Middle East

Oil and Palestine: The New Cold War

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin (left) talks to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin (left) talks to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the official welcome ceremony in Ramallah last week. (Photo: Alexey Panov / AFP-Getty Images)

Two significant events happened last week — both of which carried more meaning than their literal interpretation. But they both had everything to do with the new Cold War and the reality of American hegemony.

As President Vladimir V. Putin touched down in Israel last week, he became the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit Israel or the Palestinian territories.

Putin is increasingly under siege at home on the domestic front over issues like privatization, cuts to social services, and pensions, and continues to push through economic reforms through his centralized political apparatus. He has warily watched the pro-Western uprisings in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. He has also witnessed the decline of Russian influence on the world stage for the past fifteen years.

Russians fear that the oil rich Central Asian republics could very easily fall under American and Western European influence. It seems akin to the domino theory that fueled American involvement in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, but in reverse.

There is very much a feeling that the push for democracy and free markets in the Arab and Central Asian world satisfies a Western agenda, comes at a high price, and involves a high degree of social rupture for the nations involved.

No longer a superpower, Russia is keen to redefine itself.

Having seen much turmoil since the days when an entire political and economic system was reduced to Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank in Moscow while leader Mikhail Gorbachev was held captive at his dacha on the Crimea, Russia seems ready once again to assume a significant role in international affairs.

Though its influence has waned since the collapse of Communism, its old connections to the Arab states still remain. More than a million Russians have moved to Israel since the mid-1980’s. Russia is one of the Quartet, the four signatories to the Roadmap to Peace with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Russia was also once known as the chief patron of the Palestinians and shares communist roots with many of its nationalist Arab allies.

As Putin visited with Israeli dignitaries last week including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav, he was widely criticized for his decision to sell anti-aircraft weapons to Syria and for his support of nuclear development in Iran.

Later in Ramallah, Putin was greeted by a cheering crowd as he became the first foreign head of state to visit President Mahmoud Abbas since the Palestinian elections earlier this year. Putin laid a wreath at Yasir Arafat’s gravesite and promised Abbas a helicopter and military equipment to help him rule over militant groups in the Palestinian territories.

“If we expect Chairman Abbas to fight terrorism effectively, he can’t do it with slingshots and stones. We must understand this,” declared Putin.

Abbas speaks some Russian, having studied in Russia, like many in the Palestinian leadership. Abbas knows that he can expect little from the Americans based on the peace process thus far.

Abbas endorsed Putin’s plan for a Middle East conference, which would be held in Russia, despite the idea being rejected by the United States and Israel.

Meanwhile, at a conference of oil industry executives in Edinburgh, Matthew Simmons, an advisor to George W. Bush and an industry executive, commented that the world was reaching “peak oil” and he expected the price to skyrocket to $100 by 2008 as supplies failed to meet demand. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is presently pumping at 25-year highs, with the extra supplies pushing world oil prices below $50 a barrel.

A number of commentators, however, predicted that the entire oil industry is in for an extended period of restricted economic activity.

It seems clear now that one of Russia’s roles in international affairs will be to present itself as a buffer to American influence in the region while the United States looks to secure its future oil supply by maintaining its role in the Middle East.

The new Cold War looks a lot like the old one, but this time it is about oil and Palestine.