Modern Diplomacy
Russian–Israeli Relations and the Ukrainian Crisis

It is imperative that Israel cooperates with Russia because Israel’s national security passes through Moscow. Hopefully, neither establishment pushes their respective leadership to the extreme, whether in bilateral relations or in the geopolitical arena, because working together will keep Israel, the Middle East, Russia, and the international community safe, writes Valdai Club expert Zach Battat.

The Ukrainian crisis has now been going on for over a year, and I would like to address the challenges for these relations moving forward. I will first talk about the bilateral relations between Israel and Russia and how they have been impacted by the crisis and will then examine the geopolitical effects of the crisis on relations between the two countries.

So, let’s begin with the implications of the Ukrainian crisis on the bilateral relations between Russia and Israel. Russian–Israeli relations are formally a little over thirty years old but, in fact, date back to May 17, 1948 – three days after Israel gained its independence. The Soviet Union, the Russian Federation’s predecessor, was the first country to recognize the State of Israel – a decision clearly guided by geopolitical reasons: Soviet Union Premier Josef Stalin recognized the Jewish state in the hope that it would become an ally of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. Due to internal Soviet politics, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev finally deemed Israel a “pariah state”.

Despite this new status, the Soviet Union managed to maintain relations with Israel, and under Leonid Brezhnev, Yevgeny Primakov was given the task of ensuring that there would be no direct conflict between the Soviet Union and Israel. He famously reignited contact (not relations) between the Soviet Union and Israel through the so-called “secret talks” in Vienna and Tel Aviv in August of 1971. The Soviet government partially lifted the four-year ban on Soviet Jews – or refuseniks (otkazniki) – traveling to Israel, which led to the 1970s Soviet Union aliyah (Jewish immigration). It was not until the late 1980s, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, that the Soviet Union and Israel re-established formal relations – a result of Gorbachev’s policy of openness and restructuring (glasnost i perestroika). For the first time since 1967, Soviet Jews were now allowed to emigrate to Israel with no restrictions, prompting a major emigration process to Israel which is still in evidence today. Indeed, since the breakup of the Soviet system in 1991, every Russian president and Israeli prime minister have made it their goal to maintain good relations.

Now, let’s fast-forward to today and the implications of the Ukrainian crisis on the relationship between Russia and Israel. While it is true that Israel has good relations with both Ukraine and Russia and has to carefully toe that line, Israel also wants to see a speedy end to this conflict. This was particularly evident when former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attempted, at the request of Ukrainian President Zelensky, to mediate a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine, whose success was, unfortunately, thwarted mainly by the United States. There has been an ongoing debate over the last decade within Israel over whether Russia is, indeed, a true partner of Israel, with some fair arguments on both sides. Due to time constraints, I will not go into further detail here. However, it is important to note that the Ukrainian crisis is weakening the argument for those that advocate that Israel would be better positioned with strong Russian–Israeli relations.

If those within the Israeli policy class that argue that Russia is not a true partner prevails, it will force the Israeli leadership to act on its own. This might spell trouble for Russia whose whole raison d'être for its Middle Eastern presence is that the region remains stable.

Despite this, I fall in the “yes” category, namely, I believe that Russia is a true partner of Israel and that this nearly seventy-five-year relationship has some challenges ahead but nothing that cannot be weathered.

I want to shift my attention now, to something that happened at the beginning of the war regarding the Sochnut (the Jewish Agency) in Russia. There were suggestions that the Sochnut was being shut down as a result of former Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s condemnation of Russian actions in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. While I believe that this was not in Israel’s interest to opine, the decision likely had more to do with Russia’s domestic politics and less the Ukrainian crisis. However, rumors like this can affect the perception in Israel that Russia is “not safe” for Israelis and Jews and bring back disturbing memories of the refusenik years of the 1970s. This, in turn, will further alienate ordinary Israelis’ opinions of Russia and thus force the Israeli leadership to distance itself from its Russian counterparts.

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Many within the Russian establishment have, it seems, complained about Israel’s actions in the Middle East (such as in the Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian arenas) that run counter to Russia’s national security and interests. They have suggested that Russia goes its own way and acts according to its own interests. While their arguments are compelling, they only strengthen those in Israel who claim that Russia is not a partner and that Israel should act on its own. This is not helpful and could prompt a dangerous confrontation between a global superpower and a regional power. These voices notwithstanding, the Kremlin seems to understand that Israel is a partner and that confronting it is a perilous endeavor which is not in Russia’s national interest.

I now move on to talk about the geopolitical effects of the Ukrainian crisis on Russian–Israeli relations – possibly the most challenging aspect of their relationship but certainly not insurmountable.

The main point of contention in the relationship between Russia and Israel in the Middle East is Iran. Since the 1990s, Israel sees Iran as a major threat to its existence. It therefore monitors the country’s activities (as well as its proxies in the region) very closely. Israel is not afraid to use military action to prevent any activity it deems as a threat and will thus respond immediately to any transfer of weapons or chemical weapons by Iran. This explains the military action allegedly taken by the Israeli Defense Forces in the region. Israel has long accused Iran of aiding and abetting what Israel views as terrorism against the State of Israel and therefore reacts when Iran is deemed to be operating under these premises.

Russia, on the other hand, does not see Iran as a threat. Over the last few decades since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia and Iran have improved their relationship – a consequence of Soviet Premier Gorbachev’s openness and restructuring policy in the late 1980s. Yet, it is not in Russia’s national interest for Iran to become a nuclear country since Iran would have the potential to hit Moscow and, more generally, destabilize the region. I thus believe that Israel would be better advised to work more closely with Russia on Iran.

However, that would mean that Israel would need to understand that Russia has a completely different geopolitical problem with Iran (and thus change its policy toward Iran accordingly). First of all, Russia sees NATO coming at it from all other directions, and cannot afford another unfriendly country – and a big one at that. Second, Russia has about 16 to 20 million Islamic citizens of its own. Over the last several years, Russia has had a major problem with violent radical Islam ranging from terrorism to civil wars. While the majority of Russian Muslims are of Sunni and not Shi‘i origins, the number of Russian Shi‘i Muslims is more than enough to be incited by Iran against the Russian state. Iran has not, thus far, armed, encouraged, or fed intelligence to radical Islam in Russia. But this could change, which would spell disaster for Russia. As the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said repeatedly – but falling on deaf ears – Russia cannot be on the frontline of the war being created between two civilizations (Christians and Muslims) because it is part of both. This is, in my opinion, a most accurate statement.

That is why, leading up to the JCPOA agreement – more commonly known as “the Iran nuclear deal” – in 2015, we saw Russia hesitating over the imposition of sanctions on Iran. Russia had, indeed, been expressing the need for sanctions but sanctions that would not incur Iranian anger at Russia. It had, at the same time, been suggesting to the United States and the West that the international community work together to find a way of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This was, in essence, the origins of the JCPOA. Indeed, without Moscow, there would have been no Iranian nuclear deal. Russia does not know what to do, and this is causing much domestic debate. Russia cannot alienate Iran to the point of hostility. While the mainstream media has stated in the past that Russia and Iran were closely knit because Russia profited from building reactors, it could easily build reactors for other countries.

For Russia, Iran represents a geopolitical challenge, and currently Israel, in my opinion, is unable to fully change its position on Iran to incorporate this challenge. Israel must consider Russia’s problem when trying to work out how best to deal with Iran.

I think it is important to address the recent allegations that Russia is using Iranian weapons in the Ukrainian crisis. Most of the media has focused on what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to French President Emmanuel Macron: namely, that Israel will cooperate with Ukraine in detecting Iranian weapons. While these are certainly worrying words that could drive a wedge through Russian–Israeli relations, if I had to make an educated guess, I would suggest that the Israeli Prime Minister is making these kinds of statements to please his domestic audience. Israel is not happy that Russia and Iran have boosted their cooperation in the security sphere. However, this has not prevented Russia and Israel from working closely on other matters. Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin have a good, longstanding working relationship, and I am confident that they will work out their countries’ differences. It is important to note here, however, that Israel has to tread a fine line when it comes to Russia. While the two countries have had good relations since the breakup of the Soviet Union, geography has brought them even closer: more than one million Russian speakers live in Israel, there are even more Russian nationals who travel to Israel and Israeli nationals who travel to Russia, and, most importantly, Russia holds all the cards regarding Israel’s national security interests with Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. Israel cannot afford to upset a partner – especially one who can help with its national security.

I will now conclude with a few final remarks. I firmly believe that a strong Russian–Israeli relationship will help prevent crises in this region. It is, in my opinion, imperative that Israel cooperates with Russia because Israel’s national security passes through Moscow. My hope is that neither establishment pushes their respective leadership to the extreme (whether in bilateral relations or in the geopolitical arena) because working together will keep Israel, the Middle East, Russia, and the international community safe. The Iranian–Israeli feud, which has been going on for roughly thirty years, seems to be one of those unsolvable Middle Eastern conflicts with roots as old as the region itself. However, its roots are purely geopolitical, which means that solutions can be found and compromises be made regardless of how difficult they may be. Israel and Iran have been geostrategic friends in the past – even after the Shah was deposed in 1979 and when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was using the worst rhetoric against Israel – and there is no reason to believe why this cannot be the case once again. I believe that a strong Russian–Israeli relationship could enable Moscow to reestablish relations between Iran and Israel. While the Ukrainian crisis poses a challenge to relations between Russia and Israel, I am confident, given their historical relationship, that a harmonious relationship will prevail.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.