Putin’s Israel visit showcases diplomacy’s strengths and limitations

Jul 4, 2012 | Ahron Shapiro

Putin's Israel visit showcases diplomacy's strengths and limitations

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel last week, as part of a larger Middle East tour by the newly re-elected leader, is seen by analysts as a productive diplomatic exercise between the two countries.

At the same time, analysts agree, the visit demonstrated the limits of diplomacy in persuading Russia to change its policies regarding matters of key national interest to Jerusalem, especially regarding Iran and Syria.

Indeed, while Israel and Russia discussed a range of issues, including cooperation on the development of Israel’s recently discovered offshore gas fields and massive shale oil reserves (more on this emerging story later in this post), the top priority of closed-door meetings was Iran’s nuclear program.

In public, at least, Putin showed no signs of coming around to Israeli positions by supporting stronger sanctions at the United Nations, let alone support for a military option should sanctions fail to curb Iran.

On the contrary, at a press conference with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Putin advised Israel against considering military action against Iranian nuclear sites.

“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.”

Even so, Israel did report diplomatic achievements during Putin’s visit. Most notably, Putin reportedly agreed to postpone or cancel sales of fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft missiles and other big ticket items to Syria.

On the other hand, there was no hint of any similar Russian promise to halt shipments of materiel for use in Syrian army attacks against rebels – and all too often civilians – in that country’s ongoing civil war.

Putin’s visit helped shed light on Russia’s Middle East interests and how it translates into policy.

Professor Nikolay Surkov from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations told the Voice of Russia that Moscow, while lacking a strong military presence in the Middle East, nevertheless holds the “trump cards” over the West’s interests in the region.

“Russia has two trump cards in the Middle East now. The first one is the right of veto in the UN Security Council. Russia is its permanent member which provides its serious influence. The second advantage is that Russia has contacts with all the countries and forces in the region. Russia cooperates with Damascus, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Amman, Cairo and the Hamas movement as well. Russia is a very convenient intermediary which enjoys respect of all the interested parties.”

In the Moscow Times, Andrei Kozhinov, director for Russian affairs at the Israel Project in Jerusalem, discussed Russia’s unique diplomatic approach to the region.

Moscow’s multivector Middle East foreign policy is driven by a desire to talk to every party involved in a bid to prevent further global interference in the internal matters of sovereign states. The Arab Spring is not perceived as a positive regional development because it has led to the rise of radical Islam. The Kremlin’s fear is that there may be a spillover effect in the North Caucasus and Central Asia.

George Friedman, an analyst for the geopolitical analytical group Stratfor, delved further into Russia’s impetus for the visit and the tour’s likely short and long-term impact. 

On Russia’s strategic interests in the region, Friedman wrote:

“Russia has complex relationships in the region, particularly focused on Syria and Iran … Putin is not so much interested in dominating these countries as he is in being certain that the United States doesn’t dominate them.”
Friedman characterised the Russia-Israel relationship as complicated.
“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,” he wrote. Unfortunately, however, on the issues that matter most to Israel – Iran and its ally Syria – Russia’s interests do not mesh well with Israel’s, and no state visit is likely to change that, he added.

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.

Returning now to the issue of Israeli-Russian cooperation on exploiting Israel’s recent gas discoveries, Walter Russell Mead writes in a blog for The American Interest that Israel is leveraging its newfound energy resources into new relationships with a host of countries, including Russia.

The new Israeli-Russian agreement is part of a conscious strategy by the Israeli government to use its nascent energy wealth to improve its embattled political position. With Italy reeling under the impact of big wrong-way bets on Iran, Rome may also begin to appreciate the value of good ties with a closer and more dependable neighbor. Another sensible target for Israeli energy diplomacy would be India: the two countries are already close in a number of ways, including trade and military technology, and India is eager to diversify its energy sources.

More on this fascinating story can be read here.

Putin also met Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and expressed support for Palestinian statehood, adding that Russia already recognises a Palestinian state.

There were no surprises that emerged from Putin’s PA visit, except perhaps for Putin himself, who appeared to be embarrassed by a PA gesture to name a street in his honour – something that is apparently not done in Russia for someone who is still living.

Rounding out the wrap on Putin’s Israel visit is Seth Mandel on Commentary Magazine’s website. Putin stood to gain simply by virtue of the warm reception he received from America’s closest friend in the region, wrote Mandel.

What does Putin get out of all this? A boost in the one thing he wants more than anything else: prestige. 

For more of Mandel’s analysis, click here.

Ahron Shapiro




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