“Look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. To do something without knowing the final consequence isn’t that smart,” Mr. Putin said this week during an official visit to Israel.
Standing next to Israeli President Shimon Peres at the presidential palace, Putin then added a message for the West, which Russia views as practically itching to intervene in Syria as it did in Libya last year: “On the Syria issue, we need to think hard whether the opposition that could take power would be what the West wants it to be, or something completely opposite.”
Putin has been in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories this week proclaiming through energetic statements largely devoid of traditional diplomatic niceties what he has not flat-out announced: Russia is back in the Middle East, and intends to be a major player there.
The unspoken subtext is that Russia intends to reassert its leadership role in a region where it sees American leadership no longer as dominant as it once was.
Russia and Israel have conflicting viewpoints on numerous issues, ranging from Iran and Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria, to Georgia and Russia’s conflict with the former Soviet republic. Russia tends to take the Palestinians’ side in international talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Putin, in talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during this trip, revived the idea of a big Moscow conference to jumpstart peace negotiations – something for which Israel has no enthusiasm.
But it’s also true that recent events in Israel’s neighborhood leave the Israeli government more sympathetic to Russia’s cautious outlook on change in the region. With an Islamist hailing from the Muslim Brotherhood about to assume Egypt’s presidency, nervous Israelis can only nod approvingly as Putin warns that the next leaders of Syria, were President Bashar al-Assad to fall, might be a scarier bunch.
To underscore his point, Putin noted to his Israeli hosts that America’s war in Iraq resulted in a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. “These things should be thought out ahead of time before doing something one will regret later,” Putin said.
The blunt and nationalist Russian leader is also known to have a soft spot for Israel, a land where more than 1 million Russian speakers have come to reside. Putin last visited Israel in 2005, during his first term as president, and he generated positive press then by visiting his boyhood German teacher, a Soviet Jew who emigrated to Israel.
For these reasons, Putin must have felt he had an opening to offer his “look before you leap” advice on Iran.
During a meeting with Mr. Peres, Putin is reported to have gone further than his public statements, saying, “Look at what happened to the Americans in Afghanistan and in Iraq. I told [President] Obama the same thing” when the two leaders met earlier this month on the margins of a G20 summit in Mexico, he reportedly added.
After a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Putin issued a statement saying their conversation covered Iran and Syria, and that he expressed the opinion that negotiations are the only answer to such crises.
In his own statement, Mr. Netanyahu emphasized commonalities with his guest, saying, “I believe we should be doing two things now: boosting the sanctions [on Iran] and also boosting the demands” issued to Tehran in talks between Iran and world powers.
Those powers include Russia. Israel’s message to Putin, more subtle than the Russian president’s, is that Russia can and should do more to influence its friends in Tehran, so that the military action it sees as not “that smart” might yet be avoided.