Robert O. Freedman
Dr. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and a visiting professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.
For a decade, Russia under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin was preoccupied with economic crises, an uprising in Chechnya, political instability, and a foreign policy focused on the states of the former Soviet Union (FSU) and the United States. Then Moscow, under a new president, Vladimir Putin, began to refocus the country’s atten>tion on the Middle East, especially during his second term (2004-08) and subsequently as Russia’s prime minister. To be sure, Russia had not totally neglected the region during the Yeltsin era. Both Turkey and Iran, which border on the FSU, did get attention, albeit more from a defensive point of view than from an effort to expand Russian influence, while the Arab-Israeli conflict greatly receded in importance to Moscow, compared to what it had been during Soviet times.1
The Yeltsin Legacy
In the Soviet era, successive leaders from Khrushchev to Andropov sought to exploit the Arab-Israeli conflict to increase Moscow’s influence in the Middle East. By contrast, Russia let the United States take the lead in Arab-Israeli diplomacy during the period when Andrei Kozyrev was Russia’s foreign minister (1991-95), as Moscow endorsed the Oslo I (1993) and Oslo II (1995) agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. Meanwhile, Russian-Israeli relations flourished economically, culturally and even militarily, as Russia and Israel signed an agreement to produce an AWACS radar aircraft (Israel supplied the avionics and Russia the airframe) for sale to counties such as India. For its part, Israel was happy that Moscow continued to allow Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel and hoped that the rapidly developing cultural relations between Russia and Israel — based on the one million Russian-speaking immigrants from the FSU residing in Israel by 1991 — would lead to closer political relations.2
By 1996, however, the Russian-Israeli honeymoon had ended. Yeltsin, under increasing pressure from right-wing forces in the Russian Duma (legislature) and following the U.S. intervention in Bosnia, took a tougher position in world affairs. Kozyrev was replaced by Soviet-era hardliner Yevgeny Primakov, who displayed an increasingly critical attitude toward Israel and a more sympathetic position toward the Arab states and the Palestinians. Thus, during the spring 1996 fighting in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, Primakov and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who had succeeded the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, openly clashed. However, underlining the diplomatic impotence of Russia, it was U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and not Primakov, who succeeded in bringing the fighting to an end.3 Peres’s successor, Binyamin Netanyahu, sought to improve relations with Russia, even giving Moscow a $50 million agricultural loan during a visit in March 1997 and stating that Israel would consider buying Russian natural gas. In addition, bilateral relations continued to develop as the Israeli food manufacturer Tnuva filmed a “milk in space” commercial aboard the Russian Space Station, Mir. However, Moscow was critical of Netanyahu’s policies, especially his expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. For his part, Netanyahu was critical of Russian military and economic aid to Iran, an avowed enemy of Israel, which included building the nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Indeed, Netanyahu later canceled discussions of the natural-gas deal with Moscow because of Russia’s supply of missile technology to Iran.4 However, one of Netanyahu’s ministers, Ariel Sharon, gained favor in Moscow by backing the Russian position on Serbia during the U.S.-Russian clash over Kosovo in the late 1990s. Nonetheless, by the late summer of 1998, Russia had become enmeshed in a near-disastrous economic crisis that effectively limited Russia’s freedom of action in the world, including in the Middle East. This situation was to continue until a sick, and frequently intoxicated, Yeltsin suddenly resigned as Russia’s president, to be succeeded by Vladimir Putin in January 2000.
Consolidating Power, 2000-04
When Vladimir Putin became Russia’s prime minister in the fall of 1999 and acting president in January 2000 (he was formally elected president in March 2000), he had three major objectives. The first was to restore Russia’s international prestige so as to prevent the United States from unilaterally dominating the world. Putin’s second objective was to rebuild the economy so that Russia could again become a great power. The third objective was to curb Muslim, and especially Middle Eastern, aid to the Chechen rebellion that had erupted again in 1999, so that Moscow could more easily suppress it. In order to accomplish these tasks, Putin had to consolidate his power and end the near anarchy that had pervaded much of the Yeltsin era. To do this, Putin all but eliminated the political influence of oligarchs Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky and took over their media outlets. He replaced the head of the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom, now Rosatom), Yevgeny Adamov, who had a habit of trying to make nuclear deals with Iran not approved of by the Kremlin, first with Alexander Rumantsev and then, in November 2005, with Sergei Kiriyenko.
The powerful gas monopoly Gazprom, heavily involved in Turkey and Central Asia, had its director, Ram Vekhirev, replaced by Alexei Miller, while the Defense Ministry had its leader, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, replaced by the secretary of the National Security Council, Sergei Ivanov. Two other holdovers from the Yeltsin era were also removed during Putin’s first term: Prime Minster Mikhail Khazyanov was replaced by Mikhail Fradkov, and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was replaced by Sergei Lavrov.
Putin also changed interior ministers, set up plenipotentiaries to oversee Russia’s 89 regions, and consolidated the government’s arms-sales agencies into a single entity called Rosoboronoexport, in an effort to gain greater control over a major source of foreign exchange — and to prevent unauthorized foreign arms sales. Putin also put a great deal of emphasis on improving Russia’s economy, not only through the sale of arms, oil and natural gas (the Russian economy has been blessed with high oil and natural gas prices during most of his years in office), but also by selling high-tech goods such as nuclear reactors and by expanding Russia’s business ties abroad. Indeed, business interests were to play an increasingly significant role in Putin’s foreign policy.
Making Putin’s task easier was the support he received from the Duma, especially from his United Russia party, in contrast to the hostile relations Yeltsin had with the Duma from 1993 until his resignation as president in December 1999. Indeed, in the Duma elections of December 2003, Putin greatly increased his support, weakening both the Communist and Liberal Democratic parties, his main opponents, and he scored an overwhelming victory in the 2004 presidential elections.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict
As U.S.-Russian relations chilled following the American invasion of Iraq, so did Moscow’s relations with Israel. At the same time, there was a clear improvement in Russian-Palestinian relations. Moscow’s tilt to the Palestinians had become evident after the Israeli reentry into the cities of the West Bank following a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks in 2002. A secondary goal of Moscow’s pro-Palestinian tilt was to undercut Arab support for the Chechen rebellion. Still, Putin periodically uttered soothing remarks about how much he valued the bilateral Russian-Israeli relationship and the role of Russian émigrés living in Israel. However, on issues of substance such as Russian aid to Iran, and Israel’s construction of a security fence to protect itself from terrorist attacks, Russia and Israel had opposing positions. To be sure, Putin did have a point about the continuing strength of the bilateral Russian-Israeli relationship. By the early 2000s, trade had risen to more than $1 billion per year; cultural relations continued to develop; 50,000 Russian tourists were visiting Israel annually; and Russia and Israel signed an agreement under which Russian rockets would put Israeli satellites into orbit.5 Nonetheless, these areas of bilateral cooperation were increasingly overshadowed by diplomatic conflicts.
By the time of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to Moscow in September 2003, the growing diplomatic differences between Russia and Israel had become increasingly evident. While Sharon was in Moscow, Putin promised to take Israeli concerns into account while introducing a UN Security Council resolution codifying the Quartet’s (the United States, Europe, the United Nations, and Russia) road map for peace. However, following the visit, when Moscow introduced the resolution, it was without the Israeli reservations. As far as Yasser Arafat was concerned, by 2002 Israel had refused to talk to the Palestinian leader, blaming him for the wave of terrorist attacks during the Al-Aksa Intifadah. By contrast, Putin continued to assert that Arafat was still politically relevant.6 On the issue of Israel’s security barrier, Russia joined the majority of EU states in voting to support a UN General Assembly (non-binding) resolution condemning Israel for building the barrier and calling on Israel to comply with the majority decision of the International Court of Justice to tear it down. The United States and six other countries opposed the resolution.
By September 2004, however, Russia may have wished that it had constructed a security fence of its own separating the rest of the Russian Federation from Chechnya, after a series of Chechen terrorist attacks culminated in the seizure of a Russian school in Beslan that led to the deaths of 332 people, many of them children. This may have prompted Foreign Minister Lavrov, on a visit to Israel as part of a post-Beslan Middle East tour during which Russia sought world support against Chechen terrorism, to accept an Israeli offer to cooperate in the area of counterterrorism. The Israeli offer included the sharing of information on safeguarding critical installations, the training of counterterrorism specialists, and the exchange of intelligence data.7 Still, any hope Israel may have had that Moscow would adopt a more pro-Israeli stand as a result of the security agreement quickly faded. In October 2004, just one month after the Russian-Israeli agreement, Moscow supported a UN Security Council resolution (vetoed by the United States) to condemn Israel for its military incursion into Gaza, aimed at rooting out as many Hamas terrorists as possible before the Israeli Knesset vote on Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan.8
This Russian policy was in sharp contrast to Putin’s early policy on Hamas, when a visiting Israeli delegation to Moscow at the start of the Al-Aksa Intifadah, in the fall of 2000, was told by Sergei Lavrov, then head of Russia’s Security Council, that the terrorism Israelis were facing in Gaza and the West Bank was exactly what Moscow faced in Chechnya.9
On the Offensive, 2004-08
By 2004, with his domestic political opponents under control, overwhelmingly reelected to a second term as president, the economy improving, and oil prices rapidly rising, Putin was ready to move ahead with his three major objectives: (1) restoring Russia’s status as a great power, thereby ending American dominance of the post-Cold War world; (2) developing the Russian economy, especially in the high-tech area; and (3) further limiting foreign aid to the Chechen rebels. Unfortunately, for Putin, two events in the September-November 2004 period made both Putin and Russia look weak: the Chechen seizure of a school in Beslan, which led to the loss of 332 Russian lives in a bungled rescue operation, and the Orange Revolution, which brought to power in Ukraine a president whom Putin had publicly opposed. To counter this image, Putin decided to formulate a new strategy for Russia in the Middle East, where the U.S. position was rapidly weakening due to the growing insurgency in Iraq and the revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Seeking to exploit the weakened U.S. position, Putin, after a visit to Turkey, moved first to court the leading anti-American and anti-Israeli states and movements in the region — Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. Subsequently, he was also to court the leading Sunni powers in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — while still trying to maintain good bilateral ties with Israel.
Aiding the Anti-Israelis
Syria was a target of opportunity for Russia as it sought to rebuild its position in the Middle East. By the beginning of 2005, Syria was under heavy pressure on two fronts. Not only had the UN Security Council condemned its activities in Lebanon, but the United States was complaining that Syria had become a conduit for foreign jihadists fighting in Iraq. Consequently, when Moscow during Bashar al-Asad’s visit in January 2005 agreed to write off 73 percent of Syria’s $13.4 billion debt to the former Soviet Union, Putin demonstrated strong support for an increasingly isolated Syrian government.10 Then, in March 2005, Russia and Syria signed an agreement for Russia to develop new oil and gas deposits in Syria11 and in April, just before Putin arrived in Israel, Russia signed an agreement to provide short-range surface-to-air missiles to Syria. These were further signs of support for Damascus, which was under increasing pressure because of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.12 Indeed, an international effort spearheaded by France and the United States compelled Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon by the end of April 2005.
Then, the special commission investigating the assassination of Hariri, under the leadership of German police officer Detlev Mehlis, issued an interim report in October 2005 implicating high-ranking members of the Syrian government and noting that the Syrian regime had obstructed cooperation with the commission. At the same time, a committee under Norwegian statesman Terje Larsen issued a report to the UN, stating that Syria, despite pulling its forces out of Lebanon, had continued to supply Lebanese and Palestinian militias there with weaponry.13 Upon the release of the two reports, the United States, Britain and France, acting jointly, called for UN sanctions against Syria. As in the case of Iran, Moscow sought to prevent the sanctions and succeeded in somewhat watering down the Security Council criticism of Syria. Nonetheless, UNSC Resolution 1636 condemned Syria for trying to mislead the Mehlis Commission by following a policy of “cooperating in form but not in substance” and demanded Syria expand its cooperation with the investigation or face “further action.”14 While Foreign Minister Lavrov praised UNSC Resolution 1636 for taking Russia’s views into account and did manage to prevent an immediate referral of Syria to the UN Security Council,15 Moscow may face some difficult choices once the final report on the Hariri assassination is issued, given the close tie between Hariri and Saudi Arabia, which Putin was also trying to court.
Meanwhile, after the arms deal with Syria and the change of Russian policy toward Iran in February, under which Moscow finally agreed to sign the long-delayed agreement to supply nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor (see below), Putin journeyed to the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories to “show the flag” and demonstrate that Russia was again a factor in the Middle East. Indeed, during his visit, Putin called for a Middle East peace conference to be held in Moscow. In the Palestinian territories, Putin promised the newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas 50 armored personnel carriers for his security forces, while telling the Israelis that he would do nothing to hurt their country and that he had turned down an agreement to sell advanced Iskander ground-to-ground missiles to Syria. Most Israelis doubted him, however, given the surface-to-air missile sale to Syria and the nuclear agreement with Iran. Indeed, as Moscow stepped up its aid to Iran throughout the remainder of 2005, Russian-Israeli relations deteriorated.
Putin clearly realized as he set out to rebuild Russia’s position in the Middle East that in order to cement the relationship with Iran, which he saw as a foreign-policy priority, he had to finalize the nuclear-fuel agreement. Consequently, in late February 2005, Russia signed the final agreement for the supply of nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor.16 Under this pact all spent fuel was to be returned to Russia, thus, in theory at least, preventing its diversion into atomic weapons. Perhaps emboldened by the agreement with Russia, Iran’s then-chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, warned that Iran would never permanently cease enriching uranium, and that if the United States sought sanctions at the UN Security Council, “The security and stability of the region would become a problem.” Rowhani also stated that Iran was not happy with the pace of negotiations with the EU-3 and threatened to end the negotiations if there were no progress.17
Then, following the election of the outspoken Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in July 2005, Moscow did its best to delay even the discussion of sanctions against Iran in the Security Council that Washington was advocating because of Iran’s decision to renew the enrichment of uranium and its refusal to supply the International Atomic Energy Agency with information about its atomic programs.
Making matters worse, Ahmadinejad called for an end to the Zionist state and denied the Holocaust. Despite such utterances, in November 2005, Moscow signed an agreement with Tehran to provide it with sophisticated short-range Tor surface-to-air missiles that could be used to protect its nuclear installations against a possible Israeli or American attack.18 Moscow appeared to be sending a clear signal that it would stand by Iran, irrespective of its nuclear policies.
As Putin was increasing Russian support for Iran, he also tried to prevent the Arab and Muslim worlds from aiding the rebellion in Chechnya. Thus, he obtained for Russia observer status in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and sided with the Muslim world by denouncing some Danish newspaper cartoons that were seen by Muslims as insulting to Islam. For the same reason, he pursued an improved relationship with Saudi Arabia, an effort that bore some fruit as the Saudi government, distancing itself from the Chechen rebels, promised to help in the reconstruction of Chechnya.
Then, following the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006, Putin called the event “a very serious blow” to American diplomacy in the Middle East, appearing almost to return to the zero-sum competition that characterized Soviet-American relations before Gorbachev. Soon after the election, he invited a Hamas delegation to Moscow, asserting that Hamas was not on Russia’s terrorist list, and hence not considered a terrorist organization. This was a clear shift from Russia’s policy in 2000, when, as noted above, an Israeli delegation visiting after the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifadah was told that the terrorism facing Israel in Gaza and the West Bank was exactly what Russia was battling in Chechnya.19
By inviting Hamas to Moscow, Putin undermined the consensus of the Diplomatic Quartet not to have anything to do with Hamas until it recognized Israel, renounced terrorism against it, and accepted all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. When the Hamas delegation came to Moscow, Putin had a number of objectives. First, he associated Russia with the Arab consensus to give Hamas time to change its policies, and in the meantime to work with a Hamas government and not to sanction it. Russia was widely praised in the Arab world for its invitation, which also bestowed a modicum of legitimacy on Hamas, much to the anger of Israel, which saw Hamas as a terrorist enemy seeking to destroy it. Another goal for Putin was to get Hamas, an Islamist organization, to downplay the Chechen issue. Hamas complied, with delegation leader Khalid Mashal stating after a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the Chechen separatists were an internal Russian problem. The comment drew a bitter reaction from the Chechen rebels. They called Hamas’s decision to visit Putin’s Russia, which had killed so many Chechen Muslims, not only regrettable but also “un-Islamic.”20
Another blow to Russian-Israeli relations occurred six months later, when war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah following the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. Not only did Moscow look the other way as Syria transferred some of its Russian weapons to Hezbollah, Russia also opposed sanctions against Syria, then Hezbollah’s main sponsor, at a meeting of the G-8, and criticized Israel for its overreaction to the kidnapping. In the aftermath of the war, Russia sent a group of engineers to rebuild some of the bridges destroyed in the conflict, but did not offer troops for the expanded UNIFIL contingent in southern Lebanon, whose mission, at least in theory, was to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah.
In the face of Israel’s deteriorating relationship with Russia, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert journeyed to Moscow in October 2006, perhaps hoping to secure a reversal of some of Russia’s anti-Israeli regional policies. Olmert had three issues to discuss with Putin: (1) Iran, (2) Syria’s transfer of arms to Hezbollah and (3) Russia’s diplomatic support for Hamas. A secondary list of priorities focused on Russian-Israeli relations, including trade — especially the potential purchase of Russian natural gas — and bilateral cooperation in arms sales to third countries. For his part, Putin had a more limited list of goals for Olmert’s visit. First, he wanted to have Russia recognized as a major player in Middle East diplomacy, and Olmert’s visit helped confirm this. Second, he needed to rebuild the Russian economy, an essential element in Moscow’s quest to regain great-power status. Trade with a high-tech country like Israel, especially in the area of nanotechnology, would help achieve this goal. Given the results of the meeting, it appears that Putin fared far better than did Olmert. On Iran, Russia made no concessions; Lavrov, after Olmert’s visit, said that Moscow was still opposed to sanctions.21 Moscow also played down the issue of weapons transfers.22 As far as Hamas was concerned, Lavrov stated, “Demanding now that Hamas fully accept the Quartet’s conditions such as the recognition of Israel, the denunciation of violence against Israel, and acceptance of all existing agreements is unrealistic at this time.”23
If Olmert got very little satisfaction from his Russian hosts on issues of major importance to Israel, he proved willing to accede to Putin’s goals, perhaps hoping that, if bilateral relations improved further, Russia might change its anti-Israeli regional policies. Thus, Olmert agreed with Putin to raise trade from the $2 billion annual level to $5 billion. He also agreed to discuss the possibility of Israel’s purchasing natural-gas from Russia by way of a pipeline from Turkey, thereby reversing the stand on natural gas purchases adopted by Netanyahu in 1997. This seemed to be a mutually advantageous deal for both Russia and Israel. Turkey in 2006 had failed to use the amount of gas it had contracted with Russia to purchase, and Israel needed more of the product. In addition to natural gas purchases from Egypt, Israel had planned to obtain natural gas from a field off of Gaza; because of the rise of Hamas, however, Israel saw the Gaza project as unlikely.24 The one concrete agreement to come out of the Moscow talks was the formation of a working group to coordinate arms sales to third countries.25 While Russia and Israel have cooperated in the production of weapons systems such as the AWACS, the two countries competed for contracts to refurbish old Soviet equipment like the MIG-23 aircraft.
Courting the Sunnis
Meanwhile, Russia’s backing for Iran and its allies Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah came into conflict with Putin’s goal of improved ties with the Sunni states of the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt. The latter, particularly after the Israeli-Hezbollah war, had become increasingly suspicious of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Consequently, as a sop to the Sunni Arabs prior to Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan in February 2007, Russia finally agreed in December 2006 to UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, albeit very limited ones. Then, in March 2007, following the trip, Putin agreed to additional very limited sanctions. During his visit to the Gulf Arabs, Putin sought major investments in Russia’s banking and space industries, weapons sales, and joint investment projects in oil and natural gas (he was to have similar goals for his visit to Libya in 2008). The energy deals were especially important to Moscow, as its own production of oil and especially natural gas appeared to have almost peaked.26 During the spring and summer of 2007, as part of Putin’s efforts to court the Sunni Arabs, Russia also conspicuously delayed sending Iran the promised nuclear fuel, making the dubious claim that the rich Persian Gulf country had not made the necessary payments. A November 2007 visit by Putin to Iran didn’t change the situation. However, following the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran of December 2007, which argued that Iran had given up its nuclear-weapons program and hence was not an immediate threat, Moscow, perceiving diminishing pressure from the Gulf Arabs and the United States on this issue, went ahead with the sale of the nuclear fuel (the shipments were completed by February 2008). Ironically, even as Moscow was helping Iran develop its nuclear capability, Putin, seeking business for Russia’s nuclear industry, offered to build reactors for the Gulf Arabs, Egypt and even Jordan, as the Arab states sought to keep up with their rival. For their part, the Sunni Arab states, increasingly unhappy with U.S. policy toward Iraq, which had strengthened the Iraqi Shia and indirectly Iran, welcomed Russia as a counterweight to the United States.
The one major problem Moscow encountered in the Arab world in 2007 dealt with the Palestinians. In June of that year, Hamas seized power in Gaza, killing a number of Fatah officials working there. With Fatah and Hamas now at loggerheads — Abbas fired the Hamas prime minister and replaced him with one of his own appointees, Salam Fayyad, who had a reputation for fiscal honesty and was close to the Western financial community — Moscow faced a difficult problem of choice. Making matters worse, Hamas turned increasingly to Iran for support, thereby alienating key Sunni states and making Moscow’s legitimization of Hamas problematic for Russia. To counter this development, Moscow stepped up its efforts, first announced during Putin’s visit to the Middle East in 2005, to convene an international peace conference in Moscow. In addition, Moscow increased its backing for the Arab Peace Plan, first introduced in 2002 and then reintroduced in 2007, which all the Arab states had endorsed. Perhaps most important, Russia called for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah as a necessary precondition for the peace conference to take place.
Thus, at the time of the Russian invasion of Georgia, Russia was following a policy of encouraging the main anti-American and anti-Israeli forces in the Middle East, while at the same time trying to draw the major Sunni Arab states away from their alignment with the United States, and also trying to maintain good bilateral ties with Israel. The invasion of Georgia, coming as it did in the midst of the Russian diplomatic offensive in the Middle East, was to impact Putin’s Middle East balancing act, especially with regard to Syria and Israel.
Impact of the Georgia Invasion
In an almost classic case of political opportunism, Bashar al-Asad seized upon the Russian invasion of Georgia — and the fact that Israel (along with Germany, France, the United States and Turkey) had provided military equipment and training to the Georgian military — to try to convince the reluctant Russians to sell Syria the weapons it had long coveted but so far failed to succeed in buying. These included the short-range, solid-fuel Iskander-E ground-to-ground missile that could reach virtually every target in Israel; MiG-31 combat aircraft; and the SAM-300 anti-aircraft missile system, which, if installed near Damascus, could cover most of Israel’s airspace. As Asad told the Russian newspaper Kommersant on the eve of his visit to Moscow, when Georgian-Russian hostilities were still going on: “I think that in Russia and in the world, everyone is now aware of Israel’s role and its military consultants in the Georgia crisis. And if before in Russia there were people who thought these [Israeli] forces can be friendly, now I think no one thinks that way.”27 It is clear that Asad was referring to Putin, who on repeated occasions stated that he had denied the Iskander missiles to Syria because they could harm Israel.
In backing the Russian intervention in Georgia, one of the few countries to do so, Asad was repeating the policy of his father, Hafiz, whose regime was one of the few in the world to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.28 While Hafiz was richly rewarded with military equipment for his support of Soviet policy in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen what Bashar will get. All Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would say after the Asad visit was that Moscow would “consider” Syria’s appeal for new weapons sales and that, in any case, Russia would not sell any weapons that would affect the Middle East strategic balance.”29 Since a sale of both the Iskander-E and SAM-300 systems would definitely affect the regional military balance, Syria appeared unlikely to get them. It should also be noted, however, that Moscow has held up arms sales to Syria and Iran to try to squeeze concessions from Israel, threatening to implement them if Israel did not behave as desired.
Since the Olmert visit to Moscow in October 2006, Russian-Israeli relations continued in their schizophrenic course. Thus, on the eve of Bashar al-Asad’s visit to Moscow in August 2008, Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a telephone conversation. They discussed Israeli-Syrian relations and the situation in Georgia; trade between Russia and Israel, which now exceeded $2.5 billion a year, much of it in the high-tech sector; cultural ties including a Moscow-established cultural center in Tel Aviv, a visa-waiver agreement to facilitate tourism, and the return to Russia of czarist property in Jerusalem; and an agreement between Israel’s Kadima and Putin’s United Russia parties to establish party-to-party relations.30 While some in the Russian military, such as Deputy Chief of Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn, publicly complained about Israeli aid to the Georgian military,31 Foreign Minister Lavrov went out of his way to praise Israel for stopping arms sales to Georgia.32
What then explains Russia’s continued bifurcated policy toward Israel, and how will the Russian invasion of Georgia affect it? It appears clear that Russia has three goals vis-à-vis Israel. First, Israel is the homeland of more than a million Russian-speaking citizens of the FSU, whom Russia sees as a source of its global influence. Hence, the emphasis on cultural ties, in which Israelis of Russian origin play the dominant role. Second, as noted above, Putin is determined to develop the Russian economy; and high-tech trade with Israel, especially in the area of nanotechnology,33 is a part of his plan. Third, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a major issue in world politics, and Putin would very much like to play a role in its diplomacy, if not in resolving it. For this reason, he continued to call for an international peace conference in Moscow and wanted Israel to attend, so as to demonstrate the ability of Russia to be a world mediator.
By early 2009, perhaps in an effort to convince Israel to attend a Middle East peace conference, and perhaps because it was growing increasingly disenchanted with Hamas, Moscow took a rather even-handed view of the Israeli-Hamas war of December 2008-January 2009, instead of giving strong backing to Hamas. Moscow also praised the long-delayed August 2009 Sixth Fatah Congress, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko asserting, “The restoration of Palestinian unity on the PLO platform and on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative is an integral part of lasting peace.”34 Putin, now Russia’s prime minister, although considered by most analysts to still be Russia’s most powerful leader, had even more explicit praise for Fatah in his greetings to the Congress: “Fatah, the core of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, steadily defends the interests of Palestinians, primarily their right to form a sovereign and viable state.”35 Hamas denounced the Fatah Congress.
In May 2009, Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, himself an immigrant from the FSU, announced during a visit to Russia that Israel had agreed to attend the international peace conference in Moscow, long desired by Putin. He also called for a strategic dialogue with Russia. This may have been the price Moscow was demanding for holding off on the delivery of SAM-300 missiles to Iran as well as sophisticated missiles and military aircraft to Syria. Lieberman was followed to Moscow by both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who were evidently concerned that Russia was about to consummate the sales.36 Perhaps as a further incentive for Moscow, Israel agreed to sell reconnaissance drones, something Russia very much needed, given the poor performance of its surveillance equipment in the Georgian war.37 Meanwhile, Russia was having difficulty managing its position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as was made clear by Moscow’s flip-flop over the Goldstone Report, which condemned both Israel and Hamas for actions taken during the Israeli invasion of Gaza. In the UN Human Rights Committee, Russia — seeking to win Arab support — voted to approve the report, which had been bitterly criticized by Israel. However, in the General Assembly vote to send the report to the UN Security Council, Moscow abstained, perhaps wishing to assuage Israeli anger or, perhaps, because it might itself be accused in international fora of killing civilians during Russian military operations in the North Caucasus.38
Moscow’s vote on the Goldstone Report is a useful point of departure for drawing some conclusions about Russian policy toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict under Putin.
The first conclusion is that Putin is trying to “have his cake and eat it too.” Moscow has been seeking to maintain good bilateral relations with Israel while providing arms and diplomatic support to Israeli’s main enemies — Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah — in order to enhance the Russian position in the Middle East. So far, at least, Israel has appeared to go along with the Russian strategy, if only to prevent the consummation of some of the most threatening arms deals , such as the SAM-300 agreement with Iran and the Iskander-missile agreement with Syria. Thus, Israel has agreed to attend the proposed Middle East peace conference in Moscow, ceased arming Georgia, and sold sophisticated military drones to Russia, while also carrying out extensive trade and cultural relations.
Second, Putin has used the Arab-Israeli conflict to try to thrust Russia back into the center of Middle East diplomacy. By calling for a Middle East peace conference in Moscow and getting Israel to agree to attend, Russia can demonstrate it is again a factor in Middle East diplomacy. At the same time, given the current split between the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, each of which rules a separate section of Palestinian territory (although Fatah control is limited by the Israeli occupation), and the apparent refusal of the Netanyahu government to make any concessions on Jerusalem, the prospects of a successful peace conference in Moscow, if it is held, would appear to be limited. Nonetheless, for Russia, a major role in the peace process itself, rather than the conclusion of a peace agreement, seems to be Putin’s primary objective.
Third, Moscow has demonstrated a clear interest in expanding economic ties with Israel in the high-tech field, an area which neither the Arab states nor Iran can be helpful, although Iran has sought to establish a nanotechnology sector of its economy.
Finally, there is the area of cultural relations between Russia and Israel. Moscow sees itself as the center of the Russian-speaking world, and Israel has the largest Russian-speaking population outside the FSU. Putin appears to see immigrants from the FSU as a possible lever of influence inside Israel. The ascension of Avigdor Lieberman, an FSU immigrant, to the position of foreign minister (however limited his real influence), and Lieberman’s apparent eagerness to work with Russia, may reinforce Putin’s hopes that the Russian-speaking community will form a pro-Russian lobby in Israel.
Nonetheless, the current Russian-Israeli relationship is a relatively fragile one. Should Russia go ahead with its SAM-300 and Iskander arms deals, either because of a new chill in U.S.-Russian relations or because the defense lobbies in Moscow win the arms sales-debate, one could expect a sharp deterioration in Russian-Israeli bilateral relations. Whether such an eventuality occurs, however, is a question only the future can answer.
1 For an overview of Russian policy in the Middle East under Yeltsin, see Robert O. Freedman, Russian Policy toward the Middle East since the Collapse of the Soviet Union. The Yeltsin Legacy and the Challenge for Putin (University of Washington, 2001).
2 These events are discussed in detail in Robert O. Freedman, “Russia and Israel under Yeltsin,” Israel Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 140-169.
5 Ruth Sinai, “Lift Restrictions on Russian Tourists, Ministers Say,” Haaretz, January 3, 2005.
6 “Road Map with a Stop in Moscow,” Trud, Nov. 28, 2003 (Translated in Current Digest of the Soviet Press (Hereafter CDSP), Vol. 55, No. 47, p. 18.
7 Grigory Asmolov, “Israel’s Intelligence Community Will Assist Russia’s,” Kommersant, Sept. 7, 2004, [CDSP Vol. 36, No. 26, p. 23].
8 Yula Petrovskaya, “Russia Is a Collateral Victim of Terror in the Middle East,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Oct. 11, 2004 [CDSP, Vol. 56, No. 40-41, p. 3].
9 Cited in Freedman, op. cit., p. 55.
10 Nabi Abdullaev, “Assad Praises Russia, Wins Debt Deal,” Moscow Times, Jan. 25, 2005.
11 RIA, “Russian Company Signs Oil, Gas Exploration Deal with Syria,” March 21, 2005, FBIS-RUSSIA, March 22, 2005.
12 Steve Gutterman, “Putin Defends Missile Sale to Syria,” AP Report, Moscow Times, April 29, 2005.
13 The two reports are found on the United Nations website.
14 Cited in Resolution 1636, October 31, 2005, UN website, Security Council, October 31, 2005.
15 Interfax, “Lavrov Voted for Syria Resolution Because Her [Russia’s] Views [Were] Taken into Account,” October 31, 2005, FBIS-RUSSIA, Oct. 31, 2005.
16 Scott Peterson, “Russia Fuels Iran’s Atomic Bid’,’ Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 28, 2005.
17 Cited in Nazila Fathi, “Iran Says It Won’t Give Up Program to Enrich Uranium,” The New York Times, March 6, 2005.
18 These events are discussed in detail in Robert O. Freedman, Russia, Iran and the Nuclear Question: The Putin Record (U.S. Army War College, 2006), pp. 20-35.
19 For a study of Russia’s policy toward terrorism, see Robert O. Freedman, “Can Russia be a Partner for the United States in the Middle East,” in NATO-American Relations, Aurel Braun ed. (Routledge, 2008), pp. 125-129.
20 Ibid., p. 129.
21 Cited in Yossi Melman, “Putin to PM: Using Force against Iran Could End in Disaster,” Haaretz, Oct. 22, 2006.
22 Cited in Interfax, “Russia’s Ivanov: Issue of Hezbollah’s Russian Weapons, ‘closed topic,’” October 20, 2006, FBIS-RUSSIA, October 21, 2006.
23 Cited in Avi Issacharoff, “Russian FM Calls International Demands on Hamas ‘Unrealistic,’” Haaretz, Oct. 22, 2006.
24 Lior Brun, “Israeli-Russian Talks on Planned $2 Billion Natural Gas Deal Viewed,” Maariv, Oct. 19, 2006, FBIS-MESA, Oct. 20, 2006.
25 Interfax, “Russia, Israel to Set Up Working Group on Arms Trade,” Oct. 26, 2006, FBIS-MESA, Oct. 20, 2006.
26 Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan is discussed in Robert O. Freedman, “The Putin Visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan: Business Promotion or Great Power Maneuvering” in Johnson’s Russia List, February 15, 2007 (available at http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/2007-39-39.cfm). See also Russian and CIS Relations with the Gulf Region, ed. Mawat Terterov ed. (Dubai: Gulf Research Center, 2009).
27 Mikhail Zygar, “Interview with Syrian President Al-Asad,” Kommersant, Aug. 20, 2008, FBIS: MESA, Aug. 21, 2008.
28 For a discussion of Soviet policy toward Syria during the Hafiz al-Asad era, see Robert O. Freedman, Moscow and the Middle East: Soviet Policy since the Invasion of Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
29 Cited in Vesti TV, “Russian Foreign Minister on Syrian Ties, NATO and Georgia,” Aug. 22, 2008, FBIS-RUSSIA, Aug. 22, 2008.
30 Lili Galili, “Russian PM to Open Party Branch in Israel,” Haaretz (online), Aug. 21, 2008.
31 Cited in “Russia Accuses Israel of Selling Arms to Georgia,” Jerusalem Post, Aug. 20, 2008.
32Itar-Tass, “Russian FM Lavrov Praises Israeli Decision to Refrain from Assisting Georgia,” Aug. 19, 2008, FBIS-RUSSIA, Aug. 20, 2008.
33 Ria-Novosti, “Russian Nanotechnologies Corporation to Get 54 Billion Rubles in 2010,” Oct. 8, 2009, (World News Connection Middle East (hereafter WNCME), Oct. 8, 2009.
34Itar-Tass “Russia Wants Lasting Peace in Middle East-Diplomat,” Aug. 11, 2009, WNCME Aug. 11, 2009.
36 Charles Levinson, “Netanyahu’s Secrecy Sparks Anger,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 11, 2009; “Israel: President Peres Interviewed on Mid East Peace Process, Russia Visit,” Kommersant, August 18, 2009, WNCME August 18, 2009, and Barak Ravid, “Medvedev: I’ll Review Decision to Sell Iran Anti-Aircraft Missiles,” Haaretz, Aug. 20, 2009.
37 Piotr Butowski and Anne Musquere, “Israel: Drone Sale to Russia Provides Incentive for Domestic Industry: Russian Drones Evolving,” Air and Cosmos, Sept. 22, 2009, WNCME Sept. 23, 2009.
38 Barak Ravid, “Russians Deal Lieberman ‘Slap’ by Endorsing Goldstone,” Haaretz, Oct. 18, 2009; Voice of Israel Network B, “Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Criticizes Russia on Gaza Report, Says Efforts to Continue,” Oct. 18, 2009, WNCME, Oct. 18, 2009; and Itar-Tass “Russia Abstains on Goldstone Resolution,” Nov. 6, 2009, WNCME Nov. 6, 2009.