The lethal miscalculations over Vladimir Putin
My enemy's enemy may not be my friend but may still be my enemy
In the Middle East, where two earth tremors this week shook northern Israel and sounded an ominous warning of a major earthquake in the near future, the geopolitical tectonic plates also continue to shift in startling fashion.
Video footage from the Egyptian Petroleum Show in Cairo showed Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi striding across the hall to greet Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, who uses a wheelchair. With smiles and gracious gestures towards his heart, Sisi told the Israeli that he was glad she had come and invited her to return.
Despite the four decades of peace between Egypt and Israel, most Egyptians still reject any moves towards normalisation. So Sisi’s touching and very deliberate public gesture caused a collective gasp in Israel.
At around the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was receiving the warmest possible welcome in Bahrain, where he met its prime minister, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa.
Bahrain will now host an Israeli military officer as part of a regional alliance. This will be the first time an Israeli officer is posted in a Persian Gulf country.
These developments are the result of the historic Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, which is changing the face of the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamist Ra’am Party whose four members are part of Israel’s governing coalition, remarkably took issue with the poisonous claim by Amnesty International that Israel was guilty of apartheid.
He told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “I would not call it apartheid. I prefer to describe the reality in objective ways. If there is discrimination in a certain field, then we will say that there is discrimination in that specific field”.
He was echoed by the Arab-Israeli regional affairs minister Issawi Frej, who said: “Israel has many problems that must be resolved, within the Green Line, and especially in the occupied territories, but Israel is not an apartheid state”.
It takes enormous courage for Arab politicians to speak the truth about Israel. Abbas, who has also stated that Israel “was born a Jewish state and it will remain that way,” receives round-the-clock protection.
His repudiation of Amnesty’s grotesque libel is nevertheless disorienting. After all, he is an Islamist, supposedly a subscriber to the most extremist form of Islam and to the jihad, or holy war. So has he now accepted reality, or is he actually a deadly foe playing a long and smart game?
The same question applies not only to the Gulf states too, but also to the leader who is currently convulsing the west over his activities: Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. Confusion over what Putin is actually up to over Ukraine is compounded by confusion in the west about Putin himself.
Whether the buildup of Russian troops and military exercises near the Ukraine border is a precursor to invasion, a manipulative strategy of leverage to divide the west or a manoeuvre to intimidate Ukraine into compliance with Putin’s diktats, this crisis has been caused by his actions.
And yet in its response, the west is displaying uncertainty and profound inconsistencies — not just about military action, but about whether to regard Putin as a deadly foe or a misunderstood Russian patriot and even a possible ally.
As ever, there are those who invert victim and aggressor in order to blame the west. These people are blaming NATO for expanding to the east — ignoring the key fact that NATO is a purely defensive alliance and has merely been seeking to defend states bordering Russia against its aggression.
But the west’s ambiguities extend more widely than among these usual suspects. Countries now saying that Putin is a gangster and a menace and has to be stopped were until recently sucking up to him and seeking to use the “mafia state” he has created to enrich themselves.
London, in particular, has become known as “Londongrad,” the global centre of money laundering for the corrupt assets of Putin and other Russian oligarchs.
In 2018, a report by the United Kingdom’s foreign affairs committee said London was the “laundromat” for these assets which “support President Putin’s campaign to subvert the international rules-based system, undermine our allies, and erode the mutually-reinforcing international networks that support UK foreign policy”.
Yet the British government turned a blind eye. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was assumed that Russia was no longer a threat because it merely wanted to make money like everyone else. It assumed that Putin was a pragmatic leader with whom the UK could do profitable business.
Although the British government is currently threatening to block Russian companies from raising capital in London and, in the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to “unpeel the facade of Russian property holdings,” it seems unlikely that it really would pull the plug on such a significant contribution made by dirty Russian money to the UK’s GDP.
Others in the west have fallen into the same trap of believing that a deal with Putin was in their own country’s interests. Thus Germany agreed to Nord Stream, the gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea, which was in turn green-lighted by US President Joe Biden — until Russian aggression revealed even to Biden that the pipeline enabled Putin to weaponise gas supplies against the west.
Russia was also viewed as a bulwark against China. But Putin has made a strategic alliance with China’s President Xi Jinping, both of them having decided that culturally riven America under its wobbly president is now a busted flush unprepared to do what it takes to resist their aggression.
In other words, my enemy’s enemy may not be my friend but may still be my enemy. But those desperate to believe that swords can be turned into ploughshares fall into the trap of wishful thinking.
That’s why the west is regularly played for a sucker by regimes that are inherently far weaker from economic mismanagement and corruption, such as Russia or Iran.
Their power lies in two things: that while they perceive western states are no longer prepared to fight and die for their country and its culture, Russia and Iran — driven by nationalism or religious fanaticism — very much are.
So, too, is Israel, which knows what it stands for, recognises its enemies and behaves as if war is just round the corner — which, alas, it so often is.
But even hard-boiled Israel has wobbled, with lethal consequences. During the Oslo process, it allowed itself to believe that the Palestinian Arab leader Yasser Arafat had abandoned terrorism for peace, embraced the “two-state solution” and was bringing the long nightmare of never-ending war to an end.
This lethal miscalculation not only led to the “Second Intifada” and the murder of more than 1,300 Israelis. It also meant that Israel seemed to sign up to the Palestinian Arab falsehood that this was a dispute over land boundaries rather than a war against its very existence.
Ever since, while the west has believed this falsehood, Israel — trapped by its terrible Oslo error — has been unable to convince the world that it has always been defending itself against the threat of extermination.
Because of this threat, Israel has always been forced to ally itself with unpleasant governments whose support is crucial to Israel’s defence. It has held its nose and done those deals because it is driven above all by the need to survive.
By contrast, the west can no longer agree within itself what exactly it is worth surviving for. That’s why Putin won’t be the last to run rings around it as it feebly flaps its hands.
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