Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, walks a tightrope to maintain relations between the two countries, despite the Russo-Ukrainian war.
It’s a war that has tested the ties between Moscow and Jerusalem, as Israel has backed Ukraine and has come under pressure from the United States to increase its support to Kyiv.
Russia has simultaneously strengthened its military ties with Iran, which seeks Israel’s destruction.
To make matters even more complicated, Russia has a military presence in Syria. Russian and Israel have a deconfliction agreement through which Israel operates aerially in Syria both against Iranian targets and the illegal flow of arms to Hezbollah.
Russia's ambassador works to foster Israeli cooperation
THE RUSSIAN EMBASSY, with its red seal, is located in a Tel Aviv tourist spot, within eyesight of the blisteringly blue Mediterranean Sea and its beachgoers.
Inside its walls, Viktorov works to foster Israeli-Russian cooperation and to underscore his country’s support for the Jewish state, while keeping his eye on the growing bond between Kyiv and Jerusalem.
As he sits and talks with The Jerusalem Post this week, he smiles easily and does his best to put a positive face on almost every issue presented during the conversation.
Among the most immediately contentious issues is the war in Ukraine, which the global community describes as an invasion, but which Viktorov prefers to speak of as a “special military operation.”
Israel to date has offered Ukraine humanitarian and economic assistance but has not agreed to provide military assistance as have many Western countries, not even defensive weapons. It has rebuffed requests from Ukraine to provide it with a low-technology system to protect its population against drones and missiles.
Russia has taken “serious note” of Israel’s “diplomatic and balanced position on the issue of arms supplies to Ukraine,” Viktorov said.
“We hope that this position” against the provision of such defensive systems “will remain unchanged and there will be no weapons components provided by the Israeli authorities to Ukraine,” he explained.
Russia, he said, does not distinguish between offensive and defensive military equipment when it comes to countries that weigh in on its conflict with Ukraine.
It is difficult to distinguish between defensive and lethal weapons, Viktorov said, adding that “weapons are weapons. They are interconnected.
“We make it clear to all the countries, including Israel, that any supply of weapons” would be considered as “an unfriendly move toward Russia.
“There are some indications that Israel will stick to this position” of not providing defensive weapons, and such a position “would be useful for keeping the current level of our bilateral relations,” he said.
Israel and Russia have worked for decades to achieve a productive relationship, “and it would be very counterproductive to harm or destroy everything which has been achieved during these decades,” he said.
Russia, he said, has been sensitive to Israel’s security needs and would like to see that same sentiment reciprocated.
“We, publicly and through diplomatic channels, signaled to the Israeli authorities that we are taking seriously the legitimate security concerns of Israel,” he said.
These are not just words, he said, but something Russia has proven by its actions.
“We are very attentive to all requests coming from the Israeli side, and we are ready to continue these discussions in order to meet” those security interests, he said, without giving specific details.
In “this context and against this background, we hope that the Israeli government will act accordingly and take into account the security concerns of Russia,” he said.
Russia opposes Israel’s aerial strikes in Syria. “It is not a secret that Russia is categorically against turning the Syrian territory into an arena of confrontation between third countries, and that is why we publicly even condemn the Israeli strikes on Syrian territory.
“At the same time, we all know that there is a mechanism of communication between the defense ministers of Russia and Israel that allows both militaries to operate there.
“It was established some time ago, and it is successfully functioning these days despite all the speculations, because it is in the security interests of Russia and Israel, Viktorov said, adding that it prevents dangerous flare-ups and saves lives.
“Our pilots are flying over the territory of Syria, and there is a mutual understanding” that they will not be in danger, he said, “but that does not mean that we support or approve of Israeli military strikes in Syria.”
Israel, in turn, has been concerned by the defensive weaponry Moscow supplies Iran. Viktorov said that Israel does not need to be concerned by its ties with Iran, noting that cooperation with Tehran “is not aimed against any third country, and this includes Israel,” he said.
In its relationship with Iran, Moscow is careful to ensure that “there will be no technology transferred to our partners which could be used against Israel,” he said.
He also spoke of his support for the Iran deal. Russia is one of the signatories to the 2015 Iran deal, designed to curb Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and which has been defunct since 2018.
The Biden administration initially sought to revive the deal but has lately believed that such a move is not possible.
Moscow, however, has remained more optimistic.
“We are strongly advocating the restoration of the JCPOA,” Viktorov said. “We consider this [deal to be] effective and the only instrument that can keep the Iranian nuclear program under international control, allowing Iran at the same time to develop their peaceful atomic energy programs,” he explained.
As Israel and the West have focused on the issue of Russia’s use of Iranian armed drones against Ukraine, Viktorov denied those reports, noting that Tehran has rejected these claims as well.
The West is using this allegation to generate support for sending additional arms to Ukraine and to “drive a wedge between Russia and Israel,” he said.
RUSSIA CONSIDERS Israel to be a “very important partner,” both regionally and globally, he said, adding that bilateral ties allowed for strong economic cooperation, particularly in the fields of education, culture, hi-tech and health.
The ties are also built on the people-to-people connection generated by two million citizens of Israel who speak Russian, he said.
“It does not matter what part of the former Soviet Union they came from; we consider them, as Russian-speakers, to be an asset in our relations,” he said.
Among the bonds that bind the countries is the memory of World War II and the tragedy of the Holocaust, Viktorov said, as he recalled what he described as the “decisive” and “heroic” role the Red Army played in defeating the Nazis.
There were some half a million Jewish soldiers who fought for the Red Army in that war, he recalled.
Historically, Jews in Russia have suffered from antisemitism, both under the Tsarist and Communist rule, but Viktorov focused on the positive aspects of Jewish history in his country, dismissing census reports that the number of Jews living there dropped by half in the past decade, from 160,000 to 80,000.
“Figures differ,” he said.
Russia has a sizable Jewish community, which is an “integral part of our society,” he said, as he described efforts by President Vladimir Putin to support the Jews.
He pointed to a recent executive order Putin signed, making it a state policy to preserve and strengthen traditional values, including in the religions within Russia.
“What is important, among others, in this documents is that Judaism and Christianity and other religious [groups are] an integral part of the Russian historical and spiritual heritage. This was confirmed at the state level,” he said.
“The Russian Jewish community had a considerable influence on the emergence of traditional values in Russian society,” he added.