The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman empire, existed in a slowly shrinking form between the 400’s A.D. down to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. For roughly 1,000 years this basically medieval Greek empire attempted to survive the attacks of Slavs, Arabs, Crusaders, and Turks, and did so by developing a diplomatic technique known today as “Byzantine.”
A Byzantine diplomacy means that you are always willing to break treaties, to make secret agreements which you are not really intending to keep, to play two sides off against each other, to bribe enemies to attack each other, etc.
The heirs to this tradition from the Byzantines, the modern-day practitioners of “stab-in-the-back” diplomacy, are the Russians. Not realizing this and being ignorant of History, U.S. diplomacy has always been at a disadvantage. I have studied this topic, and watched it personally for over 40 years: I was not surprised when the Soviet Union was discovered to have been cheating on e.g. an arms-control agreement in the 1960’s or 1970’s, but the politicians in Washington were always amazed at Russian duplicity.
They should not have been amazed: they should have expected it!
Over the weekend the Israelis leaked some interesting information to the British press, specifically the Sunday Times of London. Earlier in September the Russian navy had to intercept a ship which pirates had hijacked: the ship was supposedly carrying only timber, but intelligence reports claimed that a secret cargo of Russian missiles bound for Iran were on board. Netanyahu secretly flew to Moscow, according to a leak back then, to demand that the Russians cease and desist.
The Russians denied everything of course.
We then saw the current administration take the advice from two Brookings Institute bureaucrats to trade Eastern European missile defense for Russian aid against Iran. It is an open letter to the current president:
Still, a bona fide effort to engage Iran can also serve as a “best shot” for securing international support for much harsher sanctions if necessary. As the Bush Administration demonstrated, a unified West can impose painful sanctions on Iran without Russia and China, but the harshest sanctions will require their support. Persuading Russia to support our vital interests will require that you be prepared to take Russian interests elsewhere into account. You should be ready to agree to put on hold plans for missile defense in Europe or to slow NATO expansion, if necessary. Moscow and Beijing will not be serious about harsher sanctions as long as Japan and many European nations drag their feet, so you will need to secure a much stronger Western consensus than now exists.
So what we have here – again – are Ph.D.’s ignorant of Russian History and its relation to Byzantine History. The Russians get the U.S. to concede on missile defense for Poland and friends, while at the same time they are still helping the Iranians, giving lip service publicly to the idea that “maybe” they would help with sanctions to get the Iranians to behave.
But the affair becomes more complex: the most recent leak involves Netanyahu’s trip having more than one purpose. He apparently revealed to the Russians that the Israelis knew all about Russian scientists being in Iran and helping Iran speed up their atomic/nuclear bomb project. Putin and Medvedev (Bad Cop-Good Cop) might have been surprised that the Israelis knew so much, but certainly they could not claim that the Russian scientists were independent contractors!
European and American diplomats therefore scratch their heads in wonder: from their viewpoints, this cannot really be happening, since it “obviously” is not in the Russian interests to arm Iran with atomic/nuclear weapons! Iran is not really a friend to Russia ideologically, except in hostility to America and free nations. The intelligence reports must be wrong, therefore.
You need to think like a Russian: the Russians are quite willing to go to the brink here…and beyond. Recall how the Byzantines would foment enmity between two local powers: it is not impossible that the Russians will continue to aid Iran to provoke an Israeli attack on that country, or (much less likely) an American/NATO one. This would allow the Russians to play the protector for the Iranians and the Islamic world in general, to marginalize the Israelis and the Americans, especially under the present pacifistic administration, and again give them a market for rebuilding whatever the Israelis might destroy, plus cause oil and natural gas prices to balloon.
If however the Iranians attack Israel or – less likely – U.S. bases in the area, Russia still wins: by adding to the chaos in the area, as in the previous scenario, the price of oil and natural gas will skyrocket of course, helping the Russians immensely, at least in the short term. The Russians can even claim that the Iranians were right to defend themselves against the Israeli threat, and play the protector of the Islamic world in general!
And for those who think that the Russians would still never aid Iran, because Iran might attack them just as much: think again! The Russians would have no qualms about vaporizing Iran and annexing it, fulfilling the centuries-long dream of access to a warm-water port.
The Iranians are radical, but not stupid, so the last scenario is not likely. What is certain is that the Byzantine nature of Russian diplomacy is predicated on causing trouble for the free world, taking advantage of any and every weakness exhibited by America anywhere – that includes South and Central America – and in general causing trouble.
On that basis, the incompetent, pacifistic diplomacy of the present administration, ignorant of History, is making the world more dangerous than the “cowboyism” of the W. Bush years.