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Analysis & Opinion
15.09.09 Thinking Outside The Box
Comment by Ethan Burger

In recent years, the Russian foreign policy establishment has frequently confounded Western observers by what many view as remarkably counter-productive actions. It often seems that the Kremlin regularly pursues myopic policies without regard for their consequences. It is thus essential that moderate Russian foreign policy specialists and commentators (to the extent that they have influence) strive to convince those exercising power in Moscow that their objectives are achievable, but not in the manner by which they have been undertaken so far.

Given Russia’s history, the driving forces behind some of the country’s actions abroad are understandable, albeit anachronistic. Russian behavior, unfortunately, is often regarded by foreign politicians and commentators as a source of problems, rather than a constructive force: it seems as if Russia relishes its role as a “spoiler.”

Recent events have handed Russia a new opportunity to obtain some of the very stature it seeks while obtaining certain other benefits along the way. The question is whether the Russian government’s brain trust can think outside the box.

According to recent press reports, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to have a “secret meeting” with the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to discuss Russian policy toward Iran. Of immediate concern to Netanyahu was Russia’s possible sale of S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. A secondary, although inseparable, subject for discussion was Russia’s role in the Iranian nuclear program and its unwillingness to support stronger economic sanctions against Iran.

For Israel, a nuclear armed Iran presents an existential threat. The air defense missiles would reduce but not eliminate Israeli’s capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear ability, as the Israeli air force had done to Saddam Hussein’s Osirik reactor in 1981. In addition, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a destabilizing force not just in the Middle East, but also potentially in the Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia.

Despite Iran’s claims that it does not intend to develop a nuclear weapons capability, the statements of its leaders cannot be accepted at face value. The recent election in Iran illustrates that the country hangs on a precipice. In 2005, the Iranian “President” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that Israel should "be eliminated from the pages of history." Though linguists may quibble about the best way to translate certain words he used, as a Holocaust denier and someone who called for the expulsion of Israel from the United Nations, the Israeli population and defense establishment are entitled to a certain level of apprehension. One would think that the Russian national security establishment can relate to these concerns, given the two countries’ history.

Russian-Israeli relations are complex. Approximately one million Israelis are native Russian speakers. The two countries are parties to a trade agreement. At the same time, Israel’s ties to Georgia and certain other states contradict Russian foreign policy goals.

In 2002, Russia was included in the Quartet established in Madrid that was tasked with finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Nonetheless, since then, the United States, along with the European Union and the United Nations, has made little if any progress.

Now, seven years later, Russia may be positioned to break the impasse. The first step would be for Moscow to grant the Israeli’s request not to sell the air defense missiles to Iran. In exchange, it should insist that Netanyahu halt the establishment of new or the expansion of existing settlements on the West Bank.

As a sweetener, Russia could introduce a Security Council resolution warning of “serious consequences” to Iran if it does not immediately take steps, sending a clear message that if Iran crosses the line of no return, Israel would be justified to take preemptive action. This would give the Israeli prime minister a shield to deflect domestic criticism from the right-wing of the Israeli electorate – most rational people would agree to stop the expansion of the settlements if it meant eliminating the threat of a nuclear attack.

This step could have various positive consequences for Russia. Firstly, it would show the world that it can accomplish that which the Obama administration cannot with respect to Iran, as well as to potentially “jump start” peace talks, leading to a “two state solution.” Secondly, the Arab countries in the region would be free from a nuclear-armed Iran as well.

This would create an atmosphere where it would be politically feasible for the United States to finally repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment. The Obama administration might enter into an informal understanding on its willingness to take the lead on this subject. Ultimately, a situation could develop where increased trade between the United States and Russia would be possible.

This would require the United States to follow the Canadian model of bifurcating trade relations with Russia from displeasure over Russian domestic policies, as it already does with China. While the impact of such a development should not be exaggerated, the resulting situation would be good for the U.S. and Russian economies, lessening unemployment in both countries and increasing bilateral trade.

The United States should not abandon its principles by refusing to comment about the abuse of civil/human rights in Russia, but Russia does not represent a military threat to the West as the Soviet Union did. Furthermore, the EU and the United States need not give up their efforts to be less dependent on Russian energy and energy supplied by non-Russian companies over which Russia or Russians can exercise a high degree of control.

Ethan Burger is Senior Counsel to the Law Firm of Maxwell & Barke PC and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
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