The complex relationship of Jews in Russia fills volumes. Anti-Semites are fond of reminding us of the Jewish heritage of Communism’s founders. Russian Jews suffered pogroms, slaughter from Cossacks, upheavals such as portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof, and many were in the first Aliyah of the Zionist/Socialists in the early 20th century.
Persecution under Czars, Stalin and finally the large emigrations in the 1970’s and ‘80’s have given a noticeable Russian accent to the cultural face of Israel. The USSR’s approval of the State of Israel was counterbalanced by the arming and relationships with Egypt and Syria and other Soviet client states in the region. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989-90 the vacuum was filled with question and chaos. The image of Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank outside the Kremlin says it all. How the mighty have fallen.
Today a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin is once again flexing its military and political muscles in the Middle East. Putin is strategically re-assembling the USSR without Communism. Not having to hold eighteen separate, disparate and feuding “Republics” together along with a Warsaw Pact of Communist States such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary makes Russia’s position more secure. Energy dealings and a death grip of Europe’s energy supply are serious negotiating tools and Putin’s wields them like a blacksmith’s hammer.
Russia was active in the early stages of the Syrian civil war and outmaneuvered a “red line”- drawing President Obama into a passive and secondary position that has plunged the region into the rampage of ISIS/ The Caliphate and the octopus-like military reach of Tehran. Russia’s reclaiming of The Crimea and Eastern Ukraine moved the United States into sanctions and trade restrictions and also moved Russia to more trade with Israel.
Recently Putin negotiated and then delayed a deal to sell state of the art missiles to Tehran. Israel of course objected. But how much of this is political theatre, a dance. Perhaps most of it. Putin has re=set once again the delivery of the missiles and is currently removing Russian support from President Assad’s still breathing regime in Syria. Putin’s intervention defused an international situation when he pressured Assad to surrender the regime’s chemical weapons.
Vladimir Putin is of, course the former chief of the former KGB (titles do change in Russia, methodology stays the same). Putin is a cagey, skilled and decisive leader who knows how to play an audience. The former head of Communist Russia’s spy agency is seen regularly with Orthodox clergy, lighting candles or posing near icons. Russia has seen violence from the Chechenians and takes regular steps to keep Muslims in Russia in check. The Afghan invasion is acknowledged to have been a dramatic move to intimidate Muslim minorities in the 18 Soviet Republics. Its failure was one of the dominoes that brought down the USSR.
Some questions need to be asked about Russia’s allegiances in the Middle East. Is the sale of missiles to Tehran intended to align itself with the Ayatollahs? Or is it intended to draw Tehran away from its surrogate relationship as the United States replacement as the regional power. Does this mean a Russian domination of Tehran? Putin dances with Israel and with the Ayatollahs. The United States seems destined to dance alone.
Much of this is political theatre, and Putin is a master at it. But Israel draws on the strength of having had a long and often schizophrenic relationship with Czars, Bolsheviks and now Putin. The two are evenly matched, the game changer is Tehran. Do Ayatollahs dance? And who gets to lead?