- Russian President Vladimir Putin is a shrewd strategist
-- perhaps more astute than his American counterpart when it comes to the
effective usage of diplomatic muscle to promote and safeguard the political,
military and economic interests of his country.
- His recent visit to the Middle East was a corroboration
of his ability to play safe through diplomacy.
- He went to the region with three clear and well-defined
objectives; knitting together a gas cartel, exploring the business opportunities
and the Middle East arms market for the Russian weapon industry, and projecting
Russia as a potential ally of the Arabs.
- Not surprisingly, to the utter disdain of Washington,
he successfully managed to achieve these objectives with a relative ease.
- There is a growing feeling in Europe that Moscow is consciously
working towards the establishment of a "gas cartel," stretching
from Algeria to Central Asia, to use as a political and economic weapon
in its dealings with Europe.
- Although the officials of the Gas Exporting Countries
Forum (GECF), which was created in May 2001, claim it to be a talking-shop
only and not a cartel-in-the-making, the Europeans are quite wary of its
- In a recent report by Nato's economic committee, there
is a detailed description of how Moscow has been trying to a draw Algeria,
Libya, Qatar and central Asian countries into a Russian-backed cartel,
"Opec for gas," which will straddle about two-thirds of the world's
total gas reserves and wield huge control over the gas market.
- During the three-day tour that took him to Saudi Arabia,
Qatar and Jordan, Putin consciously worked in the direction of increasing
cooperation among the major gas producers, and even openly broached the
possibility of the so-called gas-cartel.
- "Who said that we rejected the idea of creating
a gas cartel? We haven't rejected anything. I said that it was an interesting
proposition. Are we going to create this cartel, do we need it, that's
another discussion," he said while responding to media reports about
Moscow's controversial role in concocting a gas cartel.
- Putin's visit to Qatar, which has the world's third largest
gas reserves after Russia and Iran, was indirectly focused on selling the
cartel idea. Whereas, in Saudi Arabia, his main intent was to project Russia
as a potential and reliable partner who could provide "cost-effective"
military hardware, as well as technological support in the field of telecommunication.
- Apart from offering to build the much-desired civilian
nuclear-energy technology in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Putin announced
that Russia would launch six Saudi-made information satellites for Saudi
Arabia this year.
- At the same time, he discussed the possibility of selling
150 Russian T-90 battle tanks and an unknown number of Mi 17 helicopters
to Saudi Arabia.
- Furthermore, his team also signed numerous MoUs - ranging
from cooperation in the fields of culture, aviation and banking -- with
the Saudi counterparts.
- On the last leg of his tour, with a view to making Russia's
presence felt in the Palestinian issue, Putin went to Jordan to exchange
ideas on the subject with King Abdullah II.
- Washington's influence in the Middle East is a blatant
reality with which Moscow has been living for decades -- though with a
visible uneasiness. Putin's visit was a direct attempt to make inroads
there and take full advantage of Washington's current predicament in Iraq,
which has drastically shaken America's image as a dependable guarantor
of security and stability in the region.
- The Bush administration's growing precariousness on the
question of its Iraq policy has indubitably created unprecedented anxiety
among its close, traditional allies in the region.
- In such a shaky scenario, where President Bush is finding
it hard to assuage the genuine apprehensions of the regional leaders Putin,
being a shrewd player, has made a move to carve a role for Russia in the
Middle East political arena.
- To achieve this, Putin is even ready to swallow the involvement
of some Arab countries' alleged support to the Chechen fighters.
- In fact, during his Middle East yatra, he kept on chanting
the unusual mantra of Russia's multi-ethnic and multi-religious complexion,
and the role of Russian Muslims in the development of the country.
- In its capacity as a member of the Quartet -- along with
the US, the European Union and the United States -- Russia has been involved
in the Middle East process, but its involvement has always been eclipsed
by the belligerent attitude of Washington, which has close ties with both
Tel Aviv and the Arab capitals.
- President Bush's fiasco in Iraq, and his desperation
to "show" some progress on the Palestinian issues in the last
half of his stint have certainly provided an opportunity to Vladimir Putin
to jump into the fray and encroach upon the Americans' influence in the
- The apparent success of his recent Middle East visit
indicates that Putin's strategy is working well.
- Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance contributor to The Daily