by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, Associate Editor
Often when discussing Israel, speakers remark that the tiny nation is in the news, on the airwaves and visible in cyber space no matter where you might travel. For those who recognize the biblical and prophetic significance of what God is doing in Israel, it comes as no surprise. However, another country is finding a constant place in the news, and some believe that nation also has a significant role to play in God’s end-time scenario. That country is Russia.
Whether discussing war-torn Ukraine or the horrendous loss of life in the Syrian civil war, Russia is there. Russia’s support for Syria’s Bashar Assad, cooperation with Iran’s nuclear aspirations, and alleged interference with the recent American elections are all in the headlines. One day, Russian leadership is calling the Israeli ambassador to task for Israel’s military action in Syria, while the next finds Putin and Netanyahu chatting on the phone and reaffirming the relationship between their two nations. Russia as a stabilizing influence in the region…Russia as a destabilizing influence…even Russia’s domestic issues are all capturing the attention of the world. And no nation has more at stake should their relationship with Russia go sour than Israel.
In 2011, Vladimir Putin said, “Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country! It is apparent that more than half of the population speaks Russian.” After further stating that “songs which are considered to be national Israeli songs are in fact Russian national songs,” he declared that Russian-speaking Israelis are “part of the Russian world.”
Putin was certainly right regarding the Russian language. Israel is home to the world’s third-largest population of native Russian speakers outside the former Soviet Union, and the highest as a proportion of the population. In Israel, Russian is the third most widely spoken language after Hebrew and Arabic. Evidence of the Russian-speaking population is everywhere. Street signs appear in all three languages; entire shopping markets cater to Russian speakers; Russian magazines and newspapers line the shelves while Israeli television offers several networks providing entertainment, advertising and news entirely in Russian.
During Russian elections, the Russian government sets up polling places across Israel so that Israelis who have maintained Russian citizenship can vote. Hundreds of thousands are known to vote in Russian presidential elections.
Victory Day, celebrating the defeat of the Nazis in WWII, is a very important national holiday in Russia, and Israel is home to the most extensive celebrations outside of the former USSR. There are so many Red Army veterans now living as retirees in Israel that the Russian government and military regularly send delegations to Israel to honor them.
The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church says, “Israel creates a special atmosphere for our pilgrims, and they often feel at home there.” No wonder last year saw nearly one-half million Russians visit Israel.
Despite his domestic policies that cost many Russians their lives, Joseph Stalin’s post WWII foreign policy was distinctly pro-Zionist, and the November 1947 UN vote on partition saw the Soviet Union and other Soviet bloc countries voting in favor. After Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948, the Soviet Union was the second country to recognize the Jewish state, and the first to grant Israel de jure recognition. During the war for independence, arms purchased from Czechoslovakia, then part of the Soviet bloc, were crucial to Israel’s victory.
During the Cold War, Israeli–Soviet relations were poor, but it was the Six Day War that brought a total end to any relationship. Bi-lateral relations between the two countries were not re-established until 1991. Although warming slowly through the 1990s, the relationship took a major step forward in 2000 with the election of pro-Israel Vladimir Putin and again with the election of pro-Russian Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister in 2001. Sharon referred to Putin as, “a true friend of Israel.”
With a few bumps along the way, the relationship has remained strong and valuable to Israel throughout the ensuing years. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Putin stated, “I support Israel’s battle that is intended to keep its citizens protected.” He has remarked on more than one occasion that Russia would never allow the destruction of the State of Israel, and in a speech in 2014, he stated that relations with Israel were based on “friendship, mutual understanding and a long common history.” According to Russian sources, last year saw the most intensive dialogue in history between Jerusalem and Moscow with high level delegations traveling back and forth several times.
Economic, technological and military cooperation between the two nations is mushrooming and is critical for both. Since 2009, Russia has purchased nearly a billion dollars worth of drones from Israeli aerospace industries while the two nations have entered into several military collaborative agreements. Russia is the largest foreign supplier of oil to Israel, and the two have agreed to install a direct encrypted communication network between the Russian president and Israeli prime minister. The Russians, we are told, want to speak to Israel without anyone eavesdropping. Russia is a main market for Israeli fruit and meat, while the two have signed a space co-operation agreement; agreements to collaborate on nuclear imaging for medical purposes and collaborative projects in the field of nanotechnology. Finally, in September of 2015, Israel and Russia entered into a “deconfliction” agreement in Syria, establishing military-to-military relations while respecting each other’s red lines.
According to a recent headline in the Jerusalem Post, Israel–Russia relations are the warmest in history. It seems the two leaders are able to recognize, yet see beyond their differences, solidifying a relationship that strengthens both and provides stability for a very volatile region.
The Russian connection is essential in the current Middle East with Russia as the dominant player in Syria and relations with Moscow essential in reducing any threat from Iran. Conversely, Russia increasingly views Israel as the powerful international player that other nations somehow fail to recognize.
How they manage their complex relationship going forward has major implications for the entire region and perhaps, prophetically, for the entire world.
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