Past as Prologue

Once, not so long ago, Europe saw itself as the Middle East's honest broker, poised between a hard-line United States and an equally intransigent Muslim world. At the same time Russia, once a regional superpower, was... nowhere. While the European Union played mediator in conflicts from Palestine to Iran, Russia contented itself with hawking a few weapons systems and tending its own post-Soviet backyard.

What a difference a couple of years can make. In the wake of Hamas's Palestinian election win and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadine-jad's defiance over his country's uranium-enrichment program, Europe is edging ever closer to the tougher stance taken by the United States. Meanwhile, a newly confident Russia has stepped into Europe's shoes as middleman between East and West, reaching out to the region's untouchables--and making it clear that Moscow won't be taking orders from anyone.

Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin outraged the United States and Israel by inviting the leaders of Hamas to Moscow for talks. "Hamas is in power--this is a fact" was Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's blunt message. "It came to power as a result of free democratic elections." Moscow has broken ranks with the West in Iran, too. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia won't--for the time being, at least--back U.N. sanctions against Tehran, even as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained that Iran is now "in open defiance of the international community." Russia insists instead that the way forward is to persuade Tehran to accept a scheme to enrich its uranium on Russian territory. "No one has the right to deny another country the right to safe atomic power," Russia's atomic-energy chief, Sergei Kiriyenko, recently told NEWSWEEK.

The new assertiveness, analysts say, is part and parcel of Russia's recent muscle-flexing in Eastern Europe. After a winter spent wielding energy as a political weapon against wayward former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia, the Kremlin has now turned its sights to a broader forum. "First Russia went on a counterattack in the former Soviet Union," says analyst Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Now it is doing the same in the Middle East." Putin gave an important clue to Russia's thinking earlier this month when he described the Hamas victory as "an important setback for American efforts in the Middle East." The implication: America has no infallible monopoly on power and influence, and certainly not at Russia's expense.

For all the United States' and Israel's indignation at Russia's meddling, there's actually a chance that Moscow may succeed where the others have failed. "Unlike America, Russia is not bound up by legal objections to talking [with Hamas]," says Alexander Kalugin, Russia's special envoy to the Middle East, who met with senior Hamas representatives last week in Ramallah. And what Russia has to say to Hamas doesn't differ much in substance from the message propounded by the other members of the "quartet" of interested parties--the United States, the EU and the United Nations. "Their message will be consistent: that Israel has a right to exist, that previous Palestinian Authority agreements should be honored and that they should renounce violence," says one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The main problem is that Russia didn't see fit to discuss its initiative with the others. "There was not a lot of advance consultation about the talks," admits the diplomat. For the Kremlin, it seems, the important point is to distance itself from the United States--and to emphasize that Russia is no longer a junior partner in Washington's foreign policy.

The risk is, of course, that Russia's strategy of talking to Hamas could backfire. After all, Russia dubs its own Chechen separatists "terrorists" and complains vociferously when the U.K. and United States offer political asylum to rebel leaders such as Ilyas Akhmadov, a self-styled "ambassador" of independent Chechnya. "If today Moscow talks to Hamas," warns Russia's Chief Rabbi Beryl Lazar, "tomorrow we'll hear demands for talks with [Chechen rebel Shamil] Basayev, the day after tomorrow for talks with Al Qaeda."

And Russia's self-appointed role as honest broker doesn't sit terribly well with its place as a major arms supplier, especially to Iran. Last month Rosvooruzheniye, Russia's giant state-owned arms-export company, announced that Tehran had agreed to spend $1 billion on 30 Tor-M1 air-defense missile systems, capable of protecting a target from up to 48 incoming planes or projectiles to a range of six kilometers. Iran also has a longstanding accord with Moscow for up to $7 billion in conventional arms, including MiG-29 fighters, assistance with Iran's small submarine fleet, BMP-3 armored personnel carriers and landing craft.

The bottom line? Moscow may be broadly cooperative in international efforts to get Iran to cease its uranium- enrichment program--but at the same time, it's providing Iran with the means to defend itself against a possible air raid like the Israeli strike that destroyed Saddam Hussein's French-built Osirak reactor in 1981. In that, Russia's "new" role looks more like that played in the past--less middleman than a check on Washington and the West.