Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz
Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin during a US-Russia Summit, June 16, 2021, in Geneva.

(Written by Sarit Zehavi)

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, there have been many discussions in Israel about the implications for the nation’s relations with Russia.

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The debate is examined predominantly through the prism of the Israeli military’s freedom of action in the skies over Syria, hunting for Iranian targets.

The Ukraine war has two main security implications for Israel in this context:

One is that a reduction in Russia’s presence in Syria will lead to a strengthening of Iran’s proxies in the country.

Increasing numbers of reports recently point to a reduction in Russian forces in Syria by about 4,000 troops, as they apparently redeploy to Ukraine. If this information is correct, it is a reduction of about 40 percent in the total Russian force stationed in Syria.

At the same time, there have been many reports in the past two months of Iranian proxy forces taking over abandoned Russian positions, much to the displeasure of the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The second implication – the war in Ukraine is in a sense a war between superpowers, similar to the Cold War, and Russia may punish Israel for taking a stand on the Western side.

At the beginning of the war, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tried to walk a fine line, positioning himself as a neutral mediator, but it soon became impossible.

Israel today – after voting against Russia at the UN and sending a field hospital for medical assistance to Ukrainian citizens – is in a kind of crisis in relations with Russia. A breakdown not helped by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement that “Hitler probably had Jewish blood.”
Indeed, the dilemma is not only Israeli but also Russian – how to navigate relations with Israel now? And among analysts, there are different evaluations as to which direction the relationship will go.

On the one hand, Israel and Russia have a common interest in eradicating the Iranian military presence in Syria. This interest is strengthened in the face of the Russian forces re-assigned to Ukraine – so Israel’s role in the issue becomes more important.

Anyone who thinks Russia will abandon Syria for Ukraine needs to think twice. For Russia, the Middle East is its southern flank in the conflict with NATO. The Kremlin’s influence in Syria is a means to block NATO in the region – and NATO for Russia is the main enemy.

In recent decades, Russia lost its allies in the Middle East one after another and in fact, Syria remains the main stronghold where Russia has significant assets.

In a report issued by the Alma Research and Education Center published last week, one can learn about the Russian deployment in Syria on the eve of the war in Ukraine: 12 bases and various assorted field outposts.

Despite the pressure from the Ukraine front, it is hard to believe that Russia will give up the achievements in Syria that were gained with great effort since intervening directly in the civil war in 2015.

It expanded old Soviet-era military bases and constructed new ones, carving out a platform for influencing the wider Middle East from Syria’s soil. Bases such as Tartus and Hmeimim are strategically important logistic hubs, naval and airports from which Russia can sustain its wider goals in the region.

Influence on Israel

Russia’s presence in Syria allows it a fairly wide range of tools when it comes to exerting pressure on Israel. And there is no doubt that it can use these tools – as it has done several times before – to “punish” Israel for taking a stand with the West.

A glimpse at recent history can shed light on the toolbox. Over the years, almost since the establishment of the State of Israel, not only did the Soviet Union support Arab countries, providing them with weapons, but it did the same with Palestinian terrorist organizations, communist and otherwise. So, for Israel, it is part of the DNA to be careful of Russia when it comes to security.

According to some testimonies in the 1967 Six-Day War, the commander of a Soviet Marine unit intervened in the battles of Port Said and lost 17 soldiers.

During the preparations for the war in 1973, the Russians were involved not only in the supply of weapons, including advanced anti-aircraft batteries but also in engineering assistance to help cross the Suez Canal.

During the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt (1967-1970), Soviet soldiers manned anti-aircraft batteries, downing several Israeli fighters.

In July 1970, an air battle took place between Russian MiGs and Israeli Air Force planes – with the Israeli pilots shooting down five MiGs. If such a scenario would happen today (highly unlikely) then the Russians would encounter even more advanced technology from the Israeli side.

According to Israeli researchers who collected testimonies from Russian veterans, dozens of Soviet soldiers and officers were killed by Israeli fire during the War of Attrition on the Israeli-Egyptian border.

One of the intelligence indications of the Arabs’ intention to start a war in 1973 was the departure of Russian advisers from Damascus, in Syria. The “advisers” were actually military officers based in Syrian headquarters and today, as then, they are still actively involved in the fighting – this time against Syrian rebels.

Currently, participation in the actual fighting of Russian ground or air forces against Israel is a dangerous scenario – and highly unlikely.

However, the other tools described above are definitely within the reasonable scenario and some have already been used.

This is reflected in the possibility of the passing of preliminary intelligence regarding Israeli attack intentions to the Syrians and/or Iranians, after-the-fact publicity regarding the details of Israeli attacks, or the transfer of advanced conventional weapons to the Syrians.

As to the transfer of advanced weapons, there is a possibility that the Russians will allow the Syrians to transfer Russian advanced weapons to the elements of the radical Shiite axis headed by Iran, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such a process may already have occurred.

Note that the Russians even used powerful electronic-warfare systems that affected and disrupted air operations over Syria and even over Israel, hampering Israeli civilian air traffic.

Russian advisers are already stationed throughout Syria and despite the transfer to Ukraine they are unlikely to completely abandon the arena.

In September 2018, the Syrian Air Force accidentally shot down a Russian Ilyushin IL-20M intelligence reconnaissance plane carrying 15 Russian military personnel, killing all on board. Russia blamed Israel – accusing it of shielding its aircraft behind the Russian plane while conducting sorties against Syrian positions.

In response, the Russians provided the Syrians with S-300 anti-aircraft batteries, a move it had deferred prior to then at Israel’s request. While the transfer of these weapons did not end Israel’s freedom to act in Syria, it did constrain it, with Jerusalem’s jets having to adapt to a more dangerous environment.

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Along with military tools to punish Israel or put pressure on it, Russia has political tools. This includes exerting pressure via the Palestinian issue, pushing diplomatic decisions in UN institutions on the subject.

It is possible that Russia will see it has more to gain by following a path of mutual interest with Israel. But the Israeli military must be prepared for a dangerous alternative scenario.
The logic that drive’s Russian President Vladimir Putin already baffled Western analysts once this year, when they underestimated the level of destruction he was willing to rain down on Ukraine.

This should not be forgotten, especially when considering that Russia has no interest in taking Israel’s needs into consideration. If the Kremlin believes it has more to gain by working against Israel – through pressure and punishment – rather than by working with it, then it may well choose to do so.

(Lt. Col. (Res.) Sarit Zehavi is the CEO and founder of Alma – a nonprofit independent research and education center that specializes in the security challenges Israel faces on its northern border)

{Reposted from IsraelHayom}

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