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Russia on the Move

November 9, 2015

by: Brian Schrauger, News Bureau Chief

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Israel has a new neighbor. Fully awakened from its Cold War hibernation, Russia is on the move. It is huge, hungry, charismatic and dangerous. Suddenly, and without firing a single shot, it has formed a coalition with Iran and, apparently, China to replace US and European superpower leadership in the Middle East. It is a development that is nothing less than a polar shift in the Middle East. Suddenly, the direction of its superpower leadership has changed from West to North and East. The seismic effect of that shift remains to be seen. It is literally happening right now, right before our eyes.

A New Power in the Region

Russia made its unexpected move in early September. All at once, it seemed, it staffed and armed its airfield in Syria. Replete with more than 2,000 troops, fighter jets and helicopters, the Latakia base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast added even more powerful reinforcement from the sea, both on its surface and underneath.

Unconfirmed but undenied reports emerged that its largest nuclear submarine was sent to swim in nearby waters. Meanwhile, battleships came cruising in. Other unconfirmed reports included the appearance of an aircraft carrier from China that made its way into the Mediterranean via Egypt’s Suez Canal in mid-September. Soon thereafter, the Kremlin announced its intent to engage in a war-games exercise somewhere in the “eastern Mediterranean.” It is an exercise that Moscow said will include two named warships along with a number of other unnamed vessels. Notably, only last July, Russia and China engaged in a similar exercise elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Speaking at the United Nations on September 28th, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country’s intent is to battle the notorious terror organization called the Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIS and ISIL. Unlike the United States and Europe, however, Putin made it clear that doing so requires support for the brutal regime of Syrian President Assad. The US–Western alliance opposes Assad.

Reaction by the West and Israel was swift. US President Obama met with Putin in New York. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made a trip to Moscow. In the end, however, the meetings did little more than reinforce the Middle East’s new reality: Russia has landed and is not going anywhere. Indeed, its presence is likely to grow.

What Are Moscow’s Goals?

The consensus of military analysts is that Russia’s stated purpose to defeat ISIS is real but also secondary to larger and longer-lasting objectives. Its military presence is, quite simply, far too large just for taking on the Islamic State. Given the country’s chronic economic struggles, it is virtually certain that one of Moscow’s larger goals has to do with money. There are billions, maybe trillions of dollars of trade and resources all but lying on the ground like unclaimed plunder.

A lot of that plunder is explosive. In the stark light of Iran’s ascent to a virtual nuclear power, other Middle East nations are scrambling to catch up. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all signed recent contracts to develop their own nuclear “energy.” The contracts are all with Russia.

Meanwhile Iran and its well-known proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and, notably, Assad in Syria, are flush with cash. All of them are eager to acquire high-tech conventional weapons. And where have they gone shopping? Indeed. Thus, like any smart retailer, Russia has set up a regional sales division in the Middle East.

The other economic leviathan in the Middle East is, of course, oil and gas. Especially the massive and still undeveloped fields in the eastern Mediterranean and now on Israel’s Golan Heights as well. Determined to protect its own oil and gas revenues, largely from production in Siberia, Russia is not about to allow European customers to cut it out of the economic pipeline. Unable to prevent new supplies of carbon energy from a closer source than Siberia, Russia’s presence in the Middle East is likely to be strategic positioning. In effect, its new and long-term presence in the Middle East will make it necessary for Europe, and much of the world for that matter, to buy new from new reserves of Middle Eastern oil and gas through Russia as the region’s “middle man.”

Israel’s Relations with Russia

Little surprise, then, about the same time Russia made its move into Syria, Putin made an offer to Netanyahu that he might not be able to refuse. According to DEBKA, an intelligence news source in the Middle East, Putin offered to “shield and develop” Israel’s Mediterranean gas fields. His proposition was ” to undertake responsibility for guarding Israel’s Mediterranean gas fields, along with the offer of a Russian investment of $7–10 billion for developing Leviathan, the largest [gas field], and building a pipeline to Turkey for exporting the gas to Europe.” The new massive military force in Syria makes Israel’s purchase of Russian “protection” a virtual certainty.

Meanwhile, Israel’s relationship with Moscow seems to be much less adversarial than it is with Washington, DC. President Obama’s thinly veiled contempt for the Jewish state stands in stark contrast with Putin’s pragmatic alliance. His affirmation of Israel as a State with which to negotiate has little if anything to do with its Jewishness. Instead, it is stimulated more by Israel’s population of over one million Russian immigrants and the attending Russian “flavor” they have successfully brought to the Middle East. It is a dynamic that Moscow would like to see duplicated throughout the region.

Still, Israel knows that its relationship with Russia is like affiliating with an untamed carnivore. Now that it has moved next door, the Jewish state’s imperative is to not provoke the Russian bear. And it must do so knowing that Russia’s larger interests in the Middle East could, at any time, make it become a source of prey.

Anything could happen as a result of Russia’s move. But from Jerusalem’s perspective, this much is certain: Russia is here; and it intends to stay.

Photo Credit: Vladimir Wrangel,hans.slegers/shutterstock.com

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