(November 8, 2019 / JNS) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin numerous times over the last few years, mostly to ensure absolute coordination on the Syrian front, which Russia entered in 2015. In addition to their meetings, both leaders speak often by phone. When Syrian soldiers shot down a Russian jet and Israel was blamed for the miscommunication, Netanyahu and Putin were able to iron out the situation and ease some of the ensuing tensions.
However, recently, an unusual Chinese media report has surfaced claiming that Russia has reportedly come into possession of an Israeli interceptor missile fired in July 2018, when Syrian forces launched two missiles during clashes with rebels near Israel’s border.
With Russia now reportedly in possession of advanced Israeli missile technology, the questions being asked in foreign-policy circles now is what will happen this time, and how will Russia and Israel maintain good relations with so much anxiety in the region?
Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, told JNS that “if these reports are accurate, this is definitely an issue of concern.”
According to her, Putin and Netanyahu have “cultivated a close personal relationship, at least publicly.”
Their relationship “is as good as it has been for a long time,” Micky Aharonson, former head of the foreign-relations directorate of the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and an expert on Russia told JNS. “It is very helpful in terms of bilateral relations, diplomacy and setting meetings.”
This incident “raises the possibility of countries like Iran getting their hands on this technology and producing their own versions of this system, which would be of primary concern to Israel,” said Borshchevskaya.
However, she warned that there are “broader implications” of Russia’s alleged possession of Israeli missile technology. “Israel is trying to sell this weapon to other countries, such as Poland,” she said. “In other words, these negative effects could continue multiplying.”
The adage that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests” can be attributed to any number of leaders. Whoever said it first appears to have correctly perceived the nature of international relations, especially when it comes to the Jewish state and Russia.
Aharonson told JNS that “things have been better since the incident when Syria shot down a Russian plane. Coordination continues, and discussions are positive. There is a positive tone in the discussions, but it is disconnected from Russia’s strategic decisions, which are based on Russian interests.”
Borshchevskaya noted that in Syria, Putin clearly chose President Bashar Assad and leaned closer to the Assad-Iran axis. “Yet Putin doesn’t want to openly take sides,” she said. “That’s why he always says he supports a ‘legitimate’ government in Damascus. Putin’s loyalty is ultimately to himself, and if everyone around him is weaker, that makes him stronger.”
Regardless, Netanyahu has consistently made it clear that he has no intention of allowing Russian interests to get in the way of Israel’s efforts to destroy Iran’s attempt to build a war machine in Syria.
“It would be impossible for Israel to formulate its security policy without taking Russia into consideration,” said Aharonson. “There are positive sides to this because it means someone can deliver messages and shape Assad’s choices. Russia is influential in many places. [Israel] simply cannot ignore it.”
‘Israel is Russia’s emergency line to Washington’
So, does Russia see Israel as an asset or a liability?
“Both,” according to Aharonson, explaining that it’s a “liability because Israel can spoil Russian plans in Syria by attacking major Syrian assets that would create a delay for Assad in strengthening his regime. Russia claims that Israel is a big problem because Syria and Iran accuse Russia of not protecting them from Israeli attacks.”
However, Israel is an asset, she said, “because Israel is Russia’s emergency line to Washington.”
“This may be taking it to a bit of an extreme,” she admitted, “but it is not detached from reality. To the Russians, Israel is perceived as being able to deliver messages to the U.S. and beyond.”
The question many experts may be wondering is whether or not Russia would ultimately come to Israel’s defense if Tehran attacks it directly.
“I think Russia would act in a way that Israel would perceive as helpful if Iran were to attack,” said Borshchevskaya. “But I also think that Putin would be careful to present an argument for why Russia’s abilities are limited. If you look at previous statements (and those of Putin himself), they tend to emphasize that Iran is an independent country, and they cannot control what they do. Again, I think Putin would do his best to balance as much as possible.”
Borshchevskaya said she believes that Putin will “play both Israel and Iran,” presenting himself as “a mediator that can talk to all sides.” However, she adds that he is not interested or even able “to genuinely resolve conflict.”
She also said a state of low-level conflict is good for Putin “because it creates the need for his presence and relevance, and doesn’t require a major commitment of resources from Russia.”
“Russia keeps saying that because there are over 1 million Russian expats in Israel, it can be assured that Russia will never let it be harmed because it has so many ‘sons of the homeland,’ ” said Aharonson.
“This is what the Russians say,” she said. “I hope this promise will never be tested.”