Israeli-Russian Relations: Where Are They Headed?

What's at stake -- and what each side wants.

At last Sunday’s Cabinet session, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.  This would be the first meeting between these two “old friends” since the downing of the Russian spy plane last month, and the subsequent tension between Moscow and Jerusalem.  Russia first blamed Israel for the downing of the Russian spy aircraft (Il-20) with its 15-member crew, when in fact it was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, during an Israeli attack on an Iranian-Syrian base in Latakia.  In a telephone conversation between Netanyahu and Putin, the latter absolved Israel of responsibility over the downing of the plane.  Still, the incident soured relations between Russia and Israel, and resulted in Russia providing the Assad regime with the vaunted anti-aircraft S-300 missile system, which has been recently delivered.  It seems as if Russia’s accusatory tune toward Israel was an excuse to deliver the S-300 missiles to Syria, likely an attempt to restrict Israeli operations in Syria against Iranian and Syrian targets.  

Vladimir Shamanov, Chairman of Russia’s State Duma (the lower house of parliament) Defense Committee told TASS (Russian news service) on October 9, 2018, that Putin and Netanyahu will discuss air cooperation in their upcoming meeting.  Russia and Israel have been successful thus far at de-conflicting military actions in the highly complexed Syrian theatre.  Shamanov pointed out that the situation in Syria has drastically changed now that the S-300 missile defense system was placed in Syria.  He added, however that, “There is no danger for Russian aircraft in the airspace of Israel, which is adjacent to Syria.”

TASS reported the September 17, 2018 downing of the Russian Il-20 as accidently downed by Syrian air defenses over the Mediterranean Sea as it was returning to the Hmeymim airbase.  “Russian top brass said a missile from Syria’s S-200 system downed the aircraft when it targeted four Israeli F-16 fighter jets, which attacked facilities in Latakia.  The Israeli Air Force and those who made the decision to use the Il-20 aircraft as cover are solely to blame for its crash,” Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said.

Since the downing of the Russian plane, there have been no Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria.  It is understood in Jerusalem that Russia requested Israel to stop these attacks for now.  To avoid lingering tensions with Russia, Israel complied.  Netanyahu declared nevertheless that “Israel will constantly act to prevent Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria and transferring deadly weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” 

It is interesting to note the contradiction between President Putin “absolving” Israel of responsibility for the downing of the Il-20, while the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj-General Igor Konashenkov charging that Israel is “solely to blame” for the incident.  Suffice it to say that Putin has a soft spot for Israel on sentimental grounds.  The Israeli daily, Haaretz, reported on February 7, 2018, that Putin inherited the Tel Aviv apartment he bought in 2005 for his beloved high school German teacher, Yuditskaya Berliner, who died in December, 2017 at the age of 96.  The Russian military, on the other hand, has been pro-Arab for a long time.  It has trained and equipped Arab armies, especially those of Syria and Egypt, and provided many of the Arab states with political support.  In both the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Russia was solidly behind the Arab cause, and instigated tensions that led to the wars.

Putin seeks to restore Russia’s place in the world as a “superpower” with military, strategic, economic, diplomatic, and cultural influence on a global scale.  From a military and strategic vantage point, Iran and Syria are valuable Russian allies in countering the U.S. influence in the region.  Syria offers Russia bases on the Mediterranean Sea, a long sought Russian strategic ambition dating back to Tsarist Russian times.  Iran’s anti-American stance and its attempts at subversion of Arab pro-American regimes, is part of the chess game that scores points for Russia, albeit, Russia is not interested in a military confrontation with the U.S. or Israel.  

In economic terms, Iran and Syria’s trade with Russia are insignificant.  Trade with Iran comprised only 1% of Russia’s foreign trade. Iran imported from Russia in 2016 $1,881,772,374 and exported to Russia $302,550,106 in goods.  Most of its exported goods included military hardware, including the S-300 air-defense system at a cost of $900 million.  Russia’s trade with Syria amounted to only 0.00605% of its foreign trade. Syria imported from Russia $182,254,336 and exported to Russia $11,020,676.  Military hardware constitutes a large part of the Russian exports to Syria.  Russia exports to Israel $1,469,348,877 worth of goods, or .515% of Russia’s foreign trade.  The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported on September 30, 2017 that Israeli-Russian trade grew by 25%.

While Iran and Syria are strategic allies for Russia, and Iran in particular is a major client for its military and nuclear hardware, Syria is not a very good paying customer, and much of the Russian hardware has been given to Assad at reduced rates or gratis.  For Putin’s Russia, Israel is a bastion of Russian culture.  With over a million former Russian citizens in Israel, imbued with Russian culture and impacted by its education, Israel is one of a few such countries in the world, and certainly, the only one in the Middle East.  This kind of Russian cultural influence plays a positive role in Putin’s mind.  Moreover, Israel, and Netanyahu in particular, are seen as a bridge between the Trump administration and the Putin government.  These facts carry some weight in Putin’s calculations.  

Moscow is also considering the threat Islamism poses to Russia’s security in the North Caucuses and beyond. The Chechen Muslims (having had two relatively recent wars with Russia) have established links with global Islamic terrorist groups, operating within and outside of the Russian Federation.  They share common goals with these terrorist groups in dismantling the current international order and replacing it with an Islamic Caliphate, based on an extremist interpretation of Sharia law.  Both Iran and Turkey’s Islamic empires were historic enemies of the Russian empire.  Sharing intelligence between Israel and Russia on Islamic terrorist activities is certainly another possible incentive for Putin to give relations with Israel a positive mark.

There is no denying however, that Israel is a staunch American ally, and that is a strong factor in preserving U.S. influence in the region.  Russia is considering Israel part of the West.  During the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Arab states (Egypt, Iraq, and Syria) were allied with the Soviets, while Israel, using French and U.S. arms, defeated the Arab forces.

On Israel’s part, Jerusalem seeks to restore its understanding with Moscow, and maintain a strong and friendly relationship with the Kremlin. Unlike the U.S., where the legislative and executive branches of government by-and-large support the Jewish state as well as the majority of Americans, relations with Russia hinges on who sits in the Kremlin.  For the time being, both parties are interested in maintaining their cooperation.  Netanyahu is likely to prevail upon Putin to allow Israel to continue its operations against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and its delivery of lethal arms to the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.  Problems between Israel and Russia might arise however, when Israeli stealth fighters inadvertently destroy the Russian installed S-300 air-defense missiles. 

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