As Israel prepares for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit here today, it
is impossible to ignore the many points of dispute between the nations. Despite
the strong relations between Jerusalem and Moscow, the Kremlin provides crucial
support to countries extremely antagonistic toward Israel – particularly Syria
Russia has reportedly supplied Syria with cruise missiles and
other arms paid for in large part by Iran and sometimes transferred to
Hezbollah; Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union is
located in Syria; and Russia has provided Iran with crucial nuclear know-how –
most notably a $1 billion reactor in Bushehr.
Russia has, in short,
succeeded in developing significant economic and military ties with Israel’s
archenemies, and this goes a long way toward explaining Moscow’s strident
opposition to both the ouster of Syria’s Bashar Assad and to more crippling
sanctions aimed at stopping the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program – two Israeli
Notwithstanding these developments, there has been a dramatic
improvement in Israeli-Russian relations over the past two-and-half
During the Cold War, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics not
only supported the enemies of the Jewish state, it was openly inimical to
Today, while they may not be actively working to
advance Israeli interests in the region, the Russians under Putin’s leadership
are no longer interested in undermining the Jewish state. Israeli and Russian
interests may not dovetail, but the points of dispute between the two countries
are primarily a byproduct of Moscow’s desire to counter US influence in the
region, and have little if anything to do with Russia’s intentions with regard
Indeed, there are numerous factors that have helped bring the
two countries closer, most notably the population of approximately one million
Russian-speakers living in Israel. Russia is second only to the US as the
country that sends the largest number of tourists to Israel. Economic and
cultural ties are also very strong between the countries.
talks between Putin and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will inevitably focus
on the divisive issues of Iran and Syria, the official reason for Putin’s
24-hour visit touches on precisely the sorts of cultural ties that exist between
the two countries.
Putin will travel to Netanya to attend the dedication
of a memorial to the Red Army and its defeat of the Nazi regime. With World War
II figuring prominently in Russian culture and with hundreds of Red Army
veterans now living in Israel, the importance of this dedication ceremony for
Putin should not be taken lightly. It might even help explain why, just months
after being elected president again in March, he made a visit to Israel a
Yet, while relations between Israel and Russia are, in some
respects, very warm, it is highly unlikely that Israel will succeed in
influencing in the least Russian policy vis-à-vis Iran and Syria.
has much to offer Russia, particularly in the field of military technology.
Moscow has showed interest in Israel’s pilotless planes and drones. And Russia
is interested in developing a pilotless plane of its own in conjunction with
Israel. Another possible “carrot” that Israel could offer Russia is cooperation
in the distribution and sale of natural gas discovered off Israel’s coastline.
Such cooperation would significantly upgrade economic ties between the two
But in the final analysis, Putin will develop policies in the
region that he sees as serving Russian interests.
Russia wants good
relations with both Muslim states and Israel, but will pursue its own interests
even if this means snubbing Israel by, for example, selling arms to Syria or
pushing a diplomatic solution on Iran.
The Russians have acquiesced to
Israeli requests – most notably when it stopped shipment of S-300 long-range
missiles to Iran. But it is unlikely that Russia will budge on more principled
Still, Israel must make it clear to Putin that all options are
still on the table. If Putin does not want Israel to reach the point where it
feels cornered, the newly reelected Russian president would do well to use his
influence with the Islamic Republic to stop its nuclear quest before it is too