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
Roots of Russo-Israeli
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. 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, and
criticizing Western nations’ hesitation in recognizing the Jewish people’s
right to create their own state at the UN General Assembly in 1947.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.
The Soviet Union’s
pivot to Arabs
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
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, 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. 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.
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, 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.
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, 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, 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. 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.
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, 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. 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.
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. Hence,
Moscow and Tel Aviv began negotiations to restore diplomatic relations,
resulting in the full-scale restoration of bilateral relations in 1991. However,
the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Gorbachev of seeing the
result of his detente.
The realm of the
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.
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, and
that he felt obligated to protect them just as he would other ethnic Russians
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. In
addition, both nations expanded cultural ties by establishing cultural exchange
programs, tours, exhibitions, and festivals as well as cultural centers in each
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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. 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, 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:
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. However,
in practice, Israel’s actions have not gone beyond delivering humanitarian aid
such as medical supplies and essential equipment, providing
a $200 million loan for building hospitals, and
delivering armored ambulances.
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.
in this matter became even more controversial when Russia started purchasing
Iran’s kamikaze drones, also known as the Shahed-131. 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”.
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. 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. 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. In
addition, Netanyahu did not object to the US shipping over to Ukraine about
300,000 artillery shells stored in warehouses in Israel. To
make matters more complicated, shortly after unknown drones attacked Iran’s
drone facility in the City of Isfahan, 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. 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.
This helps narrow the area for air raid alerts. 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.
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. 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
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
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.
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