SOCHI, Russia - Dozens of decision-makers and shapers of public opinion from Russia and the Middle East met here earlier this month under the auspices of the Kremlin. They came to discuss the "Transformation in the Arab World and Russia's Interests," as the Valdai Discussion Club, established by the Russian news and information agency RIA Novosti, called its conference.
They had the perfect backdrop: a pastoral compound on the shores of the Black Sea nestled among cypress, palms and pines, a stone's throw from the Olympic Village that will be the focus of the winter games of 2014, in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains. How far from the protests and the calls for "Russia without Putin." How far from the rivers of blood in Homs and Hama.
Russia is signaling that it wants to come back with all its might to the Middle East, explained Russia experts who spoke at the conference, which took place February 17-18. They said Russia is seeking full involvement in the Iranian issue and the bogged-down Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It wants to influence the Arab world during its liberation process.
But it seems that this conference was not about flexing muscles; it was much more a demonstration of Russia's own fear and dread. Is the Russian bear growling? That is simply because it is afraid.
Radical Islam is the country's greatest fear. After Tunisia and Egypt, who can guarantee that the Islamists will not take over Syria, the Russians ask "Israel should understand that better than anyone. Israel should have been Syrian President Bashar Assad's greatest supporter."
The increasing strength of Islamist forces could lead to their becoming stronger in the Caucasus and the Volga region. It could undermine the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Many Russians hear "Islam" and envision unrest, chaos, civil war, mass migration and the outbreak of new regional conflicts. The choice between Assad and the alternative, they say, is not between good and evil; it's between evil and the apocalypse.
The Russians are motivated not only by fear, but by trauma - the trauma of Libya. The phrase heard repeatedly here was "Western treachery," a reference to what Russia considers to be the trap set for it in the form of last year's Security Council Resolution 1973, which enforced a no-fly zone over Libya. The no-fly zone was meant to prevent the killing of civilians, but the Libya campaign became a Western, Crusader-style operation to bring down Gadhafi, and ended with a loss of control and with everybody fighting everybody else. We will not be fooled again, the Russians say; we will not allow the West to intervene again in the affairs of a sovereign state.
The Russian weapons industry lost orders amounting to some $10 billion in the wake of the Arab Spring and the sanctions on Iran. The sale of weapons to Syria, on the other hand, has doubled over the past four years, to $4.7 billion, giving Russia another reason to fear the fall of Assad. In addition, regime change in Damascus could also mean the loss of Russian control over the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea, the only Russian naval base outside the former Soviet Union.
Disappointment, frustration and even rage - all these emotions were mixed together in the arguments made by the Arab speakers at the conference. They more than hinted to their hosts that Moscow's support of Assad gives him the green light to slaughter his opponents.
But in the wake of the Syrian crisis, Russia fears the loss of its credibility and international prestige more than it fears the loss of its hegemony over the Arab world. The Americans can betray their allies, the Russians say; look what happened with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But, they insist, Russia will never abandon its historic allies.
In the end, Moscow's steely support of Assad is intended to allow it to stand strong and face the West as a world power in its own right. And there is nothing like an election campaign for standing up to the whole world and bringing back some good old-fashioned imperialism - certainly at a time when it is unclear whether it is winter or spring. Indeed, it is the concept embodied by the slogan "Assad today, Putin tomorrow" that is the greatest of all the fears motivating the Russian bear today. None of the delegates to the Sochi conference had any doubt: Putin will be Russia's next president after next week's election. But the conventional wisdom, whispered in back rooms, was also that he will not finish out his term.
As the song "I Will Survive" blared from the speakers at the farewell banquet, I received two e-mails on my cell phone. One described another bloody day in Syria. The other was a Foreign Policy article called "Putin is already dead."
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