Putin in Israel

Never mind Israel’s pleas on Iran, Russia unlikely to change course

Moscow’s support for Tehran and Damascus is strategic, commercial, diplomatic and personal, experts say, and will not be sacrificed because of Israeli concerns

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

File photo of Ehud Barak, left, meeting with then-Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Flash90)
File photo of Ehud Barak, left, meeting with then-Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Flash90)

While the first item on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda for his Israel visit Monday is the unveiling in Netanya of a monument for the Red Army, there are plainly more dramatic reasons for Putin’s two-day trip to the Middle East.

Among them, will he warn Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to attack Iran, or is he coordinating with Jerusalem about a possible preemptive strike? And is he going to justify his continued support for the Syrian regime, which keeps on killing its own people?

The Iranian threat and the ongoing massacres in Syria will certainly be discussed, Israeli officials confirmed hours before Putin’s arrival. But while Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman may have much to say in their meetings with Russia’s new-old president, Israeli analysts believe Moscow’s policies are unlikely to be swayed.

“I have no idea what are Putin’s motives behind his visit, but being convinced by Israelis is certainly not one of them,” said Meir Litvak, the director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. “I doubt very much [that] Putin will be persuaded by Israel’s arguments on either of these two issues. It is naive to believe that Netanyahu will succeed where [US President Barack] Obama and a host of European statesmen failed.”

Israelis have for years urged and pleaded with Russia — a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and thus directly involved in the nuclear talks with Iran — to stop or curtail its support for the Islamic Republic, but these pleas have fallen on deaf ears, Litvak said. A friendly visit to Israel, which will actually last less than 24 hours, will do little to change that, he added. “Russian interests in supporting Iran and Syria are strategic, financial, commercial, diplomatic and personal. They will not be sacrificed because Israelis raise passionate or convincing arguments.”

The head of the Russia department at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Yacov Livne, said Israel is going to reiterate its key positions on the Iranian nuclear issue (Tehran must not be allowed to enrich uranium) and the ongoing massacres in Syria (the killing of “innocent civilians” has to stop). But he was hesitant to say whether he believes the words of Netanyahu, Peres and Liberman will manage any shift in Moscow’s foreign policy.

“We need to wait and see. It is of crucial importance to us to make sure Iran doesn’t get its hands on nuclear weapons. We make no secret of this,” Livne said.

The ‘Victory Monument’ in Netanya commemorates the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII (photo credit E. Shtern)
The ‘Victory Monument’ in Netanya commemorates the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII (photo credit: E. Shtern)

No responsible power wants to see Tehran able to create a nuclear weapons program, Livne added. “We have a common goal and now we need to see how to cooperate. Our Russian colleagues have their own view on this, and so does Israel have its own perspective. We are the first and only country directly threatened by iran, so one can understand Israel has different attitude. But at the end of the day we pursue the same goal.”

Brenda Shaffer, a Haifa University expert on energy and politics in the Caspian region, believes that Moscow is happy about the status quo in the West’s attitudes vis-à-vis Iran.

“The best scenario for the Russians is actually a situation in which Iran is in a perpetual conflict with West. They don’t want outright war, they want to keep Iran in a box,” she said. But since the Iranian border is not far from Russian territory and they interact in the Caucasus and Central Asia, a full-fledged war or Iran possessing nuclear weapons is also against Russian national security interests. Moreover, a post-war situation would open the door to American and European companies, like it did in Iraq, she said. “No war and no peace, that’s the status the Russians would like to maintain.”

Iran possesses the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, trailing only Russia itself, she said, adding that the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also the only country in the region with enough gas to provide real competition for markets in Europe. So it is in Moscow’s interest to have the West implement sanctions on the Islamic Republic, in order keep competition away from European markets, she said.

“For 20 years, the Russians have been threatening to sell the S-300 [missile defense] system to Iran and each time Israel makes concessions in order to avert this,” Shaffer added. “But I believe that Moscow is playing a very skillful diplomatic game with the threat of selling the S-300. They do not intend to sell it to Tehran since if tried in battle, it will not provide air defense for Iran and thus Moscow will not be able to sell this system to other clients.”

According to an anecdote the former prime minister of Spain told during a recent visit in Jerusalem, Putin purports to believe that Israel will strike Iran as soon as the regime gets close to attaining a nuclear weapons capability.

Jose Maria Aznar, who was prime minister from 1996 to 2004, recalled discussing with Putin the risks of Moscow’s plan to sell Tehran the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. “He came closer to me and whispered, ‘Jose Maria, don’t worry. I, you — we can sell everything, even if we are worried by an Iranian nuclear bomb. Because at the end of the day, the Israelis will take care of it,’” Aznar remembered.

After Putin attends Monday’s unveiling ceremony for the Red Army monument, which was designed by artists Slavat Scherbakov, Vasiliy Perfiliev and Michail Naroditsky and executed by Chen Winkler, the president will travel to Jerusalem for meetings with Netanyahu and a state dinner at the President’s Residence. Early Tuesday morning, Putin will continue to Jericho for meetings with Palestinian leaders and continue on to Jordan.

Events in the next few weeks — as the sides work toward a possible resumption of the P5+1 talks with Iran that broke off in Moscow last week — will make plain whether Israel’s diplomatic offensive has made any impact on Russia’s positions.

As the Foreign Ministry’s Livne put it: “When it comes to foreign policy, no state likes to show they’ve been influenced by another country. In the dialogue between Russia and Israel, each side brings up issues that are important, even crucial to it. Then we have to see whether we get them to go along with us.”

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