What was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov doing in Fiji early last year, besides drinking kava at a welcome ceremony wearing a blue tropical shirt and a giant shell necklace? And why was he hosting Fijian Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama in Moscow last week, garnering praise and support for the small country from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev? It’s one thing to extend Russia’s new post-Cold-War influence into the Pacific, where tiny island nations can leverage the former Soviet state (and China) against local powers Australia and New Zealand. It’s another, though, to make a flanking move from there into the Middle East, where Vladimir Putin seems determined to thumb his nose at the West. But that does appear to be the two-for-one Risk play that Putin has determined is worth a corner of an otherwise heavy diplomatic portfolio.
All of these threads dangle out of an innocuous-seeming headline on the website of Fiji-based Islands Business: “Fiji will send 380 troops to Golan Heights”—dateline: Honiara, Solomon Islands. On a state visit to his South Pacific neighbor for the 35th anniversary of Solomons Independence, Bainimarama was, wittingly or not, giving Putin a foothold in the land occupied since 1974 by the peacekeeping bluehats of UNDOF—all that separates U.S.-ally Israel from Bashar al-Assad’s tumultuous, bloody, and chaotic Syria. (Dmitri Trenin explained Russia’s Middle-East gambit at length for Tablet Magazine last May.) The Fijians will join some 180 countrymen, and more than 500 Filipino and Indian soldiers, currently in the narrow 45-mile strip of land between Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border and the Yarmouk River near Jordan. They will fill in a gap in forces created by the withdrawal—amid increasing spillover violence from Syria’s two-year-old civil war—of Japanese, Croatian, and now Austrian troops. Their progressively more militarized job will be to clear the buffer zone of Syrian rebels, who are in turn expecting arms shipments from the United States. (Elsewhere on the globe, Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni is expected in Moscow today to try to convince Lavrov not to deliver anti-aircraft missiles to Assad, given that the Syrian rebels have no planes.)
It’s not quite the 1983 Invasion of Grenada, or a reprised set piece of the Cold War. But in the South Pacific, where a magnitude 7 earthquake rocked the north of the Solomons just yesterday—and nobody on this side of the world seemed to notice—is a diplomatic Tsunami building?
Earlier this year, I traced the outlines of this bizarre South-Pacific-Middle-East axis of geopolitics in my long report from the Solomon Islands, where Israeli aid projects on remote Malaita had—in a multinational butterfly effect—benefited from the turmoil around the Goldstone Report, which the United Nations had commissioned after the 2009 Gaza conflict.
From this wide-angle perspective, the Fiji move makes sense to Moscow. In the Pacific, Russia can praise sovereignty, which it likes to wave itself at opportune times (“Mr. Lavrov also reiterated comments made earlier to Commodore Bainimarama by his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, that Fiji should be allowed to determine its future without foreign influence,” wrote the Fiji Times); tout humanitarian assistance; stockpile U.N. votes against South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists (countering a recent Georgian delivery of 200 laptops to Fiji); and bolster the international institutions that constrain U.S. bluster across all five oceans. Fiji, meanwhile, raises its own profile ahead of important new elections in 2014 following a 2006 coup and 2009 constitutional crisis. It also, at least for a spell, sides with a patron. As for Fiji’s soldiers in the Golan, there’s no telling what could happen to them there.
Related: Solomon’s Island [The Atavist]
Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.