Sunday, February 18, 2018

The art of the possible - Ariel Bolstein

by Ariel Bolstein

Hat tip: Dr. Jean-Charles Bensoussan

The Kremlin knows Iran has the power to throw the entire Middle East into general chaos, and it has many reasons to fear such a scenario

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald 
Trump attend a summit in Vietnam in Nov. 2017
Photo: AP 

Israel's diplomatic standing is steadily improving in many regions of the world. But one of the country's greatest diplomatic achievements is the turnaround in ties with Russia.

Russia is not an ideal partner. Far from it. Its conduct in the global arena is often characterized by aggression, and what Russia perceives as its national interests often contradicts the fundamental values of Western civilization. But politics, particularly international politics, require players to be skilled in the art of the possible.

Israel can't pick and chose the superpowers that exert their influence and weight in the Middle East. The only thing Israel can do is to open channels of communication with the superpowers that clearly do have influence. That is precisely what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done so successfully. But much like a game of chess, it is not enough to identify the possible – players must also determine the path to the possible and overcome many obstacles on the way to achieving it. Only true grandmasters achieve this goal, and when it comes to relations with Russia, Netanyahu has indeed displayed the characteristics of a grandmaster.

Over the last 10 years, Israel's relationship with Russia has changed unrecognizably. The frequency of the meetings between the countries' respective leaders, the positive atmosphere surrounding these meetings, and even the absence of media leaks regarding the agreements or disagreements therein, all attest to the seriousness of the relations.

The intensive exchanges, including meetings between security chiefs and military commanders, point to a significant upgrade in the understandings between the two countries. The personal chemistry between the countries' to leaders has also helped. There are not many foreign leaders who enjoy true respect from the Kremlin. Netanyahu is one of this select few.

Let us not kid ourselves, though. Barring any far-reaching permutations in the region, Russia is not about to become Israel's ally. In facing off with the U.S., Russia has opted for a strategy that has sent it into tactical alliances with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and other undesirables. Additionally, the Russians are determined not to abandon their age-old allies – from the Soviet era – the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In the face of these challenges, everything that has been achieved so far is quite admirable. Ever since Russia entered the Syrian quagmire, Israel has succeeded in translating its military might, and its other assets, into diplomatic power, allowing Israel to strike understandings with Russia to protect mutual interests. In practice, this has ensured Israel's complete freedom to take action in Syria. So while the Russians may have claimed Syria as their territory, the IDF has not been forced out.

As a result, Israel has been free to strike targets in Syria whenever it saw fit, and the Russians never made a peep. Even after Israel's multiple strikes deep within Syria on Saturday, in response to an Iranian drone that breached Israeli air space, Moscow didn't go any further than making a toothless plea to honor Syrian sovereignty, which, in diplomacy speak, means go ahead and protect your interests, but try not to harm ours in the process.

So while Russia is not Israel's ally, it respects Israel's interests. Anyone who fails to see the enormity of this achievement – Israel's ability to maintain its freedom of action in Syria – simply doesn't understand Russia's nature or Israel's natural limitations when it comes to relations with this superpower.

At the start, the playing field was not favorable for Israel. Ever since his ascent to power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gradually intensified Russia's resistance to the policies of the U.S. and its allies in almost every arena. He fortified his rule, which often resembles a monarchy, and set out to restore the greatness of the former Soviet Union.

Israel shouldn't be too eager to see the Soviet Union restored. The Soviet Union was an arch-enemy of Zionism. But still, while anti-Western sentiments are rapidly taking hold in the Russian population and certainly in the Russian government, Israel has managed to make itself the exception, evading Russian hostility.

Among most of the Russia population, the U.S. is perceived as a clear enemy, but Israel is not. Furthermore, Israel enjoys this special status without having had to mar its existing relationships with the objects of Russia's objections, which have been leading the charge against Russia as well. On the contrary, the Russia media often notes that Netanyahu is the only world leader that has the ear of both Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump. This unique position gives Netanyahu a lot of leverage.

The big question now is whether Israel has taken full advantage of what its relationship with Russia has to offer. Is it possible to persuade Russia to align even more closely with Israeli interests, particularly in curbing Iran's aggressive aspirations?

The Russians don't have an abundance of partners, so they are in no rush to let go of their alliance with the Iranians. Without the land forces Tehran sent to Syria, the Russians would have never succeeded in turning the war around and salvaging the Assad regime, which was headed for a near-certain fall.

Even after Russia declared "victory" a number of times, and thinned its own presence in Syria, it still relies heavily on Iran's forces. Perhaps the Russians are starting to understand that in the Middle East, the real trouble comes when you declare a victory, and that without the Iranians they don't stand a chance of imposing their will on Syria.

On top of that, there is also the financial aspect. Iran is a substantial commercial partner for Russia, and Russia's hopes of tapping Syria's energy reserves (as a way of compensating itself for the massive investment in the war there) will never materialize without Iran's approval.

However, it would be a mistake to infer that the Russia's and Iran's interests don't overlap. Their alliance rests on immediate gains rather than ideological kinship. During the few years that they have been collaborating in the Syrian civil war, they have had quite a few disagreements. For example, when the Russians drafted a constitution for a future federal Syria state, it was met with immediate resistance, not just from Assad but also from Iran. Tehran objected to the idea of federalization or granting autonomy to this or that territory within Syria, and the hostile response was an embarrassment for the Russians.

Moreover, Moscow understands that Iranian adventurism could drag the entire region into a general clash, which could deprive the Russians of their Syrian loot while bringing the U.S. into the mix in full force. Such a scenario would completely undo all of Putin's gains in the Middle Eastern front, and therefore, the Kremlin has every reason to be wary.

Keep in mind that despite Russia's ambition, and despite that fact that it sees itself as a "first fiddle" in the rapidly changing world, the Russians still lag far behind the U.S. in every practical parameter, starting with the economy (the U.S.'s GDP is 10 times that of Russia) and ending with military power.

The Russians' goal is still as it always was, to restore the country's former glory. And perhaps this is the key to distancing them from the ayatollahs. Russia would consider abandoning Iran only if whatever they are offered as an alternative contains the ultimate temptation – recognition of Russia as a superpower. Such a change can only be effected by one man, and his name is Donald Trump. 

Ariel Bolstein


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