Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel on June 25 for his first state visit since retaking the presidency. The visit was arranged in mid-May, and so at least part of the agenda was set, given events in Syria and Egypt. The interesting thing about Israel and Russia is that while they seem to be operating in the same areas of interest and their agendas seem disconnected, their interests are not always opposed. It is easy to identify places they both care about but more difficult to identify ways in which they connect. It is therefore difficult to identify the significance of the visit beyond that it happened.
An example is Azerbaijan. Russia is still a major weapons provider for Azerbaijan, but the Israelis are now selling it large amounts of weapons and appear to be using it as a base from which to observe and, according to rumors, possibly attack Iran. Russia, which supports Armenia, a country Azerbaijan fought a war with in the late 1980s and early 1990s and technically still is at war with, ought to oppose Israel's action, particularly since it threatens Iran, which Russia does not want attacked. At the same time, Russia doesn't feel threatened by Israeli involvement in Azerbaijan, and Israel doesn't really care about Armenia. Both are there, both are involved and both think Azerbaijan is important, yet each operates in ways that ought to conflict but don't.
The same is true in the more immediate case of Syria, where its downing of a Turkish plane has created an unexpected dynamic for this visit. To think about this we need to consider Russian and Israeli strategy and its odd lack of intersection in Syria.
Russia's Need for a U.S. Distraction
Russia has complex relationships in the region, particularly focused on Syria and Iran. Russia's interest in both countries is understandable. Putin, who has said he regarded the breakup of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical catastrophe, views the United States as Russia's prime adversary. His view is that the United States not only used the breakup to extend NATO into the former Soviet Union in the Baltics but also has tried to surround and contain Russia by supporting pro-democracy movements in the region and by using these movements to create pro-American governments. Putin sees himself as being in a duel with the United States throughout the former Soviet Union.
The Russians believe they are winning this struggle. Putin is not so much interested in dominating these countries as he is in being certain that the United States doesn't dominate them. That gives Russia room to maneuver and allows it to establish economic and political relations that secure Russian interests. In addition, Russia has tremendously benefited from the U.S. wars in the Islamic world. It is not so much that these wars alienated Muslims, although that was beneficial. Rather, what helped the Russians most was that these wars absorbed American strategic bandwidth.
Obviously, U.S. military and intelligence capabilities that might have been tasked to support movements and regimes in Russia's "near abroad" were absorbed by conflict in the Islamic world. But perhaps even more important, the strategic and intellectual bandwidth of U.S. policymakers was diverted. Russia became a secondary strategic interest after 9/11. While some movements already in place were supported by the United States, this was mostly inertia, and as the Russians parried and movements in various countries splintered, the United States did not have resources to respond.
The Russians also helped keep the United States tied up in Afghanistan by facilitating bases in Central Asia and providing a corridor for resupply. Russia was able to create a new reality in the region in which it was the dominant power, without challenge.
The Russians therefore valued the conflict in the Middle East because it allowed Russia to be a secondary issue for the only global power. With the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan ending, the possibility is growing that the United States would have the resources and bandwidth to resume the duel on the Russian periphery. This is not in the Russian interest. Therefore, the Russians have an interest in encouraging any process that continues to draw the United States into the Islamic world. Chief among these is supporting Iran and Syria. To be more precise, Russia does not so much support these countries as it opposes measures that might either weaken Iran or undermine the Syrian government. From the Russian point of view, the simple existence of these regimes provides a magnet that diverts U.S. power.
Israel's Position on Syria
This brings us back to Putin's visit to Israel. From the Russian point of view, Syria is not a side issue but a significant part of its strategy. Israel has more complex feelings. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, while the Soviets were allied with it, represented a significant danger to Israel. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Syria lost its patron and diminished as a threat. Since then, the Syrians under al Assad had two virtues from the Israeli point of view. The first was that they were predictable. Their interests in Lebanon were built around financial and political goals that could be accommodated by the Israelis in exchange for limitations on the sorts of military activity that Israel could not tolerate. Furthermore, Syria's interests did not include conflict with Israel, and therefore Syria held Hezbollah in check until it was forced out of Lebanon by the United States in 2005.
The second advantage of the al Assad regime in relation to Israel was that it was not Sunni but Alawite, a Shiite sect. During the 2000s, Israel and the West believed the main threat emanated from the Sunni world. Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas were all Sunni. Over the past decade, a corrupt minority Alawite regime has appeared preferable to Israel than a coherent majority radical Islamist regime in the north. It wasn't certain how radical it would be, but at the same time there appeared to be more risk on the Sunni side than on the Shiite side.
Israel's position on the al Assad regime has shifted in the past year from hoping it would survive to accepting that it couldn't and preparing for the next regime. Underlying this calculus was a reconsideration of which regime would be more dangerous. With the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq and with Iran filling the vacuum that was left, Iran became a greater threat to Israel than Hamas and the Sunnis. Therefore, Israel now desires a Sunni regime in Syria that would block Iranian ambitions.