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Russia’s Lavrov congratulates new Israeli FM Cohen in phone call that may anger Kyiv

Top diplomats discuss Jewish community in Russia, bilateral and regional issues; Ukraine may snub Israeli minister in retaliation for not speaking with Kyiv first

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a joint news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2022. (Evgenia Novozhenina/ Pool Photo via AP)
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a joint news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2022. (Evgenia Novozhenina/ Pool Photo via AP)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen on Tuesday to congratulate him on taking up his new post, and to discuss “bilateral and regional issues,” in the shadow of Moscow’s ongoing invasion and bombardment of Ukraine.

According to an Israeli readout regarding the phone call, Cohen spoke about the Jewish community in Russia and the importance of Russian-speaking Jews in Israel to ties between the countries.

The call, requested by the Russians, may sour relations between Cohen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.  Though there was no request by Kuleba’s office to Israel, a senior Ukrainian official said Tuesday that Kyiv would expect Cohen to delay or cancel his call with Lavrov and speak to Kuleba first.

The official indicated that if Cohen went ahead and held his conversation with Lavrov first, Kuleba might refuse any call with Cohen in the near future.

Around midday Tuesday, shortly before Lavrov spoke with Cohen, Israel requested a call with Kuleba, according to Israeli sources. Kyiv denied that it received an official request.

Cohen had revealed to Israeli diplomats Monday that he would be talking to Lavrov the next day. At the time, he did not indicate any scheduled call with Kuleba.

Critics, including a senior Republican US lawmaker, saw that as a sign that the new government in Jerusalem was shifting in a pro-Kremlin direction regarding the invasion and war Russia launched in February last year.

Incoming minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen at a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The call with Lavrov came the day after Cohen spoke by phone with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in their first conversation since the new Israeli government was sworn in last week.

According to an Israeli diplomat, Blinken asked Cohen on Monday to pass messages on to Lavrov but did not say what they were.

The diplomatic official also firmly rejected the notion that Israel was changing its policy toward the Russia-Ukraine war.

At the start of the Russian invasion, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett held a handful of calls with both Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, seeking to exploit Israel’s working ties with both countries to help mediate a ceasefire to end the war. He even traveled to Moscow in March 2022, where he became the first foreign leader to meet in person with Putin since the invasion began on February 24.

But he failed to make headway after several weeks and eventually put aside the effort to focus on political turmoil back home that eventually saw his government collapse.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Kyiv, Ukraine, December 26, 2022. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The previous government headed by Bennett and later by Yair Lapid had refused Ukrainian requests for weapons, but Lapid spoke out repeatedly against the Russian invasion, accusing the Kremlin of carrying out war crimes. The comments won praise in the West but stoked tensions with Moscow, even as Jerusalem attempted to maintain a semblance of neutrality. Israel is sensitive about maintaining the IDF’s ability to operate freely from the Russian-controlled skies over Syria in order to prevent the entrenchment of Iranian forces on Israel’s northern border.

Kyiv has said it needs Israel’s help in air defense technology to counter Russia’s ongoing strikes on its civilian infrastructure.

Russia’s invasion has been bogged down by fierce resistance from Ukraine.

Israeli sources have told The Times of Israel that newly installed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be open to mediating if one of the sides asked him to.

During Netanyahu’s last tenure, before the war started, Zelensky asked Netanyahu to speak with Putin about arranging a conversation, but the Kremlin showed little interest in talking to Kyiv.

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