Is Israel on the way to becoming a Russian ally?
The Arab spring, distant as it may seem from Russia’s core interests, could have an increasing impact on Moscow’s political planning. Inherited from the USSR, Russia’s traditional approach was to side with the Arabs in the Middle East conflict.
Recently I discovered an article by US scholar Mark Katz with the title What Would a Democratic Russian Foreign Policy Look Like. The author concludes that Russian international behavior will not change much. He expects two differences: a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment as a reflection of Russian public opinion, and a possible re-orientation in the Middle East with the major focus on Israel.
“Russia’s defense ministry has a special interest in improving Russian–Israeli relations since Israel has now become an important source of military technology for it,” Katz writes. “The Russian arms industry also has a strong incentive to maintain good Russian–Israeli ties”. “The fear of Islamic radicalism inside Russia might also result in large numbers of voters seeing Israel as an ally against a common Muslim foe. The extensive cultural, trade, and tourist links that built up between Russia and Israel might also contribute to the emergence of an influential Israeli lobby in Russia,” he implies.
The conclusion is controversial, and many Russians will strongly disagree with it. But if we look more in-depth, we can find at least some preconditions for this scenario.
The Arab spring, and especially events in Syria, put Russia in a new position, when it antagonized almost the whole Arab world by supporting the Assad regime. Russian diplomacy won a significant victory in preventing intervention so far, but the relationship with key Arab states doesn’t look promising. Soviet resources based on ties with secular dictatorial regimes as the Libyan or Syrian ones have been fully exhausted, and new Arab rulers will not lean towards Russia – they may not of course lean towards the West either.
Meanwhile, there are no sources of serious tension with Israel except Iran. Russian military cooperation with Tehran makes Israel very nervous, but the future of Russian-Iranian ties is not predetermined. In the case of a war against Iran, which Russia of course will condemn, the situation could change, and Iran would no longer be a major obstacle between Russia and Israel. The rest is clear. Russia and Israel share views on terrorism and Islamism. They prefer pragmatic approaches and are disturbed by a prospect of democratization in the Middle East, which would lead to Islamic revival in the whole region. Since Israel is a high-tech-driven and developed country, it can serve as useful source for modernization, badly needed in Russia.
There is also another trend which could contribute to Russian-Israeli rapprochement – signs of change in the US approach. Changes in the Middle East have raised voices in Washington saying that the “Israel first” policy limits strategic maneuvering for America. One cannot expect the US to betray Israel completely, but a change in priorities towards greater diversification is possible. In this case, Israel will also seek respective diversification.
This is still pure speculation, as rumor has it that Putin may pay one of his first visits as president to Israel. But we live in a world of highly variable geometry, and no options can be put aside just because they seem unrealistic.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor–in–Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine (since 2002). Member of the Valdai Discussion Club.
This article was originally published in Russia Today.