Russia – Israel relations before and after the Ukraine War

  • Arman Mahmoudian
    International Relations Expert - University of South Florida
Foreign Policy & International Relations

Russia – Israel relations before and after the Ukraine War


Since the beginning of the Russian Ukrainian crisis on 24 February 2022, many international actors have faced a variety of challenges, such as instability in the energy market, a rising threat to food security, a refugee crisis, and last but not least, nuclear threats on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Naturally, considering the severity of these repercussions, most nations felt obliged to take a stance on the Russo-Ukrainian war, with most Western and capital democracies holding a clear position in support of Ukraine. However, one actor remained hesitant, Israel.

As the representative and extension of Western civilizations and liberal democracies in the Middle East, Israel has been faced with the dilemma of what stance to take on the Russia-Ukraine war. On the one hand, Israelis would like to side with their Western allies in actively supporting Ukraine but, on the other hand, they are concerned that any escalation with Russia would create an opportunity for the anti-Israeli coalition in the region, led by Iran. However, Israel’s current struggle only mirrors the surface of conflictual relations between Russia and Israel.


Roots of Russo-Israeli relations

The roots of Russo-Israeli relations can be traced back to the early 1940s – before Israel’s formation – when the flow of Jewish immigration, known as Aliyah Bet, from Europe to Palestine, and their persistence in forming a safe home far away from Europe, led to Jewish insurgency. In this context, the anti-British nature of the “Jewish Resistance Movement” convinced the Soviets that the Jewish State could be a prospective member of their sphere of influence.

Hence in 1941, while the British Empire was struggling with Nazi Germany, Soviet representatives started meeting the leaders of the Zionist Movement and visiting the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine.[1] In this context, the Soviets expanded ties with the Yishuv by providing diplomatic legitimacy, emphasizing the “Jewish people's right to build their home in Palestine” at the World Federation of Trade Unions Conference in 1945,[2] and criticizing Western nations’ hesitation in recognizing the Jewish people’s right to create their own state at the UN General Assembly in 1947.[3]  The Soviet Union was the first country, after the United States, to recognize de jure the State of Israel, establishing diplomatic relations with it on 26 May 1948.[4] 


The Soviet Union’s pivot to Arabs

Even though Russo-Israeli relations were off to a good start, there were issues that signaled potential conflicts from the beginning. For starters, the USSR was rooting for a two-state solution and the creation of an Arab state in Palestine,[5] while Israel preferred Jordan's annexation of this territory. In addition, the bilateral relations were troubled by the dilemma of Soviet Jews’ immigration to Israel; as Tel Aviv was rooting for the total freedom of Soviet Jews to travel to Israel, the Soviet Union found this to be against communist policies,[6] especially since freedom of travel was not an obtainable right/privilege for the rest of Soviet subjects. The issue of Soviet Jews turned out to be an impacting issue after the visit to Moscow by then prime minister Golda Meir, who was praised and welcomed by thousands of Jewish people on the streets of Moscow, making an already paranoid Stalin skeptical of Israel’s influence over Soviet Jews.[7] Lastly, David Ben-Gurion’s persistence in not forming a government where communists could have the upper hand signaled to the Soviets that their fantasy of having Israel in their sphere of influence would never be materialized.[8]

The latter turned out to be a game-changing event when the Arab states of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq started to fall under the control of anti-Western, left-wing regimes. The Soviets started to gradually distance themselves from Israel by rejecting Israel’s loan requests and refraining from issuing new pro-Israel statements. The situation further escalated in 1953 when an extreme nationalist Israeli exploded a bomb close to the USSR embassy in Tel Aviv,[9] and then when Stalin’s intelligence service, NKVD, accused a group of Jewish doctors of forming a “Zionist espionage network” – which came to be known as the “Doctors’ Plot” – fueling speculation in Israel about the Soviet Union’s pursuit of anti-Semitism policies.[10]

In the meantime, Moscow tried to expand ties with left-wing Arab regimes and political groups by blocking UN Security Council resolutions that favored Israel, for the first time in 1954,[11] which marked the beginning of the USSR’s diplomatic support of anti-Israel Arab regimes. Eventually, the Soviet Union’s alignment with Arab states reached its peak in 1955, when Moscow delivered a large batch of arms to Egypt,[12] disrupting the regional balance and paving the ground for the second Arab-Israeli War, the 1956 Suez Crisis. During the war, the Kremlin made an unorthodox move, which later turned out to be the norm, and threatened Israel by stating that Israel’s further advancement in the Sinai Peninsula would question the very existence of Israel as a state.[13] In this context, the bilateral trade between the two nations declined, especially when the USSR decided to stop selling crude oil to Israel, which was strategically vital for Tel Aviv.[14]

Hence, as of the 1960s, in view of the USSR, Israel, from a potential ally, turned into a hostile nation and adherent ally of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As a result, the Soviet Union perceived the Arab-Israeli conflict as a new piece in the great power competition, in one of the most strategic regions that the West strongly relied on for its oil. Thus, the Kremlin began rapidly expanding relations with Arab states by providing economic assistance, military supplements, and extensive diplomatic support.

Tensions rose when the Soviet Union suggested that Egypt’s Nasser take measures against Israel’s new move across the Egyptian border,[15] ultimately contributing to the outbreak of the third Arab-Israeli War, also known as the Six-Day War, in 1967. As the Arabs lost the war, the Kremlin decided to increase its solidarity with the Arab world by ceasing all diplomatic relations with Israel.[16] Therefore, from the late 1960s till the late 1980s, Israel and the Soviet Union had no bilateral relations, while Moscow’s diplomatic, military, and economic support of Arab states continued.

Eventually, Mikhail Gorbachev's takeover of the Soviet Union in 1985 marked the re-emergence of Russo-Israeli relations. Gorbachev, by pursuing perestroika, ended the unconditional support of anti-imperialist forces, including Arab states.[17] Hence, Moscow and Tel Aviv began negotiations to restore diplomatic relations, resulting in the full-scale restoration of bilateral relations in 1991.[18] However, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Gorbachev of seeing the result of his detente.


The realm of the Russian Federation

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which was followed by waves of Jewish immigration from former republics of the USSR, immediately changed the cultural dynamic of Russo-Israeli relations, especially since the growth of the Russian-speaking community in Israel reached the extent that today 20% of Israel’s population is Russian-speaking, with many TV channels and news outlets publishing their content in Russian.[19]

The rise in the presence of Russians in Israel created a semi-heritage-based bond between the two nations, bringing a sense of sympathy and empathy with Israel to Russians, which Vladimir Putin later emphasized by stating that he considered Israel a Russian-speaking nation-state,[20] and that he felt obligated to protect them just as he would other ethnic Russians abroad.[21]

In the context of emerging socio-cultural bonding, the Kremlin decided to end unnecessary adventures in the Middle East and supporting Arabs in their conflicts with Israel, therefore, the Russian Federation, from the very beginning, sought a close partnership with Israel. In light of seeking a partnership with Israel, in 1995, the Joint Intergovernmental Committee on Trade and Economic Cooperation between two nations was formed.[22] In addition, both nations expanded cultural ties by establishing cultural exchange programs, tours, exhibitions, and festivals as well as cultural centers in each other’s capitals. 

In addition to military cooperation, both nations advanced financial ties by increasing the trade of mineral products, precious metals and stones, food products and agricultural raw materials, metals , and other goods. In this context, the total value of their trade reached 2.5 billion dollars in 2021.[23]


However, neither of these developments imply that the Russo-Israeli relationship was devoid of challenges. As a matter of fact, the bilateral relations faced two major tests.


The first test: Syrian civil war

Iran’s and its Shia proxies’ – above all Hezbollah’s – involvement in the Syrian civil war turned the war from a potential opportunity to a nightmare for Israel. Hence, in 2013, Israel started aerial strikes against Iranian or Iran-affiliated targets in Syria, including convoys, bases, etc.[24]  However, Russia’s military involvement in Syria in 2015 disrupted the IDF’s frequent visits to Syria, especially since – unlike Iran and Syria – Russia had both aerial defense and offensive capability to confront and severely challenge Israel.

In  September 2015, just as the Russian military campaign in Syria had begun, Putin and Netanyahu met to coordinate their independent actions to prevent a head on confrontation.[25] Although the details of their meeting were never disclosed to the media, Netanyahu did state that Russia and Israel were on good terms and that Israel never joined the international community in condemning Russia’s intervention. Thus, we can safely conclude that the Israelis found the coordination satisfactory.

During the peak of Russia’s intervention (2015-2018), Putin and Netanyahu met nine times, and since the beginning of the intervention, Israel has bombed Syria more than 200 times without any engagement with Russian forces.[26]

The only incident occurred on 17 September 2018, when an Israeli F-16 was flying behind a Russian Il-20, which confused Syrian Air Defense and led to the downing of the Il-20, causing the death of 15 Russian servicemen.[27] Although Russia summoned Israel’s ambassador, accused Tel Aviv of being the sole bearer of the incident, and responded to Israel by delivering an upgraded S-300 air defense system to Syria,[28] the overall coordination between the two countries was kept untouched. Therefore, we can argue that Russo-Israeli relations successfully survived the first test – though they had no idea that the bilateral relations would face more challenging tests four years later.


The second test: Ukraine war

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Israel has made an offhand contribution to the West’s support of Ukraine since Russia launched its attack on the country. In theory, Israeli officials, including former foreign minister Yari Lapid, have condemned Russia’s “war crime” in Ukraine.[29] However, in practice, Israel’s actions have not gone beyond delivering humanitarian aid such as medical supplies and essential equipment,[30] providing a $200 million loan for building hospitals,[31] and delivering armored ambulances.[32]

In fact, not only has Israel not provided military aid to Ukraine, but it has also rejected Ukraine’s and other nations’ requests to supply Kyiv with weaponry, in an attempt to maintain military neutrality in the Russo-Ukrainian War. Israel’s resilience in staying militarily neutral went to the extent that Tel Aviv rejected the request of its top ally, the United States, to allow Germany to supply Ukraine with anti-tank missiles manufactured under Israel's license.[33]

Israel’s persistence in this matter became even more controversial when Russia started purchasing Iran’s kamikaze drones, also known as the Shahed-131.[34] Given the distinct advantage these Iranian drones gave to the Russian military in attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure facilities, Ukraine felt an absolute need to purchase an air defense system customized for shooting small and light targets, which brought Ukrainian President Zelensky's attention to Israel’s Iron Dome System.

During the 2021 Gaza War, Iron Dome proved to be a highly successful in targeting short-range targets such as rocket and artillery shells, making the system a great fit to respond to Russia’s wave of drone attacks. So naturally, Ukraine placed an order for one. However, Israel refused to fulfil Ukraine’s request, which Zelensky described as “shocking”.[35]

Despite how shocking Israel’s response seemed to President Zelensky, Israel’s reasoning behind such a decision was not entirely unexpected. In fact, Israel had both domestic and foreign-related concerns. Internally speaking, there is a large population of Russian-speaking Jews and Ukrainian Jews in Israel, reminding the country of the necessity of maintaining a balance in its stand on the Russo-Ukrainian War. Externally speaking, Israel was concerned about the impact of its siding with Ukraine on Russia’s relations with Iran and Syria. According to Michael Brodsky, Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine, the IDF could freely, and without any significant obstacle, launch hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian and pro-Iran forces in Syria because Russia has agreed to allow it.[36] In addition, it is highly likely that Israel is concerned Moscow would retaliate by supplying Iran or Syria with advanced weaponry.

However, since nothing in politics is permanent, it appears that Israel’s position of adherent neutrality toward the Russo-Ukrainian war is changing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who once was a close friend of Putin, has been sending mixed signals on Israel’s stand since his election, especially since he publicly stated that he is considering the possibility of providing military assistance to Ukraine.[37] It turns out his statement was not an empty promise as he instructed the National Security Unit of Israel’s Office of the Prime Minster to review Israel’s policy toward arming Ukraine.[38] In addition, Netanyahu did not object to the US shipping over to Ukraine about 300,000 artillery shells stored in warehouses in Israel.[39] To make matters more complicated, shortly after unknown drones attacked Iran’s drone facility in the City of Isfahan,[40] Netanyahu stated that he opposed the production of weapons that could be used against Ukraine, leaving many to speculate that Mossad might have conducted the attack to assist Ukraine by disrupting Iran’s supply line of drones to Russia.

It seems Netanyahu is quite persistent in his “policy of reviving policy” toward arming Ukraine, given that, in mid-March 2023, he agreed to permit two Israeli companies to sell Ukraine electronic warfare that can shoot down Iranian Shahed drones.[41] In addition, Israel has provided Ukraine with an advanced Air Attack Alert System (AAAS), which is composed of powerful radars that can determine the direction of a missile's flight[42]. This helps narrow the area for air raid alerts.[43] Israel provided this system in January and, in late April, the IDF itself tested it in Kyiv to ensure that it functions at its best.[44]

It is hard to say what has convinced Israel to revisit its policy of not supplying weapons to Ukraine and maintaining absolute neutrality; there could be a variety of reasons, such as rising pressure from the West or a change in domestic attitude toward Russia and relations with Russia. However, there might be another reason here: the developments in the dynamics of Russia-Iran relations.

Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukraine war, Iran has been accused of being Russia's major weapons supplier by supplying UAVs, artillery shells, and other military equipment.[45] This development has altered the nature of Russo-Iranian relations, with the Tehran-Moscow partnership entering into a new stage in which, unlike in the past, there is mutual reliance between the two countries, enabling Iran to obtain a degree of leverage. 

Before the Ukraine war, given the impact of sanctions on Iran, Russia was accused of having the upper hand by being the semi-monopolistic arms supplier to Iran, aside from China. However, the war in Ukraine, which resulted in Russia’s growing relative reliance on Iran’s drones and arms, has restored the balance of dependence in Russo-Iranian relations. Thus, we can argue that the war in Ukraine has transformed the Russo-Iranian relationship from an “imbalanced partnership” to one of “interdependent cooperation”.

In this context, one might argue that Israel is concerned about the growing unorthodox Russo-Iranian cooperation and the possibility of this leading to a drastic change in Russia-Iran defense cooperation, which might result in Russia supplying Iran with advanced weaponry.

The last speculation

Despite what could actually be Israel’s reasoning for revisiting its policy toward the war in Ukraine, so far Russia has refrained from taking any significant steps, which makes analyzing the situation even more complicated, tempting one to say that Israel and Russia might have sorted out a deal in which Russia has allowed Israel to supply Ukraine with “some” defensive capabilities.  After all, it would not be the first time that both countries made such deals since they concluded similar agreements over Syria.

There is also a chance that Moscow understood the pressures on Israel and decided to signal its tolerance to a limited amount of Israeli support to Ukraine before the situation spirals entirely out of control. Israel has been given a clear picture of what could be Russia’s red lines, such as the Iron Dome, and as long as Israel respects those red lines, Moscow will not escalate tensions in the bilateral relationship.

As in the case of Syria, by being reassured that Israel would not move toward changing the balance of power in favor of the rebels, Russia tolerated the IDF’s rapid bombardment of militants. Similarly, Tel Aviv did not object to or stand against Russia’s military involvement in Syria, safe in the knowledge that Moscow would not provide Iran-backed Shia militias with a security umbrella. 

Hence, it is likely that Russia is turning a blind eye to Israel’s recent support of Ukraine, with the assurance that Israel will not cross Moscow’s red lines, while Israel has accepted to respect Moscow’s boundaries, understanding that any violation might lead to the delivery of sophisticated arms to Iran or Syria.

At this moment, it is not feasible to verify any of these speculations, but time will most certainly reveal more. If, similar to Syria, Russia does not respond to Israel’s move, it would be likely that they achieved a behind-the-scenes deal. Otherwise, we would witness a dynamic change in Russia-Israel relations.



[1] Gabriel Gorodetsky, “Why Moscow Championed the Creation of Israel,” Le Monde Diplomatic, February 2016,

[2] Yaacov Ro’i, “Soviet Policy in the Middle East: The Case of Palestine during World War II,” Cahiers Du Monde Russe et Soviétique 15, no. 3/4 (1974): pp. 373–408,

[3] Laurent Rucker, “Moscow's Surprise: The Soviet-Israeli Alliance of 1947-1949,” Working Paper No. 46, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,

[4] Philip Marshall  Brown, “The Recognition of Israel,” The American Journal of International Law 42, no. 3 (1948): pp. 620–27,

[5] Gaila Golan, “The Soviet Union and the PLO since the War in Lebanon,” Middle East Journal 40, no. 2 (1986): pp. 285–305,

[6] William Berthomiere, “L'immigration des Juifs d'ex-URSS: un nouveau defi pour Israel?” [The Migration of Jews from the Former Soviet Union: A New Challenge for Israel?], Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales 11, no. 3 (1995): pp. 19-41,

[7] James L. Gibson and Marc Morjé Howard, “Russian Anti-Semitism and the Scapegoating of Jews,” British Journal of Political Science 37, no. 2 (2007): pp. 193–223,

[8] Avi Shlaim, “Israel between East and West, 1948-56,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 36, no. 4 (2004): pp. 657–73,

[9] “Soviet Embassy Bombed in Tel Aviv,” Center for Israel Education, February 9, 1953,

[10] A. Mark Clarfield, “The Soviet ‘Doctors’ Plot’: 50 Years On,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 325, no. 7378 (2002): pp. 1487–89,

[11] United Nations, “UN Security Council Meetings & Outcomes Tables: Security Council Meetings in 1954,” UN Library,

[12] Karel Holbik and Edward Drachman, “Egypt as Recipient of Soviet Aid, 1955-1970,” Zeitschrift Für Die Gesamte Staatswissenschaft / Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 127, no. 1 (1971): pp. 137–65,

[13] O.M. Smolansky, “Moscow and the Suez Crisis, 1956: A Reappraisal,” Political Science Quarterly 80, no. 4 (1965): pp. 581–605,

[14] “Moscow Court Starts Hearings on Israel Complaint; Israel Wins Point,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, December 6, 1957,

[15] Galia Golan, “The Soviet Union and the Outbreak of the June 1967 Six-Day War,” Journal of Cold War Studies 8, no. 1 (2006): pp. 3–19,

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hannes Adomeit, “Gorbachev’s Old and New Thinking,” In Imperial Overstretch: Germany in Soviet Policy from Stalin to Gorbachev: An Analysis Based on New Archival Evidence, Memoirs, and Interviews, 2nd ed. (Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 2016): pp. 233–360,

[18] Ibid.

[19] Dustin Adams, “What Languages Are Spoken in Israel?” CCJK, September 11, 2020,

[20] “Putin Says He Considers Israel a Russian-Speaking Country,” Times of Israel, September 19, 2019,

[21] Robert Coalson, “Putin Pledges to Protect All Ethnic Russians Anywhere. So, Where Are They?” Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, April 10, 2014,

[22] Israeli-Russian Business Council, “Chairman's Message,”

[23] OEC, “Israel (ISR) Exports, Imports, and Trade Partners,”

[24] Arman Mahmoudian, “Israel and Iran's Hidden War in Syria Is Now Out in the Open,” Middle East Eye, April 22, 2018,

[25] Geoffrey Aronson, “Putin and Netanyahu: Minds Alike over Syrian Skies,” Al Jazeera, December 4, 2015,; “Netanyahu Says Ties with Russia Good, Doesn't Join Criticism of Syria Attacks,” i24 News, October 4, 2015,

[26] Judah Ari Gross, “IDF Says It Has Bombed over 200 Iranian Targets in Syria since 2017,” Times of Israel, September 4, 2018,

[27] Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithick, “Russian IL-20 Surveillance Plane Went Down off Syrian Coast during Israeli Missile Barrage (Updated),” The Drive, September 18, 2018,

[28] Robyn Dixon, Rick Noack, Shane Harris, and Michael Birnbaum, “Russia Sends Warships toward Black Sea as Europe Ramps up Ukraine Crisis Diplomacy,” Washington Post, February 8, 2022,

[29] “Israeli FM Condemns ‘War Crimes’ in Ukraine,” Reuters, April 5, 2022,

[30] Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Israel Sends Humanitarian Aid to Ukraine,” March 1, 2022,

[31] Ilan Ben Zion, “Israeli FM Promises Cooperation with Ukraine against Iran,” AP News, February 16, 2023,

[32] Emanuel Fabian, “Israel Delivers 3 More Armored Ambulances to Ukraine amid Requests for Military Aid,” Times of Israel, January 30, 2023,

[33] Barak Ravid, “Scoop: Israel Rejects U.S. Request to Approve Missile Transfer to Ukraine,” Axios, May 25, 2022,

[34] Ukrainian Military Center, "Russians Begin to Use Shahed-131 Kamikaze Drones," October 13, 2022,  

[35] “Zelenskyy 'Shocked' by Israel's Failure to Give Ukraine Weapons,” Al Jazeera, September 25, 2022,

[36] Jeff Stein, John Hudson, and Kostiantyn Khudov, “Facing Blackouts and Iranian-Made Drones, Ukrainian Jews Urge Israel to Help,” Washington Post, December 18, 2022,

[37] Clara Keuss, “Bibi Netanyahu Hinted He Might Arm Ukraine. Probably Not,” American Enterprise Institute, November 4, 2022,

[38] Arie Egozi, “Israel Reconsidering Whether to Send Weapons to Ukraine: Sources,” Breaking Defense, February 22, 2023,

[39] Eric Schmitt, Adam Entous, Ronen Bergman et. al., “Pentagon Sends U.S. Arms Stored in Israel to Ukraine,” New York Times, January 17, 2023,

[40] Martin Chulov, “Drones Target Iranian Weapons Factory in Central City of Isfahan,” The Guardian, January 29, 2023,

[41] “In First, Israel Said to Authorize Sale of Defensive Military Equipment to Ukraine,” Times of Israel, March 16, 2023,

[42] “Kyiv begins testing missile warning system developed by Israel,” Times of Israel, May 5, 2023, 

[43] Inder Singh Bisht, “Israel Delivers Air Attack Alert Technology to Ukraine,” Defense Post, January 16, 2023,

[44] Barak Ravid, “Scoop: Israel Military to Test Civilian Early Warning System in Kyiv,” Axios, April 20, 2023,

[45] Henry Rome, “Making Iran’s Support for Russia More Costly,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 5, 2023,





: 23-August-2023

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