Russia-Israel ties: From the viewpoint of Russia’s embassy in Tel Aviv

Moscow’s new ambassador Anatoly Viktorov talks buffer zone agreement with Iran, Putin’s ‘very, very positive’ relationship with Netanyahu.

It seems so long ago, those days of Elie Wiesel’s “Jews of Silence.” It seems almost a lifetime ago when the Jews of the Soviet Union could neither openly practice their religion nor leave for Israel.
Back then, less than a half-century ago, Simhat Torah was the holiday for Soviet Jews. It was the only time that they were permitted to openly identify as Jews, and tens of thousands would pour into the street in front of Moscow’s only functioning synagogue to sing and dance and express themselves joyfully as part of the Jewish people.
Fast forward to 2018 and the change is mind-boggling.
Today, Israel and Russia enjoy a flourishing relationship. Today, the prime minister of Israel travels to Moscow for high-level diplomatic talks more frequently than he travels to Washington. Today, more than one million Russian-speaking immigrants have made aliyah since 1990 and are leaving an indelible impact on Israeli society.
Moscow’s and Jerusalem’s interests often do not converge, and the two countries do not see many regional issues eye-to-eye. But put into historical perspective, the normalcy of the relationship – and the level of communication – is likewise mind-boggling.
Today, unlike during the height of the Cold War, there is an Israeli ambassador in Moscow, and a Russian ambassador in Tel Aviv. We take it as a given, but it isn’t, and it wasn’t always this way.
The Jerusalem Post sat down for the paper’s Simhat Torah magazine with Moscow’s new ambassador, Anatoly Viktorov, for his first interview with an Israeli newspaper. The interview was conducted in the Russian Embassy, across the street from Tel Aviv’s beach. It took place a few days before Syria’s downing of a Russian plane that posed the biggest challenge yet to Israeli-Russian ties since Moscow became militarily engaged in Syria three years ago.
Viktorov, 64, is a career diplomat whose first posting abroad was as a Soviet diplomat in the late 1980s to Angola. The personable ambassador – who took up his position in Israel this summer after heading up the humanitarian cooperation and human rights department in the Russian Foreign Ministry – spoke in English about Syria, the Palestinians, and how he views the monumental changes that have taken place over the course of a single generation in relations between Moscow and Jerusalem.
What follows are excerpts from that interview.
What kind of understandings exist between Israel and Russia concerning Syria?
The main understanding is that both sides are ready to discuss and take into account in their activities the security concerns of the other country. For Russia, it is important that the leadership and population of Israel understands what we are doing in the neighboring country, and what our goals are. We have at the highest levels expressed our readiness to take into account the legitimate concerns of Israel, including those relating to the situation in Syria.
So what are you doing in Syria? What are your interests there?
The Russian military presence in Syria started three years ago, when we saw that the threat of international terrorism became very real, and the threat was to the existence of the Syrian Arab Republic itself.
 In our view, it was necessary to assist the Syrian government in fighting international terrorism, to stabilize the situation in this country, to address the humanitarian needs of the population and to launch a political process that could lead to national reconciliation, democratic elections and prosperity for the country.
[Syrian President Bashar] Assad has killed half a million people. Why is it so important for Russia that Assad remain in power?
For Russia, the issue of President Assad remaining in power is not important. We were not just thinking about supporting President Assad in his position. There are many arguments for us to intervene.
First of all, we saw what happened in other countries in the region due to the external intervention in the internal issues of those countries [i.e., Iraq and Libya]. We saw that it would be counterproductive to proceed in this way. We did not want another situation where there would be the disintegration of another country and of society, [thereby] creating fertile ground for the spread of terrorism.
We intervened in order to fight and defeat international terrorism, and to ensure the normal development of the country.
In addition, we had our legitimate security concerns, because what is going on in Syria is very, very close to our borders. Some people originally from Russia and neighboring countries were fighting on the side of the terrorists, and they established criminal ties and connections with some groups in the Russian Federation. It was not productive just to fight against terrorist groups and activities inside Russia, but we saw it necessary to address the hotbed from where the terrorists were threatening our security. Thousands and thousands of Russian citizens were fighting on the side of terrorists, for Daesh [Islamic State].
So the concern was that if Syria would fall, the terrorism would drift northward to Russia?
Of course, directly.
Russian officials have said Iranian troops have been pushed back 100 kilometers from Israel’s border. Is that accurate?
Yes, we discussed this issue with our Iranian colleagues and they expressed their readiness, and implemented this agreement. They moved their militias under their control 80 to 100 kilometers from the Syrian-Israeli border.
One point I have to mention – Iranian troops are acting in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government of this country, and they are cooperating with the Syrian Army in fighting against terrorism. This is important. They are doing a very important job in fighting Daesh, Nusra and other terrorist groups.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is not willing to tolerate any Iranian troops in Syria after the war; you talk of a buffer zone. These are contrasting goals, are they not?
I don’t want to comment on statements made by the prime minister, it is his duty to express the national interests of Israel. But we have expressed on many occasions at the highest levels that it is unrealistic to expect that Iranian troops will be forcibly expelled from Syria, because it is a matter of agreement between the Syrian government and Iran.
There is an assumption here that Russia could tell the Iranians to leave, and they would go. You are saying that is not going to happen?
We consider all our counterparts as legitimate members of the UN, with their interests in the region... We cannot just make an order to the sovereign state of Iran and they will follow it.
You said Iran is doing a good job fighting the terrorists in Syria. Then once the war is over and the terrorists are defeated, what is their interest in staying there?
Let’s finish this job first.
Israel’s concern is that Iran’s interest in Syria is not only to fight terrorists, but to use it as a jumping-off point against Israel and Jordan.
We understand Israel’s concerns. We are being honest with our Iranian colleagues and telling them directly that we cannot accept a position which puts into question the existence of Israel. That is unacceptable to us.
The IDF has admitted to carrying out more than 200 missions in Syria. You have your military there and are doing nothing to stop it. Why not?
As a matter of principle, we are against any interventions or violations of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and of course we reacted when necessary [through Foreign Ministry statements] on some strikes made by the Israeli military.
Just as Israel thinks Russia could get Iran out of Syria, does Iran think that Russia could stop these attacks? Are they pushing you to do more to do so?
It is a very complicated issue... I don’t think there should be expectations that Russia would make orders to the governments here in the region.
In an interview after the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the summer, Trump said Putin was a “fan of Bibi” and a “believer in Israel.” Is that the case?
I would avoid making comments on the president of the United States’ comments, but it is true that the level and nature of the political dialogue at the highest level is very, very positive.
How do you explain that the relations are so good, particularly since in the past they were so bad?
President Putin’s attitude is a reflection of our policy that foreign policy is not politicized, and does not have an ideological color. We are ready to connect and communicate with all countries around the world – and why should Israel be excluded from this approach?
Our common history, which includes everything – the role of the Soviet Union at the time in the establishment of Israel, the fact that a good part of the Israeli population originates from the former Soviet Union and contributes in all fields in Israel – unites both countries very, very closely. And that is to say nothing about Israel’s role in the region, and the joint effort to combat the glorification of Nazism and to keep alive the memory of World War II, the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust, and the role of the Red Army in ending the Holocaust.
These are very serious factors, and [together with] signals coming from our leaders I would say that the perception of Israel in Russia is a very positive one.
Whenever Netanyahu and Putin meet, they publicly talk about the Red Army’s role in the defeat of the Nazis. Israel established a monument to the Red Army in Netanya. How psychologically important are these gestures?
Psychologically and politically it is very, very important. Unfortunately many countries – including some former members of the anti-Hitler coalition – are engaging in revisionist history of World War II because of political considerations and are not that strong in combating manifestations of neo-Nazism and racism. So to have the leadership and people of Israel as a friend in this common fight is very, very important.
The Knesset passed a law recently making Victory in Europe Day on May 9 a national holiday. Is that important?
It is extremely important; you should not underestimate its importance.
Trump said Putin is a “believer in Israel.” Does Putin, because of his relationship with some Jews he knew growing up, have a special relationship with Israel that he does not have with other countries?
President Putin is led by the national interest of Russia. If he feels bettering and improving relations between Russia and Israel [is important, then] he feels this is in the interests of Russia.
Turning to the Palestinians, has the complete breakdown in ties between the Palestinians and Washington brought the Palestinians closer to Moscow?
Our American colleagues have tried for decades to facilitate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and now we are all – including in Russia – expecting [Trump’s] announced deal of the millennium, of the century.
But our feelings of what we understand from the Palestinians is that not all their major concerns will be taken into account in this new plan. As a matter of principle, we do not believe that one individual country is capable of producing something really productive and helpful, but we are not preventing anyone from contributing to the peace process.
So what needs to be done now that things are stuck?
The recipe is very simple, and nothing new. We are ready to facilitate direct contact between Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu, and this suggestion remains on the table. We expressed it two years ago. President Putin is ready to take part in this possible meeting. More broadly, we still believe that only collective efforts could bring positive results, and in this sense we think that the Quartet is not exhausted, and there is still potential.
What is preventing Moscow’s proposal for a Netanyahu-Abbas meeting?
I would avoid commenting on who is against and who is in favor. In principle both are in favor – but every time some factors appear to prevent that meeting. It is important that this proposal is on the table.
Moscow recognized west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital even before the US did. Why not move your embassy there?
What we did regarding recognition was different than the US. What we said last year was that we recognized west Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, while east Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, and the specific modalities should be the result of negotiations between the leaders of the two sides.
So moving the embassy is not in the cards?
We expressed our position, and there has been no change in it.
You are a career diplomat who started as a diplomat for the Soviet Union. How do you feel when you see the huge changes that have taken place in the relations between our two countries?
The state of relations with Israel during the times of the Soviet Union reflected the different structure and composition of the world powers – it was a reflection of the two political global centers of power, between the Soviet Union and socialist countries, and capitalist countries led by the United States.
How important is the Russian-speaking community here to cementing ties between Israel and Russia? Do they influence how Russians perceive Israel?
Of course they do. Many people in Russia feel that Israel is almost a part of Russia – psychologically – and they are not afraid to buy tickets and come to Israel.
Does that impact ties between the two countries?
Of course it does. Let’s take cultural relations, there is no task for the embassy here to persuade artists or theaters to come to Israel, they do it spontaneously with no reservations.
So there is no BDS activity in Russia?
Not in this sense.
Is there anger among Russians that so many Jews left, and that they should have stayed to build up Russia?
It is sad for me personally that so many citizens left Russia, because it is not a marginalized part of society. They are well-educated, clever people who achieved success in their areas of activities.
 At the same time, we understand their motivations and their interests, and in contrast to the Soviet leadership policies, we opened the borders and everybody could move to any part of the world – it is a normal thing. And if some of our citizens decided that for various reasons it is better for them to come to Israel, okay, it is their choice.