On Russia's Near-Abroad and Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

An Interview with Serge Schmemann

Panorama View of Grand Kremlin Palace, Moscow
On Russia's Near-Abroad and Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks : An Interview with Serge Schmemann - The Editorial Staff

Russia & the Ukraine

How does Russia conceive of its interests in the Ukraine and the former Soviet sphere?

Russia has a term that it uses for the countries of the former Soviet Union: “the near abroad.” The attitude of Russia in this regard is similar to the Monroe Doctrine, but even more so because the former Soviet states were once part of the same country and ruled from Moscow. So the Russians have a notion that they have a special interest in these regions and that the expansion of Western influence, whether through NATO or the EU, is tantamount to a provocation.

This sentiment is not shared universally. The Russian intelligentsia would probably disagree. But Putin represents the classic power structure, what the Russians call the silovki  the power brokers and power ministries – including the military, the interior ministry and the KGB/FSB. They have nurtured an imperial mentality, in which Russia is not to be trifled with. Even if they have very little specific interest in the country in question, there is a strong sense of humiliation or irritation when other countries move in, because they see it as a lack of respect for Russia as a great power.

This notion of humiliation and respect is critical to Russian international relations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin and many Russians have been motivated by the feeling that they were treated as a defeated nation by the US. There is real truth to that notion. They were in fact treated as a defeated nation and left out of deliberations. One reason they have been reluctant to assist the US with Syria and Iran is that they do not feel like they are being treated as a partner, but instead being told what to do. This notion has played a very important role in Russia's foreign affairs, and especially in Russia's feeling that it has a special role to play and a special position in the former Soviet Union.

Is this idea of Russia as an aggrieved power popular with Putin’s domestic Russian audience?

It is. There is more than one Russia. Many Americans think of the country as a monolith, but in fact Russia has a very strong business-intellectual class in the big cities. They are the ones we saw protesting against Putin, because they feel that Putin's form of politics is corrupt, authoritarian and wrong. But they, ultimately, are a small minority, and Putin understood from the outset that he had a majority of Russians firmly behind him. That's why, for example, he put television under government control. Putin understands that television affects the opinions of the people outside the major cities, while the opposition papers he has allowed to flourish are accessible only to the Europeanized intelligentsia that is not with him in any case.

He may have miscalculated. The intelligentsia now plays a larger role because the Russian economy has grown more complex. For example, I don't think Putin expected the Ruble to fall and the Russian economy to suffer as a result of [the invasion of Crimea]. But I'd say that the large majority of Russians is firmly behind him, and does share this notion that the US has somehow humiliated them.

Are there demographic and economic limits to the current Russian strategy?

Yes, I think there are economic barriers. Russia is rich in resources, but the Russian economy has also become globalized to a much greater degree. It is not expanding and has to an extent become dependent on oil and gas. This is already hurting them and will continue to do so.

Europe has had a warm winter and has stockpiled a lot of gas, so any sanctions imposed are likely to hurt Russia much more than Europe. If Europe were to impose sanctions, Russia stands to lose a huge amount of money from gas exports to Europe. Germany is Russia's biggest trading partner and Russia needs these imports more than Germany needs the Russian market. So, serous sanctions imposed by Europe (not the US since it does not trade much with Russia) could hurt Russia signifcantly.

What Putin doesn't sufficiently understand, but is constantly compelled to understand, is that the Russian economy can be hurt simply by Russian unpopularity. If Russia becomes a pariah, it can hurt their economic growth, and Russia cannot afford for that to happen. 

It’s an interesting juxtaposition that Putin’s decision to seize Crimea came immediately after the Sochi Olympics, which was a grand and expensive attempt to burnish Russia’s international reputation.

The Olympics also betray a certain 1980s Soviet mentality, or the current Chinese one, that if you throw a great show everyone will be impressed. It is an authoritarian notion that we also saw with Hitler and the Berlin Olympics, the idea that you can fool the world through an enormous show of strength. A lot of sophisticated Russians now understand that. Putin was very angry with the sniping from within Russia about things like the huge cost of the Olympics. But that is very much the Soviet mentality. The juxtaposition of the Sochi Olympics and the seizure of Crimea capture Putin’s mentality.


You were in Jereusalem in the 1990’s as the Oslo process collapsed. What are your thoughts on the current Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations?

It's pure process. After watching the Oslo process collapse, it is difficult not to be cynical for a number of reasons. One is that Israel is quite prosperous right now. They have found a huge market in things that don't rely on geography or a big labor force, things like software and medical technology. Therefore, there is not a strong feeling in the internal Israeli media that they need to make peace. They need to keep the process going because nobody wants to antagonize the US, but right now there is no sense of crisis with the US or within Israel. The West Bank barrier has more or less put a stop to terrorism.

So on one side, Israel is relatively secure and prosperous. On the other side, Palestinians are completely divided. There is nothing in common between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. There may never have been anything in common, but at least there was the myth of one Palestinian people. Gaza is an enclave that is perhaps more linked to Egypt than the West Bank, and Gazans have never really shared a culture with the West Bank. And in the West Bank there is really no leadership. Mahmoud Abbas is an old man, and the one Fatah leader who could make a difference, Marwan Barghouti is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison. I think he is a “reserve weapon” that the Israelis could release him if they really needed to make a deal. But he has been in prison for so long now that he has been forgotten in the West Bank. So there is really no leader who can actually cut a deal, and no leverage to achieve one without the help of the US. This is why the Palestinians are trying gain some legitimacy through the UN.

There simply is not kuch pressure to make a deal now. There is a divestment campaign [against Israel] that's gathering steam in Europe, but it is very weak in the US. All the previous moments of progress have unfortunately happened after outbreaks of violence, like the intifadas. Everybody tells the Palestinians to remain non-violent, but if there is no bloodshed the negotiations go nowhere. I don't think Netanyahu takes Kerry seriously, and he distinctly dislikes Obama and feels he can disregard him. So I see little chance for any meaningful progress in these negotiations.

But Netanyahu still recognizes the need for at least the public appearance of a peace process.

Yes. He is a very sharp guy, with a good understanding of the politics on both sides. He is not personally popular, but like [former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, he is somebody that they come back to because this is exactly what they want. The business elite wants to say all the right things but wants to maintain the status quo. This unsettled state of affairs suits them well. They were very much concerned about the Arab Spring, but now they have a military government in Egypt and Syria is effectively non-existent as a threat, as is Jordan.

In the case of Iran and the nuclear bomb, it is very hard for me to tell from a distance whether Netanyahu's constant focus on the bomb is a political gimmick to create a threat for domestic and American audiences, or a genuine concern. There is obviously a certain danger to them if Iran were to develop a nuclear bomb, but even that right now is essentially under control.

The current framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is essentially the same as it has been for twenty years: small confidence building steps meant to enable the parties to settle to the conflict on a “Land for Peace” basis. If your pessimism about this round is vindicated, do you see a need for a new framework for these negotiations? What might that look like? 

Anyone who has ever been to Israel can tell you what a “Land for Peace” settlement should look like. We know which land goes where and which settlements will have to be surrendered and what kind of defenses Israel will require. These things have been worked out. It's a very small country and it is not too hard to figure out what is needed. Israel is overwhelmingly militarily dominant. It could counter any conventional threat, and it has the region’s only nuclear weapons.

So the basic outlines of a settlement are obvious. The problem is there is no power that can force it to happen. The Israeli public never feels sufficiently secure to go for it. They have no idea how to clear out the settlements, and doing so would take enormous political courage. Sharon had that courage - you can love him or hate him, but Ariel Sharon was a remarkable man, and he was able to clear settlements, as he did in Gaza and the Sinai.

Right now, nobody has that kind of authority. On the American side, there is still not a sufficient constituency for peace. There is an incredibly strong pro-Israel constituency, but there is no support for the kind of tough moves that would be required in order to dictate to Israel how to end the conflict. Kerry may be prepared to present a concrete plan for how to end the conflict, but as soon as that happens, Israel can simply build another settlement, creating more facts on the ground, and the hardliners on both sides have any number of ways to make any talks collapse immediately.

So, unless there is a strong constituency for peace in America and unless the Obama Administration is strongly backed by the Congress and the public, there will be no push for peace. For now, there is an absence of will and leverage on all sides; the Palestinians, Israelis and the Americans. I don't see this changing any time soon, despite the fact that everyone knows what needs to happen.

Serge Schmemann is a member of the New York Times editorial board and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered foreign affairs for the Times for more than 30 years. He served as the editorial page editor of the International Herald Tribune between 2003 and 2013, and has reported for the Times from Moscow, Bonn, Jerusalem and the United Nations. Schmemann is the author of two books about Russia, including Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village, which explores his family’s Russian roots.