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The Russian Role in World Affairs: A View from Israel

It would undoubtedly serve Israel's interest for Russia to draw closer to the US on a wide range of issues, and above all, on Iran.
Russia detailed map highlighted on blue rounded World Map. Map of Russia in circle.

It is surely presumptuous for an Israeli scholar, or former practitioner, to proffer advice to the Kremlin on Russia’s role in world affairs. But we can say that Jews and Israelis do have a unique perspective. The Jewish People has had its share of agonies at the hands of the Russian Czars, as well as in the years in which the Soviet Union courted radical Arab nationalists and considered the Zionist revival after 1967 as a threat to the fabric of the state and its myth of “the New Soviet Man.”

But we have other memories as well. In the hallowed grounds of the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, among the memorials for Israel’s fallen soldiers, an evocative monument in black marble against red rock counts 200,000: the approximate number of the Jews, women and men, who fell fighting in the ranks of the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War. (This is many times over all Israeli losses in the county’s wars). Another touching monument to the Red Army was inaugurated on June 25, 2012 (in Russian President Putin’s presence) in a lovely location near the shore in Netanya.

We recall the liberation of the camps. We also remember Andrei Gromyko’s speech in May 1947 and the vote in November that year in support of Jewish statehood, as well as the indirect Russian military supply of the Haganah through the agency of Czechoslovakia, and the open moral support as our new-born state was fighting for her life in 1948. Last but by no means least, we bear in mind that a large proportion of Israel’s population hails from the former Soviet Union. Indeed, immigrants from the former USSR have played a remarkable role in our national life in recent decades.

Moreover, in an ironic twist, it is now the reversal of the ideological urges of the Brezhnev period that places Russia and Israel – and many in the West, as well – in some affinity with each other when it comes to matters of sovereignty, national identity and patriotism. Israel’s proud position on such matters, which often alienates universalists in Europe and their American counterparts, is readily explicable to Russian today. And so is the complex interaction between national and religious identities.

It was the decision to intervene in Syria in September 2015 which made the question of Russia’s role acutely relevant to Israeli concerns. Here was an opportunity for Putin to punch well above Russia’s real weight in world affairs; in other words, to stake out a stance as a major power. This, despite the fact that today Russia is facing an ambitious southern neighbor, China, with ten times the population of the Russian Federation; and a Western “neighborhood watch” – NATO – with an aggregate GDP 25 times (!)that of Russia.

Amidst signs of American withdrawal, Syria became an opportunity for Russia to display that it is still a powerful voice. Which in turn made it very important for Moscow to ensure that Israel is not provoked into action that might put Assad’s regime at risk. Russian grand strategy is thus part of the realities that Israel must take into consideration.

Thucydides taught that strategies are driven by fear, honor (or in this case, the lingering Russian rage over what came to be seen as a dishonor), and interest. The first two are steadily driving Russian policy in the direction of a confrontation with the West. The fear is certainly there. Israeli students at the National Defense College (MABAL), recently visiting their Russian counterparts, were quite troubled by a presentation which depicted NATO and the EU as wolves with blood on their snouts. (Indeed, to depict the EU as a meat-eating animal of any size is somewhat peculiar). The abiding message was that the events of 1991 – leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union into its 15 component parts – were a reflection of evil Western designs, which resulted in a humiliation that needs to be avenged.

From this comes the notion, for example, that the BRICS “bloc” can, or at least should, be a major counterweight to US power and Western preponderance. Putin has asserted that a “non-liberal” order should challenge the American-dominated liberal world system. And yet a closer look, reveals the BRICS to be an elegant piece of conference-building fiction. Neither Modi’s India nor Bolsonaro’s Brazil are in any sense committed to Putin’s worldview. South Africa, while of great symbolic value, does not change the equation.

Which leaves Moscow aligned with Beijing – which raises the question whether the long-range interests of Russia as a nation are indeed well served by allowing fear, anger and wounded pride to drive its grand strategy.

At the same time, the current policies of key players in the West need also to be re-examined. Much more is at stake than the actual delineation of the Russian-Ukrainian border. Given Russia’s economic vulnerabilities – which are bound to increase with the rise of alternative energy sources and the declining importance of carbons – the present course would bring Russia, in the foreseeable future, to the pitiful position of a Chinese vassal state. In strategic energy deals, it is all too often the supplier, not the recipient, that ends up being dependent. Even now, there are indications that the Russian-Chinese relationship is no longer perceived by Beijing as one of equals.

Can Israel be of help in reversing the present state of affairs? It would undoubtedly serve Israel’s interest for Russia to draw closer to the US on a wide range of issues, and above all, on Iran. After all, as we have been told more than once, no Russian decision maker in his right mind actually wants to see Iran in possession of a military nuclear capability. But for too long Russia has been able to act as a free rider while the US took the lead in trying to prevent this from happening. After the JCPOA, this is no longer the case, and with the prospect of a confrontation in the Gulf looming ever larger, Russia may ultimately need to leave its comfort zone.

Still, formidable obstacles stand in the way. The current political atmosphere in Washington, in which the Russian and Ukrainian questions play a major but unwelcome role, is hardly conducive to a historical rapprochement. European attitudes have begun to change, as Macron recently indicated, but they remain fundamentally (and to some extent, understandably) suspicious towards Russian intentions. The burden of proof rests on both sides. In Moscow, basic attitudes need to change too.

In the short run, no policy changes are likely. Still, the role played by Israel earlier this year in putting together a tripartite meeting of national security advisers – (then) US NSA John Bolton, his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev, and Israel’s Meir Ben Shabbat – demonstrates the value of keeping channels of dialogue open.

This article is based on Dr. Lerman’s lecture at an INSS conference (03.12.19) on Russia in the Middle East.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

photo: Bigstock

Picture of אלוף משנה (בדימוס) ד"ר ערן לרמן

אלוף משנה (בדימוס) ד"ר ערן לרמן

Dr. Lerman is deputy director of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS). He was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for over 20 years. He also served for eight years as director of the Israel and Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee. He teaches in the Middle East studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and in post-graduate programs at Tel Aviv University and the National Defense College. He is an expert on Israel’s foreign relations, and on the Middle East. A third-generation Sabra, he holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and a mid-career MPA from Harvard University.

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