Russian President Vladimir Putin began a three-day visit to Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian National Authority on April 27. Though his trip is the first visit to the Middle East by a Russian head of state in 40 years, the agenda for this visit has everything to do with internal Russian affairs and little to do with the Middle East itself. Putin faces increased pressure from pro-Western opposition forces — which are strongly influenced by some Russian Jewish oligarchs, who receive critical backing from Israel and the United States — within Russia. If Russia truly wants to pre-empt a pro-Western "revolution," it will have to make significant concessions to both Israel and Washington — such as agreeing to a minor sentence for Yukos owner and Russian Jewish oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky — to get their cooperation. Russia probably will have to make other, more strategic concessions as well — and it is not clear at the moment whether Putin will go all the way down this path, fearing that doing so would hurt Russia's national interests. Washington has successfully encouraged and supported pro-Western campaigns within the former Soviet Union (FSU), and there is growing evidence that these Western-inspired sentiments are infiltrating Russia's borders
. One of the largest and most influential groups supporting pro-Western opposition inside Russia
and the FSU are the Russian Jewish oligarchs
. These oligarchs have both the financial means and political connections in Russia and the West to successfully support the pro-Western opposition. Putin understands the extent of the oligarchs' international connections — especially with the United States and Israel — and how this network of cooperation poses real political threats to his regime. He also understands the vital role Israel plays in supporting the pro-Western opposition in Russia by providing a safe haven for wanted oligarchs who have fled Russia but continue to work against Putin. When Khodorkovsky began leading a pro-Western opposition party, Putin did not hesitate to have Khodorkovksy put in jail. Other billionaire Yukos shareholders — Khodorkovsky's closest associates helping him oppose Putin — enjoy dual citizenship in Russia and Israel. After Khodorkovsky's arrest, these businessmen — Leonid Nevzlin, Mikhail Brudno and Vladimir Dubov — were able to escape a similar fate by fleeing to Israel, where they continue supporting Russia's pro-Western movements. Putin has taken every opportunity to ask Israel to extradite these wanted men back to Russia, and every time, Israel has refused. Putin's April 28 visit to Israel will most likely produce the same result, Israeli government sources said both in private and to the Israeli media. The sources said even a personal appeal from Putin to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not get the former oligarchs extradited. Putin also feels that besides Israel, the second Bush administration plays a vital role in directly backing Russia's opposition, including the oligarchs currently based in Israel. In March, Brudno and Dubov were welcomed into the United States, where they shared a Sunday breakfast with U.S. President George W. Bush. Russia's president knows well that to decrease the threat of a pro-Western "revolution" in Russia, he needs to take the wind (money and organizational support) out of the opposition's sails. To do this, he must talk directly with the U.S. and Israeli governments and ask them to stop supporting the oligarchs who in turn give financial and organizational support to Russia's pro-Western opposition. Only the United States and Israel can influence the oligarchs and opposition as a whole; without U.S.-Israeli support, these oligarchs and their followers might be too weak to be a credible threat to Putin and his regime. Sharon will be Putin's top priority during his Middle East visit. Putin believes — rightly or wrongly — that Sharon has a strong influence over the second Bush administration, sources in the Kremlin say, and will talk with Sharon to make progress on the matter before Putin meets with Bush on May 9. However, asking will not be enough; if Putin wants to have any chance of stopping U.S.-Israeli support of the oligarchs, he must be willing to make huge concessions — something he seems willing to do on three different matters. Putin's first area of concession pertains to Russia's overall course. Putin seems to be offering to effectively begin transforming Russia into an openly pro-Western country, provided he is allowed to finish his term as president (which ends in 2008) without Washington and Israel encouraging the opposition to launch a "revolution." The change Putin would carry out would be a top-down transformation to give Russia a Western flavor, including a very liberal economy and U.S.-linked foreign policy. Putin's recent state of the union address suggests that he could be leaning toward a pro-Western liberal approach to domestic issues. In addition to agreeing to grant capital amnesty to oligarchs — meaning that they would not be charged for any wrong or questionable business practices from their pasts, whether they accumulated their capital legally or illegally — Putin also spoke of implementing Western-style economic reforms that would make Russia's economy more like the U.S. market economy. Sources close to the Kremlin confirm that such statements were made specifically for U.S. and Israeli audiences to let them know that Putin is serious about using pro-U.S. patterns to reshape Russia. Another concession Putin seems willing to make to Israel is giving mild sentences to two prominent oligarchs — Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev — who are in custody. Initially, Putin wanted a 10-year prison term for each, but Russian law enforcement sources say Putin is now willing to hand down a sentence of less than five years that also would include time already spent in detention — a sentence whose term would essentially end sometime in 2008 — or even hand down some kind of conditional sentence. However, the exact terms of the sentences probably will depend on the amount of pressure Washington and Jerusalem exert on Moscow and Putin's reaction to such pressure. The sources say that because Putin is trying to use this issue in talks with Sharon, he ordered the oligarchs' sentencing — originally scheduled for April 27 — to be postponed until May 16. Putin will talk with Sharon and Bush on May 9-10 — before the sentencing date — and he will be able to try to use the issue as a bargaining chip to decrease the U.S.-led pressure on Russia that has taken the form of encouraging a "revolution" there. The third possible concession Putin could agree to would be to allow larger participation by Israeli defense contractors in lucrative contracts with Russia's military-industrial enterprises. Israeli defense firms already enjoy lucrative deals with Russian defense corporations through joint ventures, such as the Russian manufacturing and Israeli upgrading of Kamov-32 helicopters. This hardware-upgrade partnership yields much greater profits for Israeli companies than their Russian counterparts, sources in the Russian defense sector say. When matters actually pertaining to the Middle East are addressed, Putin will demonstrate that Russia's influence is equally divided between Israel and the rest of the Middle East as opposed to its previous alliance with the Arabs against Israel, a U.S. ally. Putin's discussion of these issues will not change the predominantly pro-Israeli environment. Though it will be the loudest topic of interest for this visit, the issue of Russian missile sales to Syria is not really perceived as a true threat to Israeli territory. Sharon — an experienced military man — knows that the Strelets air missile defense system involved in the deal can only defend a three-mile diameter and, therefore, does not threaten Israel's territory. Israel's real concern over Syria's possession of these air defense systems is the obstacles the systems would present should Jerusalem decide to attack Damascus. For this reason, Israel opposes the deal. During Sharon's meeting with Putin, Israel is expected to continue pressuring Moscow to cancel the deal; similar joint U.S.-Israeli pressure worked on getting Russia to delay the delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran. In return, Russia might agree to delay the Syrian arms sales deal with the condition that Israel backs off its support for pro-Western "revolutions" within Russia. Israel has not yet expressed any complaints about other Russian arms deals on Putin's agenda, such as selling air defense systems to Egypt, because Israel does not view these deals as potential threats. Given that Jerusalem sees itself as Washington's closest ally and Cairo as being securely in the U.S. camp, Israel has no reason to believe it will be fighting Egypt. This is also why Israel did not object to Russia's support for Egypt's candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Regarding Palestine, Russia hopes to sign contracts ensuring the sale of 50 armed personnel carriers (BRDM-2) and two Mi-17 helicopters. For now, the potential signing of this contract does not bother Israel. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has proved to be very cooperative with Sharon and already has assured him that such arms would not fall into the hands of Hamas or other enemies of Israel. However, Putin will hear some of Israel's grumbling on this as well. When all is said and done, what comes of Putin's visit likely will reflect not so much what Putin wanted to accomplish but what Jerusalem agreed to let Moscow accomplish. The way Putin was received during this visit — having been greeted at the airport by Israel's vice prime minister rather than its president or prime minister — could be a deliberate message from Israel to show that it, as Washington's closest ally and a recipient of unlimited U.S. support, can and will talk with Russia from a position of strength. Meanwhile, Putin — scared by the prospect of further U.S.-led pressure — has to negotiate from the position of weakness. This imbalance of power strongly favors Israel's interests over Russia's. However, Israel will not forget where its power comes from: the United States. Therefore, Sharon likely will not give a definitive response about stopping support for pro-Western movements in Russia until he consults with Bush. The best answer Putin can hope would be something like, "I'll think about it." Indeed, if Putin expects to begin weakening Russia's pro-Western forces and believes his regime will not be able to survive such opposition without Washington and Israel lifting their support, he will have to make concessions. These measures will reflect that Moscow feels it is too weak to stand up to Washington and Israel and must instead join the U.S.-Israeli camp. For now, what Putin is thinking remains unclear. He arrived in the Middle East practically having to beg for political compromise instead of exercising whatever is left of Russian influence in the region. We will see how the results of these meetings play out for Russia during the May 16 sentencing of Lebedev and Khodorkovsky. Should the judge issue a short sentence for both men, it will reflect Moscow's bowing to Washington and Jerusalem's pressure in exchange for halting their support of the pro-Western "revolution" movements in Russia.