Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Russian ‘Flood’ 

In the past decades, the Middle East has given birth to warriors who dreamed of exhausting the West. Through the “invasions of New York and Washington,” Osama bin Laden dreamed of luring the American army into Afghanistan, hoping to inflict on it the same fate of the Soviet Red Army. He did not succeed. America overthrew the Taliban regime and pursued bin Laden. It killed him and threw his body to the fish.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi emerged from Mosul brandishing the sword of hostility toward the West, international law, and all forms of moderation. American planes chased him down and buried his body with his “state.”

Khomeini’s revolution was born out of hostility to the “Great Satan.” In its early days, it humiliated the Americans and turned them into hostages in their country’s embassy in Tehran. The bombing of the US embassy and the Marine headquarters in Beirut revealed both the goal and the method.

General Qassem Soleimani shed the blood of American soldiers in Iraq, and was busy cutting the arteries that connected the West to Arab maps. Donald Trump killed him in Baghdad itself, but he was unable to change the fate of the maps on which he operated. Iran is a major country in its region, but it cannot lead an international coup against the West. Such upheaval requires skill from Moscow, Beijing, or both.

Saddam Hussein defied international and US will, and the American army later came and uprooted his regime, albeit under baseless pretexts. Moammar al-Gaddafi harassed the American empire, so its planes bombed his bedroom and terrified him until his death.

These attempts to exhaust the West were violent and bloody, but remained limited, and lacked a strong foundation capable of sponsoring a major and expensive coup. They required a country the size of the mysterious and sprawling Russia, the Russia that soaked Napoleon with blood and broke the arrogance of the Fuhrer’s army.

It is no exaggeration to say that last week the world witnessed an event that is more dangerous than the actions of Soleimani, Saddam, Gaddafi, Bin Laden, and al-Baghdadi. Kim Jong Un rejoiced at the occasion like a child who found the toy of his dream or a fighter who won a major insurance policy. It is no easy feat for the Tsar to visit you as if he needs you, with your missiles and drones, to conclude with you something similar to a mutual defense treaty, and to promise you the technology to modernize your arsenal, as well as food and oil at low prices.

Vladimir Putin, who visited North Korea last week, is nothing like the Putin who conducted a trip to the same country 24 years ago. He waited a long time, hiding his intentions and appetite. The wounded warrior who emerged from the Soviet rubble and KGB tunnels succeeded in deceiving Western leaders. They imagined that the man who removed the mantle of Boris Yeltsin would be satisfied with limiting the damage, restoring the economy, and preserving the Russian Federation.

They sometimes found him nice, approachable and cooperative. It did not occur to them that they were rubbing salt in his old wounds when they moved the pawns of the Atlantic towards his country’s borders, and attracted Ukraine, whose Slavic blood was mixed with Russian genes.

A resounding visit. The Tsar came to announce his alliance with the isolated and ostracized regime that was suffering from Western and international sanctions. He came to forge an alliance with the man sitting on a modest nuclear arsenal, who is addicted to selling missiles and upsetting his neighbors. The visitor unveiled the real image behind the man who had succeeded years ago in deceiving Donald Trump, who imagined that he was able to conclude a deal with Kim Il Sung’s grandson.

Trump seemed naive in dealing with Kim, just as the West looked inexperienced in understanding the Russian spirit and reading Putin’s secret dream. The dream of taking revenge for the Soviet Union against those who succeeded in dismantling it without firing a single bullet.

After North Korea, Putin visited Vietnam, which during the same year received Xi Jinping and Joe Biden. The country relies on Russian weapons, but believes that the source of danger comes from China, not America. Vietnam dreams of technology, investments, and tourists. Does the Russian visitor have anything to entice it?

A big question arises. China wants to weaken the West, but will its economy, which is deeply connected to the global economy, allow it to go along with Putin in his coup, which portends a costly collision with the Western alliance? China dreams of the birth of a multipolar world, but is it in a hurry to raise the level of confrontation with the West, or does it prefer a coup by other means?

Does China have an interest in Kim Jong Un sitting in the Tsar’s lap, and in Russian weapons contributing to enabling Vietnam to rebel against the Chinese will? Will the new front opened by Putin in East Asia facilitate the return of Taiwan or double its complications?

With his visit to North Korea and Vietnam, Putin appeared to be launching the second episode of the Russian “deluge” two years after the start of his coup against Ukrainian and European soil. It’s a big and dangerous game. The Tsar is betting on the weakness of the West. The man sitting in 10 Downing Street is predicted to fall within days. And the master of the Elysée is preoccupied with the upcoming elections. The German Chancellor is a very ordinary man in a time of extraordinary challenges. America is preparing to choose between a man whose memory is failing him and a man whose surprises are difficult to predict.

Months ago, the “Sinwar flood” shook the Middle East, but this deluge can be contained. “Putin’s flood” is broader and more dangerous. Western generals say that the “great war” is coming. They talk about the birth of a new “axis of evil,” and are feeling out their arsenals. Among them are those who say that Putin paved the way back to the world of the two camps and the “spring of rogue states” - meaning North Korea and Iran. It is difficult to predict the limits of the “Russian flood.” The fate of the world depends on the wisdom of the man sitting on Mao Zedong’s throne.