The response of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane last Monday by Syrian forces reacting to an Israeli airstrike appears puzzling. The typical Russian rejoinder to an attack on one of its aircraft in a non-hot war zone has been to automatically blame non-allies that were anywhere near the incident (and at least arguably involved), and then to belligerently threaten dire consequences. But in this case, Putin seemed to go out of his way to tone down the accusation by the Russian Defense Ministry – replete with threats of retaliation – that Israel had deliberately manipulated events so as to involve the Russians.
According to the Associated Press, Israel had claimed that on Monday its fighter jets were on a mission targeting a Syrian military facility involved in supplying weapons to Hezbollah. In accordance with an agreement Israel had with Russia – who are in Syria in considerable military strength – Israel had notified the Russians of the impending strike. However, the Russians said the Israeli warning came less than a minute before the strike, which did not allow sufficient time for the Russian aircraft to leave the scene. Further, “The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian air defense,” the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major Gen. Igor Konashenkov said.
And Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shiogu told Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman that “the Israeli side bears full responsibility” for the plane’s downing and warned hat Russia “reserves the right to retaliate.”
Yet Putin attributed the incident to “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” a decidedly softer approach. To be sure, he also said Russia will respond by “taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria” and that “it will be steps that everyone will notice.” Still, the contrast with what his defense ministry had said was striking.
The question many are now asking is whether Russia will continue to look away as Israel pounds Syrian and Iranian military installations in Syria and, indeed, whether the Russian diplomatic dance of good relations between Russia and both Israel and Iran will come through this unscathed. The understandings between Israel and Russia have been of great value to Israel in the form of freedom to deal with Iranian and Syrian threats directly and also in the form of Russia’s role in restraining Iranian efforts to expand its role in Syria.
We rather think that President Trump’s s fulsome support for Israel reflects his conclusion that Israel is a strategically important ally. And this has dawned on Putin as well. With American backing, Israel certainly has the military, political and economic strength to serve as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, with little cost to Russia – and Russia has little to gain from a chaotic Middle East.
Across the board, it seems to us that all of this is a sign that Israel’s star continues to rise in the geopolitical world.