A Suez moment for Russia?

Is Russia living its Suez moment?
Moscow News
February 2, 2012 Thursday

In October, 1956, France, Britain and Israel attacked Egypt in an attempt to reverse President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The United States and the Soviet Union strong armed the three attacking nations into pulling back. Today, that conflict is widely seen as the bitter, historical turning point when Britons realized they were no longer a world power.

It is also seen as the dawn of Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, a region distant from its pre- Cold War sphere of influence.

Now, half a century later in Syria, we may be witnessing the sun setting on Moscow’s sway over the Arab world. For Russians, it is a painful reminder of Russia’s reduced reach in the world.

Last year, Moscow stubbornly clung to its Soviet legacy allies in the Arab world. One by one, they wobbled, and eventually fell: Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and, finally, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Now the Kremlin seems to be making a last stand with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad.

Russia is threatening to veto a United Nations resolution calling for a political transition in Damascus. If Mr. Assad goes, the Kremlin seems to reason, Russia has nothing to gain, and a lot to lose.

Moscow’s 40-year alliance with the Assad family has concrete benefits today: $4 billion in arms contracts for future delivery, $20 billion in gas investments, and Tartus naval station, Russia’s last military base outside the former Soviet Union.

On March 4, Russians vote in presidential elections. For the next month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the leading candidate, has no interest in alienating a key electoral constituency, Russia’s military-industrial complex (the real foreign policy votegetter is to keep the beaches of Egypt, Tunisia, Israel and Turkey open for the millions of Russian vacationers who now flee there every winter).

On the world stage, Mr. Putin is determined not to be pushed around by the West. In Moscow, officials talk darkly about ‘the Libya scenario’ and ‘the Libya precedent.’

Russian officials still see geopolitics through the simplistic, Soviet, zero-sum lens. The fall of Gaddafi was a victory for Washington, and a setback for Moscow.

Russian journalists rarely think to talk to real Libyans, and ask them what they want. It rarely occurs to Russian diplomats that if they keep complaining about Libya’s revolution, Russian businessmen are going to stand at the back of the line in Tripoli.

Part of this stems from a deep skepticism in Russia today about revolution. After two traumatic revolutions in the 20th century, this allergy is shared in Russia by both the rulers and the ruled.

But there is also a disdain for Arab public opinion.

In Libya and Syria, Moscow has taken stands opposing the will of the Arab League. Of course, Russia, the world’s largest oil producer, has no need to tiptoe around the big oil producers that dominate the Arab League.

But now Arab newspapers and internet sites are peppered with a novelty: anti-Russian cartoons and protest images coming from Syria and from Syrian exiles.

In Moscow, Russia’s plummeting stock in the Arab world is a nonissue. Beneath this lack of concern may be the unspoken understanding that Moscow is wrapping up its big power role in the region.

The half century that started with Suez, may end with Syria.

James Brooke (Twitter: @VOA_Moscow) is the Moscow bureau chief for Voice of America. To view all ‘Russia Watch’ posts, go to voanews. com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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