From Russia – with love and hate

  • Paula
My grandmother had a very clear worldview. Regardless of what was happening in the world, she’d ask if it was good or bad for the Jews. No doubt if she was alive today, she’d ask me – as many people do – whether Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East is good or bad for Israel.
by PAULA SLIER | Dec 05, 2019

Against the backdrop of a somewhat erratic American foreign policy that has resulted in Washington withdrawing from the region, Moscow has stepped up to play a central role in the Middle East.

The pivotal moment came four years ago, when Russia intervened in the Syrian war on behalf of her client, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Today, Moscow controls the skies over Syria, and has deployed troops to the north of the country to keep the Turkish and Syrian armies apart.

The advantage for Moscow is that it has relations with all the major players in the Middle East – Iran, Turkey, Israel, and increasingly the Gulf countries. For the first time in 12 years, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in October. Moscow is selling Russian defence systems to Riyadh, and has offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although the Gulf states are longstanding allies of the United States, they are seeking to diversify their partnerships away from a heavy dependence on the West. They’re not alone in feeling uneasy about American President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy, and promises to bring American soldiers home.

Next month, Putin is scheduled to visit Israel. He will attend the International Holocaust Remembrance Forum, and unveil a monument to victims of Nazism in the Soviet Union during World War II, specifically the Siege of Leningrad.

For many Israelis, his visit is a sign of the warm ties between the countries. For them, Putin is the most pro-Jewish and pro-Israel leader who has ever sat in the Kremlin. The Russian air-force may control the skies over Syria, but it essentially lets Jerusalem do whatever it wants there as long as there are no Russian casualties. A senior Russian diplomat is on record as saying that Israel’s security is “one of the top concerns of Russia”.

But Moscow and Jerusalem have a complicated history. Among the founders of Israel were many Jews who fled persecution from the Russian empire. Former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin supported the establishment of the Jewish state in 1947 presumably to undermine the United Kingdom’s position in the Middle East, and also as he hoped to export communism to it.

But his successors actively sought out Israel’s Arab enemies – Syria and Egypt – and supplied them with weapons. After the 1967 Six-Day War, the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic ties with Israel. Relations were restored only in 1991.

At that time, the priority for Israel was to ensure that Russian Jews would be free to emigrate to Israel, and that those who stayed behind in Russia would be protected. Jerusalem was also concerned that Moscow would share dangerous technologies with Israel’s enemies, and sought to prevent this.

At the turn of this century, the relationship became even more important as Russia recovered from decades of troubles, and Jews from Russian-speaking countries emerged as a significant voting bloc in Israeli domestic politics.

For Russia, Israel is a close American ally in a part of the world where Russia was once influential and wants to return. A boost in Russian-Israeli ties is something that Russia can also use to her advantage in her relations with the United States. No doubt she is also interested in Israel’s military muscle.

It’s worth nothing that both countries have been subjected to international sanction, and both occupy a place in the international system in which their influence is disproportionate to their size. Still, the relationship between Russia and Israel remains a complex bargaining act, especially when it comes to Iran and its growing influence in Syria.

Iran is Russia’s oldest and closest partner in the Middle East from the post-Cold War era, and like Russia, Iran fought in Syria at the invitation of Assad. But whereas at the beginning of the Syrian war, Russian and Iranian interests converged – namely to prop up Assad – Iran is now looking to continue the fight while Moscow wants to wind things down.

Iran wants its soldiers on the Israel-Syrian border. Israel doesn’t, and is pushing for Syrian soldiers to be placed there. Russia is fine with this, and has also turned down Tehran’s request to purchase its S-400 air-defence system. In another overture to Israel, Moscow reportedly shared with her technical information about the earlier S-300 system she sold to Iran in 2016 so that it doesn’t pose a threat to Israeli aircraft.

But Moscow has refused to criticise Iran’s presence in Syria. As she plays this ambivalent game, in September, within one week, Putin met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Nothing significant came out of those meetings, and sometimes being a friend with everyone can translate into being a friend of no-one. Another way of putting it is that Russia is a jack of all trades, but master of none.

The countries in the Middle East may want to talk to Russia, but they are under no illusion that Moscow can produce the results they are seeking. Moscow’s political might must not be overestimated. Her military, diplomatic, and economic toolkit lacks the ability to address the region’s pressing economic and societal changes.

What’s more, aside from Syria, Russia’s most important relationships in the Middle East are with non-Arab states – Israel, Turkey, and Iran. Yet the Middle East’s most pressing problems are within Arab societies.

As for Israel, in spite of the many times Netanyahu has flown to Moscow, he understands Putin’s limitations. Just as he understands Trump’s. Putin has visited Israel twice – in 2005 and 2012. When he touches down again next month, there’ll be a lot of fanfare and appreciation from the Israeli side, but quiet cognisance that as warm as the relationship between the countries is, at the end of the day, it’s motivated by self-interest and can always change.

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