Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Is Russia Funding State-Sponsors of Terrorism?

Posted in European-Russian Relations by Dan on September 7, 2009
EU Piracy Chief:  Russia is Smuggling Weapons to Syria and Iran

EU Piracy Chief: Russia is Smuggling Weapons to Syria and Iran

In a world where international security tops the agendas of national governments and global institutions, unexpected developments are often considered the norm.  Take the hijacking of a Russian vessel by former Soviet sympathizers, and people will be able to see how a simple piracy issue can snowball into a devastating foreign-policy quagmire.

According to sources familiar with the story, a Russian ship (named the Arctic Sea) was taken hostage by a group of 19 men on July 24…smugglers who were reportedly attempting to sell the ship’s contents (most notably millions of dollars worth of timber) to the highest bidder in the informal market.  As the Russian Government began to lose sight of the Arctic Sea somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the Kremlin’s navy dispatched a search and rescue mission that eventually took back the vessel from its captures; arresting and interrogating all the men involved in the maritime incident.  This seems simple enough, considering the fact that national governments across the globe have started to devote more time and energy towards the safety of their fleets.  The fact that piracy has grown exponentially over the past year (off the coast of Eastern Africa specifically) only serves to reinforce these security measures.

Sounds like just another illegality.  Yet, upon further investigation, this seemingly conventional situation is slowly transforming into a more controversial headline; one that has far-reaching consequences for the international community as a whole.

Based on some recent remarks by the European Union’s chairman on piracy, Moscow has deliberately fabricated the story in the hopes of covering up what really happened in the waters last August.  And what really happened?  Well, apparently the Israeli Government intercepted the Russian vessel as it attempted to deliver a cache of arms to both Syria and Iran.

A fool’s conclusion, you might say?  Why would the Russian Government risk its political reputation by transporting weapons to two hostile regimes, both of whom have been repeatedly isolated by the international community over their respective support for Middle Eastern terrorism?  Such questions are appropriate to ask…indeed they currently describe the mainstream view in foreign-policy circles.  However, when studying Moscow’s historically deep relationship in the Middle East, this dominant perspective could very well lose a large portion of its credibility.

For years, Russia has always regarded the Arab world as a priority in its foreign and defense policies, both for strategic and purely political reasons.  Throughout the Cold War, the former Soviet Union sent money, resources, and heavy weapons to Arab Governments that would pledge to oppose American dominance…both in the Persian Gulf and in the historically violent Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  Egypt was often seen as Moscow’s best friend, a country that agreed to participate under the Soviet umbrella by buttressing itself against the pro-American government of the Shah.  Arab states such as Syria possessed a similar world-outlook to the former U.S.S.R., agreeing to form a unified front against Washington’s “imperial” ambitions.  This balance-of-power strategy was pursued by both superpowers during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Of course, the Cold War is now a figment of the imagination; a period viewed by the general population as just another victim of history.  Common knowledge states that the United States eventually defeated the Soviet Union, giving Washington the primary position in world affairs.  This is all true, minus some fabrications and generalities.  With this being said, we cannot assume that the termination of the Cold War has translated into a termination of Moscow’s involvement in the Middle East.

In fact, evidence proves that Russia is re-inserting itself in Islamic political life.  Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has agreed to sell Russian-manufactured MiG-31 planes to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria; the same Syria that consistently provides Hezbollah with the resources it needs to blackmail the Lebanese Government into submission.  Putin and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have met several times over the years, discussing a variety of initiatives from trade relations to security alliances.  Perhaps more counterproductive to both Washington and the United Nations, the Kremlin has taken the role as Iran’s primary exporter of natural materials; helping build the Islamic Republic’s nuclear installations.  And obviously, we cannot avoid Russia’s aggressive posture in the U.N. Security Council, refusing to endorse harsher sanctions towards Iran for its refusal to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with wholehearted disclosure.

I completely understand that Prime Minister Putin and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev are performing these functions through a narrow-lens.  At the end of the day, every world leader is ultimately responsible for their country’s national interests.  Strengthening diplomatic ties with Syria and Iran could simply be Moscow’s new economic plan, praying that oil-deals and manufacturing agreements will slow the damage associated with a global recession.

Yet, using the national-interest excuse should not tame global skepticism towards last month’s naval dilemma.  The United States should be somewhat disturbed over Moscow’s behavior.  After all, Washington’s most important ally in the region has already made it quite clear that the Kremlin’s relationship with Syria and Iran threatens the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state.  The repeated scenario of Hezbollah and Hamas fighters storing and using sophisticated Russian weaponry is almost as serious a situation as one can get in an era of asymmetrical warfare.  Is the United States willing to respond if the EU’s piracy chair is right?  Or will Washington stand down, afraid of questioning and instigating a resurgent Russia in the current system?

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Simon Shuster of Time Magazine contributed to this blog.  His full article can be accessed at:  http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1919342,00.html

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