Friend or Foe? Israel’s Complicated Relationship with Russia

November 19, 2018

by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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Twenty-three minutes. It took less than half an hour for a crisis to raise tensions between Israel and Russia to levels not seen in years, perhaps decades. It started at 9:42 p.m. on September 17—when Israel first launched a strike on weapons bound for Hezbollah in Syria as detailed in Israeli journalist Amos Harel’s recap of the incident in Haaretz—until 10:05 p.m. when a Russian plane was accidentally shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire in response to the Israeli strike. While those 23 minutes understandably created a stir for Russia, it was the days and weeks afterwards when it became apparent that the 23 minutes were not Moscow’s first flicker of tension with Israel, but rather the flashpoint of a slow-burning flame that looks to have been exploited. And it’ll take a lot longer than half an hour to fix.

 

Conflicting Stories

Air Force Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin (www.iaf.org.il)

The first hint that the situation with Russia was even worse than had been expected came after Israel dispatched Commander of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin to Russia to present their side of what had happened. A post to Twitter from the IDF Spokesperson said the meetings on September 20 were “held in good spirits and the representatives shared a professional, open and transparent discussion.” Yet days later, Russia was not only still rejecting the Israeli explanation of events, but had promised to deliver an advanced air defense system to Syria—the S-300.

It wasn’t just anyone continuing to slander the IDF—it was Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Shoigu, according to the Russian Sputnik International, continued the claim that Israel used the Russian plane as a shield, which led to it being hit, an offense repeatedly denied by Israel. Moscow’s decision to respond to that situation—not with better coordination with Israel, but by delivering one of the world’s most advanced air defense systems to the Syrian regime—appeared to be an excuse. That’s what former Israeli ambassador to Russia Zvi Magen believes.

In an email interview in October with The Mideast Update, Magen, a senior research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel, said Russia “ignored Israel’s explanations” as a “pretext” to manufacture a crisis to benefit Russia. That benefit actually has little to do with Israel and a lot with the United States.

 

Conflicting Allies

Magen said it seems Russia’s plan is to “use this crisis as a lever” to pressure the West. The former Israeli diplomat said the Russians “desperately are looking for a dialogue. The crisis is supposed to provide it.” Call it irony or perhaps just the convoluted state of global relations that an ally of Moscow—Syria—shot down a Russian plane, and the Russians are responding by pressuring Israel to obtain concessions from an Israeli ally—the United States. Magen said the Russians want to convince the Americans to make concessions to Russia in the Middle East, but their “more important goal” is to reach an understanding on lifting the Western economic sanctions against Russia.

If the goal was to gain America’s attention, it worked. An unnamed state department spokesperson told The Mideast Update via email shortly after the Russian announcement that delivering the S-300 system to the Syrian regime “will only raise the risk of escalation in an already dangerous environment and increase the risk to [the] US and partnered forces” battling ISIS in Syria. The US spokesperson noted the Russian arms delivery “also reconfirms Russia’s continued protection of the [Bashar al-]Assad regime and ultimate responsibility for the regime’s actions.”

 

Conflicting Resolutions

Harel, in his analysis in Haaretz in October, said Moscow wanted US troops out of Syria, which were in part blocking the complete retaking of Syria by the regime. Magen offered a similar view, noting the Russians “are stuck in an endless war in Syria, because of the US, and desperately looking for a dialogue.” Moreover, the state department spokesperson pointed to peace in Syria as the best way to resolve the threats in the region that led to the aircraft incident. “The death of the aircrew was an unfortunate incident,” the spokesperson said. “It reminds us that the many overlapping conflicts in the region need permanent, peaceful and political resolutions in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.”

However, while the Russian vision of implementing that resolution may be overwhelming the remaining rebels in Syria in a way that allows Moscow to maintain a foothold in the Middle East, the Americans are pointing at a Russian ally as a key problem in Syria. “The incident also underlines the danger of escalation in Syria’s crowded theater of operations,” the US spokesperson explained. “Iran must end its provocative transit of dangerous weapon systems through Syria, which are a threat to the region.”

That brings the entire incident full-circle. It was a weapon system being delivered to Iran’s terror patron Hezbollah, a delivery which Harel’s Haaretz report said was coordinated by Iran, that precipitated the Israeli strike that caused the Syrian air defense to hit the Russian plane. Given all that complication—and Moscow’s real motive—it does not appear that Russia will engage in direct conflict with Israel moving forward. Magen said he “would like to believe that the Russians will not try to start a military conflict with Israel.” Yet Magen warned that the Kremlin “will play on the edge to achieve the desirable effects,” namely negotiations with the West, especially the US.

Twenty-three minutes. That’s all it took to expose Russia as nothing more than a “friend” of convenience to Israel at best, or a disinterested foe at worse. What will happen next? The clock is ticking.

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