Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Putin's Hands in the Honeypot?

Kasparov: Putin may be planning to stir the Middle Eastern pot

In a column published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Gary Kasparov issues a stern warning about the machinations of "petrodictators" -- authoritarian regimes that rely on oil revenue to sustain themselves.

As usual, Kasparov's target is Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "Russia and its fellow petrodictatorships are in dire need of a way to ratchet up global tensions to inflate the sagging price of oil," Kasparov writes. "Petrodictators, after all, need petrodollars to stay in power. The war in Gaza and the otherwise inexplicable skirmish with Ukraine over natural gas have helped the Kremlin in this regard, but $50 a barrel isn't going to be nearly enough. It will have to reach at least $100 and it will have to happen soon."

Kasparov writes that the current financial crisis has hit Russia extremely hard. With the memory of 1999's Ruble collapse fresh in the minds of most Russians, a mixture of fear of a recurrence is mixing with state controls on dissent -- complete with "anti-extremism" laws -- to create what could be a very unstable and dangerous political situation in Russia.

"Russians are ready to take to the streets," Kasparov writes. He also notes that if they do they'll likely be met by the paramilitary police forces controlled by Russia's interior ministry.

Kasparov worries that Putin may be attempting to engineer tension between Iran and Israel. "Open hostilities between Iran and Israel would lift the price of oil back to a level that would allow Mr Putin and his gang to keep funding the crackdown," Kasparov writes. "Israel's anxiety over Iran's nuclear-weapon ambitions is the most vulnerable link in a very weak chain."

Iran and Israel have never needed Russia to engineer tension between the two states. In fact, Iran's support of terrorism and Islamic militancy in the Middle East is very much at the heart of the current Israeli operations in Gaza. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has provided Islamic militant groups with funds and weapons, and even helped supervise Hezbollah's rocket attacks on Israel in 2006.

Under such circumstances, it may only be a matter of time before Israel decides to deal decisively with Iran.

While Iran was busy helping Hezbollah incite a war in Lebanon, Russia was busy in the region, too -- discussing the sales of military helicopters and armoured personnel carriers to Hamas.

Russia has also been involved with the Iranian nuclear program, helping the Iranians build a nuclear reactor that could, in future, be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

This is certainly at odds with the stance of the United States and the European Union -- the countries that had imagined Russia would be a good post-Cold War ally -- on this issue.

Russia's track record in dealing with rogue states should not be considered encouraging. Yet many western leaders foolishly continue to look to Russia to take the lead in dealing with these states.

"There persists a very damaging myth in the West, spouted by politicians and the press, that says Russia's assistance is needed with Iran and other rogue states," Kasparov explains. "In fact, the Kremlin has been stirring this pot for years and has a vested interest in further increasing turmoil in the region. The Hamas/Hezbollah rockets, based on the Russian Katyusha and Grad, are not delivered via DHL from Allah. It doesn't require the guile of a KGB man like Mr. Putin to imagine a way to accelerate Iran's nuclear program, which has been aided by Russian technology and protected by the Kremlin from meaningful international action."

"It is time to bury the failed model of dealing with the world's antidemocratic and bloodthirsty regimes," Kasparov writes. "The real change we must effect in 2009 is toward a new global emphasis on the value of human life. Anything less confirms to the enemies of democratic civilization that everything is negotiable. For Mr Putin that means democracy; for Hamas it means Israel's existence. The Free World must take those chips off the table."

Kasparov also notes a significant difference between Israel and Hamas.

"Israel has the capability to annihilate Gaza to secure the safety of its people, but it chooses not to do so because the Israelis value human life," Kasparov continues. "Does anyone doubt for a moment what Hamas would do if it had the power to wipe out every one of the five-and-a-half million Jews in Israel? Hamas should not be considered less a villain simply because it does not as yet possess the means to fulfill its genocidal agenda."

Yet the indecisive agenda pursued by many western leaders undermines their own ability to insist they respect human life and revere human rights.

"The leaders of Europe and the U.S. are hoping that the tyrants and autocrats of the world will just disappear," Kasparov writes. "But dinosaurs like Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chávez and Iran's ayatollahs are not going to fade away by natural causes. They survive because the leaders of the Free World are afraid to take a stand."

In fact, the shameful and well-established -- places such as Rwanda -- method of waiting for genocides to be effectively over and then picking up the pieces afterward is only further proof of this.

"Years from now, when Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is either dead or deposed, his legacy will lead to another genocide trial in The Hague. Why don't Western powers, many of whom are condemning Israel's action in Gaza, take action now to stop the extermination in Zimbabwe instead of waiting a decade for a trial?" Kasparov asks. "Criticizing Israel is easy while rescuing Zimbabwe is hard. Choosing the path of least resistance is moral cowardice. It does not avoid difficult decisions, it only postpones them."

While Kasparov is right to urge action these issues -- and would be right to urge action on many others, such as Darfur -- on this particular note Kasparov has made a key logical fallacy.

With the United States engaged in Iraq and NATO as a whole engaged in Afghanistan, western leaders haven't consistently chosen the path of least resistance. The easy thing to do in Afghanistan, for example, would have been to drive the Taliban out of Kabul then let them fight it our with the Northern Alliance over who would control the country.

Choosing to rebuild Afghanistan was not the path of least resistance. In making this decision, western leaders knew full well they were choosing a very difficult path.

Russia has proven to be a valuable ally to NATO in Afghanistan. Then again, there is no question that Russia considers solving the Afghan dilemma to be crucial to their national security.

But some may argue that the litmus test of a state's foreign policy intentions isn't what they do when their national security is at stake, but rather what they do when their national security isn't at stake.

Russia's interests in the Middle East could be considered fairly modest by the standards of oil-importing countries. As an oil-exporting country, however, Russia has a tremendous economic interest in the Middle East.

There's little question that tension in the Middle East -- and the accompanying high oil prices -- is very much in Russia's economic interest. Having few national security-related interests in the region allows them to dabble there at the west's expense.

Gary Kasparov is right about the overall point of his column: it's time for western leaders to stop giving Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev a free ride.

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