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Putin: Don’t Ask me to Choose

September 5, 2022

by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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My how times have changed. It was only two short years ago that we saw Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chatting with the regularity of old buddies dropping by for coffee. Putin and his Russian entourage were warmly welcomed in Israel as important guests in 2020, really only his third visit since 2002. However, Netanyahu popped in at the Kremlin four times in 2019 alone. The friendship was puzzling to some given Russia’s growing relationship with Iran, but the Russian balancing act between Israel and Iran has actually been going on for years. The Kremlin’s policy has been simple: We will cooperate with both countries, but don’t ask us to choose between them.

Maintaining the Status Quo

In 2018, Russia was able to negotiate an informal agreement between the two countries that essentially intended to keep Iran away from Israel’s border with Syria. Israel agreed to cease air raids against Iranian positions that did not threaten Israeli security directly. The agreement, however, has been violated repeatedly, and Putin has had to pressure both sides at different times. The Kremlin could remove its air support of Iranian forces on the one hand, or it could supply Damascus with military equipment Israel would prefer they didn’t have. Maintaining the status quo was the name of the game.

Status Quo Allows Putin Freedom to Maneuver

That status quo afforded Putin the opportunity to strengthen ties with Iran, allowing him to drop in to see the Ayatollah much more often than he visited Israel. Building on their mutual hatred of the West, Russia and Iran have entered into several trade agreements over the years, including a military cooperation agreement in 2015 which promised higher-grade Russian hardware to Iran. In June of this year, they signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that increased trade and economic activity with Iran by 82% during the period of sanctions. The MOU includes trade in agriculture, energy and pharmaceuticals. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “No illegal sanctions can stop the escalating growth of Iran and Russia.”

That status quo also includes Putin’s “have my cake and eat it, too” position regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On the one hand, Russia would like to see sanctions lifted for both nations, strengthening their economies and increasing their value as trading partners. However, any improvement in Iran’s relationship with the West is of grave concern to the Kremlin. On the other hand, the last thing Putin wants is a nuclear Iran, fearing such expansion could lead to new conflicts in the region and even a returning of a stronger US military presence. When all is said and done, Russian leaders say, a pro-Western Iran is far more dangerous to Russia than a nuclear Iran.

War in Ukraine Threatens Status Quo

At the same time, however, Putin’s relationship with Israel has also continued to strengthen. As he essentially turned a blind eye to Israeli air strikes in Syria, Russia’s economic and cultural ties with Israel mushroomed. In 2020, Russian–Israeli trade reached well over US $5 billion, making Israel one of Russia’s main trade partners in the region. And Israel’s significant population of Soviet Jewish immigrants strongly links the two nations in Putin’s eyes.

Alas, however, today the status quo is threatened, and warm ties are beginning to chill. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of this year, Jerusalem tried desperately to maintain relations with the West while staying neutral on the issue. Jerusalem avoided providing any direct military aid to Kyiv to avoid sparking a crisis with Moscow and suffering a closing of the skies over Syria.

However, in April, then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid explicitly accused Russia of war crimes after receiving reports of mass killing of civilians, rape and other atrocities committed by Russian forces. For the first time, Israel okayed sending helmets and flak jackets to Ukrainian emergency services.

In July, another aid package landed in Ukraine containing 1,500 helmets, 1,500 protective vests, hundreds of mine protection suits, 1,000 gas masks and dozens of hazmat filtration systems. Israel has also sent over 100 tons of humanitarian aid and set up a temporary field hospital in western Ukraine. Although Jerusalem has still not contributed directly to the Ukrainian military effort, her tone is increasingly shifting to align with that of her Western allies.

Meanwhile, the US has released information that Iran is preparing to supply Russia with hundreds of drones, including advanced models capable of firing missiles. Included in the package is training that will be provided by Iran for Russian soldiers. Although Russia certainly has its own arsenal of drones, the Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) could certainly help to replenish a depleted supply. Iran’s surveillance UAVs could play a crucial role in targeting enemy forces in Ukraine, and weaponized drones can hover over the battlefield for hours, launching missiles that can destroy tanks and other armored vehicles.

Delicate Balance of Relationships Nearing an End?

And so it seems Putin’s dream of maintaining the status quo is about to be shattered, his elaborate dance between East and West about to end and the dreaded choice between Israel and Iran about to be required of him. Such a series of events will add yet another piece to the rapidly changing puzzle that is the Middle East. Experts are divided on how that new Middle East might look and there is a lot at stake. Israel’s status in the region has improved dramatically, but Russia as an enemy is not something Israelis are ready to face.

Photo Credit: Click on photo to see photo credit

Photo License: Vladimir Putin and Benyamin Netanyahu

Photo License: Putin and Ayatollah

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