Russia's Hamas gambit

Its offer to host talks with the group may reflect a desire to boost its global status.

By inviting leaders of Hamas to meet him in the Kremlin - in addition to negotiating with Iran over uranium enrichment - President Vladimir Putin is hoping to make the world see Russia as the indispensible "good cop" that balances the tough guy role of the US, Russian experts say.

"Russia has a lot of experience and unique connections," inherited from Soviet times, says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle East Studies in Moscow. "But unlike Soviet times, Russia is not out to make mischief for the West. Russia wants to use its influence to build bridges, initiate dialogue, and play a positive role."

By reaching out to Hamas, the militant Islamist party that won a majority in Palestinian elections last month, Mr. Putin hopes to vault Russia back into the center of the stalled Middle East peace process, experts say. But the effort could backfire politically.

The Kremlin has won backing from French Prime Minister Dominique Villepin, who on a recent visit told a Moscow radio station: "I hope that in the course of these meetings [with Putin], Hamas should recognize its responsibilities and the opportunity it is being offered. This is a very important moment; it is an historic choice for Hamas."

Israel, however, has accused Moscow of "double standards" by conferring legitimacy on Hamas, which is held responsible for 60 suicide bombings in Israel since 2000, while it vigorously ostracizes its own Chechen separatist rebels.

"All politics are based on double standards, in some sense," counters Dmitri Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. "The US and Israel view Hamas as a terrorist organization, but Russia does not. Our point is: what is the alternative [to talking with Hamas]? We need to move this process forward, and Moscow can play that role."

The move has been criticized by some experts, who see Russia - and France - up to their old tricks of driving wedges between Western allies.

"Russia, by reaching out to Hamas, is breaking up the global front against terrorism," says Ariel Cohen, an expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "It is reaching out to the worst elements of jihadi extremism which fund and fuel the war in Chechnya. Russian overtures toward Hamas and Iran indicate that it is struggling for a status equal to the US in the Middle East, and is willing to claw such a status at a price of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilian victims."

Methods differ from US; same goals

The former USSR built a globe-girdling network of anti-Western client states and bankrolled revolutionaries on every continent. Cold war competition with the US sometimes turned to direct confrontation, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. But more often, it resulted in proxy wars such as those that took place in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan.

But Russia has long claimed that, in its post-Soviet incarnation, its strategic goals are compatible with the West's, even if its methods may differ. Russian experts point to Moscow's role in persuading Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic to accept peace talks with NATO during the 1999 war over Kosovo, and President Putin's several attempts to engage North Korea in negotiations over its nuclear weapons program.

After 9/11, Russia also allowed its allies in former Soviet Central Asia to host US military bases as part of the war on terror, though Moscow has since cooled to American presence in the region.

Cooperation has brought its rewards. At the beginning of this year Russia assumed the chairmanship of the Group of Eight (G-8) rich democracies, and is set to host the group's July summit in St. Petersburg. But relations with the West have grown strained over Russia's strong-armed foreign policy, such as its January gas blockade of neighboring Ukraine, and its growing authoritarianism at home.

A British think tank, the Foreign Policy Center, last week published a "G-8 Scorecard" that gave Russia failing marks in a dozen areas, including openness, free speech, transparent governance, rule of law, and civil society.

"We are very concerned, particularly about some elements of democratization that seem to be going in the wrong direction," US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said last week. "I think the question is open as to where Russia's future development is going."

Using Soviet-era ties - carefully

The challenge for Putin, who has staked his reputation on restoring Russia's great power status, is to wield Moscow's Soviet-era influence with "rogue" regimes and revolutionary movements in ways that do not further antagonize the West, experts say.

The USSR was a key supporter of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) - the group responsible for negotiating with Israel, run largely by officials from Hamas rival Fatah - and Russia remains a strong advocate of creating a Palestinian state.

"We are working together with the Quartet [Russia, US, EU, and UN], but the insistence of some countries that one cannot talk to Hamas until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel is stalling the process," says Nikolai Tikhomirov, dean of the official Diplomatic Academy, which trains Russian diplomats. "Russia's goal is also to convince Hamas to take those steps, but first we believe it necessary to start the dialogue. Time is wasting."

Talks with Iran opened Monday

In a similar diplomatic offensive, Moscow is attempting to mediate over Iran's alleged drive for nuclear weapons by offering a compromise that would see Iranian uranium enrichment take place under Russian supervision. As negotiations on that plan got under way Monday in Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Russian expectations "reserved."

Russia's success in either diplomatic attempt could boost its standing in the world and also ease the growing tensions within its 20-million-strong Muslim community.

"By these means we show that Russia does not oppose Islam, that it's working for peace." says Mr. Suslov. "But there is a big risk here, that by providing greater legitimacy for Islamists, Russia could invite greater instability in the Middle East and at home."

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