“Zionism is Making Us Stupid”: The Russian Relationship with Israel from the Soviets to Putin

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, 9 May 2018 [source]


The core argument to this essay is two-fold. First, that the Russian government cannot assist Israel, or the broader West, in containing the Iranian revolution in the Middle East. Specifically, Russia is unable to evict Iran’s troops from Syria. Second, Moscow has no interest in countering Iran; its own position rests on Iranian power and it will therefore continue fortifying an agenda that aims to push the West out and eliminate Israel.


The Soviet Union recognised Israel immediately. Moscow played up its role in defeating the Nazis as part of its political outreach to the nascent Jewish state. It is often pointed out that the Soviet Union also provided crucial military help, through its Czechoslovak puppet regime, to the Zionists during the war of independence. This is true. The intention of the Soviets in doing this, however, was to expel the British and to foster “a situation which was certain to provoke conflict in Palestine and great unrest throughout the Arab world, thus necessitating Soviet intervention to maintain order”. This kind of cynical behaviour, creating problems in order to solve them, was standard tradecraft for the Soviet Union right down to the end.


In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jews from the Soviet Bloc were permitted to make aliya to Israel fairly freely. Part of this was doubtless as a means of fulfilling Stalin’s program of getting rid of the Jews in the Soviet Empire and part was, as the Mitrokhin Archive makes clear, so that the KGB could smuggle agents into the new state. The Soviets had the further advantage that Israel was a more open state than its neighbours, and therefore permitted an openly Moscow-line party, the United Workers’ Party (MAPAM), whose leadership was filled with Soviet agents like Aharon Cohen, Yaakov Riftin, Moshe Sneh, and Yisrael Beer, to operate — something the Soviet Union’s own allies in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq never allowed.

Golda Meir in Moscow, 1948 [source]


Moscow’s toehold in Egypt was already faltering by the 1960s; it rapidly declined after Nasser’s death in 1970. Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, bravely ordered the Soviet “advisors” out of his country in 1972, with no guarantee Moscow would not repeat the invasion visited on its Czechoslovak satellite just four years earlier when it tried to chart a more independent course. For various reasons the Soviets had to comply. Sadat turned expectantly to the Americans and was met with the Vance-Gromyko Agreement in October 1977, a blueprint for spheres of influence by the Carter administration that would have handed Egypt back to the Soviets. The next month Sadat went to Jerusalem, and President Carter would preside over the signing of the Camp David peace treaty in March 1979, a fait accompli between the Egyptians and Israelis, which brought Egypt fully into the Western camp.

Abu Nidal [source]
Salah Khalaf and Yasser Arafat [source]


Daniel Patrick Moynihan denounces United Nations Resolution 3379, 10 November 1975 [source]
Yuri Andropov [source]


In October 1991, after half-a-century of estrangement, Israel and the Soviet Union restored diplomatic relations. Two months later, the Soviet Empire finally perished. Subsequent Israeli perception was that the state was constructing a more fruitful relationship with the new Russian Federation, and certainly when compared with the Soviets this was true. But the old problems remained under the surface: Moscow’s support for rejectionist governments and terrorists. In its new form, the primary problem was the Russians’ ever-closer strategic alliance with Israel’s nemesis, the Islamic Republic of Iran.


Aftermath of the apartment bombings in Moscow, September 1999 [source]


The striking, perhaps unique, aspect of the Israel-Russian relationship is that Israel continues to draw closer, despite Russian actions that flatly contradict its core interests. Russia’s burgeoning strategic alliance with the theocratic government in Iran is the crucial aspect, and within that there are two key elements: Iran’s nuclear program and the its regional expansion, specifically the supply of strategic resources to the Lebanese branch of the Iranian revolution, Hizballah.

The Shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the West’s critical Middle Eastern ally from 1941 to 1979, at his coronation in October 1967, with his son, Reza, and his wife, Empress Farah [source]


The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded in July 2015 between Iran and world powers, the Permanent Five of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union. The JCPOA ostensibly stripped Iran of a nuclear-weapons capacity in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal, in fact, failed as an arms control accord, though that was hardly its primary purpose. By this point, the Iran-Russia axis had already made considerable inroads against American influence, and it was just about to move to solidify its alliance structure and enforce a new order across the northern Middle East.


The Israeli approach in Syria has been rooted in its handling of Russia for two decades before that: trying to work with Russia, while separating out the Iran issue. This was always rather fanciful, given the emphasis the doctrine of the ruling regime in Iran places on Israel’s destruction, and the consummation of the Russian-Iranian alliance structure in the northern Middle East. But it was not only Israel that was tantalised by the delusion of serious operational daylight between Iran and Russia. The Obama administration was repeatedly drawn in by this prospect.

The “Alchwiki Network” through which Iran, with Russia’s assistance, supports Asad and anti-Israel terrorist groups in the Levant and Gaza [source]


Eliminating Iran’s influence in Syria entirely is impossible; even under some unimaginable scenario where Iran withdrew all military assets, its intelligence and societal elements would remain. Iran has been in Syria for a long time. IRGC ran the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia out of its Embassy in Damascus, for example, and Iran-backed Shi’a proselytism in eastern Syria and elsewhere had affected Christians and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, long before the war. The demographic shifts orchestrated by Iran and the creation of organic militia elements like Liwa al-Baqir mean Tehran is in the Levant to stay.

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[1] In August 2011, Russia’s then-Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met in Damascus not only with HAMAS’s political leader, Khaled Meshal; he met Moscow’s old friends from the DFLP and PFLP-GC, Nayef Hawatma and Talal Naji, respectively; and Maher al-Taher of the other PFLP branch.

Follow Syria, jihadism, etc. On Twitter: @KyleWOrton.

Follow Syria, jihadism, etc. On Twitter: @KyleWOrton.