ANALYSIS: Why this new Middle East heat is still the same old Cold War.

Russia has a limited window in which to make her oil count – and Vladimir Putin is a man with a plan.

He may well live to regret his desperate tactics.


Few observers were surprised to see that at least one faction engaged in the removal of Egypt’s President Mubarak had US backing. Even the more chilly Cold Warriors among us assume that if something like this happens within a thousand miles of oil or Cuba, the Americans will have a telling presence.

As always with the US, the willingness to open Pandora’s Box on the one hand suggests a degree of bungling; but on the other, the Russians remain heavily involved. The Moscow strategy is different these days – but there is still a game-plan in place. An old KGB man like Vladimir Putin wouldn’t dream of playing without one. And the American intelligence services will always have to recognise that.

In this week’s Economist, there’s a puzzling piece about a Russian vessel, the Arctic Sea, which disappeared at sea for some time during 2009. The official Russian explanation – that its crew stood accused of piracy and hijacking –  proved so implausible to both investigators and the families involved, suspicions about its mission were immediately aroused.

The Russian navy says the ship was carrying timber from Finland to Algeria when the six miscreants hijacked it. But in reality, the ship was carrying arms to North African insurgents – and the real interceptor was Mossad.

Israel has a long history of warning the Russians about arming Arab Islamists. The Israelis first warned Putin about it formally (in relation to Tunisia) during 2005, but only last year Premier Netanyahu telephoned the Russian leader to demand he halt sales of P-800 anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria. Mossad – which turned the Artic Sea round under threat of boarding or sinking it – reportedly tracks every last Russian smuggling attempt: Israel has never had a shortage of  well-placed agents in Moscow. 

The Israeli leadership claims that militants have used Russian-made weaponry on a number of occasions in the past, including during the Second Lebanese War in 2006. Back then, Netanyahu said, Russian missiles previously delivered to Syria were later sold on to Hezbollah and used against Israeli Defence Forces. (There is a roaring trade in North Africa in the resale of illegally imported weapons).

But Tel Aviv does not see the Russians as trying to obliterate Israel – and the Israelis are right about this. The Mossad Intepretation (as it has come to be known) is straightforward espionage theory: Russia’s wealth lies in its oil – but the oil age is coming to an end, and Russia has many competitors. Putin realises he has a limited window in which to use the energy source as a bargaining chip.

In short, the Russian strategy is to destabilise the Middle East and thus render oil supply from the region uncertain.

Both the crises and the supply cuts, they reason, would send the price of oil through the roof…..and solve all kinds of internal problems faced (but carefully hidden) by Medvedhev and Putin – as well as giving the Kremlin an opportunity to recapture part of am ailing EU.

In truth, Russia’s problems aren’t that well hidden. Mafia power, enormous property scandals, local political skirmishes, a stock market built on thin air and rogue billionaires all make life a constant Hell of stress for the Kremlin. Not only does the power of oiligarchs render the central Government relatively irrelevant at times, these Vodka Palace pirates also form alliances with foreign companies that make them even more independent of Moscow.

In that context, BP was both desperate and very foolish to do a deal with the State-owned oil group Rosneft. The company’s other (even more dubious) Russian partners TNK have taken a dim view of the new arrangement, and blocked a BP dividend payment that will cast another dark shadow on the oil giant’s already underwhelming results post the Gulf of Mexico spill.

Either way, in doing the deal in the first place, BP once more finds itself embroiled in a similar nest of vipers (and bombers) to that it encountered by dealing with Libya. This would be bad enough without the undercurrent of Cold War Mid-East politics clearly operating not far behind the scenes. But in recent days, of course, that undercurrent has become a tidal wave of change.

The truth is that it’s not just the USA and buccaneering oilcos meddling with things it cannot control here: Moscow bears the bulk of the blame for mixing up an anarchic brew of oil and Islamism with its iron-hammered spoon.

Russian support for Algerian fundamentalists has created a nascent den of madmen there. And last Sunday, thousands of Tunisians welcomed home Islamist leader Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, after a 25-year exile. Both Ghannouchi and Ennahda are religious extremists of the worst possible kind.

Protesters in Egypt demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule have in turn been inspired by the example of Tunisia. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is growing in stature as the soi-disant ‘democracy’ movement unfolds there. Syria is being rapidly destabilised: fearful of further contagion, the ruling B’aath Party has followed Egypt in banning the use of Twitter.

In the autumn of 1917, the German Kaiser’s Generals thought it would be a smart tactic to destabilise their enemy Russia still further by sending a  firebrand exile, Vladimir Ilyitch Ulyanov, back to Moscow. The revolutionary hothead was better known as Lenin; his influence ensured the victory of the Bolshevisks – and the creation of the USSR.

How ironic that, 93 years later – for similar short-term advantage – the heirs of Lenin are making exactly the same mistake.

This irony is lost on Cameron (because he is ignorant) the Foreign Office (because it is stupid) and the Left (because it is brainlessly anti-semitic). The British Government’s disastrous domestic and foreign policies in relation to Islamism are just as blinkered as those of BP. And in the end, we – not them – will reap the whirlwind.