A year ago I wrote about the way in which Israeli domestic politics was coloring its foreign policy toward Russia on account of Israel’s large Russian population – over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union now live in Israel, making up somewhere between 10-15% of the total population – and noted that the government was doing its best to cozy up to Putin on account of the domestic political benefits despite the fact that there were obvious foreign policy pitfalls for Israel in pursuing such a strategy. In light of the violence in Syria, it is time to revisit this issue. The topic has taken on greater urgency now that Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Russia has already sent a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries to Syria. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon had warned Russia not to arm the Assad regime with these missiles, considered to be a significant upgrade to existing Syrian air defense capabilities, and said that if the shipment of weapons left for Syria, Israel would “know how to act.” While Russia had postponed the initial shipment of missiles at Israel’s request, all signs point to further Israeli requests to delay delivering the SAM batteries being likely to fall on deaf ears. Russia’s interest in propping up the Assad regime has only grown, and the increasing calls for Western intervention and hints of U.S. plans for a no-fly zone in Syria have only seemed to strengthen Russian resolve as it turns the fight in Syria into a proxy battle against the West.
As Jordan Hirsch and Sam Kleiner smartly argued a couple of weeks ago, the chaos in Syria is in some ways restoring a Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and Israel that is focused on Israel as a proxy and strategic ally against a larger adversary, which in this case is Iran. However, the past couple of weeks have added a twist to this observation, which is that in some ways we are actually returning to the original Cold War dynamic of the U.S. against Russia and Israel caught in the middle. While the relationship between Israel and Russia has been strong, full of state visits and Israeli officials fawning over their Russian counterparts, the situation in Syria has put the brakes on what was in many ways a friendship built on a mirage. Israeli politicians have wanted to reap the low-hanging political fruit of being seen as having close ties with Russia, but Russia never gave Israel any indication of being willing to budge on its support for Iran or its backing of Assad. In fact, fostering a close relationship with Russia might have actually backfired, as when Israel hit Syrian military sites in Damascus earlier in May, it infuriated the Russian government, which was taken by surprise by the Israeli raid. Close ties between Jerusalem and Moscow may have created an expectation in Russia’s mind of notification by Israel, or perhaps some level of leeway on Russian priorities that Israel is unwilling to give.
The entire situation demonstrates the strategic quandary in which Israel finds itself due to its relatively small stature. Israel is not enough of a heavyweight to do much of anything to change the direction of Russian foreign policy, and its threats are not credible when dealing with a country the size and strength of Russia. Israel has spent years cultivating Putin and other Russian leaders, and Avigdor Lieberman played up his Russian connection while serving as foreign minister to an unprecedented degree, but when push comes to shove, all of this falls by the wayside in the face of larger Russian geostrategic priorities. Keeping Assad as an ally and maintaining the Russian naval base in Tartus, and in the big picture frustrating Western efforts to get Assad to exit power, is just worth much more to Moscow than anything Israel can offer and any benefits that accrue to Russia as a result of closer ties with Israel. Furthermore, Russia even has good cause to start intimidating Israel if it believes that Israeli natural gas exports – if they ever happen, which is a big if – might in any way cut into Russian market share in Europe. Israel just does not measure up when it comes to ordering Russian priorities, and Israel is learning this the hard way in the context of the Syrian morass.
There is another element at play here, which is how Israeli domestic politics require Israel to tread carefully in its dealings with Russia. As I noted a year ago, the Russian population in Israel feels a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward its previous home even as its connection there wanes, much like American Jews feel strongly about Israel and Irish-Americans feel strongly about Ireland. Were the U.S. ever to have tense relations with Ireland, it would actually raise a serious problem in Congress and make for an extremely tricky political environment. Domestic politics affects every move the Israeli government makes, and if the connection between the large population of Russian origin and Israel’s foreign policy maneuvering has not already been taken into account by the more insightful politicians, I’d be surprised. Note that Israel has not yet directly threatened Russia, but has instead made veiled threats toward Syria on the issue of missile shipments, which is a counterintuitive move when you consider the supply chain here and that the party that needs to be prevented from moving is Moscow rather than Damascus. Part of that is, as I noted above, that Israel just does not have the heft to make any credible threats against Russia, but I think part of it is also the domestic political angle of trying not to pick a public fight with the Russian government any more than is absolutely necessary. Whatever the outcomes of the spat over the S-300 missile batteries, it will be very difficult going forward for Israel to pretend that its relationship with Russia is as cozy as it has portrayed in the past.