Russia and Israel’s Middle East Dance

by Daniel Wagner Daniel Wagner is the CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk consultancy, and co-author of the forthcoming book, “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making” (Macmillan 2016). 07.05.2016

Russia and Israel have a long history of diplomatic and military collaboration in the Middle East, dating back to the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when Israel’s triumph over its neighbors was largely attributable to Moscow’s military support. Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Israel established itself as a key U.S. ally, as the Soviet Union partnered with a host of Arab nations -- most importantly, Syria. Yet, despite their history of having been on opposite sides for much of the Cold War, since the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian Federation has pursued an increasingly pragmatic foreign policy with Israel.

As Russia reasserts a robust footprint in the tumultuous Middle East, the state of Russian-Israeli relations is naturally complicated, but it is arguably true that the bilateral relationship has never been stronger. In 2005 Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first Russian leader to visit Israel. Putin has since referred to Israel as a ‘special state’ to Russia, based on their shared interests and long collaborative history. The foundation the two nations have established is being tested, as their positions on Iran and Syria weigh heavily on their ability to move forward collaboratively.

Russia’s growing coordination with Iran and Hezbollah on the Syrian battlefield has made more complicated Israel’s views of Putin’s agenda in the Middle East. Although an important player in the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, Russia is also now in the process of providing S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran. Russia and Iran’s common cause in the Levant is increasingly at odds with Israel’s stance on numerous issues. While Moscow and Tel Aviv remain committed to their cordial relationship, they are also finding it increasingly difficult to justify prioritizing that relationship at the expense of their grander regional strategic objectives.

Russia’s support of President Bashar al-Assad is not necessarily an issue for Israel. The Israeli government appear to prefer that Assad’s regime survives, given the risks of Islamist extremists seizing control of Damascus and/or large swathes of territory near Israel and the Golan Heights. What is potentially a real problem for Israel, however, is the S-400 anti-aircraft missiles that Russia has sent to Syria. If these were either successfully provided to Hezbollah for its use, or if Russia were for some reason chose to use them against the Israeli air force, Israel’s strategic advantage against Hezbollah would be severely compromised. This subject was no doubt discussed when Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April.

Moscow views Hezbollah as a more effective fighting force against the Islamic State (and other Sunni Islamist extremists) -- fighting in tandem with the Syrian Arab Army and elite Iranian forces. Putin’s dilemma is to increase Assad’s chances of continuing to retake lost ground and remaining in power while maintaining the status quo between Israel and Hezbollah. Israel is very sensitive about the risk that the Golan Heights would be overtaken by Hezbollah or other Islamic extremists, and it remains on constant alert regarding Hezbollah’s ongoing receipt of weaponry from Iran. Israel has repeatedly attacked convoys suspected of delivering heavy weaponry to Hezbollah and will no doubt continue to do so – especially if it suspects that S-400s or similar weapons are among them.

Mr. Netanyahu must continue a delicate diplomatic dance – maintaining good relations with the Russians without further alienating the U.S. -- an issue that will outlive Barack Obama’s presidency. The same may also be said about Mr. Putin: eventually, he will presumably want a warmer relationship with the U.S. When that time comes, what compromises will he need to consider vis-à-vis Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Israel in order to achieve that objective? At this juncture, Putin holds many cards, and both the Americans and Israelis know it.

But by the same token, either Russia or Israel has the ability to disrupt the existing status quo with respect to Syria and Iran, because either could choose to ramp up their military engagement in a variety of ways. Russia may do so by sending its armed forces back into Syria at will, by directly arming Hezbollah, or by arming other Iranian proxies elsewhere in the region. Israel may do so by choosing to become directly engaged in Syria, by re-engaging Hezbollah in Lebanon (or Syria), or in the longer term, making good on its threat to bomb Iranian nuclear sites – particularly if Iran were to make egregious violations of the P5+1 Agreement without any meaningful penalty from the West -- or if the Agreement were to expire and Iran were to ramp up its nuclear program. Any of these actions would serve to significantly disrupt the status quo ante in the Middle East.

While Israel will never have the 'special relationship' with Russia that it does with America, the two nations clearly have some similar objectives, such as not wanting the reach of Islamic extremist groups to spread, and keeping Mr. Assad in power (at least, until such time as there is viable non-extremist alternative). Mr. Putin must also realize that while Hezbollah serves an important objective in the near term in Syria, it cannot be in Russia’s long-term interest for Hezbollah to gain a permanent foothold in Syria – something Iran surely would like to see. In that regard, Mr. Putin is playing a dangerous game, and, from the Israeli perspective, equally dangerous by delivering missiles, rockets, and other types of weaponry to Hezbollah, which can be used against Israel.

It would be in Moscow and Tel Aviv’s long-term interest to coordinate their movements and align their long-term objectives. In the end, they will find that they may have more in common geo-strategically than differences. With the latest round of peace talks in the process of failing, and the fighting ramping up again in Syria, now is a good time for the two countries to re-assess where they are going, and how they are going to get there. Iranian influence in Syria is unlikely to be part of the long-term mix for either of them. For that reason it would be better for Mr. Putin to establish some boundaries vis-à-vis Tehran in Syria that are also in accordance with Israel’s objectives. Otherwise, things will get even messier, and the foundation of their bilateral relationship could be at risk.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

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Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and co-author of the forthcoming book “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making” (Macmillan, May 2016).

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