Russia is gradually baring its fangs at Israel. The uproar caused by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s assertion that Hitler had Jewish roots shows that relations between the two countries are on a collision course.
Lavrov’s remarks are the latest in a series of statements, implied threats, incidents and decisions in recent weeks that all point to a steadily growing chill in Moscow-Jerusalem relations. Russia’s displeasure with Israel has two forms – cooling relations with Jerusalem and warming relations with Tehran – which, together, tighten the vise on Israel.
A few days ago, a group referred to as “Rybar” posted a list of 20 Israelis (including their passport numbers and birthdates) on the Telegram digital messaging service. The group alleges that these Israelis are fighting as mercenaries in the Ukrainian Army. Most of the names belong to Foreign Ministry staff – security guards and consular employees – and Jewish Agency employees.
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In the third week of the war, they were sent with diplomatic passports to bolster embassy staff that had been evacuated to Poland, and to aid in the return of Israelis stuck in Ukraine. They assisted these people at three border crossings from Ukraine into Poland and presented their passports for inspection.
Evidently, an agent in the Russian secret service (likely a Ukrainian) got hold of the list and relayed it to his handlers. From there it was likely passed to Rybar, a group that has half-a-million followers and is considered to be closely tied to the Kremlin.
Russia knows that Israel is not sending mercenaries or supplying arms to Ukraine, not even defensive weaponry. Nevertheless, it deliberately and maliciously permitted the nasty exposure of names and information of Foreign Ministry and Jewish Agency staff as a “reprisal action.” If it hasn’t already, the list could easily reach Israel’s enemies, such as Iranian intelligence, which strive to collect any possible scrap of information on Israel and its representatives around the world.
A few days before the list of names was made public, Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, condemned Israel’s proposal to name several streets or squares in Kyiv after Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations. According to Yad Vashem, there are 2,673 such names to choose from. The initiative was pioneered by Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky, after Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko announced that he would replace Russian and Belarusian street names in the city with Ukrainian names.
Zakharova wrote: “As a result of the Israeli diplomat’s flirting with the current Kiev regime, the proposed new names of city public spaces dedicated to the people who in fact selflessly saved Jews may appear next to the names of those pseudo-heroes who were directly responsible for the deaths of civilians during World War II, including thousands of Jews.”
Another example of the mounting tension came last week, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu canceled a scheduled phone call with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The call was meant to discuss cooperation and security coordination between the two countries, primarily regarding Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Asked for comment, the Defense Minister’s office said: “We do not comment on the defense minister’s discussions with his counterparts in other countries. This is not to be construed as confirmation of the report.”
Israeli Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Ben Zvi was on the receiving end of Russia’s harshest message during a meeting with Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov, who oversees the Kremlin’s Middle East policy. Bogdanov protested the fact that Israel joined the condemnation of Russia in the UN General Assembly and supported Russia’s ouster from the UN Council on Human Rights.
His words carried a strong whiff of warning as well. Something like: We have always coordinated closely with you in the Middle East, it would be a shame for that to end. In their conversation, Bogdanov also insisted that Israel joined in the condemnation in order to divert public opinion from its actions in Syria and against the Palestinians. The mention of Syria was more than just a threatening hint.
Lessons in bypassing sanctions
Beyond the rhetoric, Russia has also taken actions showing it’s desire to get closer to Iran. Both countries are coping with sanctions. Russian economists, businesspeople and public figures have spoken of the need to learn from the Islamic Republic in terms of functioning under severe sanctions. In other words, to learn to get around the restrictions.
Three weeks ago, officials from the Russian stock exchange met with colleagues from Tehran to discuss increasing cooperation. Two weeks ago, Radiy Khabirov, leader of the Republic of Bashkortostan, an autonomous province in Russia with a majority Sunni Muslim population, announced that he is considering opening a consulate in Iran.
“Although it has been under sanctions for 40 years, Iran has shown that it has serious technological capabilities and economic capabilities. Its experience in the field of petroleum and petroleum distillates, and in food and agriculture, are of great interest to us,” he said.
Russian and Iranian representatives have also signed cooperation agreements in the fields of health and medical equipment. Oleg Voitsekhovsky, managing director of the Russian Council of Shopping Centers, says that he plans to ramp up collaborations with Iranian manufacturers and open 30 stores in Russia featuring Iranian shoe and clothing brands.
Perhaps the clearest example of Russian efforts to learn from Iran on living with and skirting sanctions is in the field of aviation. Russia has already confiscated some 400 Boeing, Airbus and Embraer passenger jets, which its airlines had leased from Western countries. They had been registered in Ireland and Bermuda, and Russia re-registered them as its own property. The owners of the jets and the insurance company have decided to sue Russia in international court, but this is only a “small problem” for Moscow.
The bigger problem is that the sanctions prevent Russian airlines from obtaining replacement parts for its fleet of Western aircraft. This leaves the Russians with only the Sukhoi Superjet 100, which has a relatively short range. This is why, for example, Moscow-Tel Aviv flights operated by the Russian airlines Red Wings and Azimuth (which, unlike Aeroflot, are not subjected to EU sanctions) require a refueling stop. The day is not far off when a major portion of Russia’s Western planes will be completely grounded due to the shortage of parts.
Iran adopted a creative solution of “cannibalization” – i.e., dismantling a number of planes to supply replacement parts for the rest of the fleet. A British aviation expert said that, sooner or later, Russia would have to resort to the same method to survive the aviation sanctions it has been hit with.
Trying to have it both ways
Although Israel has abstained from joining the sanctions regime against Russia, economic ties between the two countries have been seriously hurt by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The number of weekly flights between the two countries has shrunk from 50 to just nine. The El Al flight now takes six hours instead of four to avoid flying over combat zones. The balance of trade, which stood at $3 billion (two-thirds of that in Russia’s favor), was already impacted by the pandemic, and has seen a further, dramatic decline due to the war.
Israeli experts believe that despite Russia’s recent expressions of anger, Moscow understands and accepts Israel’s conduct. These experts believe that Russia will not employ harsh punitive measures against Israel, such as giving Syria the go-ahead to activate its S-300 and S-400 missile batteries and limit the Israeli Air Force’s freedom of operation. Only time will tell.
History teaches us that countries that try to have it both ways, that sit on the fence and aim to please everyone rather than joining their allies, ultimately lose out on all fronts. Everyone has contempt for cowards who flee from deciding where they stand.
The initial signs of this are already evident. Just as the United States and other Western countries have shown frustration with Israel’s perplexing “neutrality,” now Russia is none too pleased either.