Navigating the stormy US-Russian relationship

It was all simpler during the Cold War: the US backed Israel, the Soviets hated the Jewish state and backed its enemies.

Rex Tillerson (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rex Tillerson
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but reality – a senior intelligence official explained recently – used to be a lot easier to read.
There was a time when it was possible to look out at the world and place key actors in neat and easy boxes: They were either for you or against you.
Today, as the Middle East experiences trauma after trauma, those simple equations are often less applicable.
The lines are blurrier. And nowhere is that more apparent than when looking at Israel’s relationship with Russia.
Is Moscow for Israel or against? Pro or con? On the one hand, it is propping up the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and in so doing is working together with Israel’s No. 1 threat and enemy: Iran. Assad’s victory in Syria is a victory for Iran as well, another brick in the Shi’a arch the ayatollahs are painstakingly trying to spread across the Mideast, beginning with Yemen on the Red Sea, and reaching through Iran, Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon on the Mediterranean.
Yet on the other hand, Israel is closely coordinated with Russia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with and meets Russian President Vladimir Putin more than any other leader on the planet, with the exception of the US president. The two militaries have a hotline to prevent accidental engagement over the skies of Syria.
All that is definitely not the stuff of which confrontational relationships are made.
On the one hand, Russia sells advanced weaponry to Israel’s harshest enemies, Iran and Syria, with some of that weaponry likely “leaking” to Hezbollah as well.
On the other hand, Russia unexpectedly and with little fanfare recognized west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this month.
Even as Washington continued to agonize over the question of whether it should move its embassy to Jerusalem – a move that would probably be accompanied by a State Department announcement that this was not precluding a negotiated settlement over Jerusalem, and that would, in effect, be tantamount to the US also only recognizing west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – Putin just woke up one day and did it. He is not going to move the Russian Embassy to Jerusalem, but he was the first to recognize at least part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
To some degree, it’s easier to maneuver and navigate a world where everything is black or white. It’s when you hit the gray areas that matters become a bit trickier. And Jerusalem is experiencing this now, as the relationship between Moscow and Washington is getting increasingly cold.
It is not as if there is any doubt whatsoever where Israel’s allegiance lies. As Netanyahu says over and over, “Israel has no better friend than the United States, and the United States has no better friend than Israel.”
But Russia, too, is now once again a major player in the Mideast, and as such Israel needs to engage with it. And as the relationship between Washington and Moscow gets more complicated, this is – from time to time – going to put Israel in a sensitive position, and demand more than just a little diplomatic finesse.
A peek at what is in store came last week following the chemical attack in Idlib.
Soon after the attack, Netanyahu strongly condemned it, saying that the pictures from Idlib need to shake every human being. He did not, however, directly blame Assad.
Two days later, however, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman blamed Syria “100%” for the attack. Putin, in a conversation that same day with Netanyahu, reprimanded the prime minister – apparently for Liberman’s statement – stressing the “unacceptability of making groundless accusations against anyone before a thorough and impartial international investigation.”
A few hours later, the US sent 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian air base. Despite the rebuke he had just received from Putin, Netanyahu quickly – among the first leaders in the world – praised America’s actions, knowing full well that by so doing he would not be gaining favor in Putin’s eyes. His action did not go unnoticed in Washington, where Vice President Mike Pence picked up the phone and called to thank him on behalf of US President Donald Trump.
As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meeting this week in Moscow made abundantly clear, Moscow and Washington are lined up on opposite sides of many issues, and Israel will increasingly have to take sides.
This taking of sides was easy during the Cold War, since the Americans stood with Israel and the Soviets lined up squarely against it. But now matters are a bit more complex, as Moscow’s position toward Israel has changed fundamentally.
For instance, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union took actions designed – in fact, intended – to harm Israel. This is no longer the case. Russia’s coziness with Iran in Syria is not specifically aimed at harming Israel, but rather at preserving Russian interests there, as Russia perceives them. By-products of this coziness are actions that harm Israel, but that is not the reason they are taken.
For instance, Russia’s presence in Syria has unquestionably limited Israel’s maneuverability there, its ability to strike by air whenever it wants, wherever it wants. But limiting Israel’s maneuverability was not why Russia became engaged in Syria in the first place. Rather, the reasons were to preserve for Moscow a pillar of strategic influence in a quickly changing Middle East; to retain its military interests in the region, particularly its naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean; to prevent Islamic radicals from taking over the country, something that could reverberate northward into Chechnya in southern Russia; and to boost arms sales around the world by showcasing the effectiveness of Russian weaponry in Syria.
Tellingly, Russia’s interests in Syria are different from those of Iran. They both back Assad, but their reasons for doing so are vastly dissimilar.
Iran sees Syria as part of its grand plan for Mideast hegemony. It would also like to use Syria as another launching pad against Israel.
Russia, on the other hand, has no interest in them doing so, or allowing Hezbollah to do so either.
Putin has invested tens of billions of rubles in propping up Assad, sent him hundreds of thousands of tons of material, and invested huge amounts of political and national prestige there. As a result, he does not want to see that all go up in smoke.
The Russian leader also knows very well Israel’s capabilities, and realizes that if Iran and Hezbollah would use Syria to attack Israel, Israel would respond in kind. Israel, it is widely assumed, could deliver a death blow to Assad’s military. Putin does not want to see that happen, because if he loses Assad, he also loses a considerable investment.
And this explains why not only is Israel interested in a dialogue with Russia about the situation in Syria, but Moscow is equally interested in an open dialogue with Israel. And this dialogue – beyond merely a discussion of how to set up a deconfliction mechanism – gives Israel an ability to try to shape the thinking of the power that will likely have the most say of any other country in the world on what future emerges inside Syria, once the guns there fall silent.
Since it erupted in 2011, Israel has taken great pains to stay out of the civil war in Syria. Ask yourself what Israel wants to see in Syria at the end of the day – not a pie-in-the-sky dream about a secular democracy, but realistically, what it hopes will emerge, considering all those involved – and you will be hard-pressed to provide an answer. Why? Because Israel has never clearly and publicly articulated what it wants to see there when the fighting ends.
Does it want Syria to be carved up into different parts, or prefer to see a unitary state as exists now? Does it insist that Assad be removed? Netanyahu has never said, at least not publicly. Perhaps he hasn’t said because an equally strong argument could be made in favor of all the different alternatives. Perhaps because of a realization that whatever Israel says it wants, others will work extra hard to ensure that this is exactly what does not materialize.
Which does not mean that Israel does not have redlines in Syria.
It does: that game-changing weaponry not be transferred through the country from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and that Iran and Hezbollah do not establish permanent bases in Syria from which they could launch attacks on Israel.
For those redlines to be preserved, Jerusalem will need to continue an open dialogue with the Russians – regardless of the tension between Moscow and Washington, and regardless of whether Moscow’s client Assad used chemical weapons.
Russia is on Israel’s doorstep to stay, and Israel will need to work with it. What this means is that as relations between Washington and Moscow get increasingly icy, working with Russia without angering the US – and vice versa – will demand that Jerusalem employ a great deal of care and diplomatic finesse.