Peace Like A River

It was a wide river, mistakable for a lake or even an ocean unless you'd been wading and knew its current. Somehow I'd crossed it... Now I saw the stream regrouped below, flowing on through what might've been vineyards, pastures, orhards... It flowed between and alongside the rivers of people; from here it was no more than a silver wire winding toward the city. - Leif Enger, Peace Like A River

Monday, June 26, 2006

Why Russia?

On Sunday, the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq said it had executed the four Russian diplomats being held hostage. The diplomats were taken June 3 in Baghdad. A fifth Russian diplomat was killed in the attack.

The announcement included a grim reminder of barbaric nature of the terrorists in Iraq.

The statement said the posting included footage of the "execution". The group had demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from Chechnya and release all Muslim prisoners.

The Web posting showed video footage of the killing of two men it said were Russian hostages and the beheaded body of a third man.

It showed two militants beheading one of the men and the shooting of a second, after showing four men speaking in Russian in video statements dated June 13, 2006.

While the diplomats were taken June 3, it wasn't until June 19 that the Council claimed responsibility for the kidnappings. The Council is an umbrella group for 8 terrorist organizations in Iraq, and their statement claimed the Russians were taken in response to Russian activity in Chechnya. On June 21, the Council said that since Russia had not acted, the diplomats would be killed.

On June 19, the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq (an umbrella organization that includes al-Qaida in Iraq) claimed responsibility for this action and gave the Russian government a 48-hour ultimatum to pull its troops out of Chechnya and release Muslims from Russian prisons. On June 21, the Mujahideen Shura Council announced that since Moscow had not met its demands, a ruling had been made by the Council's Islamic Court to execute the four Russian hostages.

As I remarked when the Russians were first taken, it is puzzling why the terrorists would target Russian diplomats. Russia is quite opposed to the US efforts in Iraq, and certainly does not have troops there assisting Coalition forces. There was no need to punish Russia for its Iraq policy because it already opposed the US.

I don't believe it was a random targeting. I don't think the terrorists went out to kidnap people and happened upon the Russians. I believe someone was trying to send a message to Russia. Who, and why, is really the interesting question here.

The Council referred to Chechnya. It is possible that Chechnya was the driving motive here, as evidenced by the fact the kidnapping and Chechnya were not linked until June 19.

This is interesting because Russia killed a top Chechen terrorist leader only two days before, on June 17.

Police killed the Chechen rebel leader Saturday allegedly acting on a tip from within his network and dealing a possible blow to efforts to spread the increasingly Islam-inspired insurgency throughout southern Russia.

Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev was shot during a raid on a hideout in his Chechen hometown of Argun, nine miles east of Grozny. He had been planning a terror attack in Argun to coincide with the Group of Eight summit of leading industrialized nations in St. Petersburg in mid-July, the Moscow-backed Chechen premier claimed.

Wearing combat fatigues, Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov posed for TV cameras next to a half-naked bloodied body identified as the rebel leader's. He said a close associate of Sadulayev's tipped police to his whereabouts for the equivalent of $55.

It's possible a criminal gang took the Russians and sold them to the Council for money, something that happens all the time in Iraq. Perhaps elements within the Council with ties to Chechnya then used the killing of Sadulayev as a motive to execute the Russians.

On the wider scale, Russia maintains relationships with states throughout the Middle East. Russia is not an enemy of the regimes there. An article in the latest issue of The Middle East Review of International Affairs looks at Russia's Middle East policy. Here is an excerpt.

Russia's policy towards the Middle East today is a far cry from the ideologically-driven, Cold War zero-sum thinking which guided the Kremlin for many years. In fact, Putin's policy towards the region has been anything but ideological. Learning from U.S. policymakers who for many years developed relations with both Arab states and Israel and were thus at an advantage when it came to resolving disputes and capitalizing on economic opportunities, Russian officials now similarly avoid any ideological principle that would force their policy to be zero-sum. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Russian newspaper Pravda, "Russia's policy is neither pro-Arab, nor pro-Israel. It is aimed at securing Russian national interests. Maintaining close and friendly ties with Arab states and Israel is among them."

The Kremlin's modus vivendi in the region is marked by pragmatism, cynicism, and economic calculations occasionally mixed with an undertone of anti-Americanism. Russian policymakers recognize that the Middle East is not a primary area of concern, even if it is, increasingly, becoming an area where Russia can exert influence. While Russia plays more than a "niche role" in the region, it lacks the well-defined, long-term strategy necessary to be considered a "real great power." Russia simply cannot penetrate the Middle East as the Soviet Union once could nor does it necessarily have an interest in doing so. Russia's limited capacity to affect change far from her borders forces Russian leaders to distinguish primary from secondary objectives. Tangibly, this has meant that Russia has concentrated on maintaining its traditional role in the region as a leading arms supplier while simultaneously opening new markets to Russian companies. This was demonstrated most clearly when on his only trip to the Middle East in April of 2005, Putin's fellow travelers included the chief executives from the MiG Corporation and Rosoboroneksport (Russian Defense Exports). Indeed, Putin is interested not only in continuing exporting arms to the region, but also expanding the role of Russian companies in the energy sector. For years, Russian firms have been buying oil from Iraq and then reselling it to Europe and the United States, but only recently has Russia begun crafting energy deals with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and even Israel.

As such, Arab terrorists should not have reason to be angry with Russia. However, the article does elaborate on Russia's growing relationship with Israel, and that may be a motive for terrorists to strike at Russia's diplomats. The article says:

During Putin's presidency, Israel has come to play an increasingly significant role in Russia's Middle East policy. Putin has done more than any other Russian leader to improve economic and strategic ties with Israel. At the same time, however, the Kremlin's dealings with some of Israel's adversaries have complicated the full development of Russian-Israeli ties, as was seen in the Israeli response to the Kremlin's controversial February 2006 decision to invite Hamas to Moscow for meetings with senior Russian officials.

On the surface, Russian-Israeli cooperation has never been closer. As Putin told his Israeli hosts in late April 2005, "We have all the conditions for success, and most important, there is the will and desire on both sides to strengthen our friendship, trust and cooperation and to build a constructive partnership together."[8] Trade between the countries has doubled under Putin and today amounts to close to $1.5 billion in direct trade,[9] and over a billion in energy deals. Israelis and Russians are working together in sectors spanning heavy industry, aviation, energy, and medicine. Since 1989, almost one million Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Israel, creating a natural economic bridge between the two countries. Today, they make up approximately 20 percent of Israel's population. As Putin told the Egyptian Newspaper Al-Ahram in April of 2005, Russia "is not indifferent to the fate of these people,"[10] many of whom have dual Israeli/Russian citizenship and business ties with both countries.

Gazprom has been pursuing gas deals with Israel, including an undersea pipeline from Turkey to Israel. From this commentary at MosNews:

Gazprom had no intention of giving up a foothold in Israel. Last March, eight months and one CVA later, with Olmert serving as Prime Minister, the Ministry of National Infrastructures received a request from Gazprom to renew the meetings about the major deal. The Russians didn’t content themselves with a meeting with Roni Bar-On, the then Minister of National Infrastructures, and requested a meeting between Olmert and the delegation, headed by company President Miller, and that’s exactly what took place.

At the meeting the Russians presented their plan: laying an undersea gas pipeline from Turkey to Israel, that would make it possible to supply gas for decades. The project, whose scope is estimated in the billions, was examined in the past but not carried out because the Israeli estimate was that the asking price for the gas would be high. Aside from the economic aspect, ministers expressed a fear that the Russian government, by means of Gazprom, would attempt to create Israeli dependency on Russian energy, as it has done with other countries. “Putin wants a foothold in this region,” explains a senior party at the Ministry of National Infrastructures. “What does he have to offer? Weapons aren’t relevant, and he doesn’t have other significant resources. Gas is a product that could do the trick.”

Looking the opposite direction from Israel, Russia has done a couple of things to anger Iran. Last October, when Ahmadinejad made his remarks about wiping Israel off the face of the map, Russia publicly condemned the remarks. (Why? Perhaps for reasons discussed above, to preserve growing business ties?)

Also, just this weekend Iran criticized Russia for dragging its heels in completing the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi on Sunday said that Russia has not fulfilled its commitments properly, IRNA reports.

Addressing reporters in his weekly press conference in Tehran, he made the above remark in response to a question about the Russians delay in completing Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant.

Criticizing the Russian partner working on the project, he hoped that the relevant contractor will comply with its commitments to this end and will make up for the delay.

Replying to a question about the timetable of the project and whether its implementation has been postponed until 2007, he hoped that they will comply with their commitments and compensate for the delay.

Iran would be foolish to drive Russia, its protector in the UN, away by having Russian diplomats killed. If Iran was involved, it would be through typical Iranian means, by proxy. However, there would be no point to it if Russia didn't know Iran was behind it, if it was an attempt to warn Russia not to stray too far from a strong relationship with Iran. And so, Iran would seem to be an unlikely culprit here.

It is a mystery. And make no mistake, this wasn't random. Someone was trying to tell Russia something. As Olivier Guitta points out at the Counterterrorism Blog, the question now is how Russia will respond.

It will be interesting to see how Russia reacts to these murders. Indeed Russia has been known for dealing with sometimes excessive force to terrorists. And not only with Chechen rebels.

For example, in September 1985 when four Russian diplomats were kidnapped in Beirut by Hezbollah, the then USSR responded in kind by first abducting a family member of an Hezbollah leader and then killing him very very gruesomely. The hostages were given back right away and Russia was never targeted in Lebanon again.

Will Russia do the same today?


  • At Mon Jun 26, 10:19:00 PM, Anonymous said…

    good work.
    iran could easily behind the hit that targeted their car-which security detail made some serious mistakes. they got sloppy since they thought they had 'friends' there.
    not so much.
    reminder that that the rus and persians are long rivals and the ayatollahs still smart from losing their northern empire to czarist instrigues during the 'great game'

  • At Thu Jun 29, 03:21:00 PM, Anonymous said…

    Maybe if the terrorists kill enough Soviets, maybe the Americans communists will permit us to fight the terrorists?


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