Russia finds itself having to make a choice between Iran and Israel.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow for a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In a statement prior to his meeting with Putin, Netanyahu praised the Russian leader for his contribution and the significant progress made in the fight against the radical Sunni Islamic terrorism of the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaida. The thrust of Netanyahu’s statement was that Israel does not want to see radical Sunni jihadist terrorism replaced by Iran’s radical Shiite terrorism.
Russia finds itself being pursued by two bitter enemies: Iran and Israel. Russia has clearly staked its credibility, and invested its resources including its air-power, in keeping its ally, President Bashar Assad of Syria, in power. Iran likewise, has a stake in keeping an ally (Bashar Assad) who happens to be a member of the Alawi sect (a Shiite breakaway sect), a minority among Syria’s Sunni majority, in power. Tehran is also seeking to maintain its controlling influence in Damascus (Syria), and Beirut (in addition to the more remote Baghdad and Sanaa), both which border the Jewish state.
For Israel, however, Iran’s meddling in Syria and its efforts to establish itself on the border of Israel, through its terrorist-client Hezbollah, poses a serious if not an existential threat. Avi Dichter, the chair of Israel's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said Iran had tried several times in the past to move forces into the Golan Heights, next to territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Netanyahu has said that Israel has carried out dozens of strikes to prevent weapons smuggling to the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah via Syria. Two years ago, Israel and Russia agreed to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire.
The triangle that has been formed between Russia, Iran, and Israel puts the Kremlin in a precarious position. While Iran is trying to expand its foothold in Syria, Israeli missiles are targeting Iranian shipments of weapons to Hezbollah, on Syrian soil. Hence, Russia is walking on a tight rope between the two sworn enemies. Eventually, Moscow will be compelled to choose, albeit, it will not be an easy choice. Israel is considered by the Russians as an important state in economic terms, culture, and to some degree, for political reasons.
According to the Washington Institute’s Anna Borshchevskaya, “The two countries have an agreement on visa-free tourist travel for their citizens. Israel is home to over a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, which bolsters Russia's ties to Israel. Russian is the third most popular language in Israel after Hebrew and English. Economic relations between the two countries have especially improved, exceeding $3 billion in 2014, a figure slightly higher than Russia's trade with Egypt the same year. Military relations improved as well. Indeed, in late 2015, according to press reports, Israel sold ten search drones to Russia, despite Israel's concerns about Russia's military and political ties to Iran.”
Russia’s President Putin's regional foreign policy is primarily driven by zero-sum anti-Western posture. He seeks to position Russia as a counterweight to the West in the region and, more broadly, to divide and weaken Western institutions. Israel, unlike Russia, is a pro-Western democracy. Moscow's growing aggression in the former Soviet Union, especially in the Ukraine, and its increasing influence in the Middle East in the context of Western retreat from the region, complicates Russian-Israeli relations.
Iran though, appears now as a strategic trade partner and a major factor in sustaining in power Russia’s ally - the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Iran is seen to many Russian policy-makers as a natural ally as opposed to Israel, which is a close ally of the U.S. The geographic proximity of Iran to Russia strengthens the ties between the two. Russian government officials have been frequent visitors to Tehran, setting up multi-billion dollar deals in a variety of areas including armament sales, nuclear components, and agricultural products. In 2014, tensions between Russia and the West stemming from the Ukraine crisis drove the Kremlin to strengthen cooperation with Iran.
External factors will continue to create room for cooperation between Russia and Iran, especially if western sanctions continue to impact on both Russia and Iran economically. But the formation of any comprehensive strategic alliance with Tehran is still not in Moscow’s interest because it could harm Russian dialogue with others, including Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Historical factors may count for some sentiments but do not override political and economic interests. In the 18th century, Imperial Russia fought the Persian Empire and took possession of much of the Caucasian territories previously held by Persia. During WWII, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied northwestern Iran. Current anti-western interests make Iran and Russia rather strange but understandable bedfellows. Moreover, with many Chechen-Sunni-Muslims fighting in the ranks of IS and al-Qaeda against the Assad-Iranian-Russian coalition, Russia has an incentive to side with the Shiite camp.
Putin himself however, has a soft spot for Jews and Israel. Throughout his life he was surrounded by Jews who helped him, and Netanyahu has developed a warm relationship with him just when his relationship with President Obama had turned sour. Nevertheless, elements within the Russian elites harbor deep traditional anti-Semitic views that look at Jews in old fashioned, prejudicial terms. But, to quote Lord Palmerston, the 19th Century British Prime Minister, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” One of Russia’s permanent interests is to replace western influence in the region, and establish Russia as the dominant power in the Middle East.
Putin has sought a Russian role in the Middle East peace process, guided by hopes of replacing the West and of simply appearing important. Indeed, under Putin, Russia has grown increasingly assertive, seeking to make its imprint on the peace process since joining the Quartet more than a decade ago.
Anna Borshchevskaya pointed out that “Putin's assertion of influence in the Middle East in general, and especially in Syria, while the West is retreating, raises questions for Israel and suggests it has to walk a fine line in an increasingly complicated and unstable region.”
There remains one imponderable factor…how will things change between Russia and the U.S. under President Trump. The odds are that Russia’s interests would favor Tehran, certainly in terms of solidifying its gains in Syria. Thus, if the chips fall, Moscow will turn to Tehran rather than to Jerusalem. If, however, relations between Moscow and the Trump administration warm, and the sanctions against Russia are lifted, it would appear that Jerusalem might come out the winner. In such a scenario, Netanyahu’s close relationship with Putin and Trump might serve Israel well.