Putin’s Mission in Israel

By Andrei Kozhinov, MOSCOW TIMES

In Israel, Russia is often seen through a Western lens and is heavily criticized for its positions on Syria and the Iranian nuclear issue. A conversation about Russian foreign policy usually ends up with raised eyebrows and an unequivocal certainty about Russia’s “anti-West nature.” This is true in part, but Russia should be seen as acting like any other country trying to preserve its perceived national interests.

Strange as it might seem, Israel and Russia’s interests often coincide in this volatile region. Some of the reasons for this include the fact that one-sixth of Israel’s population is of Russian descent, Russians are the second-largest group of tourists who vacation in Israel, and the most important holy sites of Christianity are found in Israel.

In addition, many of Russia’s geopolitical interests in the region are similar to Israel’s. During the past decade, Russia has been trying to establish itself as an influential player in the Middle East, particularly as a counterbalance to strong U.S. influence in the region. That is why the Kremlin values its membership in the Quartet. Along with the other Quartet members — the United Nations, the United States and the European Union — Russia plays an important role in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, Russia is trapped in a prickly situation. The Kremlin’s perceived support of Iran and Syrian President Bashar Assad antagonizes the Sunni world, pushing Moscow into the midst of the Sunni-Shiite rift that divides the Middle East.

Moscow’s multivector Middle East foreign policy is driven by a desire to talk to every party involved in a bid to prevent further global interference in the internal matters of sovereign states. The Arab Spring is not perceived as a positive regional development because it has led to the rise of radical Islam. The Kremlin’s fear is that there may be a spillover effect in the North Caucasus and Central Asia.

President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel on Monday might be part of a new Kremlin policy toward Jerusalem. Israel is seen as a prosperous and stable regional power whose interests often coincide with Moscow’s. For example, Israel and Russia have strained relations with Turkey, and both fear the turbulence of radical Islam. Economically, trade between the two countries is growing, as is military and homeland-­security cooperation. There are several large-scale hi-tech ventures between the countries, and Gazprom is exploring the possibility of engaging in newly discovered gas fields off the coasts of Israel and Greece.

Russia, no doubt, will continue to pursue its multivector policy in the Middle East. It will continue to pursue its policy of speaking to every significant player in the region, including Hamas, Hezbollah and other radical organizations. But given Moscow’s interest in establishing stability in the region, it will also try to influence emerging Islamic governments to act in a more moderate and peaceful way.

Although then-President Dmitry Medvedev postponed a trip to Israel in 2009 because of a strike in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Putin has shown his commitment to developing stronger relations with Israel by scheduling his visit to the country so soon after his third presidential term began.

Several years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pushed the “reset” button, hoping to renew U.S.-Russia relations in good faith. But the “reset” has been faltering. Let’s hope that the Russia-Israel relationship will be more productive.

Andrei Kozhinov is director for Russian affairs at the Israel Project in Jerusalem.

June 25, 2012 | 11 Comments »

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11 Comments / 11 Comments

  1. @ BlandOatmeal:
    Yes, you make excellent points about what motivates countries and governments. I was simply saying that America’s treatment of Israel (and cozying up to the Islamists) makes me ashamed.

  2. @ Michele:

    It is shameful to consider how the US has undermined Israel and her interests

    Michelle, I have long ago discarded “shame” as an appropriate word to use in describing political moves. The leaders of the US are acting in their own personal interests, as are the leaders of Russia and of Israel. Shame doesn’t enter into the equation, just self-interest. One thing that IS VITALLY important in international relations is TRUST: Where there is trust, nations can move powerfully together; without it, they move sluggishly at best. That doesn’t determine which SIDE nations line up with — this is based on greed and fear. Israel’s leaders, for instance, through greed and fear, are lined up with the US. Because the Obama Administration has proven itself the most faithless of a long string of faithless administrations, Israel cannot trust the Americans. As a result, there is constant friction. Most of Israeli policy during the past two or three decades, in fact, has been a matter of putting in the emergency brake to slow down American attempts to turn Israel into an Islamic state. Again, shame has nothing to do with this, just personal self-interest by people in power.

    Russia’s foreign policy can be deduced through geography: In the winter, Russia is practically a land-locked country. It needs warm-water ports in order to maintain an independent naval presence of surface ships. Turkey controls access to the Black Sea ports, and NATO countries block free transit to and through Kaliningrad. Vladivostok, when it is free of ice, is literally a continent away from the Russian heartland, over a solitary track often blocked by snow. Assad is affording Russia port facilities on the Mediterranean, and Iran potentially allows Russia access to all the Middle East.

    The US, and its subsidiary countries in NATO and the Far East, has free access to all the world’s oceans. It uses these to establish “mobile countries” of aircraft carriers and their escorts, which can deliver virtually unlimited firepower to all the major powers except Russia, Central Asia, inland China and the Amazon Rain Forest. American foreign policy consists of maintaining a “noose” around Russia and China, and of keeping the seaways open for commerce — commerce that benefits the bankers, etc., who put our leaders in power.

    Again, “shame” doesn’t enter the picture.

  3. @ David Sternlight:
    From my own personal observation, Israel’s best friends are its own courageous people with indomitable spirit and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and some evangelicals and others in USA. Russia has been and is the best friend of Iran and Syria. Putin knows Israel’s highest potential in having oil on her Mediterranean cost; the technological advancement and agricultural development Israel enjoys. Because of its development in various areas against all odds, Russia also looks to Israel as a potential market for its products. When Israel starts producing its own oil, he knows that she would be in a better position to out compete Russia in exporting its oil to Europe. Although Russia has been siding with Israel’s enemies for so long, because of its interest Russia may try to work with Israel on anything from which it may gain a mutual benefit. I hope Israel will take a precaution in dealing with Russia, which is still promoting the interest of Israel’s enemies. An improvement of Israel’s relationships with Russia in areas of mutual benefits for both countries (if used wisely) could be helpful to Israel and could be an incentive for some western countries to improve their relationships with Israel as well.

  4. @ David Sternlight:
    Russia has been aiding Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. I really don’t understand why Israpundit contributors are so smitten with Russia and perceive it as a potential ally of Israel.

  5. @ BlandOatmeal:
    Unfortunately you are exactly right. It is shameful to consider how the US has undermined Israel and her interests–ever since 1948. Which is why I don’t understand the desperation for American approval. Ultimately only Israel will defend Israel.

  6. Anyone who invokes the “filthy zhid” image is living in the past. Putin has been massively friendly and supportive of Chabad in Russia, despite his resistance to US Chabad headquarters’ attempts to get the Rebbe’s books back from Russia.
    Above all, Russians are pragmatic in pursuing their national interests; we may expect continued movement toward Israel in an attempt to counterbalance any attempt to foment a “Moslem Spring” in Russia’s Moslem regions. The Chinese, similarly, have large Moslem populations and are pragmatic about national interests, thus explaining their recent warming of ties with Israel. We are not dealing with fools here; it is likely they have long since traded off evanescent oil benefits with the technology benefits from Israel. Over the long term, oil will primarily be needed in readily available smaller quantities for petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals. In contrast, technological, medical, and agricultural brilliance benefits indefinitely.

  7. @ Hugo Schmidt-Fischer:

    Russia has a tradition of pursuing policies that are extremely detrimental to Israel

    In 1948, they saved Israel’s life while the US boycotted her and the Brits were openly antagonistic. In 1956, the US sided with Russia against Britain, France & Israel. In 1967 and 1973, the US and Russia joined forces to intervene and cut short a total Israeli victory. None of that is evidence of policies detrimental to Israel, except where the US was pursuing the same detrimental policies.

    Currently, this is manifest in Iran and Syria

    Not really. The Russians have done no more than the Americans, to encourage Iran to pursue the production of nuclear weapons to use against Israel. In Syria, Russia supports Assad, who has overseen a de facto peace with Israel for years, whereas US President Obama has backed the Muslim Brotherhood — the parent group of Hamas. At best, the US scores six of one, half a dozen of the other.

    None of your further arguments blunt the above. In a head-on confrontation, either military or economic, the US would defeat Russia; and the Yanks have lots of money with which to stuff the pockets of Israel’s leaders. That is the ONLY attraction the US has over Russia. Even so, the cost may be prohibitive; because the US is more likely to swallow up Israel than to protect it in time of need.

    Israel can rely only on Israel, and on the fact that the Gingham Dog may devour the Calico Cat. Having nukes and ICBMs also adds a bit of comfort.

  8. The Russian President is in Israel for his countries interest. That is a normal thing to do as a representative of his people and country. The fall of the Basher Assad’s regime (which is most likely to happen) troubles Putin very much. His visit at this stage shows that there is something important that the Russians are looking for from his visit to Israel. More than any other leaders in the world Putin can help in having the chemicals in Syria secured before the fall of the regime. Doing this is helpful not only to Israel but to Russians themselves. If the chemicals fall in the hands of the militants who now fight against the Syrian Regime, there is possibility to take them to the Russian Common Wealth Countries thereby affecting their securities. As he has never been a friend of Israel, it is advisable not to put any trust in him.

  9. This trip awakens far ranging suspicions, and points to the work of a well planned, high profile Public Relations Agency. With intent to mislead readers, lulling them into dreamland.
    Whoever is fooled by this ferry tale presentation of Putin, will have a hard awakening.

    I for one, will keep my eyes wide open to see what and who is behind his plans.

  10. @ Hugo Schmidt-Fischer:
    Hugo-everything in me screams that you are right. I don’t understand why Israelis are so gullible when it comes to recognizing who their friends are. Is it because they so want to be liked and accepted that when they are told what they want to hear, they just embrace it, wanting/needing it to be true? You would think after all these millennia Israel would learn who her enemies are and not be taken in by those who simply say the right things (Obama, et al).

  11. Keep on inhaling and dreaming.

    There is little common in the national interests of Israel and Russia’s policies. Wherever these “coincide” it must be a coincidence.

    Russia has a tradition of pursuing policies that are extremely detrimental to Israel. Currently, this is manifest in Iran and Syria, in the support of their past or future nuclear aspirations and the supply of anti-aircraft weaponry. Russia is driven by balance of power considerations and also to a large extent, by its export hungry defence industry. When it will become opportune, Russia will quickly find a way back to Sunni elements as well.

    The fact that many immigrants are of Russian extraction can only fool Israeli’s. This self-delusion has a long tradition in Israel, starting with second Aliyah fanatics who admired Stalin. It did not help during the Six Day War, or in 1973 or any other time, with the exception perhaps of 1948, and then Russia’s help was to spite the colonial powers not out of sympathy for the filthy Zhyds that had left mother Russia.

    What important role, you really must be kidding, does Russia fulfil in negotiating peace between Israeli’s and “Palestinians”. A place for Russia in the Quartet only serves to subdue Israel in one more forum.

    Russia has proven that it is entirely irresponsible in handling the Muslim threat. By the end of this century, orthodox Christians will be a minority in that country.

    Russia seeks the power to be able to choke off Europe’s oil & gas supplies. Just like they did to the Ukraine or White Russia a few years back. That is the guiding element in their actions. If you want to make sense of their policies, study the Nabucco pipeline, the southern pipeline alternative to Europe and what Russia has been up to in the Middle East in that respect. This will explain their actions, not some putative anti-Sunni strategies.

    And this does not bode well for Israel. Russia will seek increased presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

    Why then Olmert had to hand Russia back the compound in Jerusalem established by Prince Nikolai Nikolaievich in 1872 eludes any logic. Did Russia reciprocate by returning assets confiscated from Jewish subjects throughout the Soviet empire? Or was Olmert allowed to overcharge the Russian embassy on lavish private expense accounts.