Russia’s meteoric Mideast rise, and what it means for Israel

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) holds a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem on June 25, 2012. Russian-Israeli relations have improved significantly since the Cold War, but will Russia's recent meteoric rise in the Middle East—including its brokering of the Syria chemical weapons deal—change that relationship? Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90


By Alina Dain Sharon and Sean Savage/JNS.org

Fresh off brokering a deal to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control, Russia has reasserted itself as a Middle East power player, hearkening back to the days of its Cold War status. Israel, meanwhile, enjoys much stronger bilateral relations with Russia than it did during the Soviet era. But will Russia’s meteoric rise in the region change the nature of that relationship?

Observers point to Russia’s long-standing support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, close contact with Iran, and veto power on the U.N. Security Council as examples of its attempt to undermine U.S. supremacy in the Middle East for the sake of its own strategic goals. Russia often seems to say one thing and do another, critics of the country say, a fact that is also reflected in its surpsingly strong—though complex—relationship with Israel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin once warned Israel of an impending Syrian poison gas attack, and Israel was the first country he visited after he was first elected. At the time, Putin spoke of how pleased he was to visit a country where more than a million Russian-speakers reside. But when it came to the recent Syrian chemical weapons crisis, Israeli-Russian relations weren’t as cordial.

“We’ve asked the Russians to stop supplying certain kinds of weapons to the region. We didn’t always get the answer we wanted,” Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Dannon told JNS.org.

In September, Russia unexpectedly capitalized on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s  comment that the confiscation of Syrian chemical weapons would prevent U.S. military action against the Assad regime, immediately pitching a plan to place the chemical weapons under international control just as U.S. President Barack Obama was preparing to seek congressional approval for an attack on Syria.

Tatiana Karasova, head of the department of Israeli and Jewish Community Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Russian Federation, told JNS.org that a U.S. attack on Syria—which never materialized—would have been “a painful blow for Russia, as it would manifest as evidence of Russia’s weakness, its inability to save its strategic ally.” An attack “would have completely destroyed its authority in the Middle East and consequently its image of a global power,” she added.

“The idea of putting Syrian chemical weapons under international control gives a chance to prevent an American aerial attack on Syria, and would allow Russia and the U.S. to finally reach points of agreement,” Karasova wrote in an email interview that was translated from Russian.

Prior to its Syria initiative, Russia utilized its veto power on the U.N. Security Council to oppose efforts by Western powers to levy heavy sanctions on the Syrian regime.

To date, Russia’s Mideast alliances have not prevented it from cooperating with Israel in the areas of the economy, diplomacy, armaments, science, culture, and education, among other fields—a marked change in policy regarding the Jewish state that began two decades ago.

In the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, the Soviet Union had cut off diplomatic relations with Israel. From that time through the early 1990s, the relationship between Russia and Israel was marred by “a legacy of mutual misunderstanding, mutual demonizing representations and the absolute lack of objective information” in each nation about the other, Karasova said.

Russia’s intolerance of Israel also extended to Russia’s own Jewish community. Even toward the end of the Soviet regime, there was still “extraordinary hatred and anti-Semitism that pervaded every single aspect of the Soviet administration,” said Isi Leibler, an international Jewish leader who was deeply active in Russia at the time. Leibler was arrested and expelled from Russia in 1980 but was later invited back, launching the first Jewish cultural center in the Soviet Union.

Under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian government began to normalize Russian-Israeli relations. Later, Putin began a transition to a pragmatic policy and economic diplomacy, resulting in friendly relations with both Arab states and Israel.

But that doesn’t mean current Russian-Israeli relations should be seen in a vacuum, according to Karasova.

“It’s no secret that Russian-Israeli bilateral relations still depend on the level of Russian-Syrian, Russian-Iranian and Russian-Palestinian relations. This is why relations between Russia and Israel can only be explained in the context of a broader regional strategy,” she said.

Putin sees Israel as a nation with high economic, military, scientific, and technical potential, with close ties to global major powers. Russia also has common social and humanitation interests with the Jewish community in Russia, and with the Russian-Jewish community in Israel. In fact, along with a change of attitude towards Israel, there has also been a significant change in the modern Russian goverment’s attitude about its own Jewish community.

“Putin himself has repeatedly expressed his extremely negative attitude toward anti-Semitism in all its forms,” Karasova said.

According to Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), Russian Jews are now “not dealing with state-sponsored anti-Semitism, which is a big shift.” The fact that a million Russian Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1990s and now reside in the Jewish state “had an impact not only internally, but on how Russians and the Russian government view Israel,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean all the problems have dissapeared... but [Russia] is a much different country than once existed 25-30 years ago,” Levin said.

Statements Putin made about his pride regarding Israel’s Russian-Jewish community “would never ever have been made by his Soviet predecessors,” according to Leibler. But while Putin “doesn’t dislike Jews,” it is also important to consider that the Russian president is “not a philo-Semite,” he told JNS.org.

Russia and Israel still have different attitudes regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russian political cooperation with Israel’s traditional opponents, particularly Iran and Syria, continues to be a factor, as is Israel’s tendency to fear Russia’s political and financial instability.

The fact that Russia also maintains its support for the Palestinians in United Nations votes is not as significant an issue as Russia’s relationship with Iran, Leibler said, noting that most European nations and Asian countries like India also vote in favor of the Palestinians. Yet overall, it is a “big mistake” to suggest that Israel and Russia are allies, Leibler believes.

“The American people and the American congress do have shared interests with Israel. I can’t say that those shared interests with Russia would apply in any way in a similar basis,” he said.

Back in the days when Russia and Israel had no diplomatic relations, the Soviet Union was a major benefactor for Syria, along with Egypt and Iraq, in their wars against Israel, noted Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

When Egypt switched its allegiance to the U.S. following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Russia kept its close ties with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. To this day, Russia maintains a naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus, conveniently located within the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

More recently, the Syrian civil war has become “a huge problem for Russia, as well as others, generating more extremism in the region which can spill over well beyond the Middle East,” Trenin told JNS.org. Russia has backed Assad, believing that despite his misgivings, he remains a better alternative than the Islamist rebel groups or worse.

“[Russian leaders] thought Israel had been better off with a dictator next door who had not fired a shot in their direction in nearly four decades,” Trenin said.

Although Israel has attempted to stay out of the Syrian civil war, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told The Jerusalem Post in mid-September that the Jewish state “always wanted Bashar Assad to go” and “always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.”

Despite Assad’s ties to Iran and to Hezbollah, Trenin told JNS.org that Russia may actually be more concerned with the growth of Sunni extremism, particularly in Chechnya in the north Caucasus mountains, where Russia has been fighting Al-Qaeda-linked extremists such as the Caucasus Emirate for decades.

In fact, Russia may not have a stellar reputation in other parts of the Middle East. Arab Gulf leaders have historically criticized Russia’s policies in Chechnya and are distrustful of Russian ties with Shi’a Iran.

Russia is using its involvement in the Middle East to uphold “the world order based on national sovereignty and the U.N. Security Council’s supremacy in matters of the use of force, checking Islamist extremism, and achieving equality in Russia’s own relations with the United States,” Trenin said.

“Essentially, Russia’s position on Syria is not about Syria,” he said.

Leibler believes that the Russian chemical weapons plan “has in a sense created an environment throughout the world of a declining American power [and] has brought the Russians back in a much stronger way in the Middle East,” in part due to the lack of resolve on the part of the Obama administration.

Russia can only strengthen its allegiance with Israel “by being on the same page on what Israel considers its most important issues,” according to NCSJ’s Levin. That is not the case right now, he said, as the Russians are motivated by their quest to seek an upper hand over America in the region.

“They like to poke the United States in the eye,” Levin said.

—With reporting by Ben Cohen

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Posted on October 6, 2013 and filed under News, Israel, World, Features.