Monday, August 07, 2006

The State of Russian-Israeli Relations

An analysis by Robert O. Freedman, from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Russia has a number of interests in Israel. First, on the economic front, there is extensive trade which crossed the $500 million mark in 1995 (although it would later dip because of Russia's 1998 economic crisis), making Israel Russia's second leading trade partner in the Middle East after Turkey. Second, on the diplomatic front, a close relationship with Israel enables Russia to play, or appear to play, a major role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Third, with almost 1,000,000 Russian-speaking Jews now living in Israel, Israel has the largest Russian-speaking diaspora outside the former Soviet Union, and this has led to very significant ties in the areas of cultural exchange and tourism. The fourth major interest is a military-technical one as the Russian military-industrial complex has expressed increasing interest in co-producing military aircraft with Israel, especially since many of the workers in Israel's aircraft industry are former citizens of the Soviet Union with experience in the Soviet military-industrial complex.

From the Israeli point of view, there are four central interests in relations with Russia. The first is to maintain the steady flow of immigration, which has provided Israel with a large number of scientists and engineers. The second is to prevent the export of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials to Israel's Middle East enemies, including Libya, Iran, and Iraq. The third goal is to develop trade relations with Russia, which supplies Israel with such products as uncut diamonds, metals, and timber. Russia is also the site of numerous joint enterprises begun by Israelis who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Finally, Israel hopes for at least an even-handed Russian diplomatic position in the Middle East and, if possible, Russian influence on its erstwhile ally, Syria, to be more flexible in reaching a peace agreement with Israel.

Several months after Barak's election, Putin became Russia's prime minister and quickly became deeply involved in the war against Chechnya -- a development that was to positively affect Russian-Israeli relations. While Putin was not to be responsive on the issue of arms to Iran, he was far more forthcoming in denouncing anti-Semitism than Yeltsin was (although he did not go as far as some Russian Jewish leaders wanted).

The issue of greatest importance to the relationship, at least from the Russian point of view, was Israeli support for Russian actions in Chechnya, with one Russian official stating that "Israel helps us break the Western information blockade of Russia over Chechnya." Israel also helped Russia by sending medical supplies to the victims of the Moscow apartment house bombings, claimed by Putin to have been perpetrated by the Chechens, and also gave medical treatment to wounded Russian soldiers.

Israeli help to Moscow over Chechnya was to pay diplomatic dividends when the Al-Aksa intifada broke out in late September 2000, when Putin took a very different position than did Primakov during similar crises in the 1996-1999 period. Unlike the Russian position under Primakov, Putin's Russia was not only evenhanded, he even seemed to tilt toward Israel as the crisis developed. Thus, then Secretary of the Russian Security Council Sergei Ivanov, who was later promoted to defense minister, linked the violence on the West Bank and Gaza to the Taliban's increased activities in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and to extremist activity in Chechnya, a position also espoused by Putin's adviser, Sergei Yastrzhembsky. The Russian Duma, unlike its anti-Israel and anti-Semitic predecessor that went out of office in December 1999, voted to blame not Israel but "extremist forces" for the escalation of the conflict.

Despite Putin's shift to an evenhanded position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Russia's important diplomatic, economic, and military ties with Israel, there are countervailing pressures in Moscow preventing too close a Russian-Israeli alignment. These include:

Pro-Arab elements in Russia's Foreign Ministry and in the increasingly influential secret police who hope to restore the close ties Moscow had in the Arab world in Soviet times.

Anti-Semitic forces who are also anti-Israel. They are primarily found in Russia's communist party and among Russia's ultra-nationalist politicians.

Russia's arms sales agency, Rosoboronoexport. The new arms sales agency has been given a high priority in Putin's efforts to revitalize the Russian economy. Indeed, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has stated that the proceeds from the arms sales are to be invested in the development of new technologies for the economy. What makes this problematic for Israel is that Russian arms sales to Iran, an enemy of Israel, are already a matter of major concern. Should these be followed by arms sales to Syria (assuming Saudi Arabia is willing to pay for the arms -- a possibility if the intifada escalates and draws in Syrian forces), a deterioration in Russian-Israeli relations could well result. The situation would worsen even more if the UN sanctions on Iraq were lifted, or if Russia decided to break them unilaterally (both unlikely prospects at the current time), because in the past Moscow had been a major weapons supplier to Baghdad.

Russia's Muslim community. Approximately 20 percent of the Russian population, they are still rather quiescent politically. Nonetheless, the Russian leadership must take their views into consideration, given the dangers of radical Islam not only in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus and the Russian Federation, but also in Central Asia.