There is a carefully maintained dissonance between the way the Kremlin’s propaganda television channels, Russia Today and Sputnik News, talk about Israel and the tone of their paymaster Vladimir Putin.
While RT and Sputnik both employ and regularly host a cast of conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers and Jew-baiters of George Galloway’s ilk, Putin is in public almost constantly respectful, at times verging on deferential, of Israel. Since coming to power nearly two decades ago, he has made sure to periodically meet with Israel’s leaders, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and since his re-election in 2009, has had an ever-intensifying dialogue with Benjamin Netanyahu.
Those close to Putin say he is both a philo-Semite and that in his analyses of the decline and fall of the Soviet empire, has come to the conclusion that one of the biggest mistakes of its leaders was to have made enemies of Israel and world Jewry. But if Putin admires and respects Jews, why allow his propagandists to smear them?
RT and Sputnik play a central role in Putin’s campaign to undermine the western democracies and their alliances. Their audiences are the growing fringes of the nativist-right and “anti-imperialist” left. Anti-Semitism, of the overt kind and the more subtle "anti-Zionist” and “globalist” types, have been used as fodder to the masses’ paranoia since the time of the Czars. It’s a tried and trusted formula. Putin relies, however, on his personal relations with Jewish and Israeli leaders to offset this. It’s the kind of delicate balance he is an expert dancer of.
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On Tuesday, as news arrived of the shooting-down of the Russian spy-plane by a Syrian missile, both approaches were on display simultaneously. The Defense Ministry in Moscow fed the Russian media a lurid story of how Israeli F-16s had intentionally hid behind the Russian aircraft, perfidiously engineering the deaths of fifteen Russian airmen. The fact that any military expert worth their salt would have immediately realized the outlandishness of such a scenario was immaterial. The Kremlin’s audience of addicts needs its conspiracy fix. Meanwhile, Putin spoke with Netanyahu and released a contradictory statement saying that he had both authorized his Defense Ministry’s version and that it was “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”
Putin needs to make these public contradictions. Not only to assuage both his anti-Semitic fans across the world and his Israeli counterparts, but because it is central to his Syria strategy.
One of the misconceptions of the Russian deployment to Syria is that it is a symbol of resurgent Russian military power. The truth is that in raw military terms, the Russian contingent is rather small - at its peak barely twenty fighter-bombers, and backed by a paltry “package” of support aircraft in the MEDEVAC, ELINT, air-tanker and command-and-control roles. A similar deployment by the United States, would have involved dozens of support aircraft, an aircraft carrier sailing nearby with a carrier wing of nearly fifty F-18s, and the full resources of a super-power capable of operating and fighting across the globe.
Russia does not have those resources. Its air-force and navy are still undergoing a drawn-out process of re-equipment after long years of post-Soviet neglect. Its Syrian deployment has stretched its long-range capabilities to the maximum and the shooting-down of the Ilyushin is not only a human tragedy but a loss of a scarce asset. According to assessments, Russia has only about ten of these nearly 50-year-old aircraft, which need long periods of maintenance between missions. Attempts to develop a successor are not going well.
The Russian intervention in Syria has achieved its objective of preserving the Assad regime, not because of any unique military advantage, but simply because there was no significant opposition. All it needed to tilt the balance between the regime and the rebels back in Assad’s favor was a relatively small investment of Russian air-power, backed by Shi’a cannon fodder, “boots on the ground,” provided by Iran. The United States, had it chosen to, or even Britain or France, could have fielded far superior forces to try and save civilian lives on the rebel side, as they did in Libya.
Putin is highly aware that Syria has two well-armed neighbors, Israel and Turkey, that could have easily disrupted his plans, should they have chosen to. Of course, both Benjamin Netanyahu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have little interest in a military confrontation with Russia. But the fact that both regional powers have the capability to wield more firepower in Syria than Russia could bring all the way there is a reason for Putin to treat them with respect and seek accommodations.
That’s why on Monday, at their meeting in Sochi, Putin accepted Erdogan’s demands to cancel the planned Syrian-Russian assault on the remaining rebel enclave in Idlib province, on Turkey’s border. And why Putin is always prepared to talk to Netanyahu on the phone, even on Tuesday after his Defense Ministry had just accused Israel of causing the deaths of fifteen Russian servicemen.
It’s understandable that Russia cannot allow itself to lose face and therefore will not be blaming its Syrian ally in public – although unconfirmed sources from Syria have reported that Russian military police abducted and are brutally interrogating officers and soldiers from the Syrian air-defense battery that fired the fateful missile. That’s why the Russian double-speak is necessary and Israel has to go through the motions of sending its air-force commander to Moscow to present his version of events. But this is mainly for appearances sake.
The facts on the ground haven’t changed. If anything, the shooting-down of the Ilyushin has served to underline just how threadbare the Russian deployment is and how little it can trust its Syrian allies. Israel may have to lower the profile of its operations in Syria for a while, but it cannot allow Iran and Hezbollah free rein to smuggle weapons. A suspicious Putin needs to make sure Israel won’t cause damage to the regime and ruin his plans and therefore has little choice but to allow Israel to continue operating.