For a time, Stalin was a big supporter of Israel, and its war of independence was won thanks in part to weapons delivered from communist Czechoslovakia with Stalin’s blessing. Relations cooled during the Cold War, especially as Israel aligned more closely with Washington. On Monday, Vladimir Putin visits Jerusalem in his first foreign tour since returning to office; The Moscow Times speculates on the possibility of fresh Israeli-Russian cooperation in the Middle East:
President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel on Monday might be part of a new Kremlin policy toward Jerusalem. Israel is seen as a prosperous and stable regional power whose interests often coincide with Moscow’s. For example, Israel and Russia have strained relations with Turkey, and both fear the turbulence of radical Islam. Economically, trade between the two countries is growing, as is military and homeland-security cooperation.
The Los Angeles Times elaborates on the countries’ “bilateral honeymoon”:
Russia may buy $50 million worth of Israeli drones and accompanying command and control centers, according to recent Russian reports. The two countries may also soon begin joint development of a new unmanned aerial vehicle. Israel may try to use this interest in an attempt to sway the super-power’s resistance on regional issues, as well as Russia’s interest in helping Israel develop its natural gas fields in the Mediterranean. Russia may also be interested in tapping into an emerging alliance between Israel, Greece and Cyprus to offset tensions with Turkey.
The shared interests of the two countries cover some important ground: they oppose Turkey’s ambition to become a regional hegemon, they distrust the Obama administration’s support of democracy even when that leads to Islamist regimes and they both fear the rise of Sunni Islamism as a dangerous and destabilizing force.
Additionally, the large influx of Russians into Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union creates strong human and business ties between the two countries. Both governments would like to see these ties, and especially the business connections, grow.
However, the connection is still far from the tight and longstanding relationship Israel enjoys with America: the Kremlin is looking to influence whatever and whoever it can in the region, and Israel is not its only potential new friend. After stopping in Israel, Putin plans to roll right along to the West Bank and Jordan to wine and dine with a different crowd with different shared interests.
Israeli leaders will certainly be bringing their concerns about Iran to Putin’s attention; it will be interesting to see whether the prospect of a closer relationship with the Jewish state is enough to nudge Russia toward a harder line with Tehran.
The emergence of new powers in the Middle East along with America’s shift to a balance of power approach (seeking to secure our core Middle East interests by promoting a balance of power among regional actors rather than trying to run the whole place ourselves) is making the diplomatic dance ever more complex. We put up a post yesterday about the reasons for Russia’s limited support of Iran; Netanyahu will be trying to come up with arguments that can swing Russian policy towards a tougher stand.
Putin will find this a refreshing conversation; unlike American diplomats and their talk of universal principles and global order, it’s likely that the Israelis will speak the language of national interests that Putin prefers. The Israelis can be creative, but it is hard offhand to see what Israel can offer that would change Russia’s mind on Iran. The upshot: the two countries are likely to cooperate on business development and in the Mediterranean theater and agree to disagree on matters farther afield.
We shall see.