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Hostage to His Own War, Putin Abrogates Russia’s “Friendship” with Israel

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The war in the Middle East that inevitably followed Hamas’s horrific attack on Israel has highlighted the true colors of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. His policy of making Russia’s war against Ukraine central to his political system pushed him into breaking his ties with Israel and into supporting anti-Israeli forces in the Middle East.

For years, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin maintained what they both called a “friendship.” Putin’s politics toward Israel, until recently, were decidedly different from the Soviet Union’s one-sided backing of some of the Arab states and non-state actors in the Middle East.

In December 2022, Putin welcomed Netanyahu’s return as head of the Israeli government. In his 2019 election campaign, in order to target Russian-Israeli voters, Netanyahu used a photo featuring himself shaking hands with Putin (Netanyahu also used, for other campaign posters, photos with the U.S. president Donald Trump and the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi). 

Caught in a Gin of His Own, and the Kremlin’s, Making

For the past month, after the most horrific attack on Israel in decades, Putin has been saying the kinds of things and doing the kinds of things a real friend would never do. Instead of immediately condemning the Hamas attack, Putin called it an “example of the failure of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.” 

Putin later compared Israel’s blockade of Gaza to the siege of Leningrad. Recently the Russian leader went so far as to proclaim that, while fighting against Ukraine, his military is fighting for the future of the Palestinian people. 

It is hard to believe, but this was the way Putin ended up responding to the antisemitic riot that took place, in late October, in Makhachkala, the capital of the Russian region Dagestan.

Apparently the Kremlin did feel a need to react to the event, in which several hundred men went to the Makhachkala airport in anticipation of an arriving flight from Tel Aviv. They blocked the exits from the building, lashed out at random passers-by, and demanded a show of passports to filter out Jews and confront them with a question: “Do you condemn Israel’s actions?”

Some deep political thinking must have gone into the Kremlin’s reaction. “Those who really stand up for truth and justice, who fight against evil and oppression, against racism and neo-Nazism, which the West encourages, are now fighting on the front line—near Donetsk, Avdeevka, on the Dnieper,” Putin said. “These are our soldiers and officers. And the choice of a real man, a real warrior, is to take up arms and stand in line with his brothers. To be there, where the fate of Russia, and of the whole world, including the future of the Palestinian people, is being decided.”

It has been more than a year since Putin started saying that Russia did not start the war against Ukraine. In numerous speeches, Putin continued to defend his militarist stance by stating that his was a project of peace. He, in his own words, had launched a “special military operation” to try and stop the war that somebody else, not him, had unleashed against Russia.

This sounds immediately false on many levels. And it’s not just because it was Russia that started the war against Ukraine but also because the Kremlin cannot end it, owing to the peculiarities of its own political system. 

Failing to bring such a war to a complete victory and not being able to dictate the terms of peace, the ruler who unleashed it is guaranteed to face serious accusations against him, and possibly even threats to his life. Peace other than that made on his terms would likely mean the loss of power.

Putin is prevented from ending the war by his own army, which is poorly organized, incapable of quick and precise action, and unwilling to prevent crimes against the civilian population of Ukraine by its own soldiers. 

Succession, Humiliation, and a Search for New Partners

The actions of leaders in times of conflict are largely determined by the nature of the transfer of power in their countries. Rulers who know they will leave office peacefully, through elections or term limits, and rulers who fear they may be overthrown behave differently. The latter get involved in wars more often than the former.

The prospect of an ignominious end compels rulers to continue their wars at any cost, even if they realize that the plan with which they entered the conflict is not feasible. 

As the Dutch scholar Hein Goemans has shown in his book, War and Punishment, this is exactly how the German leadership acted when they realized by the late fall of 1914 that the original plan for the lightning occupation of France had not worked. 

At a meeting four months after Germany entered World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s ministers concluded that they could not achieve military victory. “But they continued the war for another four years because they realized that if they were defeated, the emperor would be overthrown and the monarchy would collapse. And they were right,” writes Goemans. 

The Russian authorities have driven themselves into a similar situation. Their original war plan failed at the end of March 2022, but, just like the German rulers of a century ago, they decided to continue their war anyway. 

This is one deep reason why Moscow has abandoned its previously friendly relationship with Israel. Faced with its own military’s inefficiency and short of weapons, the Kremlin frantically looked for partners. One eager partner turned out to be Iran. 

Iranian leaders agreed to deliver arms to the failing army of Russia’s regime. Iran, while struggling through Western sanctions, did not lose time and was able to build up its military capability. Tehran shipped reconnaissance and suicide drones, artillery and tank rounds to Moscow. Iran quickly became Russia’s top military backer. “Iran sees a humiliating Russian defeat in Ukraine as a defeat of its own,” Farzin Nadimi of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says. “Strategically, they are very connected.”

This is why Russia has fallen back on the Soviet Union’s anti-Israel stance: not out of some deep-seated beliefs or political will but out of political necessity as the current occupier of the Russian throne sees it. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute

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