Vladimir Putin’s Growing Footprint In The Middle East

Oct 13th, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Few have noticed what I believe to be one of the more momentous developments of 2018—the growing Russian footprint in the Middle East.  Vladimir Putin has a major naval base in Syria, at least two airbases and a diplomatic clout with many Middle Eastern governments not seen since the days of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  The most recent development occurred on 17 September 2018.  A Russian spy plane was shot down by Syrian missiles, but Russia has blamed Israel for this “chain of tragic circumstances.”  At first Putin downplayed this incident, but his generals argued that Israeli jets, which were bombing key targets in Syria, were using the Russian spy plane as a “shield.”  Israel has strongly denied this.  As a result of this charge, Russia, on 24 September, announced plans to supply the Syrians with advanced S-300 defense batteries, signaling a shift in Russia’s regional strategy.

A brief history of Russia’s penetration of Syria militarily and diplomatically:  Under Putin, Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war in 2015, with the express purpose of salvaging the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad.  This strategy has been remarkably successful.  Russian planes have consistently joined Syrian planes in ruthlessly and relentlessly bombing the various enemies of the Assad regime.  Countless civilians have been killed and more than 5 million refugees have fled Syria.  With Russian help, Assad has literally destroyed his country to salvage his power to rule there.  Iran has likewise joined Russia in this mission to save Assad’s hold on power.  But, Iran has a different strategy, for it sees Assad’s rescue as the priority in maintaining a vital link between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.  In short, Syria is the key to the Shiite crescent stretching from Iran to southern Lebanon.  Iran desires to establish permanent bases for weapons and militia fighters in Syria to extend its imperial reach and to directly threaten Israel once the Syrian war ends.  If Assad falls so does this Shiite crescent.

But this goal is not Putin’s goal.  In the past 18 months Israel has carried out more than 200 air strikes on Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria.  Israel is committed to preventing the Iranian buildup, especially with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has an estimated 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel.  A “deconfliction” hot-line connecting Israel’s air force headquarters in Tel Aviv with Russia’s operations center at Khmeimim, in western Syria, has prevented mishaps in the air.  This “deconfliction” practice is one of the results of a tacit agreement between Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu:  Israel would not impede Russia’ strategy of preserving the Assad regime and Russia would not prevent Israel from attacking Iranian targets in Syria.  Russia’s decision to provide Syria with this battery of S-300 missiles threatens this tacit agreement between Russia and Israel.

What exactly are these S-300 battery systems?  The S-300 is a formidable system with radar capable of tracking more than 100 targets simultaneously, at ranges of about 150 miles.  The S-300 missiles are mounted on a truck in tubes, giving the weapons the look of a logging truck and a mobility that can easily avoid attacks.  Obviously, Israeli planes are now at a higher level of risk flying in Syrian air space.  The Israeli F-35 stealth bombers are capable of evading the S-300 system—and they can destroy it.  However, to do so would risk a significant escalation with Russia, for no doubt Russian personnel will man these systems.  Russia’s defense minister announced that this system will be delivered to Syria in two weeks.

Over the last decade, a rather uncommon friendship has developed between Putin and Netanyahu.  Putin is the first Russian leader to visit Israel (he has done so twice) and this year Netanyahu stood right next to Putin during a Russian military parade.  Yet, despite this “friendship,” Putin has also invited Hamas leaders to Moscow, has helped Iran with its nuclear program, and has armed Syria to the hilt, allowing Assad to completely obliterate his enemies.  With the various levels of sanctions against Russia (from the European Union and from the US), Putin has turned to Israel as a source of technology and political support.  Netanyahu has willingly complied.  Putin has accomplished what he wanted in Syria—he salvaged the regime of Bashar Assad, fortified long-term military bases in the Middle East and has replaced the US as chief power broker in this region.  He has done so with the tacit support of Israel.

But, Putin remains a ruthless, authoritarian dictator.  His singular mission is to resurrect Russian greatness on the world scene.  Columnist David Brooks cites three specific ideas that inform Putin’s worldview:  (1) Russian exceptionalism: “the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose;”  (2)  Devotion to Orthodox Christianity; and  (3)  A commitment to an autocratic form of government.  Putin sees himself as a political-religious figure destined to restore Russia’s historic mission.  For that reason, he has passionately supported the re-establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church, which also desires to re-establish its centrality at the historic Christian sites in Jerusalem.  Thus, a key element of Putin’s worldview is his commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church.  After it was nearly exterminated by atheistic communism during the 20th century, the Russian Orthodox Church is back at the heart of Russian politics.  The Church has passionately supported Putin as he casts Russia’s challenges in a framework of “foreign devils” vs. “Holy Russia.”  Peter Pomerantsev of The Daily Beast writes that “Since Putin’s reelection, a parade of priests has been loudly denouncing forces aligned against the president.  The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Krill, [has argued] that liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse.”  On another occasion, Krill called Putin’s rule “a miracle.”  The Orthodox Church has long been central to Russian identity.  Indeed, it was in AD 988 that Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity. (Byzantine Christianity, not the Roman Catholic Church).  Since then, Russia has usually been deeply suspicious of western Christianity, and, when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, Russia became known as the Third Rome.  Today, the Russian Orthodox Church has rebuilt its power, such that 90% of ethnic Russians identify themselves as Orthodox.  The Orthodox Church has helped facilitate the idea that the ideal Russian leader is a divinely chosen autocrat.  Putin certainly fits that role.  The Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s Russian state are now inextricably linked.

The Bible speaks of the growing power “to the north” (Daniel 11:40ff) that will eventually threaten Israel as Christ’s return approaches.  The growing power and influence of Vladimir Putin and his remarkable intervention in the Middle East with impunity, fits this description perfectly.  We are watching the denigration of American influence and the rise of a pernicious, nefarious dictator in the person of Vladimir Putin, a religious authoritarian who is masking as a friend of Israel.  He is not!

See The Economist (29 September 2018), p. 39; Andrew E. Kramer and Isabel Kershner in the New York Times (25 September 2018); Peter Pomerantsev in www.thedailybeast/newsweek (10 September 2012); and David Brooks in the New York Times (4 March 2014).

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