The bear is back

Israel must harness Russia's ambition to increase its Mideast clout to Israel's own strategic interests.

russian flag 88 (photo credit: )
russian flag 88
(photo credit: )
As recent reports make clear, Russia is now forcing its way back into the Middle East - and not necessarily in the most encouraging manner. By dangerously increasing its arms sales to the region, Moscow is seeking to restore prestige, bolster influence and - not least - to make money. The latest example came with reports that a high-level Syrian military delegation, led by Air Force commander Gen. Ahmad al-Ratyb, met last week in Moscow with Russian Defense Ministry officials to buy advanced weapons. These sales reportedly include S-300 advanced multi-target anti-aircraft-missile systems, long-range MiG 29SMT fighter jets, two Amur-1650 submarines, and Iskander high-precision short-range missiles. Such Russian behavior is nothing new. In the days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union served for decades as the major arms supplier to Syria, Iraq and Egypt. In the last several years, Russia has sold Syria AT-14 Kornet guided anti-tank missiles, which Hizbullah used against Israeli forces in the Second Lebanon War (during which, ironically enough, Russia criticized the IDF's excessive use of force). Nor is Syria the only recipient of Russian arms. Moscow supplies the lion's share of Iran's conventional arms. Last year, Russia agreed to sell Iran $700 million worth of surface-to-air missile systems, and plans to upgrade Teheran's Su-24 and MiG-29 aircraft, and its T-72 battle tanks. Most troublingly, beginning in the mid-1990s, Russia built Iran's first nuclear reactor. Nor does misplaced Russian largesse extend only to states. Of equal concern, perhaps, was the Kremlin's 2006 invitation of a Hamas delegation, led by Khaled Mashaal, to Moscow. To this day, Russia refuses to designate Hamas and Hizbullah as terrorist organizations. Lest it be thought that Russia seeks to promote the regional dominance of the Syria-Iran-terrorist axis, we hasten to add that Moscow has carried out similar dealings with Saudi Arabia. During his visit to Riyadh last February, President Vladimir Putin offered to sell Saudi Arabia sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, 150 T-90 tanks, and expanded satellite launches. He also offered to help the Saudis build "peaceful" nuclear reactors. And the same ambition to gain leverage in the region as a whole accounts for the nuclear cooperation deal Russia signed with Egypt during Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Russia in March. WHERE DOES all this leave Russia-Israel relations? The answer begins with the recognition that since 1947, when Stalin backed the establishment of the State of Israel in the hope that it would undermine British imperial influence in the region, Russian behavior here has been almost ruthlessly pragmatic, rather than narrowly ideological. Russian pragmatism dictated its behavior during the period from the 1967 Six Day War, when Brezhnev broke off relations with Israel, until 1991, when Gorbachev restored them. And the same pragmatism dictates the far warmer relations today. Although bilateral trade has stagnated at a mere $1 billion per year, strong business ties - especially in heavy industry, aviation, energy and medicine - link the two countries. Much of Israel's crude oil comes from the FSU. Now, however, Israel must put far greater pressure on Moscow to stop the sale of weapons that threaten Israel's basic security requirements. Israel can no longer allow Russia to maximize its regional power at Israel's expense. Effective Israeli diplomacy in this direction will appeal to Russian pragmatic self-interest. It will point out, for instance, that irresponsible Russian arms sales to hostile states will only invite the kind of instability in the Middle East that will harm Russia's bid for influence. Such diplomacy must especially stress Moscow's fears of losing ground to Iran. Those fears clearly motivated Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Jerusalem in March, during which he insisted that Russia, a member of the Quartet, is determined to press ahead with an international Middle East conference in Moscow in June. There are hopeful signs that Israeli diplomacy can turn Russia's pragmatic fears to healthier ends, as when Russian Ambassador to Israel Petr Stegniy told the Post last week that a nuclear Iran is as much "a nightmare" for Russia as it is for the US and Israel. In these and other ways, Israel can - indeed must - harness Russia's ambition to increase its clout in the Middle East to Israel's own strategic interests.