europe that it will not let them decide the fate of other states. But the display of geopolitical muscle has come at a price for Putin and Russia, further damaging Moscow’s reputation in a region where upheaval and conflict have upset his efforts to revive his country’s clout since he came to power in 2000. “Russia finds itself in a very unpleasant situation: It has essentially put itself in opposition to the entire Arab world,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. Back in the Kremlin and in charge of foreign policy again after four years as prime minister, Putin will try to mitigate the damage on a trip that will take him to the West Bank and Jordan on Tuesday after a visit to Israel on Monday. “Putin needs to show that Russia is not against the Arab quest for democracy,” said Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

Russia lost billions of dollars in arms and infrastructure contracts in Libya because of the conflict that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and is struggling to restore trade ties and contracts in several nations. Still more is at stake in Syria, which buys Russian arms and provides a deep water Mediterranean port for its navy. But Putin, who faces U.S. and European criticism for his treatment of dissent in Russia after the biggest protests of his rule, is likely to juxtapose the friendly message to Arabs with more warnings against Western interference abroad. Putin’s second visit to Israel sends at least an implicit message to U.S. President Barack Obama, who has not visited the U.S. ally in more than three years as president. Russia drew a line in the sand over Syria after allowing NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels drive Gaddafi from power by abstaining from a U.N. Security Council resolution which Putin likened to “medieval calls for crusades.” Assad has helped Russia keep a foothold in the Middle East by buying billions of dollars worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance facility for the Russian navy, its only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.