Russo-Israeli Crossroads: What’s Next?
No great power enjoys Moscow’s Mideast networks. But will the Jerusalem axis endure?
Russia’s surprise entry into Syria in September 2015 – in the fifth year of the Syrian conflict – created an unpredictable security situation for Israel right at its borders. Now, after a year and a half of largely successful military coordination and ‘deconfliction’ between Moscow and Jerusalem, Russo-Israeli relations stand at a crossroads.
Of course, for all the media excitement, Russia’s insertion into the Syrian battlefield was not entirely new. Moscow is a veteran actor in the Middle East in general, and in Syria in particular. Some 15 years ago, Russia’s ‘grand return’ to the region was initiated by President Putin, who capitalized on Moscow’s vast diplomatic and military presence in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Libya – not to mention its historical ties with the Palestinian national movement from the Cold War period – as a means of challenging the ‘unipolar order’ imposed by the US after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as regaining regional power status and promoting Russia’s booming energy and military-industrial sectors.
Since then, Russia has consistently and actively pursued a ‘multi-vector’ strategy in the Middle East, engaging the principal regional actors with the declared ambition of creating a bridge between the Sunni axis and the Shiite crescent and, on the global stage, between the West and the Arab-Islamic world. Moscow has also offered to serve as a mediator between Hezbollah and Israel, and indeed between Iran and Israel, in the event of a direct military conflict in the future. Despite several painful setbacks – primarily during the American intervention in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the NATO-Western intervention in Libya, all of which contradicted or undermined Russia’s positions and interests – Russia has managed to carve out significant channels of influence across the Middle East and North Africa through an expanding network of diplomatic and economic ties, not to mention through its pivotal role in key international fora like the UN Security Council, or groupings like the P5+1 and the Middle East Quartet.
Seen from Russia, Israel is a leading political and military actor in the region, with far-reaching strategic capabilities covering all of Western Asia. It can offer Russia significant credits in its relations with the West.
Moscow has also shown conspicuous interest in cultivating ties with Jerusalem since its ‘grand return’ to the region. Seen from Russia, Israel is a leading political and military actor in the region, with far-reaching strategic capabilities covering all of Western Asia. It can offer Russia significant credits in its relations with the West. Of course, it is also home to a substantial Russian-speaking diaspora. Indeed, 25 years after the re-establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, Russia and Israel are arguably peaking in terms of security coordination, high-level leadership visits, as well as economic, technological and cultural exchanges.
Having said this, Russia’s moves in Syria, in the Middle East more generally, and in other international theatres, are not always congruent with Israeli interests. While the security coordination apparatus created by Russia and Israel to prevent unwanted friction and clashes has thus far proven effective, Jerusalem cannot assume that Moscow will consistently take Israel’s security interests into account – mainly in respect of the presence of Hezbollah at the Lebanese-Syrian border, and also the future political order in Syria – especially if these contradict Russia’s own interests. To be sure, by rescuing the Assad regime and preserving at least some prospect of Syrian statehood (under a still-to-be-determined formula), Russia contributed to promoting a measure of stability at Israel’s Syrian border. This was naturally welcomed by Jerusalem. And yet Israel still faces pressures from the Russian-led coalition operating inside Syria, and specifically views the expansion of Iran’s military presence and ambitions – through the vectors of the resuscitation of the Assad government, the strengthening of Hezbollah’s military capabilities, and Russian facilitation of the training and equipping of Hezbollah forces – as having negative security implications.
Ultimately, given the fast-changing security situation in Syria, Lebanon and across the Middle East, and given the ongoing division of zones of influence between Russia, Iran and Turkey in Syria, it is unclear to what extent and how long Russia and Israel will be able to maintain their carefully balanced security and military coordination. Specifically, as the situation in Syria enters what appears to be a political settlement phase, Russia and Israel may encounter some conflicts of interest in respect of Iran and Iranian proxies operating in Syria.
Russia initially framed its Syrian gambit as a military operation targeting jihadist groups across the country posing a threat both to the Assad regime and to Russia’s national security. (Domestically, of course, Moscow has long sought to contain the expansion of radical Islam and militant groups in the North Caucasus and other Muslim-populated regions of the Russian Federation – not to mention Russian citizens who travel abroad to fight or train with groups like ISIS.) Seen from Israel, however, Russia is driven by a larger spectrum of motivations, including a desire to resurrect itself as a leading regional power, and also to challenge and diminish the standing of the US – in particular, by filling the regional vacuum recently created by Washington through a combination of hesitation and restraint. Moscow may also wish to deflect international attention from other zones of tension with the West – most notably in Ukraine and Eastern Europe (see the Feature article by Fyodor Lukyanov in GB’s Fall/Winter 2016 issue). Not unrelatedly, Russia seeks to translate its military and diplomatic achievements in Syria into leverage against future Western concessions, including the revocation of Western economic sanctions and Western recognition of Russia’s national interests in its ‘near abroad.’
In Jerusalem’s assessment, then, Russia is pursuing a web of regional and global objectives through its military and diplomatic activities in Syria. Its first tactical goal is to establish a durable zone of influence along the Mediterranean shore of Western Syria in order to secure Russian bases in the region (Moscow plans to keep the modernized naval base in Tartus and the Hmeimim air base southeast of Latakia) as a bulwark from which to advance Moscow’s broader regional and global (strategic) interests. Clearly, Russia wants to guarantee the survival of the Assad government in order to maintain a friendly regime in the Middle East. Finally, Russia seeks to lever its military and diplomatic gains in Syria and vis-à-vis other regional actors in order to jump-start a reconciliation process with the West on terms that are favourable to Moscow.
A year and a half after Russia’s first Syrian offensive, what has Russia achieved, and how has this affected its relations with Israel? First and foremost, Russia’s gambit has created a new strategic reality in Syria by reversing the catastrophic position of the imperiled Assad regime and revitalizing Iran, Hezbollah and the different Shiite militias operating in Syria. From all of this, Russia has emerged as the leading mediator in the still-fragile political process on the Syrian question – all the while bolstering its status as a regional power broker through constant diplomatic initiatives and upgrading its relations with the actors in the theatre.
Another key move in Moscow’s regional policy has been its surprise reconciliation, as of last summer, with Ankara following a crisis sparked by the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet in the fall of 2015. Bref, over the course of its Syrian intervention, Russia has essentially succeeded in strengthening and deepening relations with all of the region’s key powers – Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and also Egypt – even if many of these states have different and often divergent interests, and in many cases privilege a different endgame in Syria. With the exception of ISIS and Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, Moscow also has strong relations with the leading non-state actors in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, at the time of this writing, Russia has still not succeeded in achieving some of its main objectives, including the lifting of economic sanctions and the alleviation of strategic pressure from the US and NATO in Eastern Europe and across the former Soviet space. Thus far, the EU and the US have largely disapproved of Russia’s actions in Syria, with Washington suspending negotiations with Moscow over the Russian-backed bombardment of Aleppo, having accused Moscow of committing war crimes. In late 2016 and into early 2017, US and EU economic, political and individual sanctions targeting Russia and Russians were extended in time and widened in scope, while US-NATO military training and exercises, deployment of military equipment and troops in Eastern Europe, and military rhetoric reached levels unseen in the post-Soviet period.
Now, in the context of the coming to power of Donald Trump, Russia’s presence in the Middle East is on the threshold of change. First, in the aftermath of the Russian-supported battle in Aleppo – the biggest military victory for Assad over the past six years – there has been a decisive reorientation of the civil war in favour of the political and territorial survival, in one form or other, of the Assad regime. Second, and related, Russia appears to be transitioning from the military stage of its operation in Syria to that of political process, with the goal of translating its military achievements in the region into diplomatic achievements that are likely to bolster the country’s regional and global standing. Third, over the course of the last year, Russia has engineered a new tactical triangular alliance in respect of Syria, comprising Russia, Iran and Turkey, and based on a common minimum denominator of ending the fighting and jump-starting a political process. Together, under Russia’s auspices, these countries aspire to be the leading forces in the political settlement and the principal designers of a future Syrian order (and perhaps beyond).
Despite some cracks (including Iranian opposition to Russia’s interest in US participation in the recent Astana talks on the Syrian conflict), and at least for the time being, Iran has acted as Russia’s partner in the war in Syria, while Turkey has shifted from an initial position of opposition to Russian intervention in Syria – specifically because of the prospect of Kurdish autonomy in a potential Syrian federal solution in which Assad is preserved – to a position of tactical partnership based on mutual interests in the Syrian theatre. Meanwhile, Moscow has used the window of opportunity provided by the transition of power in Washington to engage both Tehran and Ankara intensively in trilateral, triangular talks – a format enshrined in the ‘Moscow Declaration’ of December 20th, 2016, in which the three countries offered to be coordinated guarantors in ending the civil war, in fighting ISIS, Jabhat Fatah Al Sham and other extremist groups, in preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, and in developing a political solution between the Assad government and the rebels. The three countries further advanced their cooperation in the January 2017 peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan between representatives of the Assad regime and the armed opposition. The peace talks have to date not yielded any critical breakthrough or achievement. Having said this, it appears increasingly that Russia’s future steps on the Syrian questions will involve cooperation with the US – something that will further require Moscow to take Israeli interests into account.
Besides the Syrian battlefield, another active element of Russia’s Middle Eastern involvement is the Palestinian question. Capitalizing on its historical ties with the Palestinian national movement, Moscow has sought to play a leading mediation role between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as between the Palestinian factions themselves – particularly by way of attempted juxtaposition with failed American attempts at such mediation. Russia’s latest effort in this regard was the Moscow-hosted intra-Palestinian (Hamas-Fatah) reconciliation conference of January 15-17, 2017 – one day after the Paris peace conference. Still, Moscow’s numerous intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts have thus far delivered few tangible results. And if Jerusalem has often shown irritation with Moscow’s support of Palestinian moves in international fora, it has nonetheless been more open, in recent years, to Moscow’s initiatives than to moves initiated by Washington, Brussels or Paris.
Full Russo-American cooperation in the general international system, which could evidently have far-reaching consequences for the future regional order in the Middle East and in other theatres like Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Georgia, Central Asia, the Arctic and the Asia-Pacific region.
Future changes in Moscow’s positions in the Middle East will be contingent on the decisions of the Trump administration. Major uncertainties hang over Washington’s policies on Russia, Israel, Syria and the broader Middle East – all of which will durably impact Russo-Israeli relations. At present, there appear to be three scenarios for the possible evolution of the US administration’s behaviour vis-à-vis Russia. The first is a continuation of the posture and policy of the Obama administration – that is, continued, if not increased tensions between the US and Russia in the Middle East after a short-lived yet once again disingenuous ‘reset.’ The second scenario involves a limited number of policy changes toward Russia by the new administration, consisting of carefully choreographed moves to deliver reciprocal concessions. These limited policy changes would ease tensions between Washington and Moscow, and lead to increased cooperation between the two powers in the Middle East. The third scenario is that of full Russo-American cooperation in the general international system, which could evidently have far-reaching consequences for the future regional order in the Middle East – not to mention in other theatres like Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Georgia, Central Asia, the Arctic and the Asia-Pacific region. Of these three scenarios, the second scenario – that of specific (not general) understandings and compromises between Washington and Moscow – dovetails most precisely with the early declared intentions of both candidate Trump and Trump as president. If this turns out to be the case in practice, then measures will be taken by both Moscow and Washington early in the first term of the new administration in order to reduce bilateral tensions while advancing bilateral cooperation on counter-terrorism in particular. Having said this, the prima facie strong anti-Iranian positions of the new administration and the US Congress may well militate against deep and sustained American rapprochement with Russia in the Middle East. It follows that the new administration may eventually attempt to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran in the Syrian arena – a development that would manifestly serve Israel’s interests.
Back to the Russo-Israeli crossroads. For now, relations between Moscow and Jerusalem are very positive in the security realm, but also in economic, technological and cultural terms. Israel has largely maintained a neutral position on Ukraine, and Russia ‘closed its eyes,’ as it were, during Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, as well as in the wake of a number of military actions attributed to Israel at the Syrian-Lebanese border and inside Syria. As mentioned, the security coordination framework or deconfliction mechanism stood up by Moscow and Jerusalem to prevent friction between the two sides has thus far proven to be reliable. Russia is acutely aware of Israel’s deterrence capabilities in Syria and in the region at large, and has worked to make sure that its military coordination with the Israeli Defence Forces goes smoothly. And Israel is manifestly interested in avoiding clashes with a great power.
Bilateral trade between Israel and Russia reached US$3.3 billion in 2015 – an increase of 73 percent from 2014. Exchanges have been particularly active in terms of Israeli arms sales, with Israel selling search drones to Russia in late 2015. Russia has also sought Israeli know-how in nanotechnology and cyber-security. Russian exports to Israel, in turn, have been led by oil and precious metals. Russian artists are regular guests on the Israeli cultural scene, and Russian television channels are widely broadcast in Israel, supported by a thick network of Russian-speaking Israeli television channels and electronic and print media. Diplomatically, over the past year, there were four high-level Israeli visits to Russia by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin. And Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Israel in November of last year. (President Putin last visited Israel in 2012.)
Of course, Russian intervention in the region may in principle lead to some new future opportunities for Israel, but this seems increasingly unlikely today. Instead, what is more probable is that Moscow will try, at a time of its choosing, to promote understandings between Israel and other regional actors close to Moscow. Moreover, the evolution of relations between Israel and Russia will be conditioned by both regional events and the broader tensions between the global powers. Regionally, Israel faces the challenge posed by the Russian-led coalition operating in Syria, which includes Israel’s most bitter enemies, and views the consolidation of Iranian interests in Syrian territory and the military buildup of Hezbollah as important threats. Israel is also concerned by the bolstering of Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities over Syria.
Given the lack of clarity in the new US administration’s policy vis-à-vis both Russia and Israel, mutual consideration by Israel and Russia for each other’s interests in respect of Syria will continue. Russia clearly wishes to avoid damaging its relationship with Israel, and will certainly continue to contain any potential military conflict with Israel, which is in the interest of all parties. Still, from the standpoint of Jerusalem, the Russian presence and activism in the Middle East require Israel to carefully monitor Russian actions in the region, in addition to developments pertaining to Moscow’s relations with regional entities and international players. For its part, Israel has made it plain that it intends to maintain freedom of action in the Syrian theatre. On this logic, Moscow’s continued support for Iran and Hezbollah suggests the potential for future clashes between Russia and Israel. Bref, Jerusalem has no choice but to continue to articulate its objectives in the evolving Syrian order, impose its rules of the game as best as it can, and manoeuvre independently to protect its interests. And this Israel knows how to do.
Zvi Magen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, and former Israeli ambassador to Russia.
Sarah Fainberg is a Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, and a Lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.