30 August 2007

Russia's Attempt to Redefine Regional Relationships

Russian Ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov said Aug. 27 that Russia might consider basing nuclear weapons in Belarus if the United States deployed its missile defense system in Poland. A day later, Surikov backed away from the statement and Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Russian Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said Surikov's comment was purely "theoretical." He went on to say that, from a legal standpoint, there is nothing to prevent the deployment of nuclear weapons in any country that agrees to have them.

Russia is engaged in a systematic campaign to both reassert its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and take advantage of U.S. preoccupation in the Middle East in order to redefine regional relationships. The Russians have objected to the U.S. anti-missile shield and are demonstrating that they have options in response to the missiles. These statements were designed to rattle Washington's nerves without actually committing Russia to any course.

As a practical matter, the Russians don't really care about the anti-missile system the United States is building; Moscow retains more than enough nuclear-armed missiles to saturate the missile shield. Nor is the transfer of nuclear weapons to Belarus a particularly frightening idea to Washington; whether these missiles are in Russia proper or in Belarus really makes very little difference. This conversation is not about missile defense or nuclear missiles.

It is, rather, about the status of Poland and the Baltic countries -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- which are all part of NATO. The Russians see the extension of NATO to within 80 miles of St. Petersburg as a direct threat to their national interest and security. They see the placement of an anti-missile system in Poland as important because it is a military commitment by Washington to Poland that goes beyond mere formal membership in NATO. If there is a missile defense system there, it must be defended. The more confident Poland is about Washington's commitment to its security against the Russians, the more confident the Baltic countries will be. Russia does not see a confident Poland as in its national interest.

The threat to place missiles in Belarus is of little consequence. However, if missiles are placed there, then other military force can be based there as well. Where missiles go, so do troops. It is the same principle as is at work in Poland. The return of Russian troops to Belarus and the integration of the Belarusian military with that of Russia in some alliance framework is of very great importance. Belarus is a buffer between Russian forces and NATO. If Belarus were prepared to accept Russian troops, then the balance of power in northern Europe would shift a bit. Poland doesn't have to worry about the Russian army right now, and Poland is fairly assertive about its interests. With Russian troops on the Belarusian-Polish border and all along the Baltic frontiers, the real and psychological dynamics would start to shift.

There is little doubt that Belarus would accept the troops. In spite of recent friction over trade and other issues, Belarus is the least reformed country in the former Soviet Union, and it is probably most in favor of recreating some sort of alliance system -- or even something closer. If Russia wanted to position troops there, Belarus would allow it.

In our view, Russia intends to do precisely that. Given President Vladimir Putin's unfolding strategy, the forward deployment of the Russian army in western Belarus makes a great deal of sense. But the Russians want to be very careful about how those forces are deployed. By warning the United States and Poland that there will be consequences for constructing a missile defense system, the Russians can portray their re-entry into Belarus as a response to Polish recklessness.

The Russians are not planning to invade anyone. But they want to make the region very nervous and aware that Russian power is near, while American power is far away and busy with other things. By configuring this move as a response to missile defense systems, they want to create movements in Poland and in the Baltic states that will constrain some of the more self-confident and assertive leaders in the region. In other words, they want to scare the dickens out of the Poles and the Balts, hoping they will become much less confident in the United States and less likely to give Washington a meaningful foothold -- and undermine the national leaders who got these countries into such a mess.

The strategy makes sense, and it might even work. In any event, all this talk about nuclear weapons and missile defenses has much more conventional geopolitical meanings.-(Strat.)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.