The Appeal of Russia

On March 27th 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abstained from the vote at the UN General Assembly on a resolution on Crimea. It was de facto support for Russian aggression. The significance of this event may not have hit the mainstream just yet, but it may soon outpace it in its own trajectory.

It’s not the first time the Israeli government has looked eastwards. When Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, the Israeli government set a moratorium on arms sales to the tiny republic. In return, Dmitri Medvedev cancelled a delivery of missiles to Iran in 2009. There’s even talk of a free trade deal between Russia and Israel now.

It would seem that there is a handful of very exact reasons why the Russian government would seek out a relationship with the Israeli government at this time.

Firstly, the unfinished conflict in Chechnya, where Moscow, having repressed the right to self-determination of a people, means that the Russian government may find it easier to forge alliances with countries engaged in conflicts with Muslim countries and populations.

Secondly, the end of the Cold War has meant that Russia no longer can claim the same pretext for its foreign policy as it once could. No longer can Russia claim to be the first gains of the world revolution. This created a need for a new pretext to define Russian foreign policy. By 2001 the War on Terror offered a new pretext of national security and counter-terrorism.

Thirdly, there is the necessity of non-Arab actors, as well as Arab regimes, as allies in the Middle East.

Israel is a top candidate for all of the above give its historic role in the region. It wouldn’t be the first time Israel has found common cause with states engaged in “counter-terrorism.” Apartheid South Africa claimed to be taking a stand against Communism in its savage military campaigns and domestic policy. Israel was there to exchange more than kind words.

Today the new enemy is Islamism, and like Communism, it is seemingly omniscient. It can be found in the Caucasus and across West Asia. Russia and Israel are natural allies for this reason. National security and counter-terrorism have long been the staples of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours.

The US has played the role of patron-state to Israel’s expansionism for nearly five decades. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, and the Golan Heights, without its financial support. Yet, there are signs that the Netanyahu government can see far enough to perceive a potential break with the Americans. Even Washington cannot support Israeli policy indefinitely, and it has signalled as much.

This has come as a shock to many Americans, in particular, as it has seemed, for a long time, completely incomprehensible that the US would ever abandon Israel, and with good reason. Washington needs a strong military outpost capable of policing the region, and it has built Israel into an armed force greater than any standing NATO power.

Captured MIG-23 fighter. Israel, 2009.
Captured MIG-23. Israeli camouflage, Syrian markings.

Left Discourse

For too long, leftist discourse on Israel has carried with it the trope of the Israeli lobby, i.e. the view that the “special relationship” really comes down to the power of Israeli-Jewish influence on US policy. This is wrongheaded in its presupposition of American and Western innocence. To hold such a presupposition, one would have to deny that the US has a rational strategic interest in backing Israel. It’s only because Washington has an interest in dominating the Middle East that the lobby can have any influence whatsoever. The Russians have the same interest in combating American influence in the region. Neither requires a cabal.

The world situation can change, and with it, the distribution of power and alliances around it can change as well. It seems plausible that the Israeli government is looking forward just as much as it’s looking backwards. The American empire is now in decline, and it is not hard for Washington’s regional allies to see that. Iraq remains on the verge of imploding, and the Tehran-backed Assad regime has largely won out against Western and Gulf-supported rebels in Syria. Following NATO’s forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan, there’s no reason to assume the US-brokered order will hold there, either. For US-allied Middle Eastern countries, the warning signs are everywhere.

Despite the obvious benefits of continuing US patronage, Israel can afford to imagine itself being more independent in economic and military relations with entities more on its political and cultural wavelength. It might not be the case, at this point, that the Russian Federation offers an alternate patron-state relationship for Israel. It is possible that Israel has yet to find such a state, and even if it did it seems unlikely that it would immediately jump ship. Rather, the move towards Russia looks more like a means of countering American influence, in the event that the US can no longer support Israeli policy.

The difference here is that the political state in Israel is adjusting itself at a rate which could well outpace the military-industrial complex. The results have been tension between the pro-Russian wing of the coalition government, and the more pro-American Israel Defence Forces. Though not described in such terms – generally, in relation to Israel’s conflict with Iran – the Russian element to these differences is not exactly absent.

It makes sense that the Israeli military is conservative, and favours Washington. Over the course of the War on Terror, Israel’s defence establishment had the opportunity to work more closely with its American counterparts than ever and feels very much a part of the US strategic network in the Middle East. The Israeli military has also played no small part in advising its American counterpart throughout this period and has increasingly served as a conduit to Israel’s political establishment when political relations are strained, as they have grown the last six years, between the Obama and Netanyahu governments.

Captured Iraqi MIG-21. Israel, 2011.
Captured Iraqi MIG-21. Hatzerim, 2011.

Russian Stakes

The irony of all of this is that there is a long record of Russian support for Israel’s Arab opponents in the region. Putin may want much warmer relations with Israel than in the past, but he is not entirely breaking with it, either. He was opposed to the NATO intervention in Libya and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He remains much closer to the Assad regime than the Israelis would like, while Israel remains much less confident in taking any side in Syria’s civil war.

As long as Syria remains unstable, Israel can live with Russian influence on one side, rather than another. Neither Putin nor Netanyahu would want to see an Islamist victory in Syria. Even still, the Russian Federation remains a counter-force for any state independent of US influence in the region. Any move made on Iran could divide Russia and Israel.

Where Russian and Israeli interests converge without ambiguity is in Cairo. There, the military government offers both the promise of reconsolidation after the uprising in 2011 brought to fruition democratic elections which put the Muslim Brotherhood in government. The demands of the protests began with the calls for Mubarak to step down and then calls for democracy, calls for civil liberties, human rights, and economic justice. By 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood faced widespread opposition having failed to deliver on substantive change and the military moved to unseat Morsi on that basis. The return of the military to direct governance has meant the closure of a brief window for a burgeoning civil society.

The Obama administration was unwavering in its support for Mubarak up until the last moment, when it became impossible to back him against a divided military and a population on the march. The concession to democratic impulses in the country by Obama outraged Netanyahu. Israel had long vested a stake in upholding the military dictatorship in Egypt since Sadat signed onto a tacit alliance with Menachem Begin in 1979. Sadat paid for it with his life. Israel made its annexation of Jerusalem official. Mubarak came to power as another strong man to hold together the military regime and maintain its partnership with the US and Israel.

The Arab Spring, in 2011, took both Washington and Jerusalem both by surprise. The fall of Mubarak opened up the possibility that the alliance with Israel might be called off. No wonder the Israeli government wanted the Egyptian military to not hold back against the demonstrators. The suppression of Islamism in a majority Muslim country will necessarily extend to widespread political repression.

It is infinitely easier to close down any number of newspapers, trade unions, feminist organisations, civil rights campaigns, and so on, than it is to regulate what goes on in the mosque. The aim of the game is to maintain stability on the military’s terms, as well as its claim to represent a secular nationalist force in Egyptian life. Fortunately (for Sisi) the aim fits in with not just Israeli interests, but with Russian interests as well.

IAI Westwind with MIG-21 radar.

When it comes to West Asia there are certain priorities which all foreign actors seek to uphold: 1) the control of the energy flow, much more so than access to the resources itself, and 2) to prevent any independent actors from taking over the control of the resources.

Although Egypt is not a petroleum state like Libya or Iraq, it does have the Suez Canal, a longstanding and vital shipping route. Just as the importance of Syria lies in its place as a key route for fuel pipelines and due to its shared border with Turkey. In both cases, Russia has a vested interest, as the US and Israel have, at varying times, in upholding the secular regimes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and today’s mini-Mubarak in Egypt. No foreign power would want to see a democratic government in either of these states for the aforementioned reasons. [Unsurprisingly, Russia has sought to resume its role as a supplier of military goods to Egypt in recent months, including signing its first deal for fighter aircraft since the late 1970s, when Cairo aligned with the US.]

No doubt Putin will emphasise the importance of national sovereignty, state security, institutional law and order, in his rationalisations of both policies. He simultaneously claims the Russian Federation as a multi-confessional state, where the languages and rights of Tartar Muslims are to be as respected as much as Orthodox Christians living in Crimea; while posturing towards the Orthodox Church and its stances against homosexuality.

Russian national conservatism, like all conservatism, cannot recognise its own contradictions because it is so constituted by those contradictions. Heavily invested in the economic turbulence which set it loose, Putin can only stand athwart further neoliberal reforms in his bid to embolden his supporters. It should be obvious how this brand of jingoism would appeal to Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, the former Moldovan bouncer, who admires Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and has little time for liberal pieties.

Putin is unambiguous in his opposition to all currents of resistance in Chechnya and the Caucasus, but especially those of an Islamic tint. He sees the Islamists in Syria as a great threat in potentially bolstering the cause of Chechen Islamists and probably the Muslim Brotherhood fall into the same category. This is a rather convenient categorisation.

The Russian leader has little qualm in selling arms to Assad, knowing full well that the Ba’athist regime has a longstanding alliance with the Hezbollah. In the recent past the Russian government has sought to qualify its support for Syria and Iran on this basis to strengthen its ties to Israel. Even still, the implications of Russia’s realpolitik cannot be ignored indefinitely by the Israelis.

Photographs courtesy of brewbooks, Pieter von Marion, and José Luis Celada Euba. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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