20 years under Putin: a timeline

Russia’s productive relationship with Israel remains one of the pillars of the Middle East security architecture. The two countries manage to compartmentalize their differences and cooperate on issues of mutual interest. But this fine balancing act is now facing challenges from the new U.S. administration’s foreign policy lines and Israel’s domestic political volatility.

 

January 29, 2018: Vladimir Putin meets with Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow. Photo: kremlin.ru.

 

Over the last two decades, Russia and Israel have maintained a cooperative and even friendly relationship that compartmentalizes points of friction and avoids crossing red lines. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin developed a personal relationship and understanding. The two countries managed to avoid a “zero sum” game, despite Russia’s growing animosity with the United States, Israel’s strategic ally, and its close relations with Israel’s main adversary, Iran, even as Moscow entered into coalition with Teheran in October 2015 to fight in Syria alongside President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah. Yet, the deepening rifts between the Biden administration and the Kremlin, the continued tensions in the Middle East, as well as Israel’s domestic political volatility, threaten the fine balance mustered by Moscow and Jerusalem.

Russia and Israel have overlapping interests that drew the two countries closer together. From the Russian side, the relationship was perched on President Putin’s reported personal fondness of Israel and the Jewish people, and on Russia’s ability to compartmentalize its foreign relations in ways that allowed it to maintain dialogues with countries despite contradictions on certain policy points. From Israel’s side, over the last decade, ties with Russia were based on the Israeli strategic community’s recognition that in conflicts with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria, Russia has emerged as a pivotal power broker with a unique ability to escalate or de-escalate confrontations. Israel also harbors a large Russian-speaking community of Jews from the former Soviet Union that can facilitate cultural dialogue. Hence, even before October 2015, but more so after, Israel has been working to maintain a good relationship with Russia while pursuing what it calls “the campaign between wars” against Iran’s subversive activities.

Israel’s response to the March 2014 annexation of Crimea is one of the starkest examples of its differentiated approach, which fundamentally seeks to avoid conflict with Moscow without jeopardizing Jerusalem’s vital alliance with Washington. Hence, for instance, Israel has tried to avoid addressing the question of Russia’s illiberalism and its questionable international policies. Nonetheless, as noted by a 2019 report published by the Kennan Institute, Jerusalem is “sympathetic to Washington’s concerns about Russian global malign activity and restricts the scope of its security contacts with Russia accordingly.”

Still, Israel’s ability to maintain cordial relations did not cancel out tensions and contradiction within the bilateral relationship with Russia, making it relatively vulnerable to external factors. First, Russia’s main allies in the Middle East also happen to be Israel’s worse enemies—Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad—which creates a tense background for Russian-Israeli relations. Second, despite reaching an understanding on de-confliction between the two countries’ military forces soon after Russia had entered the war in Syria, frictions and tensions remained unavoidable. In September 2018, this showed when a Russian reconnaissance airplane was mistakenly shot down by Syrian air defense while Israeli fighter jets were operating in Syria. Russia accused Israel of “creating a dangerous situation” and blamed it for the incident. Israel apologized, but reportedly continues operating against Iranian targets in Syria in the face of Russian reprehensions.

Israel’s response to the March 2014 annexation of Crimea is one of the starkest examples of its differentiated approach, which fundamentally seeks to avoid conflict with Moscow without jeopardizing Jerusalem’s vital alliance with Washington.

This already complex and delicate balance of interests might get further complicated due to the Biden administration’s new, sterner approach to Russia. Israel’s ability to accommodate relations with Russia, despite their differences, hinges on not infringing on its strategic alliance with the United States, which is preeminent to Jerusalem’s foreign relations and national security. Achieving this goal was an easier mission under the Trump administration, which was sympathetic to the Netanyahu government’s causes and less critical of the Kremlin. Donald Trump himself, on several occasions, noted that he would like to have a working relationship with Putin. This task gets trickier under Joe Biden’s administration, which claims that tackling Russian authoritarianism and malign activities is high on its agenda.

Today, Israel’s volatile domestic arena might create another hurdle for Russian-Israeli relations. In the most recent round of elections (the fourth in two years), Netanyahu has not been able to gain enough votes to secure a stable coalition, which means that either he will be pushed out of office or, if he remains, his rule will be chaotic. In any case, more elections should be expected soon. In the first scenario, if a coalition of anti-Netanyahu forces can form a government, they will have to forge a new relationship with Putin—not an easy task given the Biden administration’s toughening Russia stance and the Kremlin’s agitation resulting in its increasing hardline policies amidst fears of Russophobia and confrontation with the West. If Netanyahu remains prime minister, he will have a minority government or an unstable coalition. In this scenario, he is likely to preserve his relations with Putin against diminishing odds. But there, too, he faces the risk of both angering the Biden administration and allowing the Kremlin to take advantage of his weakness, as happened during Putin’s January 2020 visit to Jerusalem, where the Russian president used the opportunity to promote Russia’s WWII narrative at the memorial dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation.

With the Biden administration’s more assertive foreign policies and Israel’s domestic political uncertainty, the fine balance of Russian-Israeli relations remains strained. These strains would be stretched further in case open hostilities were to erupt in the Middle East, where Russia is showing a bolstered approach. Israel and Russia may find themselves more firmly on different sides of such conflicts, which would reveal the limits of the relationship.

 

* Vera Michlin-Shapir is an expert on Russian foreign and defence policies, as well as Russian politics and media. She worked at the Israeli National Security Council, Prime Minister’s Office, 2010–2016.  

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