Opinion

The Russian Bear Has Returned to the Mideast to Threaten Israel

45 years after the Russian bear was ousted in the Yom Kippur War, it has returned. Then as now, Russia is not an ally and the Russians are not the solution – they are the problem

Israel should institute a policy of 'respect and suspect' vis a vis Russia, and rouse the Trump administration from its torpor.
Amos Biderman

“I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts!” With these words, Laocoon warned the people of Troy against the schemes of the Greeks. But the Trojans ignored the warning and brought a hollow wooden horse into their city, the gift of their enemies. At night, Greek soldiers emerged from the belly of the horse and conquered Troy (Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 2).

Laocoon’s warning has become a symbol for the suspicion with which one must approach one’s enemy when he showers one with favor. It reverberated with me every time the prime minister of Israel was royally welcomed in the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin bestowed copious honors on Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli government checked off coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian army as a mission accomplished. But the appearance of harmony and common interests was broken after the Russian spy plane was downed by the Syrians.

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This is a moment of soul-searching, and to realize that 45 years after the Russian bear was ousted from the Middle East in the Yom Kippur War, it has come back to threaten Israel. Then as now, Russia is not an ally and the Russians are not the solution – they are the problem. Because they are the landlords in Syria, the Iranian army, Syria and Hezbollah cannot grow strong except under their aegis. Thus, the security coordination, in preservation of which the commander of the Israel Air Force was called to Moscow like a walk to Canossa, might turn out to be a trap – a means of lulling Israel until the axis of evil has established a military presence in Syria and Lebanon that will completely block the skies to the IAF.

A worrisome situation is also developing in western Syria. The Russians have established a large military and naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean; within three years the Russian navy has moved closer to Israel’s natural gas installations, and this could turn into a real threat. Moreover, Russian naval control in the eastern Mediterranean basin could threaten not only the production of natural gas but also its marketing: The plan to lay a marine pipeline to bring the gas from Israel’s coast by way of Cyprus to Greece and Italy could become Putin’s hostage.

>> Read more: Israel Strikes Syria, Russia Gets Hit: A Crisis With Moscow Could Reach All the Way to Iran | Analysis 

The Russian-Iranian axis, whose existence is denied, is also moving ahead in the east. The Russians and the Iranians are in control today of large parts of the oil pipeline, the T line, which has been laid along hundreds kilometers, from Kirkuk in Iraq to the port of Tripoli in Lebanon. The pipeline, laid in the 1930s and which reached Haifa as well (the H line), stopped working decades ago. But the road paved at the time is being used by the Iranians today to bring weapons and fighters to Syria and Lebanon.

The key question is whether Putin is planning to use this route to bring oil from Iran via Iraq and Syria to the port of Tartus, and market it in Europe as anonymous oil. The territorial contiguity of Russia and Iran on the T line could turn out to be a way to evade the embargo imposed by the United States on Iranian oil.

The volatile potential of Russian and Iranian control of the T line is not a threat to Israel alone. It should worry the United States and all its allies. As the country fighting on the front line, Israel should change its strategy: It should institute a policy of “respect and suspect” vis a vis Russia, and rouse the Trump administration from its torpor. The question can’t be avoided: Are all the players on our side playing with clean hands? Frankly, I must say that soon I might start missing Barack Obama.