Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel yesterday for a short visit, and speculation is rife as to the implications of this visit.
First there were the diplomatic niceties, with pretty words spoken by both sides (from the link above):
During his visit Putin inaugurated a memorial in Netanya for Soviet troops killed in World War II. … The inauguration ceremony was attended by President Shimon Peres, Minister Lieberman, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, ministers Yuli Edelstein, Sofa Landver and Stas Misezhnikov. The Russian delegation also includes Russia’s agriculture, labor and social defense ministers.
“The white rock dove symbolizes the triumph of good and peace,” Putin told a crowd of 600. “May these values always serve as the basis for friendship between our nations.”
He added, “I’ve seen a lot of monuments around the world but this will be a permanent reminder of the heroism of an entire generation that fought and sacrificed itself for all mankind. The Holocaust is history’s blackest page and such acts cannot be tolerated. The Red Army put an end to those atrocities.”
Putin further noted, “Here in the Holy Land, this beautiful country, we know that peace can be fragile and we must ensure that the Nazis’ doctrine of crime stay behind.”
The Russian president thanked Israel’s prime minister, president and the monument’s creators.
“This monument is a beacon of hope,” Peres said, “Russia who so greatly helped win the war is the same Russia that can help peace in the Middle East.”
Earlier, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at an Independence faction meeting that “Russia is a very important world power, a country that played a very important role in Syria’s history in the past few years and that is why it will play a key role in the shaping of post-Assad Syria.” Barak also stressed Russia’s importance in “the international effort vis-à-vis Iran in terms of sanctions and diplomacy.”
Hmm. Colour me sceptical.
Putin also visited the Kotel (Western Wall) and once again said all the right things:
This is the third visit of the Russian president to the Western Wall. His first visit was before he was elected president, and his second visit was in 2005, during Passover.
Throughout the visit, Putin demonstrated curiosity, asked many questions on the history of the place, and spoke about the Jewish connection to the holy site: “You can see how the Jewish past is engraved in the Jerusalem stone,” he said.
But it wasn’t all peaches and cream. Putin warned Israel not to rush to attack Iran, although he also stated that a peaceful Israel is in Russia’s interest.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reassured President Shimon Peres on Monday evening that his country is interested in preserving peace for the Jewish State.
But he also said Israel should be think twice before taking any action on Iran, saying Jerusalem should learn lessons from the United States’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Look what happened to America in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Putin said. “I told Obama also. You don’t need to jump to things too early, you don’t need to act before thinking. In Iraq there is a pro-Iranian government after everything that happened there. You need to think well before doing something you’ll be sorry about.”
Putin responded that Israel is significant to his countrymen and reminded Peres that the Soviet Union voted in favor of establishing the State of Israel.
“Russia has a national interest in preserving Israel’s peace,” he said and added that in his meeting earlier in the day with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the two leaders had discussed broadening the strategic cooperation between the countries.
Putin also declared that Russia has no problem in recognizing a Palestinian state.
The further diplomatic and political ramifications of this Russian visit remain to be seen, although several commentators have provided us with food for thought.
Ruthie Blum, in a very hard-hitting article in Yisrael Hayom, recounts all the ways that the Obama administration has let Israel down, and concludes that Israel is like a battered wife seeking shelter with another partner:
It is the height of tragic irony that, in the absence of its previous protection by its adulterous spouse, America, the Israeli government felt it had nowhere to turn but to Russia. Putin was undoubtedly as amused by this as I am.
In a rather down-to-earth Yisrael Hayom article, Dan Margalit argues that Putin’s visit is important simply for the fact that it happened at all, and that Putin is neither an ally nor an enemy:
Above all, this visit was important because it happened. In a time when the Arab-Left-anti-Semitic axis is doing its utmost to delegitimize and marginalize Israel, Putin’s visit has the power to counter dozens of evil-hearted artists and musicians who boycott Israel. If such visits were the norm, Israel would have laid the red carpet at Ben-Gurion International Airport and welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama by now.
The prestige of Putin’s visit is intensified by the fact that Israel is only the fourth country the Russian president has visited since the start of his latest term in office. Reviled Israel finds itself on Putin’s itinerary alongside China, Germany and France — much to the chagrin of Russian communist anti-Semitic circles and Arab nations that play a central role in Russian policy.
Putin’s short visit also had practical goals, obviously. It is fair to assume that he has a vested interest in Israel’s defense industry. In another area, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced their disappointment with Russia over its stance on Iran’s nuclear program and its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia’s position on Iran is the polar opposite of Israel’s. But there are shades of gray — Russia wants to enrich Iran’s uranium instead of allowing the ayatollah regime to do it, which isn’t good enough for Israel, but better than the existing arrangement.
And finally, Stratfor has a fascinating article on Putin’s visit and Israeli-Russian relations. It’s rather a long article but I recommend you read it all. Here are just a few excerpts:
The interesting thing about Israel and Russia is that while they seem to be operating in the same areas of interest and their agendas seem disconnected, their interests are not always opposed. It is easy to identify places they both care about but more difficult to identify ways in which they connect. It is therefore difficult to identify the significance of the visit beyond that it happened.
An example is Azerbaijan. Russia is still a major weapons provider for Azerbaijan, but the Israelis are now selling it large amounts of weapons and appear to be using it as a base from which to observe and, according to rumors, possibly attack Iran. Russia, which supports Armenia, a country Azerbaijan fought a war with in the late 1980s and early 1990s and technically still is at war with, ought to oppose Israel’s action, particularly since it threatens Iran, which Russia does not want attacked. At the same time, Russia doesn’t feel threatened by Israeli involvement in Azerbaijan, and Israel doesn’t really care about Armenia. Both are there, both are involved and both think Azerbaijan is important, yet each operates in ways that ought to conflict but don’t.
Russia has complex relationships in the region, particularly focused on Syria and Iran. Russia’s interest in both countries is understandable. Putin, who has said he regarded the breakup of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical catastrophe, views the United States as Russia’s prime adversary. His view is that the United States not only used the breakup to extend NATO into the former Soviet Union in the Baltics but also has tried to surround and contain Russia by supporting pro-democracy movements in the region and by using these movements to create pro-American governments. Putin sees himself as being in a duel with the United States throughout the former Soviet Union.
The Russians believe they are winning this struggle. Putin is not so much interested in dominating these countries as he is in being certain that the United States doesn’t dominate them. That gives Russia room to maneuver and allows it to establish economic and political relations that secure Russian interests. In addition, Russia has tremendously benefited from the U.S. wars in the Islamic world. It is not so much that these wars alienated Muslims, although that was beneficial. Rather, what helped the Russians most was that these wars absorbed American strategic bandwidth.
Putin’s visit is intended to make the United States nervous and to try to lay the groundwork for shifts in Israel’s relation to Russia that could pay off in the long run. The Israelis, however, do have things they need from Putin. They cannot control regime change in Syria, but to some extent Russia can. And here Israeli and Russian interests coincide. Israel would tolerate the survival of the al Assad regime as long as Syria does not become an Iranian satellite.
Russia could counterbalance Iran if al Assad’s regime survived. If, on the other hand, his regime fell, Israel and Russia both have an interest in a moderate Sunni regime. This is where Russia must make a decision — assuming it has the power to affect the outcome. In the long run, a moderate Sunni regime is in its interest. In the short run, it wants a regime that creates the greatest unease for the United States — that is, either the al Assad regime as an Iranian asset or a radical Islamist regime.
Israel would like Russia as a mild counterweight to the United States but without disrupting relations with the United States. Russia would like to have additional options in the Middle East beyond Iran and Syria but without alienating those states. Neither is likely. When we dig into the strange relationship between two countries deeply involved in each other’s areas of interest yet never quite intersecting, an answer begins to emerge.
There is little conflict between Russia’s and Israel’s interests because neither country is nearly as powerful as it would like to be in the region. Russia has some options but nothing like it had during the Cold War. Israel has little influence in the outcome in Syria or in Egypt.
Still, it is in the interest of both countries to make themselves appear to be weightier than they are. A state visit should help serve that purpose.
Read it all. The convoluted geo-political thought-processes will keep one occupied for hours.