Russia’s harsh condemnation of Israel – What does it mean for the future?


Though such tough language directed at Israel has not been heard since the days of the Soviet Union, it is still very premature to declare Russia returning to its Middle East policies of the Cold War LEV STESIN

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin prepares to speak at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Wednesday.


The most recent flare-up of hostilities between Israel and Hamas has produced a number of new developments, both of a tactical and strategic nature. Of the latter, Russia’s harsh condemnation of Israel’s actions is the most concerning of them all and requires the close attention of Israel’s policymakers. Russia’s official attitude toward Israel has never been well articulated. Yet for the most of the past 30 years, it has been a mix of reserved understanding and ambivalence.

Though such tough language directed at Israel has not been heard since the days of the Soviet Union, it is still very premature to declare Russia returning to its Middle East policies of the Cold War. Nevertheless, the development needs to be thoroughly analyzed and well understood. And it’s causes are numerous and vastly different.

After almost a quarter of a century of absence from a direct involvement in the Middle East, Russia in 2015 successfully intervened in the Syrian civil war and saved Bashar Assad’s regime. Now it is deeply entrenched in the area with its own political and economic interests. From the day Russia’s forces landed in Syria, Israel realized the significance of the event and crafted a very cautious and accommodating policy vis-a-vis Moscow. The goal was to clearly delineate the areas of interests of both parties and ways to address potential friction points, such as bombing of Iranian targets by Israel.

That approach proved to be a success, short of the accidental downing of a Russian plane by a Syrian missile presented as Israeli provocation. Yet the nuanced cooperation between Israel and Russia survived that accident. However, many astute observers of the Russian press noticed a change in the tone of Russia’s coverage of Israel. The warm facade of the previous two decades melted away and gave place to terse statements of the official communique.

“Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy,” Henry Kissinger once famously quipped. Russia, on the other hand, does not have domestic policy. Everything that happens in the country is either failure of the foreign conspirators or their triumph. Moscow’s officialdom, with Putin at its head, strongly believes in the West’s, and the US’s in particular, eternal conspiracy to destroy Russia. This belief permeates every action of Russia’s government.

THE PAST decade has seen a dramatic escalation in this schizophrenic view of the world, thus almost eliminating nuance, relatively common in the two previous decades, from Moscow’s foreign policy. Israel is becoming a victim of this return to the old Soviet view of the world. As Russia’s zeitgeist divides countries between friends and foes, Israel is finding it is extremely difficult to pretend to be a neutral player between Russia and the US.

There is also a question of eternal Russian antisemitism that has not magically disappeared after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is absolutely true that today’s Russia does not practice government sponsored antisemitism. All unwritten rules governing the lives of the Jews are gone. Yet, on the personal level, that centuries-old affliction has not left Russia proper. The past decade has seen higher echelons of Moscow bureaucracy saturated with former military, security and intelligence officials.


In the Soviet days, those were organizations most notorious for the anti-Jewish attitudes. The folks joining Russia’s government these days are of the age that allowed them to spend a good few decades in the ideological and cultural confines of the old system. They enter the Kremlin with their old preconceived notions and start drafting policies that may resemble the glory days of their early careers. Their fingerprints are clearly visible across the entire depth and breadth of Russia’s foreign policy.

There is perhaps nothing Israel can do to stop Russia’s drift away from being a semi-friendly world power. The large number of former Russian citizens residing in Israel is irrelevant to the “big game” Russia is trying to play in the Middle East. Yet with the US direct involvement in the region receding or completely disappearing, Israel must play for time and do its utmost not to alienate the newfound neighbor across the Golan Heights. Because, as history teaches us, time is rarely on Russia’s side.

The writer lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.


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