By M K Bhadrakumar
United States National Security Advisor James Jones, who is usually taciturn, needed 20 words to sum up Russia's current foreign policy. "Russia is supportive and is on board, and has been a steady friend and ally on this with President [Barack] Obama." he told Fox News on Sunday.
The "this" Jones referred to was Obama's move to deepen pressure on Iran. He was speaking just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Moscow to press Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to back punitive sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Curiously, Vladimir Nazarov, deputy secretary of the Russian National Security Council, was telling the media around the same time that the Kremlin saw no reason to delay the sale of its S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Iran. "There is a signed contract that we must fulfil, but supplies have not started yet. This deal is not restricted by any international sanctions because these are merely defensive weapons." http://www.frontline.in/stories/20100312270505300.htm
While S-300 missiles could be called "defensive", the weapon in fact could make Iranian airspace impregnable and is a game-changer, which is why Washington and Tel Aviv want to pull out all the stops to see that the Kremlin does not deliver them to Iran.
"Russia received and continues to receive many requests and even demands to supply or not supply weapons," Nazarov noted. "These countries that are addressing such calls to us should better look at their own deals with Georgia." His beef was that Americans and Israelis supplied "defensive weapons" to the southern Caucasus country.
Russian intelligence last week reported a major Israeli arms deal with Georgia. But Nazarov quickly switched tack. "Any military action against Iran will explode the situation, will have negative consequences for the entire world, including for Russia, which is a neighbor of Iran," he pointed out, underlining that problems linked to Iran's nuclear program should be resolved through diplomacy.
Enigma of US-Russia 'reset'
Jones and Nazarov didn't really contradict each other. Russia openly proclaims itself to be a thoroughbred pragmatic player on the world stage. Last November, in his state-of-the-nation address, Medvedev declared that "We [Russia] must rid ourselves of our exaggerated sense of self-importance ... Instead of chaotic action dictated by nostalgia and prejudice, we will carry out an intelligent domestic and foreign policy based on purely pragmatic aims."
A US-Russia deal over Iran cannot be ruled out. The Obama administration has held a fistful of propositions out to Moscow. The problem is Russia sees them as ambivalent. Take the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The proposition helps perpetuate Russia's "strategic balance". However, the US refuses to link the treaty with a commitment to abandon its missile defense program, without which Russia is reluctant to pare down its nuclear stockpile.
Last September, Obama pulled the plug on the George W Bush administration's plan to deploy a radar site and interceptor rockets in Poland and the Czech Republic and Moscow took it in the best spirit of the "reset" of US-Russia ties. But Moscow is distraught to learn that the US is now going to deploy the Patriot missiles in Poland and SM-3 interceptors in Romania.
The SM-3 prompted Moscow to demand "exhaustive explanations" from Washington. "How can we stay calm when alien military infrastructure, US military infrastructure, has come to the Black Sea area?" Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ambassador, asked on Russian television last week. The SM-3 may not immediately threaten Russia's nuclear deterrent, but what happens if the US chooses to replace it eventually with a second generation of interceptors?
Again, Washington allowed the resumption of NATO-Russia consultations, which were suspended following Russia's conflict with Georgia in August 2008. But it refuses to concede a Russian veto on NATO enlargement. At the Munich security conference on February 6, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen presented a vision to turn the alliance into a global security organization - "the hub of a network of security partnerships" - and urged Russia to cooperate.
In essence, he threw cold water on Medvedev's counter-vision of a new security architecture stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Speaking at the L'Ecole Militaire in Paris on January 29, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also chided Medvedev by pointing out that European security was "far more" than strategic interests and is also "an expression of our values".
That is the kind of tutorial on Western enlightenment that the European Union usually reserves to talk down to Turkey. Objecting to the idea of "any spheres of influence", Clinton called on Russia to respect its ceasefire agreement with Georgia, refused to take note of "Russia's claims" on the independence of the breakaway Georgian states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, insisted NATO's enlargement "actually increased Russia's security and prosperity", and underscored that "NATO must and will remain open to any country that aspires to become a member".
Clinton saw Medvedev's proposal on new security architecture as a "very long and cumbersome process" and felt no need for it anyway as "common goals are best pursued in the context of existing institutions such as the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and the NATO-Russia Council, rather than by negotiating new treaties, as Russia has suggested."
Finally, if Moscow assumed that the so-called Northern Corridor would act as transit route for NATO supplies for Afghanistan and become a chip in the resetting of US-Russia ties, it now transpires that the US uses the route sparingly and prefers to depend on going through Pakistan.
Obviously, Washington wants to keep Russia out of the Hindu Kush and continues to spurn the Russian request for cooperative ties between NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
At the London conference on Afghanistan on January 28, Russia offered to rehabilitate more than 140 Soviet-era economic projects, but the US gave short shrift to that. Meanwhile, Moscow has little choice but to go along with the Obama administration's plan to "reintegrate" the Taliban and pretend not to notice the track two - involving British, Saudi and Pakistani intelligence - in reconciling the hardline Taliban leadership and the Jalaluddin Haqqani network.
The harsh reality is that Obama's promise to Moscow on a "more substantive and constructive relationship based on mutual respects and mutual interests" remains a promise.
Moscow faces what can only be called a systemic problem, which is that, as the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov, recently wrote: "Developing specific criteria for what constitutes pragmatic government policies is complicated, because the word 'pragmatic' has never been clearly defined in political terms."
As days pass and the Obama administration's drive to impose punitive sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program reaches the United Nations Security Council, Moscow needs to make up its mind.
In the event, Jones may well prove right. Four days before he spoke, Nikolai Petrushev, head of Russia's National Security Council, said: "The actions it [Iran] is taking, including when it began enriching low enriched uranium to 20%, raise doubts in other countries and those doubts are valid. Political-diplomatic methods are important for a resolution. But there is a limit to everything." The Russian Foreign Ministry has since echoed Petrushev's remark. And last Tuesday, Obama anticipated a "forward-leaning" Kremlin cooperating with him on Iran.
However, nothing runs quite that straight in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosted a Hamas delegation led by its political leader Khalid Meshaal in Moscow just before Netanyahu arrived. But Netanyahu claimed after Monday's talks in the Kremlin that he received Medvedev's assurances that Moscow would hold off on its contract to sell S-300 system to Iran. "On this issue Russia is taking into consideration the needs for stability in the region," he told reporters.
The Ha'aretz newspaper, quoting Israeli Foreign Ministry sources, reported that Moscow wished to link the reported Israeli arms sales to Georgia with Israel's demand for a freeze on the S-300 deal to Iran. However, as regards UN sanctions against Iran, Medvedev merely "heard from me [Netanyahu] my position about the need for sanctions with teeth. They can bite only if they have teeth. Diluted sanctions don't work."
Art of 'incentivizing'
Equally, how much can Russia afford to be pragmatic over Iran, where its interests are not insubstantial? Maybe, a new START treaty, which assures Russia its nuclear deterrent and affirms the launch of the US-Russia "reset", will give the Kremlin enough reason to validate its angst over Iran's nuclear program.
Maybe, therefore, Netanyahu should alert the Jewish lobby in Washington to get on with the job of "incentivizing" the Obama administration to finalize START so that Russia may allow the passage of a punitive UN sanctions regime that may dissuade Iran from challenging Israel from its stance as something of a regional manager in the Middle East.
However, what if START goes through and a US-Russia strategic condominium forms, but Beijing still disallows a sanctions resolution? "We're ... going through the UN this month to present sanctions and achieve solidarity," was what Jones had to say. "We have tremendous [international] support. We need to work on China a little more ... on this issue, they cannot be non-supportive."
Obviously, the chain is way beyond Netanyahu's able hands. So, despite worries over her husband Bill's health, Clinton flew down to Saudi Arabia, which helps China build its strategic oil reserves. But the influential al-Hayat newspaper wrote on Friday: "It seems that Beijing is ready to make use of its veto to reject all anti-Iran decisions by the Security Council since China regards Iran as an important trade partner."
Besides, the oil slick now spreads to realms beyond King Abdullah's also able hands - Google, the Dalai Lama, Taiwan and free trade in auto parts, steel pipes, gift boxes and ribbons. The sprightly thing about the bleak, soulless Iran affair seems to be that it is not entirely lying in the bazaar.