Putin-Bennett talks come amid Russia tensions with West - analysis

Russia has been in the news lately, mainly for its competition with the West. It has suspended a diplomatic mission with NATO and there are other concerns on the horizon.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russia President Vladimir Putin meeting, October 22, 2021.  (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russia President Vladimir Putin meeting, October 22, 2021.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

Russia’s Tass news agency highlighted the talks between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin, illustrating the importance not only of the length of the talks but the overall Russian state news media view of Israel and its role in Moscow’s foreign policy.

Russia has been in the news lately, mainly for its competition with the West. It has suspended a diplomatic mission with NATO and there are other concerns on the horizon. For instance, there are questions about Russia using energy policy to strong-arm Europe.

CNN says that “it’s undeniable that Putin and the Russian president’s inner circle have grown in confidence during this period. Whether it be through annexing parts of another nation, backing a dictator in a foreign war or poisoning dissidents on Russian soil, Putin’s Kremlin seemingly no longer seeks validation from a West that has allowed Moscow’s belligerence to grow with little effect on his behavior.”

Russia’s Argumenty i Fakty paper argued on Saturday that the US had “failed the test of hypersonic weapons.” This is in contrast to reports that China has tested a hypersonic weapon.

Meanwhile, Russian media reports that Kyrgyzstan has refused to host a US military base. Russian media also says that the leader of the Social Democrats in Germany supports the Nord Stream 2 Russian pipeline. And Russia has carried out a joint naval drill with China, Tass media says.

Meanwhile, NATO is “consistently pulling its forces to Russian borders amid calls for military deterrence of Russia,” Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Saturday. This is part of the wider context where Moscow wants to put NATO on notice.

Russia’s Izvestia pointed out concerns about the US using Pakistani airspace, adding that foreigners have been “amazed” by the precision of the Russian Iskander missile. Russia also notes that US air defenses are not sufficient, while expressing concerns about America’s export of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.

Overall, then, the stance of Russia is clear. It is concerned about NATO and playing up reports of the treaty organization’s “massing” of troops.

“On October 21, it was reported that the heads of defense departments of NATO member states plan to approve a new plan to counter a theoretical attack by Russia in several directions at once, Izvestia says. “It was noted that the alliance ‘is still determined to contain Moscow.’”

Furthermore, “on the same day, the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said that NATO and the organization’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, had driven relations with Russia into a state where they hadn’t even been during the Cold War. According to her, in such circumstances, it is impossible to work with the alliance on urgent international challenges.”

In this context, Russia held its long meeting with Bennett. It is important for Moscow that he stayed over for Shabbat because it gives Russia more time to observe and become familiar with the Israeli leader.

The Kremlin knows that Bennett also had a recent meeting in Washington in August and that Israel-US relations are strong. The Jewish state is also improving relations across the Middle East.

Russia cares about increasing its power in the region and has forces in Syria as well as military contractors who have been reported in Libya, the Central African Republic and other countries. Moscow enjoys close relations with Tehran, while Iran and Israel are bitter foes.

Russia also works with Turkey and Iran via the Astana process to discuss the situation in Syria. Moscow wants the US to leave Syria. In recent days, there was a drone attack on the US facility at Tanf. Russia also knows that Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and the Gulf states want to return Syria to regional respectability.

That means ending the cold shoulder the Syrian regime got during the civil war. This is good news for Russia, which intervened on behalf of the regime in 2015. Russia has a base at Khmeimim in Syria and has naval assets and special forces, along with air defense and other defense assets in the Middle Eastern country. This is an important country for Moscow.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin prepares to speak at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Wednesday. (credit: SERGEY ILYIN/SPUTNIK/VIA REUTERS)RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin prepares to speak at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Wednesday. (credit: SERGEY ILYIN/SPUTNIK/VIA REUTERS)

FOR ISRAEL, the issue in Syria is that Iran has entrenched itself there and that Tehran and its proxies like Hezbollah threaten Israel from there. Israel’s former Chief of Staff said Israel had struck more than a thousand Iranian targets in Syria. This campaign between the wars has become important for the Jewish state.

Besides the Iranian nuclear issue, Israel has other concerns that Russia is aware of. An Israeli security official recently said that “Iran resorts to using subversion, terrorist financing and arms exports. Iran is continuing its project of entrenching itself in countries rife with instability, with the aim of threatening other countries of the region.”

Israel has also highlighted the Iranian drone threat. In recent months, it has been seeing how Iran uses drones to attack targets across the Middle East.

Jerusalem continues to be concerned about the transfer of precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah. “Iran and the terrorist organization Hezbollah continue to establish themselves in Syria and threaten Israel. Israel will continue its campaign in this gray area – and will continue for as long as it takes in order to protect the citizens of Israel,” the Israeli security official said.

In the wider region, Israel is hosting the Blue Flag air force drill with seven countries and is growing relations with Greece and Cyprus, as well as the UAE, Bahrain, India, Egypt and Jordan. It has also officially moved to the US Central Command’s area of operations, after decades under European Command. This has ramifications. The main word from Israel is “stability” – stability from Greece to the Gulf, stability in the Palestinian areas, stability in Lebanon.

Russia also wants stability in the region, but one that will mean more Russian influence and the rollback of US influence. America has a role in Iraq and Syria today and there are traditional US allies in the region. Russia has its friends, such as Tehran and Damascus. It also wants more inroads in the Gulf, Egypt and Iraq, and it wants to encourage Turkey to distance itself from the US.

THESE DIFFERING policies are not necessarily in line with Israel’s interests. Turkey’s current ruling party is intensely hostile to the Jewish state, even though it signaled some reconciliation over the last year. Iran is also hostile to Israel.

Syria’s regime has often pretended to be part of the “resistance” against Israel, even though the regime since the 1970s has recognized that fighting Israel is futile. Nevertheless, Syria hosts anti-Israel elements, and the weakness of the regime means Iranian proxies have backfilled areas in southern Syria, threatening Israel and transferring arms.

All of this is well-known in Moscow. The question being asked there is how to manage the situation. This shows that Israel is important to its policy.

This is different than recent statements from China during the Gaza conflict in May where Beijing was more critical of Israel and perhaps has come to see it as a potential point of confrontation in the wider US-China tensions that exist globally. America has often stressed the need for Israel to distance itself from China.

US policymakers have not generally said the same about the meetings between Israeli and Russian officials – and Moscow also doesn’t talk up the idea that its ties with Israel somehow are at odds with close Israel-US ties.