Israel is right now facing the most serious security crisis of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tenure in office. Despite the fact that it does not provide the fireworks of a direct exchange with Iranian forces in Syria or provoke the visceral reactions that come with clashes along the Gaza border, Israel’s current entanglement with Russia is far more dangerous. Following Syria’s inadvertent downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane while responding to an Israeli airstrike in Syrian territory, Israel now faces a furious and more imposing military power that wants to cut Israel down to size after losing not only a spy plane but fifteen of its soldiers. The first response to the loss of the plane was a statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry unambiguously blaming Israel, which was then somewhat softened by Vladimir Putin, who described the incident as “a chain of tragic chance events.” Now, Russia has informed Israel that it plans to give Syria its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system despite previously holding off due to Israeli objections. Russia has also increased its rhetoric against the IDF, claiming that an Israeli pilot purposely used the Russian plane as a shield to cloak his aircraft, and reversing Putin’s initial description of Israel’s role as accidental, now describing it as premeditated. Although Israeli fire was not what brought down the Russian plane, Israel is now sitting on the knife’s edge of an escalation with the one country that has the willingness and capabilities to severely harm Israel’s own security.
There are a number of factors that make this situation even more precarious for Israel than a routine confrontation with a militarily superior nuclear superpower would normally be. One is that the Russian government is not a unitary actor, a fact that has been on display over the past week as Russia’s response to Israel has seesawed back and forth. Russia’s Defense Ministry is a powerful and independent actor within Russian foreign policy, and is rumored to operate in ways beyond the Kremlin’s purview with its own set of policy preferences. It is notable that the initial statement to the plane’s downing came not from the Kremlin but from the Defense Ministry, and that following Putin’s more conciliatory comments, more hardline statements from the Defense Ministry appear to have put pressure on Putin to take a harder stance of his own. Russia has also been careful not to blame Netanyahu or the Israeli government, but to limit its criticism to the IDF and the Israeli Air Force pilots who carried out the airstrike on Iranian positions inside Syria, which provides a window into how Russia views its own military as being an independent actor.
Netanyahu has masterfully cultivated Putin and worked to maintain Israel’s ability to operate in Syria without running afoul of Russia, but that may not matter now that the Russian military is clearly taking a more confrontational stance toward Israel. Putin may not be able to rein in his commanders, and the fact that fifteen Russian soldiers – and not military contractors from former Soviet republics – came home in body bags ups the ante by raising domestic awareness and political pressure to respond. If the seamlessness of the hotline between the Kirya in Tel Aviv and the Russian base in Latakia has been a factor of Russian military acquiescence to previous arrangements rather than a factor of the cozy ties between Netanyahu and Putin, then conciliatory phone calls and gestures from Israel’s top political tier are not going to have the desired effect.
Aside from relations with Russia itself, the incident with Russia is also going to obviously boomerang back on Israel’s ability to constrain Iranian activities in Syria. Israel’s boldness on this front can be seen not only from the hundreds of strikes it has carried out on Iranian weapons shipments and munitions factories, but from the recent strike being so deep into Russian-manned territory. Israel has gotten used to being able to hit nearly any Iranian target it wants with impunity, and it simply will not be able to do so going forward. Having to pick and choose where and when it acts more carefully is a new world for Israel in the context of the Syrian civil war, and while this was inevitable given that Russia and Iran are on the same side in Syria, that inevitability did not arrive until now. It means that Israel has to make some hard choices going forward and balance how threatening specific Iranian activities actually are versus how much it can push the Russians and keep them bending without breaking.
Finally, there is the Syrian regime angle. The Syrian front was Israel’s quietest from the 1974 armistice through the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, with each side uninterested in sparking any direct hostilities and content to watch each other warily across the ceasefire line. This changed as Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets inside Syria sparked Syrian responses and Israeli counter-responses, but the Syrian army was still not interested in really challenging Israel given the overwhelming disparity in power and capabilities. If the Syrian military is not only given advanced surface-to-air defenses by Russia, but emboldened by being placed under the Russian military umbrella, the potential for miscalculation is enormous. Syria may believe that it can take chances against Israel of which it would never have previously dreamed, counting on Israeli fear of Russia to restrain any Israeli response. But Israel is unlikely to sit back and let Syria take pot shots at Israeli planes, and it certainly will not tolerate even bolder moves that threaten Israeli territory. One of the most fraught situations in international relations is when one side badly miscalculates what the other side’s response will be to various events, and greater Russian cover for Syria could easily precipitate a clash between Israel and Syria arising out of Syrian miscalculation that spirals out of control and brings both Russia and Iran into the fray.
The current tension with Russia is designed like nothing else for Netanyahu’s cultivation of President Trump to start paying some dividends. The U.S. and Israel both responded vociferously to Russia’s announcement that it would give S-300 systems to Syria, but if Netanyahu has had a larger purpose in mind for binding Israel’s interests and fate to the Trump administration than an embassy move, now is the time for him to make that clear. The argument that Israel’s only existential security issue is maintaining the alliance with the U.S. was precisely to guard against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and while Israeli-Russian relations have been good, the relationship with the U.S. is the insurance policy against a downturn with Russia such as the one that may now be coming. Dan Shapiro wisely suggests a list of things that the U.S. can and should be doing for Israel right now to shield it from Russia’s wrath, from greater rhetorical support to accelerated missile-defense funding. If Trump is truly Israel’s best friend, he will be pressing Putin to ensure that Israel’s freedom to operate in Syria cannot be so harshly compromised, and making it clear that Israeli national security interests in Syria cannot be divorced from American ones.