In Jerusalem, six naked figures stand in a circle ringed with barbed wire. This grim configuration, however, isn't another turn in the Middle East's storied cycle of violence. It's cause for celebration -- or at least an occasion for the record books.
For the first time in world history, the Russian head of state has visited his Israeli counterpart. On a tour de presse that crossed the Green Line, Vladimir Putin's largely ceremonial meeting with largely ceremonial Israeli President Moshe Katsav was a significant, agenda-setting preface to his subsequent face time with Levant PMs Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas.
And the six naked figures? Statues comprising a commemorative Holocaust monument, gifted to Israel from the nation which spilled more blood against Nazism than any other. In the weird logic of the Russian-Israeli approchement, where Soviet enmity has been replaced with handshakes and overtures, those six figures are almost the equivalent of a Russian Statue of Liberty.
Almost. While one Kremlin hand taketh away the legacy of MiG-equipped Arab attack squads, the other giveth missiles and nuclear know-how to Syria and Iran, insistent that Israel has nothing to fear from the new era of Russian internationalism. A Assad regime with a bruised ego? "The missiles we are providing to Syria...cannot reach Israeli territory," the Associated Press quoted Putin in Jerusalem. "To come within their range, you would have to attack Syria. Do you want to do that?" And as for the Mullahs? "We are working to ensure their nuclear energy is used for peaceful means," he soothed.
Just as soon as the softies among us are willing to give Russia a chance to make a real contribution to Mideast peace and stability as a Quartet member, Putin virtually calls a Holy Land press conference to lecture Israel on groundless paranoia. What, any number of Moscow-cynics might ask, did you expect? Forthright consistency?
BUT THE STORY ISN'T that simple. Planned hypocrisy and double-dealing may still be comfortable tools in the grip of the Russian leadership -- whether Czarist, Communist, or "Other" -- but the Muscovite ship of state has sailed into uncharted waters, and Putin knows the rules of the game have changed. On the western flank, Russia has watched its historically most important border erode into a European sea -- with the Baltics already in the soup and Ukraine, whose very name means "at the border," too far from shore to reel back in. Along the eastern frontier, the news is even worse: Russia's western border mania was always a function of its desire to have access to Europe (which now it has in spades), but the China Question has no easy answers. Underpopulated, underpoliced, riven with AIDS and hard to rule, Siberia makes a pale sister to the extravagant assertiveness of cross-border China.
All this means that Russia, since the fall of Communist rule, has fallen, as a great power, on hard times indeed. Putin knows what he's saying, and to whom, when he calls the death of the USSR "a genuine tragedy" and "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." For the west, 1991 was a year of victory; for Russians, the death-rattle of the Soviet jalopy not only ushered out an empire but ushered in a broad new range of embarrassing problems whose solutions were not immediately apparent.
Putin's still improvising. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem is a play for relevance and power, in the only region where Russia can seize the initiative in policy and profile. Neither in Europe nor in Asia can Russia be a player without playing second fiddle to America, the EU, or China. In the Middle East, however -- where not even good ideas always work -- Putin can credibly make statesmanlike maneuvers. He can offer a peace summit in Moscow, knowing that at least the Palestinians would jump at the gambit. (They did.) He can show the Arab world that it's possible to stand next to Israel without selling out to Israel (a policy that cuts both ways, as far as American interests are concerned) by offering significant, if controlled, sympathy for Israeli worry. "We are...not changing the balance of power," Putin announced. "Israel has no problem here." When he discovered Syria was due to receive missiles Israel couldn't intercept, Putin confided, he "canceled the deal." And regarding Iran? "I agree that [the current] steps are not enough," declared Putin, "and we have to get Iran to agree to nuclear inspections."
Although he has not quite gone so far as to place a statue of Natan Sharansky (Russian prisoner and Jewish emigre) at the center of Jerusalem, Putin's willingness to publicly endorse Israeli concerns as valid shows a new Russian strategy that may well offer the U.S. tangible policy benefits. Although the bad news is nothing new -- Russia wants influence in the Middle East, Russia isn't afraid to do business with America's foes, Russia still dreams of access to warm-water ports on the open ocean -- the good news could look like this:
As Iran's only great-power friend, Russia can act as security guarantor in the Middle East proliferation crisis. The American strategy, perhaps inevitably, has forced itself down a road of what are euphemistically called "hard choices"; the EU, as always, has demonstrated itself master of every state of negotiation except closing the deal. If Russia can seriously and invasively ensure that Iranian nuclear power is used only for peaceful purposes -- i.e., because Iranian nuclear power is essentially entirely Russian -- then every actor involved benefits at least in the sense of averting hard choices.
Why would Putin do such a thing? Russia is weak and weakening on its western and eastern flanks. The opportunity to exercise some muscle along its southerly reaches -- in a way constrained by international norms and Western interests -- is less of an obligation than an objective for Russia. Demonstrating its ability to act in its own interest, while going the extra mile to ensure everyone else's worries over Iran are calmed, would allow Russia simultaneously to be brought into the fold as a real great power and to stand on its own two feet diplomatically. And this, in turn, for instance, would likely lessen Russian worries over "interference" in Belarus and in Central Asia.
ENCOURAGING SUCH AN OPTION for a Russian-based solution to the Iran crisis isn't without risks, of course. Russia needs to finish building the sort of trust with America and Europe that it still hasn't built with its own citizens. With his Jerusalem pilgrimage, Putin has made it clear that his enablement of Damascus and Tehran, though defiant, is limited. Both Syria and Iran need to be constrained as the Middle East undergoes its vastest changes since the Muslim conquest. Tied down with the completion of its successes, America needs more than a reliable regional partner like Europe -- it needs an effective power that can achieve results in general accordance with American interests.
Although at this stage little should be taken for granted, Russia can be that power -- by keeping Syria subservient and calm in the wake of the Cedar Revolution, and by running the Iranian nuclear program with the daily, institutionalized oversight that the United Nations has never been able to negotiate itself into. Such responsibilities are both necessary and beyond our reach. At Jerusalem, Putin has signaled that Russia may finally be willing to grow up and help out.
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