Russia Eyes the Middle East
President Ronald Reagan spoke of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” in 1983. Although spoken in a political context at the time, there is more truth to that phrase than the former president may have realized. The Union dissolved in 1991, but mother Russia and her former children still remain.
During the Cold War, two major world powers dominated the Middle East: The United States backed Israel and the Soviet Union supported the Arab states. Both major powers pumped military hardware onto staging areas where the Arab nations and Israel fought repeated wars. The Yom Kippur War, the last major conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors with superpower support, occurred in 1973. Since that time the military might of the Russians has declined, but the danger to Israel still exists.
The Political Web
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many government-sponsored scientists were left unemployed. This has caused tragic consequences because Soviet scientists have accepted positions with expansionist-minded foreign nations that seek to develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction. In spite of official regulations prohibiting scientists from leaving the country, little was done to stop them. Victor Vyshinsky, former head of research at Russia’s Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, described the abandonment of state-supported scientists and the drain of Soviet technological secrets: “It was a desperate time. The only thing that stops you is scruples,” he said. “But if someone takes it into their head to sell something, then I don’t think there will be a problem [with government intervention].”*
Another potential danger has been presented by Russia’s former security chief, General Alexander Lebed. Some small, suitcase-size nuclear weapons constructed in the 1970s are “missing from Russia’s nuclear arsenal and could be in the hands of terrorists,” he said. “I hate the idea of some idiot threatening mankind with a nuclear device that could be used at any time, in any place.”* The Soviet secret police, the KGB, originally intended to use these devices for terroristic purposes. At present, no one knows where the missing weapons are.
Mortimer B. Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report, boldly stated concerning Russia, “If the state disintegrates altogether, we could face the apocalyptic scenario of ultranationalists or some other faction challenging the command and control of nuclear weapons spread over 39 different Russian districts.”* The words of CIA Director George Tenet are disturbing. He testified on February 2, 1999, before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Societal and economic stress in Russia seem likely to grow, raising even more concerns about the security of nuclear weapons and fissile material: Although we have not had recent reports of weapons usable nuclear material missing in Russia, what we have noticed are reports of strikes, lax discipline and poor morale, and criminal activity at nuclear facilities. For me, Mr. Chairman, these are alarm bells that warrant our closest attention and concern.”*
As one correspondent for CNN International put it, “Especially troublesome for the West and NATO would be a strengthening of Russian ties with Iran, Iraq, and Libya.”* This possibility is fast becoming a reality.
1. The Link with Iran
Russia’s closest relationship in the Middle East is with one of Israel’s greatest enemies, Iran. They both have borders on the Caspian Sea. They also share technology and training specialists. For example, Russia is now aiding Iran in the construction of a nuclear reactor in the city of Bushehr on Iran’s Gulf coast. They have sent at least one thousand workers to help develop a plant supposedly designed to generate electricity. Although the unit will not be in operation until 2003, the contract is generating $800 million for Russia and provides much-needed relief for its strained economy. What is more, Russia has agreed to build three more reactors for Iran by 2001 at a price of about $4 billion. Iran and Russia both insist that the complex will be used solely for civilian purposes. But the American government thinks otherwise. The United States recently imposed sanctions against three Russian research institutes suspected of aiding Iran’s weapon programs.* It is no secret that Iran would direct such weapons against Israel just as it currently targets Israel with terrorist activities.
Another ominous development for Israel is also on the horizon. In July 1998 Iran test-fired a ballistic missile within its own borders. Iranian officials claim the 1,000-mile-range missile will be used to launch satellites into space rather than for military purposes. However, it could also be used in a surface-to-surface operation, and Israel is within an 800-mile range. Iran is now working on the Shehab-4, a missile based on the Russian SS-4 but with an even greater range of 1,200 miles. Iran’s plans for these missiles are questioned by the prestigious Jane’s Defense Weekly, whose editor stated that this missile “gives Iran a wider footprint, more flexibility. These are political weapons and confer great diplomatic and political power.”*
The CIA director further concurred with this evaluation of Iran’s nuclear track in his yearly report to the U.S. Senate. “Troublesome developments involving Iran could unfold this year. First, Mr. Chairman, we need to bear soberly in mind that reformists and conservatives agree on at least one thing: weapons of mass destruction are a necessary component of defense and a high priority. Thus, as I stated earlier, we need to be vigilant against the possibility of proliferation surprise.”*
So great is this threat that a bipartisan group of thirty-four senators presented a letter to Vice President Al Gore in March 1999. They objected to Russia’s cooperation with Iran on missiles and nuclear expertise. The transfer of technology, they said, puts Iran “in a far stronger position to dominate the Persian Gulf region, and it would pose an immediate threat to U.S. forces in the Gulf, to our allies throughout the Middle East and even to some locations in Europe.”*
2. The Link with Syria
Russia is renewing arms shipments to Syria, Israel’s northern neighbor. Approximately one hundred Russian military advisors are currently in Syria, and at least seventy Syrian officers are being trained in Russia. The Syrian armed forces are receiving large quantities of small arms, ammunition, and antiaircraft missiles. A base has been established at the Syrian port of Tartus, the only location on the Mediterranean Sea with Russian naval forces.* Russia also plans to sell antitank weapons to Syria. The United States has warned Russia that such action might jeopardize $50 million in aid because Syria is a known sponsor of terrorism.*
3. The Link with Iraq
Since the end of the Gulf War, the United Nations has imposed an arms embargo on Iraq. The perennial problems between Iraq and the UN weapons inspectors indicate some sort of underlying trouble, and Russia may be the cause. A recent article in New Yorker magazine reported that Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov received at least $800,000 from the Iraqi government and tried to prevent the UN from examining Baghdad’s illegal weapons programs. The author of the article, Seymour Hersh, alleges that when Primakov was the Russian foreign minister in 1997, he received the money from Iraq’s deputy prime minister.* Primakov has maintained a friendship with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein since the 1960s, when the Russian was in the Middle East as a journalist for the Russian newspaper Pravda. In response to the article’s allegations, U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger stated that he had no proof of the charges. The Russian embassy in Washington has also denied the allegations. Only time will reveal the truth of these claims, but the question is, Who will suffer in the meantime?
4. The Link with Egypt
A CIA report said that during the latter part of 1996, Russia “had supplied Egypt with equipment to make medium-range Scud ballistic missiles.” * Russia is reviving arms shipments to Egypt. Plans call for furnishing antiaircraft and radar systems to the Egyptian air force. Russia will also send specialists to assist the Egyptian army in upgrading its obsolete Soviet weaponry.*
The Religious Web
The many Middle Eastern countries that Russia has formed relationships with are Islamic. In fact, Muslims constitute the second largest religious group in Russia next to the Christian Orthodox. They are concentrated mostly in the ethnic republics of Chuvashia and Bashkortostan in the middle Volga region and in the republics of Chechnya, Alania (North Ossetia), Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Could it be that Russia favors Middle Eastern Muslim countries to placate its own Muslim population?
Islam is the dominating religion in the countries that surround Israel. In its radical form, Islam spells destruction for Israel and anything Jewish. In lands where wars are fought in the name of Allah, in purely human terms the future looks bleak for the tiny democratic nation surrounded on all sides by Muslim neighbors.
The Biblical Web
The prophet Zechariah predicted that at the end of the Tribulation period, God “will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the peoples round about, when they shall be in the siege both against Judah and against Jerusalem” (12:2). These peoples are identified as “all the nations of the earth” who are gathered together against the Jewish people (12:3; 14:1–2). Armies representing the unified hatred of all nations against the Jewish state will act as one in their attempt to liquidate Israel. A similar spirit is present in the Middle Eastern world today. Most of the nations that surround Israel, both on her borders and at a distance, are antagonistic in word and hostile in deed. Clearly from these prophecies, the peace talks of today will eventually give way to war.
The prophet Ezekiel also declared that some day in the future, Israel will be attacked by a confederation of nations (38:1–6). The names of these enemies include Iran (Persia) from the east, Ethiopia (Cush) from the southwest, Libya (Put) from the west, and Turkey (Gomer, Togarmah) from the northwest. The leader of these nations will be named Gog from the land of Magog. He will be the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. These areas correspond today to southern Russia near the Black and Caspian Seas. In a word, Israel will be assaulted by a multinational force led by a nation to her far north. In our day the major world power to the far north of Israel is Russia. Some day in the future, Russia (or whatever name is then given to that land) will lead the prophesied invasion of Israel.
Some interpret this prophecy as occurring at the end of the Millennial Kingdom when Satan revolts one last time (see Rev. 20:8 for Gog and Magog). A more common view among scholars is that it will happen sometime during the Tribulation period, before the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. According to this view, Russia will play a key role in leading the invasion force against Israel.
It is not difficult to picture the fulfillment of the prophets’ words about the coming invasion against Jerusalem. The tiny land called Israel is nestled mainly among hostile neighbors bent on her destruction even now.
The technological genie is out of the bottle. Although attempts may be made to prevent the spread of nuclear technology and biological warfare, there is no way to stop it. Israel may have some measure of military superiority now, but its future is precarious—from a human point of view.
From a divine point of view, Israel’s immediate future is dark, but her ultimate future is bright. The nation’s only hope now, and in the impending time of trouble, is her Messiah. The same prophets who predicted the coming dark days have also prophesied the future day of repentance and salvation. The Lord Himself “will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplications; and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn” (Zech. 12:9–10). “And so all Israel shall be saved; as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom. 11:26).