Russia and Israel: Friends with benefits

Russia and Israel: Friends with benefits
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One of the most amazing consequences of Russia’s Syrian intervention is the strengthening Russo-Israeli dialogue. Relations have greatly improved from the 1980s, when an openly anti-Semitic Soviet leadership ruled and anti-Semitism drove policy. By 2008, Israel was selling weapons to Russia.

In an effort to safeguard its security against Iran and prevent confrontations with Russia in Syria, Israel has established a flourishing mechanism of constant communication with Russian forces. Despite over 100 strikes on Moscow’s Iranian partners in Syria, Moscow has never retaliated or criticized Israel, even when Russian weapons sold to Iran were destroyed.


Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu celebrated Victory Day with Vladimir Putin even as the Israel Air Force was pulverizing Iranian targets in Syria. Moreover, the next day Moscow retracted its threat to sell or deploy the S-300 surface to air anti-aircraft missile in Syria that had aroused Israeli anxiety. Thus it signaled it was rewarding Israel while leaving Syrian and Iranian forces defenseless against future Israeli and Western air attacks.


Even more astounding are reports that Moscow warned Iran not to provoke Israel by firing missiles against it on May 8. Iran apparently disregarded those warnings and thus precipitated the Israeli counter-strike on May 9.

Russia’s silence about these raids and the other manifestations of increasing bilateral coordination represent truly unprecedented moves for both sides. We also see that this coordination has been mutually beneficial. Russia has a freer hand to operate in Syria; Israel has a channel by which to talk to Russia and communicate its warnings to Iran. Meanwhile, Iran, despite partnership with Russia in Syria, clearly cannot count on Russian support for its larger anti-Israel campaign.

How can we explain both sides’ motives? In Russia’s case, we can identify seven motives for improved ties to Israel. Putin personally appears to have good feelings about Israel and Jews and Russian policy formally eschews anti-Semitism though it still exists in society and he is willing to use it for his domestic needs.

Second, Russia’s elite respects Israel's military-economic--technological prowess and knows that it is also a channel to Washington.

Third, there are thriving trade and investment relations, even to the point where Israel has previously sold weapons to Russia.

Fourth, Israel respects Russian red lines and avoids actions that are provocative to Russia and if it has to take such steps it informs Moscow first. Thus, Israel did not join the sanctions and refrained from selling Ukraine weapons after 2014. Putin et al appears to appreciate Israeli restraint because it shows Israeli respect for and sensitivity to their interests.

Fifth, Moscow knows that wars against Israel end badly for Arabs and bring the U.S. back into the Middle East in a big way so it seeks to avoid provocative moves in that direction, e.g. its warnings to Iran.

Sixth, there is some belief that the Russian emigration of the 1980s to Israel in some sense represents "our people." Moscow wishes to preserve that tie and also understands what the USSR lost by its policies.

Seventh, it is critical to Moscow's Middle East policies that it be able to talk candidly to all parties and not be excessively identified with any one state's interests. This also includes Israel precisely because of the many unsettled regional security issues.

Israel gains a reliable channel of communication with Iran and Syria and the economic benefits of the trade ties. This also provides greater overall freedom to maneuver in foreign policy, as Israel is less constrained by U.S. goals. Consequently, Israel had freedom of action to defend its vital interests against Iran with virtual impunity.

On the negative side, this relationship reflects the continuing erosion of the U.S. position in the Middle East. Neither can it stop Iran’s leaders from continuing on their crusade against Israel, the West and Sunni Islam, although it might restrain them tactically.

Given current regional conditions it is likely that this coordination will continue and even increase, since neither side wants an expanded conflict in the region. Their combined pressure is potentially a strong Israeli card against Iran.

While Iran might be restrained strategically, it will likely look for other opportunities to attack Israeli and Western interests, including terrorism. Russo-Israeli coordination has merely scotched the snake of Iranian militancy but it has certainly not killed it.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, where he was former MacArthur fellow.