Russia: Handle with care

To actively court the Kremlin with defense cooperation agreements, arms sales and joint manufacturing deals would seem to be naïve; it’s probably unprincipled too.

Barak and Putin 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Barak and Putin 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In a historic visit to Moscow last month, Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, and concluded a defense cooperation agreement, allowing for increased collaboration on a range of military issues, including the possibility of increased Russian purchases of Israeli arms. But the sparkly sheen of relations acquired following this deal was quickly tarnished when the Russian defense minister, waving away Israeli objections, less than two weeks later announced that the sale of advanced P-800 antiship cruise missiles to Syria would go ahead.
The incentives to tighten relations with Russia are numerous and could lead to increased diplomatic support, cooperation regarding Iran and, of course, the possibility of lucrative arms contracts, such as the 12 UAVs Israel sold Russia last year.
But the lessons learned from Moscow’s decision to press ahead with the sale of the antiship missiles to Syria will hopefully be taken to heart here, especially by foreign policy decision makers. Because Russia will not be a reliable diplomatic stalwart in the foreseeable future. Its foreign policy goals are aimed not at the stabilization of the international stage, but on the reassertion of its global influence and the resurrection of its position as a great power and diplomatic heavyweight.
This involves activity on a number of different fronts. One of the most prominent aspects of Russia’s current foreign policy is to reassert its influence over what it refers to as its “near abroad,” the former republics of the Soviet Union. So in recent months, it has extended the lease on its military base in Armenia until 2044 and extended the lease on its naval base in the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol till 2042. Moscow has refused to withdraw its occupying troops from the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, thereby reneging on the cease-fire agreement which brought the hostilities of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war to an end. And the Russian army’s deployment of the S-300 air-defense system in Abkhazia is just the latest illustration of how Russia has made Georgia an example of how it might react if the vassals of its former empire stray to far from Moscow.
Russia is also making strides in projecting its global power and influence further afield, particularly in the Middle East. The sale of advanced weapons systems to anti-Western states such as Syria and Iran is certainly one way of making its importance felt. It uses these sales, or the threat of them, as a means of leveraging influence in the region and in the international forums which seek to mediate the regional conflicts.
The contract signed with Iran to provide it with the advanced S-300 system can certainly be seen in this light, and the intense lobbying by the US to induce Russia to cancel the sale, which it eventually did, gave Moscow the sense of importance it so craves, as well as a useful bargaining chip with which it has extracted concessions, or at least a blind eye, for its activities in Georgia and its “near abroad.”
Other recent weapons contracts, such as the sale to Iran of at least 29 advanced TOR M1 mobile surfaceto- air missile systems (capable of shooting down aircraft and cruise and guided missiles and now deployed around Iran’s most important uranium enrichment facility at Natanz); the sale of at least 36 Pantsyr air defense missile systems to Syria (10 of which may have been delivered to Iran which bankrolled the acquisition for Damascus); the sale of portable SA-18 antiaircraft missiles to Syria (some of which have been transferred to Hizbullah) and other similar arms deals all indicate that, regardless of the motivation behind them, Russia at present is not a reliable partner when it comes to Israel’s foreign policy goals and security concerns.
RUSSIA’S RESTORATION of the Syrian port of Tartus and its agreement with Syria allowing it to use the port as a permanent base for its navy in the Mediterranean is another important step in its renewed power-projection. And the Kremlin’s decision to host Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal on at least three separate occasions since 2006 is yet another tool through which it has sought to assert its importance in one of its former spheres of influence.
But more than its unreliable allegiance, it is the very nature of Russia’s current foreign policy and its global ambitions, irredentist, expansionist and often belligerent, that should make policy makers think harder about the type of states and regimes this country should be selling arms to and allying with.
Israel’s record for granting arms export licenses to questionable regimes is not great. Having sold large quantities of advanced weapons to the apartheid South African government, air-to-air missiles and UAVs to China and having also attempted to supply Beijing with advanced radar systems, this latest incident with Russia should be a catalyst for a rethink.
Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia, its construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant for Iran, its arms sales to some of the most objectionable regimes in the world, its aggressive use of its natural gas supplies to Europe and numerous other antagonistic actions in the international arena should make Israel seriously consider whether or not the regime is the sort it should form defense cooperation agreements with.
It is understandable that in the hostile international environment which Israel currently finds itself in, the country should seek new strategic partners.
It is also understandable that Jerusalem should try to reduce tensions as far as possible with Moscow, and if that means complying with its demands to halt all arms supplies to Georgia to forestall the most egregiously offensive Russian arms sales, such as the S-300 deal with Iran, then that may be a price worth paying.
But to actively court the Kremlin with defense cooperation agreements, arms sales and joint manufacturing deals would seem to be naïve at best, but probably unprincipled too. Officials have now indicated that in light of the latest Russian missile sale to Syria, some of the proposed arms deals with Russia might be delayed. As a result, the deal with Syria may end up having a positive outcome, in that it seems to have finally exposed the unscrupulous and antagonistic nature of Moscow’s foreign policy.
Hopefully, it will give further pause to those who would ally Israel with whoever happens to be open for business.
The writer is a researcher and analyst based in Jerusalem. He has worked at several Israeli think tanks and served in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.