Russia asserts itself in Mideast

President Putin traveled to Israel Wednesday, a first for a Russian leader. He called for a fall peace summit in Moscow.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Seeking to bolster Russia's role in the Middle East with both peace talks and weaponry, President Vladimir Putin Wednesday called for a peace conference in Moscow next fall.

Making the first visit by a Kremlin leader to Egypt in 40 years - and leaving Cairo Wednesday night to start the first ever such visit to Israel - Mr. Putin said he first needed to consult with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to bring "all these countries concerned" to the table.

Despite a host of differences, in recent years Russian and Israeli officials believe they have some common ground in their respective conflicts in Chechnya and the Palestinian territories against Muslim militants. But serving as midwife to a Mideast peace settlement has long been an American preoccupation, even though Russia is a member of the "quartet" of powers that back the process.

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Now stepping headlong into this US sphere - where many Arabs feel that the American role as "honest broker" has been compromised by its bedrock support of Israel - the Russian leader is attempting to balance an array of Russian strategic and economic interests that span the Arab-Israeli divide.

That equation is further complicated by Russia's decision to sell advanced antiaircraft missiles to Syria. Israel says the sale - to a country the US considers a state sponsor of terrorism - could threaten its security.

"Putin wants to remind the world that Russia is still a present and active player in the peace process," says Vladimir Orlov, a Russian analyst at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. "Trade is high on the agenda, with or without the Syria missile deal, [which Putin] made clear is not a bargaining chip.

"This is part of the economization of Russian foreign policy," says Mr. Orlov. "Russia will be present with conventional arms ... [and] has its own foreign policy interests and will act on them, even if they are not as Washington or Tel Aviv would want."

Beyond the sale of the Russian Strelets antiaircraft system to Damascus, ties with Israel are strained over Moscow's help with Iran's nuclear-power program, and pressure to extradite from Israel several dual-citizen billionaires who are among Russia's most-wanted fugitives.

Moments of warmth

But there have also been moments of apparent warmth in intelligence-sharing and other cooperation. Israel sent a team of terror experts to Russia early in the Beslan school hostage crisis last September. Some child victims and others wounded in a subway blast days earlier were invited to Israel for medical assistance.

Still, the missile deal has raised concern in Israel, especially after Putin last week confirmed in an interview with Israeli TV that the missile sale would go forward. He said Russia had refused a Syrian request for more advanced missiles "because we do not want to violate any balance, however fragile it may be, that exists in the region."

The Strelets to be sold can't be "unnoticeably handed over to terrorist" groups, Putin said, adding that the systems do make it "more difficult [for Israel] to make low-altitude flights over the residence of the president of Syria."

Mr. Sharon this week criticized the deal "as a danger to Israel" and noted that Putin "always repeats one thing - that he would take no step to endanger Israel," a nation where almost a quarter of the population is made up of the million Jews that left the Soviet Union in that empire's final years.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov dismissed Israeli concerns on Tuesday, saying that Russian technicians have "vividly demonstrated" to Israeli experts that the Strelets can't be fired unless attached to their motorized launcher.

"This will not harm the balance of forces in the region [because] Israel significantly surpasses Syria in military terms," said Mr. Ivanov. Calling such a system portable was "like saying submarines can fly."

"It's a good signal," says Ivan Safranchuk, the head of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information. "By explaining [that the missiles can't be made portable], it signals that Russia doesn't want them to end up in terrorist hands, and that Russian arms sales are terror-resistant."

Fissures emerge

Though the Soviet Union backed Arab allies like Syria with billions of dollars worth of arms sales and loans during the cold war, and had especially close ties with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization, Russia's ties with Israel began to improve at the turn of the millennium.

"They were the only two countries talking about international terrorism then - Clinton and Bush didn't talk about it until after 9/11," says Mr. Safranchuk.

Still, fissures began to emerge in 2003, with the start of the prosecution for tax evasion of Russia's Yukos oil company, and a sense in Israel that there was an anti-Jewish element to the attack on CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Opposition also grew in Russia - in concert with some signs of emerging anti-Semitism in recent years - when the closer Russia-Israel ties became public.

This complex relationship helps explain why Mos-cow's Mideast efforts remain a case study in ambiguity. Safranchuk ticks off theories that explain the Syria sale, few of which he says can be ruled out.

One reason could be that the air-defense missile deal is "all about money, but Russia feels uncomfortable to confess it," and so "masks" it with political talk, says Safranchuk.

Or, he says, Russia may be creating a bargaining chip to sacrifice in its bid to get the fugitive billionaires extradited from Israel - a hot topic in the local press.

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