The spark was in Georgia, which made an unwise decision that set off a chain reaction. The response by America and other NATO members was diplomatic but employed the language of war. Russia, Britain said, may take over Ukraine, Moldova and the Crimean peninsula; France proposed imposing sanctions; and nine NATO warships began exercises in the Black Sea, off Georgia's shores.
Russia not only ignored the West's demands and warnings, it added threats of its own and warned of a conflagration in the Black Sea. On Wednesday, Russia poked Washington in the eye one more time and caused a stir in Israel. The charge d'affaires at the Russian embassy in Damascus announced that Moscow would beef up its naval forces in the Mediterranean and that warships would visit the Syrian port of Tartus more frequently. According to Russia's rationale, if the United States could dispatch the destroyer Cole off Lebanon's shores in March, Russia can send its warships to Syria's port. Because from now on, anything the United States can do, Russia can do, and maybe with even greater force and brutality.
"Suddenly" it turns out that during a period of calm, when Russia was considered harmless, it accumulated enormous assets that today allow it to leverage its strategy. Europe, for example, which is now threatening Russia with sanctions, imports from Russia 30 percent of its oil and more than 40 percent of its natural gas, which keeps it warm during the winter. Russia is deeply invested in Iran, well beyond the construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor - it holds long-term contracts in Iraq; Russia and China have extensively expanded trade relations, which reached $48 billion in 2007; and during his visit to Moscow last year, China's president said he expected trade between the two countries to reach $60 billion to $80 billion by 2010.
With trade options like these, and many more investments in the Middle East, from Turkey to Algeria, Europe's dependence and an America stuck in the quicksand not in one place but two (Iraq and Afghanistan) - the Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev duo can walk around the neighborhood with brass knuckles and steely blue eyes, speaking in low voices. Especially after the ruckus they caused in Georgia.
But this is not that same old Cold War. This is not about two ideologies fighting over space, but four superpowers - the United States, Europe, China and Russia - that are busy evaluating their economic forecasts for the coming decade and neutralizing mutual threats. It is not Abkhazia's national ambitions that interest Russia, just as Kosovo's ambitions are not the center of U.S. concerns. What is really important is where the next oil pipeline will pass, whether Iran will replace Russia as Europe's main energy supplier, whether Russia or the United States will lead in extracting petroleum in Iraq, and who will supply oil to China.
If this were a matter of ideology, we would see Russia, a member of the international Quartet, working overtime to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least encouraging dialogue between Israel and Damascus. If it were a matter of checking America's diplomatic strength in the region, Bashar Assad would have returned from his recent visit to Moscow with a pile of missiles, and not a cool promise for only defensive weapons, and only if he pays in cash.
It may be possible to stop panicking from the Syrian-Russian ties, but it is best not to fall into diplomatic hibernation. Regional conflicts have always given powers reason to intervene, and Russia may renew its ambitions in this direction. Will Israel have the right response if Russia decides that the time has come to intervene in our little conflict? To become an active member of the Quartet? To recognize Palestinian independence as it recognized Abkhazia? Because if Russia becomes interested in the conflict, this may cause the United States to move, and this would be cause for panic.
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