Israeli experts skeptical about Russia

From an Israeli point of view, Russia is much more of a challenge than an opportunity, Ehud Evental, a reserve colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, told a major international security...

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) — From an Israeli point of view, Russia is much more of a challenge than an opportunity, Ehud Evental, a reserve colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, told a major international security conference in Herzliya, Israel on Tuesday.

Evental criticized the outcome of last week’s meeting in Jerusalem among the US, Israeli, and Russian national security advisers. The idea behind the event, Evental explained, was “to present unity” among the three parties regarding the presence of Iranian forces and Iranian-backed forces in Syria.

However, “I was struck by [Nikolai] Patrushev,” Russian Security Council Secretary, Evental said, as he described the press conference that followed the meeting. Above all, Patrushev did not live up to expectations, held by the Israeli and US governments, that he would distance Russia from Iran.

READ MORE: US and Iran exchange harsh words, as Jerusalem meet fails to separate Russia from Iran

Patrushev “was on the record,” the Israeli officer noted, and he said that “the Iranians are playing a positive role in Syria. He also said that “he was not very happy” with Israel’s “strikes and operations in Syria.”

Evental described Moscow’s modus operandi: “they play with all sides.” The Russians “give us some room to maneuver” to attack Iranian targets in Syria, but they also “give the Iranians freedom of action” to bring weapons into Syria.

Dr. Dmitry Adamsky, a professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy in Herzliya, spoke in similar terms. He described Russian policy as “tremendously sophisticated,” particularly compared to Moscow’s policy during the Cold War.

Indeed, a former US intelligence official suggested to Kurdistan 24 that Russian policy was also more nuanced and sophisticated than US policy. He attributed that to the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and a number of his top aides, including Patrushev, were long-time intelligence operatives before they rose to their current positions.

Adamsky summarized Moscow’s approach to the region: “Russia is trying intentionally to position itself as part of the problem and also as part of the solution.”

Students of the Middle East are well-familiar with that tactic—more informally, described as playing arsonist and fireman: you help create a problem and then offer yourself as part of the solution to that problem. That creates leverage.

Evental and Adamsky reflect the dominant view of Russia within the Israeli intelligence and national security community, a former US intelligence official, familiar with Israel’s political scene, told Kurdistan 24. However, there is a major difference between that community’s perception of Russia and that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Their advice to Netanyahu is to tread lightly, tread cautiously,” he said.

Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin more than a dozen times in the past four years and credits “his close contacts with Putin for Moscow allowing Israel to continue to use air power in Syria against Iran,” The Times of Israel reported. However, this ex-US intelligence official dismissed that as simply “part of Putin’s game.”

Indeed, as Evental explained, Moscow gives each side limited “room to maneuver,” and then each side is obliged to turn to Moscow for relief from the other.

Russian attempts to further its influence may even extend to helping Netanyahu politically. The Middle East news magazine, Al-Monitor, cited Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow last April, five days before the country’s elections. The trip could be expected to boost Netanyahu among Israel’s large Russian Jewish population.

Moreover, while Netanyahu was in Moscow, Putin announced that Russian troops in Syria had discovered the remains of an Israeli soldier who died during the 1982 Lebanese war, and they were being returned to Israel—a point sure to be welcomed by Israelis and burnish Netanyahu’s credentials as an international statesman in advance of the vote (Al-Monitor also suggested that Putin similarly tried to promote Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in advance of that country’s local elections.)

Speaking in Herzliya, Evental noted Russia’s increasing influence in the Middle East, describing it as counter to Israel’s well-being. The Russians “were kicked out of the region in the mid-1970s,” he said, referring to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Henry Kissinger’s subsequent diplomacy, and Russia’s expulsion from Egypt.

The Russians “want to come back,” Evental continued, but “American dominance in the Middle East is a vital interest” for Israel. “We don’t have other allies, except the United States, and the Russians are trying to limit American dominance in the region.”

Paul Davis, a Senior Fellow at Soran University, who began his career as a US Army analyst of Soviet political and military affairs, praised the Israelis’ comments as “excellent analysis.”

They have a “perfect understanding,” Davis told Kurdistan 24. “That’s the Russian game. They play both sides against the middle.”

Senior US officials, however, seem to have a different perspective, at least in some respects. They are looking to Moscow to help achieve a political settlement in Syria, along the lines of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

READ MORE: US envoy affirms ‘maximum pressure campaign’ in Syria; ‘residual force’ to remain in northeast

Yet if the above analysis is correct, it is unlikely that the diplomacy concerning Syria will turn out as Washington hopes. One possible outcome is a continued stand-off, with the status quo lasting for some years to come. That would resemble the situation in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, when the Kurdistan Region built its institutions of self-government.

“That could be fine, from a Kurdish perspective,” Davis remarked, “as long as outside powers, like Turkey and Syria are kept at bay.”

However, he also cautioned that Russia was “likely to continue” its maneuver of “playing both sides against the middle, using Turkey and Syria against the Kurds, and the Kurds against Turkey and Syria, and Syria against Turkey,” as well.

“It’s a dizzying game,” Davis concluded, “but the Russians are masters.”

Editing by Nadia Riva