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OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Russia or the West: Which should Jerusalem choose?

Israel must not wait for a crisis to break out between Russia and Ukraine to formulate a national strategy regarding relations with Moscow.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, Oct. 22, 2021.  Photo by Koby Gideon/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, Oct. 22, 2021. Photo by Koby Gideon/GPO.
Daniel Rakov
Daniel Rakov

New satellite images show Russia continuing to gather its forces near the Ukrainian border in recent weeks. Reuters reported on Friday that it could not independently verify the images from U.S.-based Maxar Technologies, showing new deployments of hundreds of armored vehicles and tanks in annexed Crimea. Meanwhile, a high-ranking Ukrainian official claimed his country is in control of the situation, and that escalation is not imminent.

Moscow has put forward a series of public demands, focusing on reaching legally binding agreements to halt NATO expansion and the deployment of weapons systems in neighboring countries that Russia perceives as a security threat. It has also demanded that the approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany and its diplomatic representation vis-à-vis the United States be dealt with.

On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had received an initial positive response from the United States on its proposals to tone down tensions, and was hopeful for the success of negotiations. However, he also said that NATO had “brazenly tricked” Russia by expanding since the end of the Cold War, and that Moscow needed “guarantees,” reported Reuters.

The negotiations underway between Moscow and Washington on nuclear weapons control and cyber weapons are expected to resume on Jan. 10, with a focus on the new Russian demands regarding NATO expansion and offensive weapons deployment.

If Russia invades Ukraine, the United States and Western countries are threatening unprecedented political and economic costs for Moscow. Still, there is no Western intention to enter a military confrontation with Russia.

The dilemma for Israel

Israel is far from the Ukrainian arena and is incapable of accurately assessing Russia’s intentions of invading. So far, the Israeli government has avoided dealing with this crisis, which has the potential to deepen its dilemma regarding relations with Russia, and more broadly, its approach to competition between the major powers.

Jerusalem has forged a unique path in international relations in recent years. It does not confront Moscow publicly on the Ukrainian issue and refrains from joining Western collective punitive measures against Russia (sanctions, political isolation and deportation of spies). But, on the other hand, the West also shows an understanding of Israel’s need to talk to the Kremlin, especially considering the neighborly relations between Israel and Russia following Moscow’s military intervention in the 2015 civil war in Syria.

Israel-Russia relations are at an all-time high, having developed considerably since the Soviet period. Russia allows Israel military freedom of action against Iran and its proxies in Syria. It makes gestures, such as returning the remains of U.S.-born Israeli soldier Zachariah Baumel, who went missing in the battle of Sultan Yacoub. Russia expects Israel to help it reach political agreements in the Middle East in cooperation with the United States.

Israel has a population of over one million Russian speakers, serving as a cultural bridge between the countries. Bilateral trade is two to three billion dollars a year. Russia also values ​​Israel’s positive stance on the role of the Red Army in World War II and its fighting against Nazi Germany.

If the crisis between Russia and Ukraine escalates, Israel will be compelled to adjust its current policy. The Biden administration and its Western allies could pressure Israel more rigorously than in the past to publicly take a side and join the Western camp condemning Russia. Israel’s refusal to do so would add to a series of disagreements with Washington, onthe Iranian nuclear program, the Palestinian issue, offensive cyber exports and more.

At the same time, Israel must constantly examine and balance its policies between the United States and Russia. While the United States is focused on the Chinese threat, it is withdrawing from the Middle East. As a result, it suffers from an image of weakness among the region’s players. Meanwhile, Russia and China are gaining leverage to affect important issues for Israel, such as Moscow’s role as a moderator between Iran and the West and Russia’s influence over Israel’s freedom of action in Syria.

Policy recommendations

Russia is not expected to disappear from Israel’s northern border in the foreseeable future. Therefore, Israel’s leadership must pay close attention to escalation scenarios between Russia and the United States and adapt its position accordingly.

A new and uncomfortable status quo may soon be established in relations between the global powers. Israel will likely prefer to chart a vague position between Russia and the West. However, Israel should not wait for a crisis to break out, but take advantage of the situation to formulate a national strategy, which is required even if Russia does not invade Ukraine. Such a strategy should balance adherence to the historic alliance with the United States and the need for Jerusalem to retain freedom of maneuver vis-à-vis the other powers.

Israel must initiate consultation mechanisms with its Western allies and position itself as a possible power broker with Russia on regional issues. Israel should also have a clear position regarding where to develop its cooperation with Russia and where to restrict it.

Despite other pressing issues on the Israeli agenda, failing to engage in policy planning concerning Russia might lead to unnecessary improvisation and hurt Israeli interests.

IDF Lt.-Col. (res.) Daniel Rakov is an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East and great-power competition in the region. He had served in the IDF for more than 20 years, mainly in the Israeli Defense Intelligence (Aman). In 2019-2021 he was a research fellow at the Russian Studies Program in the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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