Russia is back… at least in the Middle East.
The turmoil in the region has led to opportunities for Moscow to reassert its presence in the region in ways not seen since the 1970s. Its swiftly developing ties with Egypt, as well as – even more significantly – its military engagement in Syria have once again made Moscow a major actor in the region.
In a rare step, Moscow’s new ambassador to Israel, Alexander Shein, agreed to a written interview with The Jerusalem Post for the Post’s diplomatic conference.
He shed light on his country’s aims and goals in the region, as well as on the nature – from Moscow’s point of view – of Israeli-Russian ties. What follows is a lightly edited version of that interview.
Does Russia want to increase its involvement in the Middle East?
An increase in Russia’s involvement in the Middle East is an objective process. Our nation underwent a difficult transition in the 1990s. It resulted in a weakening of the Russian presence in your region. These times are in the past. The potential of Russian foreign policy, and here I mean our diverse resources, has fully recovered.
On the other hand, a demand in the region for Russian participation in the settlement of multiple crises has grown, too. So, it could be said that mutual attraction between Russia and the Mideast has resumed.
Why, after the Syrian civil war has been going on for so long, did Russia decide to get actively involved in Syria now?
Since the very outbreak of the Syrian crisis, Russia has actively facilitated cessation of the civil armed conflict and contributed to the efforts to bring the sides of the conflict to negotiations, in order to find a sustainable political solution. Russian diplomacy, acting as a mediator, has conducted an intensive dialogue on these issues with the Syrian government and opposition groups.
At the same time, we have maintained close contact on the Syrian problem with the US and other foreign partners.
Unfortunately, the political process has faced difficulties, although it has remained afloat thanks to Moscow and the Geneva rounds of inter-Syrian talks in particular. Moreover, the situation in Syria has dramatically worsened recently, due to territorial gains by ISIS.
At this point, fighting against terrorism, first of all ISIS, is in the forefront of the events in Syria. The main burden of this combat falls on the Syrian army. In order to support Damascus in its war on terror and to secure restoration of the territorial integrity of the Syrian state, Moscow decided to launch its air and missile strikes on targets of terrorist groups such as ISIS, Nusra Front and others.
What is Russia trying to do in Syria?
We proceed from the fact that stability in Syria is essential for stability in the Middle East.
When the conflict broke out, the Russian leadership determined to do all in its power to prevent another Libyan scenario, i.e. a large-scale foreign military intervention and the disintegration of statehood. In order to achieve this goal, we have taken appropriate steps in the international arena, first and foremost, in the UN Security Council, and have held contacts with the Syrian government, opposition factions and our foreign partners. We have been consistent in stating that there is no alternative to a political settlement, that a military solution is impossible, that foreign intervention is inadmissible. These principles are vital.
Russia’s support of the Syrian government in its fight against ISIS is primarily aimed at ensuring the national security interests of Russia. The Russian leadership firmly believes that we must neutralize this terrorist scourge in its current boundaries and prevent it from spreading to other regions, including the north Caucasus. The reality of this threat to us is absolutely clear, given the fact that more than 2,000 Russian citizens and approximately 4,000 to 6,000 citizens of other CIS member-states are fighting in the ranks of ISIS.
Of course, the Russian participation in the Syrian settlement is not confined solely to military involvement. The cornerstone of Russian policy on Syria is to encourage a political transition in accord with the Geneva communiqué. In order to accomplish this goal, Moscow is continuing to develop contacts with Syrian opposition groups, excluding irreconcilable Islamists, and to engage in a dialogue with regional and world stakeholders.
What kind of solution for Syria does Russia envision?
We want Syria to be secular and democratic.
As I have already mentioned, Russia is convinced that the only possible way to resolve this situation is to start an inclusive national dialogue. It must lead to a mutual agreement on parameters of a transitional period, which will entail deep political reforms of the state system in Syria. The new system should fully accommodate interests of all ethnic, religious and political groups residing in Syria. Of course, any solution must correspond with universal democratic norms rather than be imposed from outside.
Does Russia think that [Bashar] Assad should be allowed to remain in place?
The weakening of state rule in Syria under the impact of foreign meddling has created vacuum and anarchy zones that were filled by terrorists. It is obvious that if President Bashar Assad steps down now, appetites of the terrorists will dramatically increase, while fighting capabilities of the Syrian army will decrease.
We strongly believe that an efficient struggle against the common terrorist threat requires the preservation of the state institutions of the Syrian Arab Republic, though they will necessarily be transformed.
As I have already said, the inclusive national dialogue should produce a transitional governing body. Against this backdrop, it is absolutely natural that the destiny of the presidency is in the hands of the Syrians themselves.
Will Russia’s involvement in Syria limit Israel’s ability to act in Syrian airspace to prevent the transfer of weaponry from Iran to Hezbollah?
Let me emphasize that the operation of the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria has strictly limited aims and targets. By no means is it aimed at all against security interests of the Middle East states, including Israel. At the same time, we hope that the tension between Israel and Syria will not aggravate the situation and impede the settlement of the Syrian crisis.
What kind of mechanism was set up between President Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ensure that the two countries do not accidentally clash in Syria?
The Russian political and military leadership immediately informed our Israeli partners about its decision to launch strikes on ISIS and other terrorists on September 30, 2015. In early October, a Russian military delegation headed by deputy chief of staff Nikolai Bogdanovsky visited Israel to establish a “hot line” to avoid air incidents between the Hmeymim airbase and the command center of the IDF Air Force. Later, on October 14, the Russian Aerospace Forces and the IDF Air Force held a joint cooperative training.
Will Russia act to keep Hezbollah from opening a new front against Israel on the Golan Heights?
As far as I understand, Hezbollah is pretty occupied in Syria assisting the Syrian government in its battle against irreconcilable terrorists. Consequently, it has neither reason nor opportunity to engage in hostilities against Israel.
How would you describe the state of relations between Israel and Russia today? How would you characterize the relationship between President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu?
As a new ambassador of the Russian Federation to the State of Israel, I can share with you my first impression of the dynamics in our bilateral ties. Since I came to your beautiful and hospitable country on October 13, I have been feeling a great deal of friendship and cooperation [in] ties connecting our two peoples and states. A clear testimony to this fact, which I have seen myself by now, is an intensive bilateral exchange on official, human and business levels.
This includes cultural, scientific and educational areas.
A distinctive trait that makes our bilateral ties special is, on the one hand, the fact that more than one million Israelis came from the former Soviet Union.
They continue to speak Russian and use it in their printed, radio, TV and Internet media outlets.
In addition, the interest of Russian citizens in Israel is evident from the following tourist statistics: more than 500,000 travelers from Russia per year, nearly eight daily flights. Needless to say, many of those visitors come here to see their Jewish families and go on a pilgrimage to pray at the holy sites.
As for the relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it is marked by a substantive, regular and – importantly – a trusting dialogue.
Such a dialogue makes it possible to forge a mutual understanding so necessary in this difficult time. Besides, it gives a powerful impetus to the further strengthening of the relations on a wide range of issues.
Some say that Moscow’s current involvement in Syria is tied to efforts to relieve Western pressure on Russia over the Ukrainian situation. How do you respond to that?
The idea that everything in the world is interconnected is widespread. No doubt. However, in our view, these two cases, Syria and Ukraine, are two absolutely different stories, and it is pointless of try to incorporate them into one political equation.
As for the Western pressure against Russia, it has been applied under different pretexts almost always. Western leaders publicly declare the goal to contain or isolate Russia in all dimensions of international affairs.
How to you respond to claims by some Ukrainian Jewish leaders that Russia is behind some anti-Semitic acts in Ukraine to make Ukraine look bad? How do you respond as well to concerns in both the Russian and Ukrainian Jewish communities that both sides are using charges of anti- Semitism to delegitimize the other side, thereby dragging the Jews into a conflict that has nothing to do with them?
In my opinion, there is a lot of speculation over this issue. The only legitimate concern should be about ultra- nationalist and neo-Nazi groups who have access to and influence over Kiev’s behavior. These groups openly use Nazi symbols, threaten minority ethnic groups. Besides, the authorities in Kiev now officially glorify Bandera, the so-called Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and some others who collaborated with Nazis during WWII and took part in bloody punitive operations and mass executions of peaceful civilians. You can hardly find another European nation, other than the current government of Ukraine, that would officially elevate war criminals to the status of national heroes.
Contrary to the claims of some Ukrainian Jewish leaders, Russia responsibly deals with the issue of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. President Putin and other Russian officials have never accused current Ukrainian authorities of anti- Semitism. There was a serious concern about its rise right after the coup d’état in Kiev and before Mr. Poroshenko’s election as president. This concern was expressed by the international community in the Geneva memorandum of April 17, 2014, signed by Russia, the US, the EU and Kiev. The memorandum says: “The participants strongly condemn and reject all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti- Semitism.” Thus, the participants recognized the existence of such problems.
Russia’s concerns have never gone beyond that statement. At the same time, we believe that the steady rise of militant nationalism in Ukraine threatens to change the course of events at any time dramatically.
Russia is a part of the Mideast Quartet. What can the Quartet do to move the diplomatic process forward with the Palestinians?
I believe that at this point the Quartet is mainly concerned about the escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and will focus on restoring calm, including keeping the sides from provocative rhetoric and actions.
Of course, the Quartet resolutely condemns any terrorist manifestation and violence against peaceful civilians. At the same time, the Quartet proceeds from the reality that security measures solely cannot stop the circle of violence.
It is necessary to take steps in order to restore confidence and political horizon of a negotiated solution. By the way, Moscow has taken a positive view of the position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in favor of preserving the status quo of the holy places in Jerusalem.
Will Russia sell S-300s to Iran?
Russia never annulled this contract and as an act of goodwill only suspended it for the period of international sanctions on Iran. I assume that the contract will be implemented after the initial lifting of the sanctions early in 2016.
How has the existence of more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel impacted on Russian-Israel ties?
The most visible aspect is that the presence of such a large Russian-speaking community helps to overcome a language barrier and makes it easier to communicate with Israel in the broader sense. As an outcome of the big aliya, there is a close interweaving of our cultures and, consequently, better understanding of each other as humans and nations. This has shaped better conditions for resolving problems of the past, present and future, even those that seemed to be intractable some years ago.
Russia and Israel have strong, cordial relations – a good channel of communications, and good business ties. Why, therefore, does Russia seemingly always vote against Israel in votes in the UN and at other international forums?
Moscow is fully aware of Israel’s strategic importance in the Middle East. In addition, as I have already mentioned, we have very close bilateral relations at international, communal and individual levels. Hence, our desire for mutual understanding and cooperation with Israel in regional affairs, including the Middle East peace process, started in Madrid in 1991 and co-sponsored then by Russia and the US, becomes quite clear.
From this point of view, we have been seeking to take into consideration legitimate interests of all participants of the peace process. It means that the security interests of Israel are significant to us, particularly because more than 200,000 citizens of Russia live in Israel.
It is on this basis that we are searching for common denominators, rather than putting pressure on anybody.
That is why we have been conducting, almost uninterruptedly, consultations with our Israeli colleagues to coordinate steps in promoting the peace process.
Against this background, working in the UN on the Middle East resolutions, Russia has consistently sought to ensure their balanced character, excluding the openly anti-Israeli language that is sometimes proposed. Certainly, when agreement with sponsors of a draft is achieved, we vote “for.” Unfortunately, in a number of cases our Israeli partners consider resolutions unfavorable for Israel notwithstanding the work Russia does. However, I would like to stress that differences of opinion do not prevent Russia and Israel from making joint efforts to develop fruitful cooperation not only in the diplomatic arena, but also in other areas.
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference
, a prestigious forum where some 400 ambassadors, ambassadorial spokespeople and military attachés from around the world will convene, takes place at the Waldorf, Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday, November 18. The conference, featuring an array of speeches from Israeli newsmakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will be broadcast live on Jpost.com.