In the opinion of at least some members of the Israeli political and security elite, cooperation with Russia can positively contribute to Israel’s security. Considering the serious situation in which Israel finds itself with a new Iranian empire being established on its border, the desire to engage pragmatically with any player in the Middle East who does not list struggle against Israel among its top priorities is understandable enough.
And yet, Israeli establishment’s expectations regarding engagement with Russia seem overrated. Israeli appeals to Moscow about the undesirability of a drastic change in the regional balance of power in favor of Iran fall on deaf years. There are some fundamental reasons why this is the case. These reasons are not going to disappear while the Kremlin maintains its current broader geostrategy, probably dooming all efforts by the Israeli leadership to receive Russian assistance in limiting the expansion of the Iranian military and political network in Israel’s neighborhood.
Israeli media and members of political establishment often refer to “close and positive ties” between Israel and Russia. Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to act on this premise. He visited Russia frequently in the last couple of years, specifically for the purpose of getting Putin to act in a more understanding manner with regards to Israel’s national security. Add meetings outside of Russia and telephone calls between the two, and we get a picture of a sustained top-level dialogue, in which Israel appears to be the party much more anxious to communicate than the other one – never a promising kind of arrangement.
The Russia optimism in the Israeli establishment exists beyond the top political leadership. Director general of Intelligence Ministry Chagai Tzuriel recently opined that “Russian and Israeli interests in Syria may not be the same but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia cannot play a constructive role in Syria in Israel’s view or that certain understandings can’t be reached between Russia and Israel with regard to Syria,” while Israeli officials reportedly “believe that Russia considers Iran a potentially destabilizing force in postwar Syria, and are cautiously optimistic that Russia understands Israel’s security concerns.”
Meanwhile, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy reports, from his “talks with several Israeli security officials,” that the said officials “favor collaboration in Syria between the United States and Russia.” Another example of the trend is former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, who said in an early 2017 interview that Netanyahu “should be complimented for reaching a level of dialogue” with Moscow. Halevy “urged Israel to reach out to Russia in its efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program and other ambitions.” Former Deputy Chief of the IDF General Staff Yair Golan, during his lecture at the Washington Institute in September 2017, answered “yes” to the question whether Russia can be a constraining influence on Iran’s ambitions. Golan said he could not “describe the Russian influence only as a negative one,” adding that Russia’s activities in the region were “not necessarily a negative development.”
The Unsatisfactory Results
While Israeli leadership certainly recognizes the reality of the Russian-Iranian geostrategic alignment, it seems to believe that pragmatic engagement with Moscow can be employed to limit the Iranian threat to Israel.
This concept does not appear to be working out very efficiently. Despite numerous expressions of Israeli concerns, Moscow refused to stop the flow of Russian weapons into the hands of Hezbollah. Moreover, with an Iranian-dominated land bridge to Israeli border through Iraq in Syria being established in 2017, Russia refused to support a meaningful buffer zone that would keep Iranian-controlled forces away from the Israeli-Syrian border.
Israel has been asserting vociferously how unacceptable it is for Iran to establish its military network on Israel’s north-eastern border. Indeed, stating precisely this concern appears to be among the chief reasons behind Netanyahu’s frequent travels to see Putin. When a ceasefire for southern Syria was being negotiated in the summer of 2017, Israel demanded a buffer zone of at least 60 kilometers from the Israeli-Syrian border where the presence of Iranian military and Iranian-backed armed units would not be allowed. The Russians refused, promising only a buffer zone of five kilometers from the government-rebel frontline. Given the shape of this frontline, the actual buffer offered by the Russians for the northern part of Israel’s Golan region fluctuates, at different points, between five and 11 kilometers from the Israeli border.
Another agreement on the southern Syria, announced by the U.S. and Russia in early November 2017, supposedly envisioned withdrawal of foreign forces from the area near the Golan. Soon enough, however, Russians issued a statement that clarified their interpretation of the deal. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Iranians’ presence in Syria is legitimate and Russia had not promise to compel them to withdraw their forces. A few months earlier, Lavrov reacted to the Israeli alarm about the build-up of Iranian military infrastructure in Syria by saying: “whatever area of cooperation between Iran and Syria, my position is that if their cooperation in whichever field does not violate the basic provisions of international law, it should not be cause for question.”
The Fundamental Reason Why
The reason why, despite an intense and pragmatic strategic dialogue with Moscow, Israel has not been able to enlist its help in limiting the Iranian threat lies in the principal Russian strategic objectives.
Russia has committed significant resources and taken serious risks by its actions in Syria. And yet, the Kremlin is a rational, if nefarious, player. Therefore, it must have goals serious enough to warrant its present Syrian policy. Suggestions about why Russia supports Assad that I found in the public Israeli discourse, such as Amos Harel’s “an image of power, a Mediterranean seaport at Tartus, potential trade deals,” simply don’t cut it. These might be Moscow’s secondary objectives, but they are certainly not big enough to be the primary cause behind the Russian intervention.
The main geostrategic goal of Putin’s Russia is the restoration, in some form, of the Russian dominance over the nations that used to be within the Soviet Union. The Kremlin leadership sees this as the only dependable way to guarantee Russia’s strong position on the world stage, which, in turn, is directly connected to the matter of the regime preservation in the internal Russian context. But Moscow’s hegemonic aspirations in its neighborhood meet resistance from the West, and the United States in particular. While Russia’s embattled neighbors might wish for a stronger Western involvement, even today it is robust enough to seriously trouble the Kremlin. Hence the ongoing massive, extensive and bold Russian effort to disrupt and distract the West. Putin’s Russia may achieve its primary goals only in a world that is in chaos. Thus, in chaos it must be.
Russia’s present alignment with Iran, and its redemption of the Assad regime in particular, should be viewed in the wider context of Moscow’s foreign policy. Attacks on the election process in numerous Western nations, relationship with the Western far-right, meddling in the dangerously volatile Western Balkans, the undermining of sanctions against North Korea, even ties with the Taliban – all these Russian policies of today are links in the same chain, along with Moscow’s Middle Eastern strategy.
Given the goals of the Russian regime – expansionist and directed against the existing world order as they are – these policies are perfectly rational. This is the case in the Middle East as well. So what if Iran builds a modern Persian Empire (this time with a flavor of Shi’a Islamism) that will stretch across the Middle East? The key Russian geostrategic imperatives concern its neighborhood – Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia – not the Middle East. The point is that an empowered Islamic Republic of Iran will be guaranteed to attract American, and more broadly Western, attention and resources that will not be employed in stopping the Russian geopolitical resurgence.
This means that Israeli leadership’s appeals to Moscow along the lines of Netanyahu’s message to Putin that “Iran is not only a threat to us, in the end it will also be a threat to you,” or the one about a “resurgent Persian Shi’a empire that wants to mobilize Muslim populations around the world,” as well as other similar communications will never make the desired impression on the Kremlin. The Russians are anything but confused about Iran. They know exactly what their own geostrategic priorities are, as well as their reasons for engagement in cooperation with Tehran. Moscow’s actions make it clear it has considered the possible threats Iran might pose for Russia and determined them to be negligible as compared to the strategic benefits of Iran’s geopolitical empowerment.
Perhaps the Kremlin has nothing against Israel as such. But it does not care about Israel’s security either. What it cares about is the accomplishment of its own strategic goals. And today the Russian leadership has decided that existence of a stronger and emboldened Iran contributes to this process positively. The Russians know all the necessary facts about Iran’s actions — the Israelis can hardly tell them anything fundamentally new. It is just that the conclusions Moscow has made on the basis of these facts are in strong contradiction with the vital national interests of Israel. No amount of Netanyahu’s meetings with Putin can change this reality.