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Russian Leaders Reach Out to Rogue Regimes

February 11, 2006

MOSCOW (AP) _ By inviting Hamas leaders to Moscow, President Vladimir Putin is reaffirming Russia’s desire to act as a top mediator between the West and its adversaries _ a role that has given the Kremlin a lot of limelight even if it is unlikely to lead to any diplomatic breakthroughs.

Moscow’s active involvement in the Iranian nuclear crisis and its attempt to win leverage with Hamas reflect Russia’s growing ambitions, buoyed by an oil-driven economic boom.

Russia, which is hosting this year’s summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, relishes its newfound role of global power broker, enjoying the growing international prestige it has sought since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

``Russia wants to win global clout by acting as a mediator amid growing tensions between the West and the Islamic world,″ said Alexei Arbatov, a top researcher with the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office.

He and many other observers warned, however, that Russia’s own instability undermines its aspirations to play go-between and it is unlikely to resolve any international crisis.

``Without the Soviet Union’s material base, Russia now is playing the part of a global power comparable to the United States,″ said Viktor Mizin, a senior researcher with the Russian Institute for World Economy and International Relations. ``The current Russian elite shares a Soviet vision of the world ... and it’s trying to imitate Soviet diplomatic efforts.″

Russia’s overture to Hamas angered Israel, as did Putin’s statement that Russia did not consider the militant group to be a terrorist organization.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Israeli Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit called Putin’s remarks an ``international scandal″ that amounted to ``stabbing Israel in the back.″

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday to send a clear, strong message in any meetings with Hamas officials that the militant group must stop terror attacks on Israel.

Putin made his debut as a broker with rogue regimes several months after his March 2000 election. Stopping in Pyongyang en route to a Group of Eight summit in Japan, the Russian leader attempted to work out a breakthrough in the international dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program. The mediation flopped.

Putin won a lot of publicity saying he had won North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s promise to abandon the communist country’s missile program in exchange for other nations’ help in launching North Korean satellites. But Kim later disavowed his pledge, saying he was joking when he spoke to Putin about the deal.

And while Moscow has taken part in six-nation talks intended to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis, it hasn’t advanced a settlement.

In the Iranian nuclear standoff, Moscow has sought to counter the U.S. push for international sanctions against its Middle Eastern ally by calling for more talks. Russia backed the International Atomic Energy Agency’s decision to refer the Iran to the U.N. Security Council only on the condition that it doesn’t take up the issue until March.

Russia has also offered to enrich uranium for Iran to ease Western concerns that Tehran is trying to build atomic weapons. The United States and the European Union have backed the idea, but suspicions are growing that Iran is using the proposal to stall for time and divert international sanctions.

``The Russian proposal has become a lifesaver for the Iranians, offering them some freedom of maneuver and an opportunity to drag out talks,″ Mizin said.

An Iranian delegation is set to visit Moscow on Thursday for talks on the proposal, but observers are skeptical about prospects for a breakthrough.

Iran humiliated Russia last fall when Putin’s Security Council secretary Igor Ivanov rushed to Tehran in apparent hopes of striking the deal _ only to hear its refusal. Tehran then agreed to consider the Russian offer, but talks dragged on for months without any visible progress.

Even a senior Kremlin-connected lawmaker admitted recently that Moscow doesn’t have much leverage with the Iranians and that talks are unlikely to bring fruit.

``We have practically no levers to put pressure on Iran,″ said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Arbatov, of the Carnegie Endowment, warned that Russia’s flirtation with Iran and Hamas could further damage its relations with the West.

``The Soviet Union was engaged in Mideast games for decades and got nothing in return,″ Arbatov said. ``It’s useless to get involved in that again. It may bring some tactical benefits, but incur big strategic damage.″

Arbatov said Russia’s instability is weakening its mediation efforts. The country remains bogged down in the Chechen conflict, and there are broad fears that instability could spread to other mostly Muslim provinces.

``Russia wants to play mediator between the West and Islamic world,″ Arbatov said. ``But that won’t bring any good because Russia is more vulnerable to Islam than the West.″

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