Putin’s Great Game in the Middle East and Eastern Europe: an interview with Dr. Michael Rubin

by Jerry Gordon and Lisa Benson (November 2015)

Russian aircraft at Syrian airfield

Dr. Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar at the Washington, DC, American Enterprise Institute was a guest on the Lisa Benson Show, Sunday, October 4th. He is the author of Dancing with the Devil:  the Perils of Engaging with Rogue Regimes. We published both a review of Dancing with the Devil and an interview with Rubin in the March 2014 New English Review. The introduction to our interview noted:

We met Rubin in 2005 when he returned to Yale to discuss his experience as a former Pentagon official on Iran and Iraq who also served as a political advisor to the Provisional Coalition Authority. He spoke about the emergence of the nuclear Iran threat under the “reformist” regime in Tehran led by Ayatollah Khatami. See Rubin’s background and blog at the AEI website, here and here. Our interview with Rubin ranged across an array of prevailing issues. Among these are the Iranian nuclear and ICBM threat and Putin’s great game of one sided politics in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He also addressed Pakistan’s tolerance of terrorism and the lack of US support for the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. He criticized the folly of the Administration’s support of Turkey under Premier Erdogan and the folly of its lead in the Final Status negotiations with the Palestinians imperiling Israel’s security.

As regards Putin and his current démarche to the Administration in Syria this exchange with Rubin from our interview illustrates how clear-eyed was his response:

Gordon:  How dangerous to American interests is Russian President Putin’s great game strategy in the Middle East?

Rubin:  Very. The problem is that Americans tend to see diplomacy as a means to compromise, a win-win solution. However, Putin sees international relations as a zero-sum game in which for Russia to win, everyone else must lose. When Neville Chamberlain goes up against Machiavelli, Machiavelli wins.

Rubin published in Commentary Magazine on October 2, 2015 some prescriptions on how to deal with Putin, “Bomb Assad; Arm Ukraine.” Doubtless President Obama would aver.

Note what Obama said during an October 2, 2015 White House Press Conference in response to a question from CBS Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett regarding his former Secretary of State and Democrat presidential hopeful, Hillary’s Clinton’s change of heart on Syria in this Breitbart News report:

President Obama found himself in a bit of a conundrum after he denounced critics of his Syria policy as being full of “mumbo jumbo” and “half-baked ideas.”

In response, CBS reporter Major Garrett questioned Obama whether Hillary Clinton’s proposal to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria was a half-baked idea.

“Hillary Clinton is not half-baked in terms of her approach to these problems,” Obama said carefully, reminding reporters she served in his administration as Secretary of State.

But Obama pointed out that Clinton’s rhetoric on Syria is merely campaign rhetoric.

“I also think that there’s a difference between running for president and being president,” he said carefully, pointing out that he was having specific discussions with his military advisors about the right way forward in Syria.

“If and when she’s president, then she’ll make those judgments and she’s been there enough that she knows that, you know, these are tough calls,” he said.

Clinton broke with the White House on Syria, calling for a “no-fly zone” in Syria to protect Syrian citizens in an interview with a Boston TV station on October 1, 2015.

Rubin’s prescient warnings about dealings with rogue regimes is reflected in a meeting in Vienna with Russia, Turkey  and Saudi Arabia to be held on October 30, 2015, to which the White House assented to include Iran. The parlay is seeking a political solution to the raging civil war in Syria that has claimed over 250,000 lives, 1 million injured, 11 million displaced including more than 4 million who have fled the country now flooding Europe. Meanwhile Russia continues air assaults on opposition forces and Turkey bombs opposition Syrian Kurds. Iran supplies weapons and commanders for the decimated forces of beleaguered Syrian President Assad along with thousands of fighters, including those of its proxy Hezbollah. The only party missing from the negotiating table is the self-declared Sunni Islamic State that occupies vast swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Against this background, Lisa Benson of the eponymous radio show interviewed Dr. Rubin.  Among issues Rubin addressed were:

  • Russian President Putin’s Great Game in the Middle East and Eastern Europe;
  • Putin’s alliance with Shia Supremacist Iran in Syria bolstering Assad who facilitated the rise of the Islamic State;
  •  Israel facing a possible Palestinian Third Intifada encircled with Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the Golan and proxies Hamas and Hezbollah supported by Tehran seeking to extinguish the Jewish nation, a US ally;
  • The failures of President Obama’s policies in both the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Announcer:  It’s time for the Lisa Benson Show, your home for national security news and commentary. And now your host Lisa Benson.

Lisa Benson:  Welcome, America, and hello to our friends listening from around the world tonight. This is your host Lisa Benson, and today’s broadcast is entitled Islamic Supremacy in the Middle East. Shalom, Israel, and to our friends in Israel. Jerry Gordon, senior editor for New English Review, former Army Intelligence officer my co-producer and my researcher, welcome back.


Jerry Gordon:  Glad to be back.


Lisa Benson:  Our guest today is Dr. Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute. He is a former official with the Pentagon, expert on the Middle East and author of Dancing with the Devil. Welcome back.



Dr. Michael Rubin:  Thank you, Lisa, and greetings to Jerry as well.



Benson:  Russia started bombing Syria this past week. Why has Putin done this?

Rubin:  The reason why Putin has done it is because weakness attracts aggression. President Obama sees diplomacy as how to come to a compromise. Putin sees diplomacy as a zero-sum game, and so when the United States steps back or provides an opening, he’s going to fill that. At the very least this has become a tennis match or a ping-pong game between opposing forces. And whenever any side has its back against the ropes, to mix my metaphors, then suddenly it will have its outside patrons come in to rescue it. And with the Islamic state of course, that could be Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Turkey. When it comes to Bashar al-Assad, it’s very clearly not only the Islamic Republic of Iran but Russia as well.

Gordon:  Michael, how does Putin’s entry complicate relations between Russia, U.S., and Israel?

Rubin:  When it comes to the relations between the United States and Russia, Jerry, it all depends on what your sense of reality is. Because you and I might share a reality that’s based on facts and based on world events, but it seems that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are like ostriches with their heads in the sand.

If you look at the White House spokesman, he’s been insisting continually that Russia is a partner in all of this. Now when it comes to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Vladimir Putin, and of course that makes sense. But at the same time, I don’t think that Israel’s going to cast its lot with Vladimir Putin. After all, Vladimir Putin is a huge backer of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That said, there’s going to be relations.

There’s well over a million Russian speakers in Israel, and it makes sense to make some sort of accommodation to a rising power. But what we need to look at is not just Israel but the fact that everyone else in the Middle East sees that they can no longer cast their lot solely with the United States. Therefore we have President el-Sisi in Egypt. We have the Kuwaitis, the Emiratis, the Saudis all reaching out to Vladimir Putin simply because they know that they can’t trust Washington.

Benson:  Why is Putin bombing the moderates in Syria?

Rubin:  Without a doubt, ten percent of the Syrian population is Christian and they have sided with Bashar al-Assad. The definition of moderates in Syria does not engage in cannibalism, and so the moderates are few and far between. What we need to do when we’re talking about inviting in Syrian refugees is say, Look, it’s the Christians which are under the most threat in the Middle East. If we’re going to allow in Syrian refugees, at least 80 percent of the Syrians we allow in should be Christian. They’re going to have an easier time assimilating in the United States anyway. Now why is Vladimir Putin bombing the moderates rather than the Islamic State?  This goes into the cynicism and the Machiavellianism in the Middle East. Before the United States began its air strikes in Syria, the Syrian air force had dominance over the skies of Syria. They could have bombed the Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa. For two or three years they were unopposed, and yet they chose to drop barrel bombs on civilians. I hate to say this but Bashar al-Assad wants the Islamic state to exist so that he can use them as terrorists; that’s what he’s doing. Once he defeats the moderates, then he’ll worry about defeating the Islamic state.

Benson:  So you are saying that Bashar al-Assad actually wants ISIS to stay over on the side to eliminate the moderate Syrians first. That’s why they bombed Homs, Syria. Is that what you’re saying?

Rubin:  That’s exactly what I’m saying. When you look at Homs, he who controls Homs controls Syria, because if your listeners look at a map of Syria, Damascus is the capital but it’s on the periphery. If you look at a roadmap of Syria, what you find is that if you want to go from Damascus to anywhere in Syria or from any major town to any other major town, you have to pass through Homs. That is why it becomes so crucial to the control of the future of Syria.

Benson:  Are they Alawites in Homs?

Rubin:  It’s actually a very mixed town, or at least it was a mixed town. So it’s right on the ethnic and sectarian border between Christians, Sunnis, and Alawites. It really is a mixed bag.  What we’re seeing in Syria is going to be the difference between pre- and post-war Bosnia. What is emerging is a country of cantons being established, but it’s Homs which is going to be the crucial point. It connects all of these various cantons, and that’s why there’s a battle for control there.

Benson:  Vladimir Putin is building churches and supporting the Christians in Russia because he’s so terrified of the Islamists. What would you say to our people listening today about his supposed love for the Christian community?

Rubin:  It depends which Christians you’re talking about, Lisa. Vladimir Putin wants to promote orthodox nationalism and he doesn’t have very much tolerance for Christian denominations which aren’t Russian orthodox. However, there’s also something else going on which we don’t talk about now but we’re going to be talking about in a decade, and that is the birth rate of ethnic Russians is declining. By contrast the birth rate of Russian Muslims is about three times as high and it is rapidly increasing.

On top of that, when Vladimir Putin took over the Crimea he took over a population of Tartar Muslims. Now because the young Muslims have a higher birth rate and because the youth are conscripted into the Russian army, you have a situation that in a decade or more maybe 15 years you could have 30 percent of the Russian army Muslim. Therefore it raises real questions, and Vladimir Putin knows this. About whether or not to deploy into the north Caucasus, for example, where you have Islamist separatism and whether they would actually carry out the orders. So one of the reasons why Vladimir Putin wants to double down on Christianity is simply because he knows he has a huge demographic problem at home.

Gordon:  Michael, are we witnessing a third Intifada in Israel with a difference? I point out the influx of the Iranian revolutionary guard troops into neighboring Syria, cross-border exchanges that have occurred, and the question of Hezbollah with its arsenal of missiles to the north. What is Israel going to do at this point?

Rubin:  Absolutely, Jerry. I mean the Iranians and the Palestinians, if anyone actually listen to what they say, haven’t made any secret of their plans. Their goal is to eradicate Israel and to do that by any means possible. If Iranians can enable those to do it militarily, so be it. If not, they’re going to try to win the peace. Unfortunately, rather than standing on the side of moral clarity, the Obama Administration, Secretary of State John Kerry, Samantha Power as U.N. ambassador, are in effect through their silence, through actions encouraging genocide.

Gordon:  What is it that Americans can do despite the fact that the Democrats in the Senate spiked rejection of Iran Nuclear Pact?

Rubin:  Ultimately we’ve got to take a long hard picture of what’s causing this conflict. It’s not grievance based. You know the president should be leader of the free world. He shouldn’t be municipal zoning commissioner for Jerusalem. We need to look at the big picture. In the year 2000 and then subsequently under Ehud Olmert a comprehensive peace deal was given to the Palestinians, including pretty much everything they wanted: a divided Jerusalem, some degree of refugee return and an independent state. The Palestinians have turned that down and not made any counterproposal. Which begs the question what is President Abbas, now currently serving the 11th year of his four-year term, really after? Certainly, it is not an independent Palestinian state. Unfortunately it has to do with, just as with the Iranians, the eradication of the State of Israel.

Benson:  I thought Abbas was resigning?

Rubin:  Well Abbas resigns every month on cue. He’s the one that has to accept his own resignation and he always tables it, and so Abbas is still there. Ultimately I mean he’s the boy that cried wolf. The dangerous thing when it comes to Mahmoud Abbas is that he’s getting up there in age. Yasser Arafat had at least, as he was ill, made plans for a transition. No such planning exists under Mahmoud Abbas. And the problem with octogenarian dictators is they’re not as immortal as they often believe themselves to be.

Gordon:  Does that mean that a gentleman who was kicked out of Gaza, Muhammad Dahlan, who is currently a resident of the UAE, is likely campaign to come back and replace Abbas?

Rubin:  Certainly he may make that campaign, but at the same time we need to recognize that if Mahmoud Abbas is really walking away from the Oslo Accord, then the senior PLO leadership has absolutely no legal authority to be in the West bank or Gaza. The only reason why the Palestinian authority exists is because they, A) recognize the State of Israel and, B) foreswore terrorism. What is very dangerous is the Obama Administration apparently with its silence is siding with the Palestinians, with Europe and the United Nations. What they are in effect doing is saying that any treaty that Israel strikes with its Arab neighbors or Arab entities or interests has an expiration date.  A de facto expiration date of about two decades. Now under a situation like that, it is going to make peace much more difficult to achieve. I mean ultimately international law means we have to stick by some of the agreements you make, and if you don’t you pay the consequences. Lisa asked what would I suggest, and ultimately the Palestinians aren’t going to face any accountability for their actions so long as they’re endlessly subsidized by U.S. tax payers and European countries. It’s time to cut the Palestinians off.

Benson:  As we are speaking there are rockets being launched at Israel from Gaza. Does this surprise you, Michael?

Rubin:  No, Lisa. Weakness again attracts this sort of aggression, and when the Palestinians think that the West is weak, they’re not going to stand up on principle. They can leverage terrorism into political concession. Ultimately that’s a disincentive for creating peace and an incentive for more terrorism. From the Israeli perspective though, in for a penny in for a pound. If the Israelis cross one inch into the Gaza Strip to counter terrorism, the full weight of the United Nations is going to come down upon them. So as long as that’s going to happen, they might as well finish the job right now. Fortunately, what’s working in Israel’s favor is they have an ally in President el-Sisi in Egypt.

Gordon:  Michael, can we switch gears and ask you a question related to something you wrote about recently?

 Rubin:  Of course.

Gordon:  What should the United States do to assist our “NATO allies” in Eastern Europe given the actions by Putin?

Rubin:  This is a huge issue, Jerry. What I worry about Putin is that he’s like a gambler who figures he might extend his victory, his streak with just one more roll of the dice. If you don’t stand up to him, if you don’t cut him off from the table, ultimately that one more move might be into Estonia. He hasn’t really faced consequences for what he did in Georgia, Ukraine, or Syria. The problem is with Estonia is of course it’s a NATO member. That’s really going to be the put-up-or-shut-up moment for American credibility. If we don’t take action when Putin starts to destabilize Estonia, ultimately that’s the end of the post World War II international order.

Benson:  Dr. Michael Rubin, I thank you for being with us today.

Rubin:  Thank you, Lisa.


Listen to the Lisa Benson Show interview with Michael Rubin.




Also see Jerry Gordon’s collection of interviews, The West Speaks.


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