The Pentagon announced on Wednesday that it was refusing to hold “de-confliction” talks with the Russian Defense Ministry to coordinate the two nations’ air-operations over Syria and would make do with just “technical details.” At the same time, de-confliction talks, of the kind the Americans rejected, between the Israel Defense Forces and their Russian counterparts, led by the deputy chiefs of staff of both militaries, were already wrapping up in Tel Aviv’s HaKirya headquarters.
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Israel’s willingness to hold these talks reflects of course the recognition that after many years of operating nearly freely in Syrian airspace, things have changed with the arrival of a modern and well-equipped air force. But it also reflects the Russians’ desire not to have any confrontation with Israel in the region.
The fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested, and received, a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, immediately when the Russian deployment to Syria began, should not come as a surprise. Despite Israel’s strategic ties with the United States, both sides have maintained a discreet and intimate security relationship which is much closer than meets the eye. Israel received from Putin in 2008 advance warning of Russia’s plans to attack Georgia, in a personal meeting he had with former president Shimon Peres at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. This enabled Israel to call back in time private defense contractors and advisers who were working at the time with the Georgian army.
Israel has also in recent years sold surveillance drones to the Russians, despite Russia at the same time supplying some of Israel’s enemies with arms.
In the past, Israeli officials used to explain the desire to stay on Putin’s good side, despite his growing animosity towards the West and the erosion of civil rights in Russia, as part of its concern for the safety of hundreds of thousands of Jews still living in Russia. But there doesn’t seem to be any true basis for such fears, at least not under Putin. He is interested in the ties just as much as Israel.
To this day there are various explanations as to how Putin actually feels about Jews. His many supporters among the Jewish community in Russia insist that he is philosemitic, due to the friendships he had with Jewish classmates back in his childhood in St. Petersburg and the influence of Jewish teachers who perceived his potential. Putin’s critics ask why then are the Kremlin-funded propaganda channels filled with Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, masquerading as respectable commentators? But even those critics agree that Putin has a high regard for Jews and regrets the emigration of many thousands of Jewish scientists and researchers following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Some think that Putin actually sees the Jews as being too powerful but this regard also extends to his assessment of the Jewish state and particularly Israel’s military capabilities. Throughout his rule, he has made sure each year to meet with Israeli leaders, putting store by face-to-face engagement over diplomatic channels.
In the meetings with prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu, Putin promised Russia would not surprise Israel by supplying the Iranians with the advanced S-300 air-defense system, which would make an Israeli air strike more difficult, a promise that despite contradictory statements, he has so far kept. In a meeting with Olmert, a few months after the end of the Second Lebanon War, Israeli officers presented Putin with shrapnel from advanced Russian anti-tank missiles which had been used by Hezbollah. Not everyone in Israel’s defense establishment believes the Russian promise that the missiles were supplied to Hezbollah by the Syrian Army without the Russian’s knowledge.
What is without doubt is that in the decade before the Syrian civil war, there was a significant reduction in Syrian arms purchases from Russia (most deals during this period were for the refurbishment of old Soviet-era aircraft of the Syrian Air Force), and a shift to acquiring weapons from Iran and North Korea. The Russians were not aware of Syria building a secret nuclear reactor, which was destroyed from the air in 2007, according to foreign sources by Israel. The Russians returned in force to Syria only after the civil war broke out.
Both sides mainly kept silent over the other's actions. When the Russians upgraded Syria’s coastal cruise missiles in Tartous Port, and when the listening-base operated by GRU (Russian military intelligence) on the Syrian side of the Golan, monitoring Israeli military communications, Israel kept mum. And when Russian-supplied missiles and other advanced systems were bombed in Syria, according to foreign sources by the Israeli Air Force, only limp statements of concern were heard from Moscow.
Netanyahu knew what Putin needed to hear from him in their meeting last month – a promise that Israel isn’t seeking to actively topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. While the Obama administration and its NATO allies are still struggling to grasp what Putin is trying to achieve in Syria, it seems that the Israeli and Russian leaders understand each other’s interests pretty well. It may not be a formal military alliance but in the current situation in the Middle East, it’s quite a lot.