The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Russia-Israel Rapprochement?

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.

Published on June 25, 2012 9:02 am
  • WigWag

    I would be willing to bet that while the United States is far more popular amongst Israelis than Russia is, Putin is probably more personally popular than Obama. Putin visited Israel during his first term as President; now only a few months into his second Presidential term, he’s visiting again.

    Obama was happy to visit when he was running for President in the hope of appealing to American Jews and Christians who support Israel. Since being elected President he hasn’t bothered to show up despite having been in the region more than once.

    Why hasn’t Obama made a Presidential trip to Israel?

    My guess is that he’s afraid of the reception that he would get and that he doesn’t want to antagonize all of those moderate Islamists in the Arab world who he thinks represent the future of Arab democracy.

    When it comes to foreign policy, Obama is the biggest idiot since Jimmy Carter.

  • Jim.

    This has the potential of doing more damage to America’s edge in new weapons technology than ITAR has ever prevented.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Good and appreciated update. Putin, as I understand him, is only slightly better for Russia than Khamenei is for Iran. At the same time there remains a lot more to Russia than is contained in (or even tangent to) the bold vision of its present despot. That said, anything that could draw Russia as a whole closer to Israel without either

    1) driving Israel farther from US, or

    2) drawing US deeper into the arms of the Saudis,

    would pretty much get my vote.

    Is such an outcome possible? Assuming it’s even barely so, is there anything we can do to widen the margin of feasibility? Must we continue putting more and more eggs in the Sunni (read Wahhabi) basket until the Shiite one – including Iran – is empty? Or should both we and the Israelis default to that venerated historical pattern of assuming anyone who hates, distrusts, despises the Russians (e.g. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan) is the automatic and permanent friend of the West – and see how far that recipe takes us?

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Sorry – I meant to say Iraq, NOT Iran, in my previous post’s last paragraph.

  • thibaud

    It makes perfect sense for Israel to try to find help wherever it can: Israel’s position in the region is today far more precarious than it’s been in decades. If Egypt rips up its peace treaty with Israel, the jewish state will soon be facing hostile states on every frontier – a turnaround that was almost unimaginable a decade ago.

    Russia’s position in Europe is strengthening, but in the middle east, Russia’s influence is on the wane.

    This is an alliance of beleaguered states. Russia + Israel in the middle east is like Nokia + Microsoft in mobile platforms.

  • Jim.

    So, is no one else concerned that those drones and command-and-control centers are probably American-derived technology that’s going to wind up in Russian hands, now?

    If “Israel’s gotta do what Israel’s gotta do”, the US has gotta make it clear that they’ve gotta do it without passing our cutting edge tech to our international rivals.

  • Joe Ynot

    This is what should be our big fear about Obama: driving the Israeli’s away and into the arms of the Russians and the Chinese. In their own way, these countries actually offer more security than the US.

    If Israel is not seen as the US’s close ally, and in addition giving real (military and technological) benefits to the Russian and Chinese, the international opprobrium to which Israel is subject will vanish; the Russians and the Chinese won’t put up with it, and it will be of no ideological interest to the Left as a whole.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “Relations cooled during the Cold War, especially as Israel aligned more closely with Washington.”

    I think you have this backwards. In 1956, Israel joined Britain and France in the Suez war. The Egyptians looked to the Soviet Union as their protector. The US aligned with the SU and forced the Anglo-French-Israel alliance to back down.

    For the next decade Egypt and Syria in the form of their abortive United Arab Republic became a Soviet client. Israel was pushed towards NATO, and particularly towards France, which became its main weapons supplier.

    In the mid-1960s France decided to re-orient its foreign policy and to pay court to the Arabs. After the 1967 war, France embargoed Israel, and Israel looked to the US.

    It was only in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that the US went fully into Israel’s corner.

  • Mick The Reactionary

    @ Yankovic

    “Putin, as I understand him, is only slightly better for Russia than Khamenei is for Iran.”

    Nonsense.

    Putin is a thug and a brutal politician. He is also Russian patriot who managed, starting from a very low level, to quadruple or more real wages in Russia, improve economy tremendously and restore, to an extent, Russia position as a superpower (more like second level superpower).

    What Clinton, Bush and Obama accomplished for America and Americans in the same time frame?

    Tripled US debt and reduced wages by 10-20%?

    If only Mr Putin could discover in KGB archives his great-great mother American birth certificate. The man will do a superior job as US Prez compare to the midgets we got.

  • Kris

    WigWag@1: At the very beginning of his presidency, Obama was actually quite popular in Israel. He then apparently decided that the best way to achieve peace was to charm the Muslims and browbeat Israel. Result: I’d bet that if we were to poll Israelis, “WigWag” would receive a higher popularity rating than Obama.

    Jim@6: “So, is no one else concerned that those drones and command-and-control centers are probably American-derived technology that’s going to wind up in Russian hands, now?”

    Not to mention that the US might stop receiving Israeli technology. Answer: Concerned? Not particularly. Israel is very much aware of how important the US is for it, and how unreliable Putin is. I would be astonished if the US were not kept fully informed of the details of any Israel-Russia military technology cooperation, with the understanding that it has veto power.

    I fully agree with the original post’s upshot.

  • ralph

    As long as the mutual interests coincide and will be profitable for both countries, there
    will be an Israeli-Russian cooperation.
    Russia has broader interests and Israel is well aware of that.

  • Ross

    Yankovic has it correct about Putin. The man is pragmatic and not driven by any real dogma. All he wants is to see Russia strong again and Russians walk proud and its people thrive. Thats why he got elected again so easily. Even with good publicity as President for 4 years Medvedev still could not match his popularity rating in Russia coming up to the elections. Most Russians know he is the best President they have ever had. I thought they had improved wages 5 times not 4 times? Who knows what his strategy is in the Middle East. It will not be overly complicated and overly manipulative. I personally think he works on the principle I am happy to deal with anybody if it results in mutual benefit. Something the USA has to learn again. Become one of the boys in the block and stop trying to be the bully of the block. Stop being suspicious of his motives as if we are still in the Cold War days and show some respect. Technology exchange with Israel will be one and trade leading to trust – trust and honor is very important to him – honor your word – don’t play games. He does not demand everybody agree with him like USA leaders tend to do all the time. In may ways Putin is more capitalist than all the capitalists. He has said it time and again the only way to reduce most of the conflict around the world is to give everybody a chance of a reasonable living. He first talked about that at a G8 conference. George just could not understand. It was obvious George was offended when Putin said “Aide will never do it” people have to do it themselves. All the world has to do is give them the chance to do it there way. Trade is the answer. Not feel good aide. He also more or less said politics should not come into it. They in time will sort that out themselves. He may have an interest in seeing “Sunni” money stop flowing to terrorists in Chechyna. Normally Saudi money but Israel can’t help him there much. Maybe intelligence. One thing for sure is his motives will be much simpler than many think.
    The pragmatist.

  • Ross

    I personally think Putin’s success and real strength and wisdom is to be found in his simple stright up approach to most things. When the Georgians attacked Ossetia he said “If somebody hits me in the nose and gives me a bloody nose I hit him back in the nose if that’s the only language he understands.”
    I could be wrong but I think that is how Putin works. “If two mad dogs get in a fight what do you do?”
    His answer would be – “throw a cold bucket of water on them and if that does not stop them walk away.”
    “If you try to split them or help the dog losing chances are both will bite you”
    Also “Take it or leave it – that’s my opinion. If we can’t agree lets go and have a few Vodkas and leave it at that.”