Israel Walks Russia’s Tightrope

Israel has tried to convince Russia to draw back some of its military influence in the Middle East, but must be careful.

Gedalyah Reback ,

PM Binyamin Netanyahu with Russian President
PM Binyamin Netanyahu with Russian President
Flash 90

Russia is a constant thorn for Israelis. At times it might seem that the Russians have neither rhyme nor reason for the motives in the Middle East. At times they are willing to accept overtures from the pro-Russian Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman while simultaneously sending advanced weapons systems to Syria and building Iran’s nuclear program.

If those moves seem haphazard or unclear strategically, Olena Bagno-Moldavsky of the Institute of National Security Studies would agree with you.

Russia’s military and global strategy are somewhat disconnected from its financial interests. However, Russia is open to an evolving strategy because Western sanctions have dented Russia’s power. As a result, Russia might be even more eager – possibly desperate – to find alternative spheres of influence.

According to Bagno-Moldavsky, Russia has been in the process of rebuilding its international influence since the late 2000s. Syria seemed like the only viable place to heavily invest Russian military power and nurture a ‘satellite state’ in the region.

But given Western sanctions over the Russian invasion and conquest of Crimea in the Ukraine, that means virtually any country in the Middle East is fair game.

“Their Ukraine policies have killed their relationship with Europe,” says Bagno-Moldavsky. “Russia will try to present itself as an alternative to, rather than a participant of, the international mainstream.”

Russia has fallen back on assets it already has. Ties with Syria are strong, but it is also a player in building the infrastructure of Iran’s nuclear program. The two countries were also close during the Cold War, adding a lot of sentimentality to the relationship Moscow would be reluctant to abandon, especially if it appeared a though Russian influence were slipping out of the Middle East were Russia to back away from the Assads.

But stepping back is unlikely. Even if Russia is considering Syria a liability for Russia’s reputation around the world, there is no clear advantage or disadvantage in Syria itself to justify a change in approach to the country (to the chagrin of Israel).

“The problem is that Syria is so unstable and unclear that there is no justification to change their strategy. Chances are that they won’t change the situation in the near future. It is simply an unstable situation that demonstrates no overarching factor that might lead to a drastic change in Russian strategy in the Middle East,” said Bagno-Moldavsky.

When asked if Iran was being leveraged by Russia to exert more influence over the negotiations between Tehran and the world powers, Bagno-Moldavsky thought Russia was too isolated for that.

“Their international standing as of now would not let it be an active partner in negotiations with Iran,” she said.

Still, she thought that the sanctions against Russia might actually result in unintended but positive effects for Israel: Russia will need to diversify its diplomatic outreach.

“The idea of creating channels for bilateral relations includes  Iran, but sanctions might force Moscow to diversify the countries with which it is involved, particularly in places like the Middle East.”

Russia’s recent deal with the Egyptian government to build their first reactor has been seen by some people as both the inevitable nuclear proliferation resulting from a bad deal with the Iranians and the attempt by Russia to take advantage of poor US relations in the region. Still others see Russia planning for a future where Iran’s nuclear program may no longer yield the financial fruit it could have without international controls.

“Russia is more opportunistic than strategic. They are looking for deals everywhere. Egypt does not substitute Iran for Moscow; rather they are trying to start new projects wherever they can. It is definitely an attempt to somehow be in the region.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman invested effort into having stronger relations with Russia, but he never seemed to be able to breach Russia’s desire to continue supporting Syria and Iran. There was only one major incident where Israel’s backchannels prevented a major Russian shipment of S-300 missiles to Syria in 2013.

“From the Israeli point of view, Russia has a history of supporting non-state actors and what weapons they provide could make things more complex if not weaker for Israel. Israel doesn’t want to push Russia in a bad direction,” said Bagno-Moldavsky.

Israel angered the United States last year by remaining neutral on the Russian invasion of Crimea, but even to European powers the Israeli position was “understandable” because of the risks involved in being too confrontational.

“From the Russian point of view, they definitely appreciate Israel staying neutral on the Ukraine issue. It contributes to this indirect understanding that Israel stays out of these issues, even to the point where Liberman was once rebuffed when he offered to mediate between Ukraine and Russia.”

Israel has meager means, right now, to influence Russia’s moves in the Middle East. The S-300 deal cancellation was a major victory for Israel’s diplomatic arm, but Russia is still not just more powerful in terms of resources but also in its advantage diplomatically in the Mideast.

Beyond that, Jerusalem has successfully impressed something else on Moscow.

“Russia respects Israel’s argument there is a need to maintain a balance of power in the region and Israel is very clear about that balance in terms of weapons,” said Bagno-Moldavsky.

“Russia accepted Israel’s position.”