Monday, 1 July 2013

Russo-Israeli relations in post-cold war period

Anoop Kumar Gupta
Russo-Israeli relations in post-cold war period witnessed a drastic shift in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East. Relinquishing the path of anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and pro-Arab policies in the Middle East, Russian federation developed close relations with Israel in various aspects. Russia allowed large number of Jewish people to immigrate to Israel, favoured political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, maintained almost equidistance to the parties involved in the conflict, and developed joint business enterprise with Israel in military-industrial arena. Simultaneously it continued to develop cordial and beneficial relations with Iran, Syria, and other Middle Eastern states.
The domestic, regional and international situation compelled Russia to adopt pragmatic approach to the region in general and towards Israel in particular. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, economic-strategic consideration became more important in Russian foreign policy rather than politico-ideological consideration.
Historically speaking, the Soviet Union played an important role in the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948. It not only supported the partition plan in November 1947 at the United Nations favouring the creation of Israel but also facilitated arms supply to Israel in the first Arab-Israel war of 1948-49.1 Moreover, the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize Israel de-jure. David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, said that ‘the Soviet Union saved Israel from physical annihilation’.2 The post-Stalin period witnessed how the Soviet policy heavily tilted in favour of Arab states in Arab-Israel conflict and continued until 1990s. The Soviet political, diplomatic and military support to Arab states sustained the conflict. Active Soviet involvement in Arab-Israel conflict began since the eruption of Suez crisis in 1956. The Soviet Union broke the diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six day War of 1967. It also supported the Arab states in War of Attrition, 1969-70 and Yom Kippur War of 1973.3 It always tries to build anti-US Arab unity and encourage Arab states to use oil as apolitical weapon against Israel and Its supporter. During that period it perceived Israel as an expansionist state and Arab-Israel conflict as a conflict between Zionism and people of Palestine.4 Issue of Jewish immigration also irritated the relation between the two states. Though the Soviet doctrinal stand was anti-Zionist, it always supported the existence of Israel and never favoured the extremist forces, which were in favour of annihilating Israel. With the shifting of Egypt’s loyalty towards US and the signing of Camp David Accords, the Soviet role eroded in the Arab-Israel conflict.
Normalization of relation between the two states took place after the emergence of Gorbachev, who initiated the concepts of Perestroika and Glasnost, which resulted in the de-ideologization of Soviet perception of international relations.5 The Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with Israel in October 1991 after the gap of more than two decades. Aleksander Bovin, a well known journalist and supporter of Perestroika, was appointed Russia’s ambassador to Israel.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia emerged as a politically, economically and militarily weak successor state. It was not in apposition to counter US interest in the Middle East and to support Arabs in their struggle against Israel, rather it adopted the policy of Atlanticism, which aimed to develop close relations with United States and West European countries for receiving economic and technological benefits. Since then Russia developed close diplomatic, economic, and military relations with Israel also. However, its political orientation which is governed by the economic-strategic considerations, towards Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Libya is emerged as a security threat to Israel. Following are the major aspect of Russo-Israeli relations in post-cold war period:
Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Russia adopted an even-handed approach towards Israeli-Palestinian conflict in stead of its earlier policy of supporting Arab states against Israel. It is a co-sponsor of the Oslo peace agreement and part of the quartet. It emphasised that the conflict should be resolved only through political means rather than military means. It is supporting the US initiatives in resolving the conflict. Since the Israelis are more inclined to rely on the United States, Russia’s mediator role has been limited in practice in the peace process in this zone. Russia wants to play a greater role in the management and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After the collapse of the US-sponsored talks at Camp David between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, Russia asserting its role in the peace process hoped that this “will help Moscow prove its right to the status of full-fledged participant in a peace settlement and return to the Middle East as a serious player”.6
Russia proposed that any peace plan could not be worked out properly without meeting several other conditions. First of all, the Russian foreign ministry feels that compliance with all previous agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis is mandatory. Second, the Russian foreign ministry proposes that Russia be added to the US-Israel-Palestine triangle- in other words, that the talks become a quadrilateral forum. Finally, Russian side insists that all the various Mideast negotiating process- Palestinian, Lebanon and Syrian- be synchronised. Especially since the Syrian-Israeli and Lebanese-Israeli situations can be resolved much more easily than Palestinian one.7
Despite the atmosphere of mutual hostility between Israel and Palestinians, Russia is convinced that the present situation is not hopeless. It believes that the “crisis can be overcome if both parties take necessary measures to normalise the situation: Palestinians really, not in words but in action, take up the fight against terrorism and start necessary reforms, and Israel acts to improve the humanitarian situation, lift the blockade and restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and terminate settlement activity”.8
Russia is a part of quartet, which prepared the road map aimed at to realise the concept of the coexistence of two states- Israel and Palestine- living side by side in peace and security. Road map was agreed in principle at the ministerial meeting of Russia, United States, the European Union, and the UN Secretary General in Washington on December 20, 2002. The road map has been given to the respective Israeli and Palestinian authority. It is in favour of comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which include not only the emergence of a Palestinian state, but also the peace between Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Syria. Hamas won the parliamentary election in 2005 in territories. Russia has invited Hamas leaders to Moscow for discussion with senior officials in March 2006. Moreover, Russia declined to declare Hamas as a terrorist organisation. This move annoyed Israel.
Intifada and Terrorism:
There emerged a mutuality of interest between both the countries on the issue of terrorism. With the severe criticism of Russia by the West it needs the support of Israel in dealing with terrorist activities in Chechnya. On the issue of terrorism Russian policy is tilted in favour of Israel. Russia categorically stated that there can be no dialogue with terrorist and there is no justification for terrorist attack on civilian.9
Both the countries are also ‘sharing intelligence information on countering terrorism’.10 During the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in October 2002 in which Chechen rebels took some 800 people hostage in a Moscow theatre both the countries were in contact.11 Israeli PM Mr. Sharon said that time that Israel “fully supports Russia’s fight against terrorism.” After the suicide bomber attack in January 2003 in Tel-Aviv in which 23 people killed, Russia strongly condemned the “inhuman attacks of terrorists” but also called upon the Palestinian leadership “to use all the means at its disposal to combat any manifestation of terrorism”.
Military-technical cooperation:
Russia is a cash-ridden economy and desperately looking for new markets for its arms sale to different countries. Israel proved to be an important partner for Russia in this field. A bilateral agreement for military and technical cooperation took place between both the countries in December 1995. It was further extended in 2000 for another five year. Cooperation in this field includes the up-gradation of the Russian equipments and their export to third countries. Presence of a number of former Soviet scientists who immigrated to Israel provided the basis for this cooperation.
Russian and Israeli defence companies signed a deal for cooperative development of an advanced AWACS-style early warning aircraft for the Chinese air force. Under the deal, the Israeli Aircraft Industries will mount its sophisticated PHALCON detection and targeting systems onto Russian made Ilyushin II-76 aircraft. The two countries also agreed to cooperate on the upgrades for the huge fleet of Mig-21 fighter aircraft around the world.12
US defence experts believe that Russia and Israel are the main source of advanced military technology for China’s armed forces.13 Israel has suspended all contacts on the export of arms and security equipment to China, in response to a US request.14 United States was concerned about the possible flow of American technology to China via Israel. Due to close cooperation between US and Israel, much sophisticated American technology reaches Israel. This shows that Russo-Israeli cooperation in military field has its own limitations because of the US factor.
Economic cooperation:
Both Russia and Israel developed close economic ties since the establishment of diplomatic relations in October 1991 and wants to boost it further for their mutual benefit. In 2006 both the countries committed to promote bilateral trade. An Israeli-Russian business council was established in an attempt to expand the business ties between the two countries in January 2010. Despite the low volume trade in 2009 between both the countries, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin emphasised the ‘prospects for productive economic cooperation’ and expressed the will ‘to expand trade cooperation, particularly in agriculture and high technologies’.15 Bilateral trade between both the countries increased rapidly from $ 12 million in 1991 to $ 2.8 billion in 2008.16
In an attempt to promote the collaboration in the field of research and development after long deliberations, Russia and Israel signed an agreement for bilateral cooperation in industrial scientific-research and design-experiment work. Under this agreement the “projects will jointly develop innovative technologies for products or processes that will then be jointly managed, commercialised, and sold in global market”.17 Both the countries have a lot of potential for cooperation in the field of agriculture, science and technology. Russia could benefit itself from the Israeli technology in agricultural field and Israeli diamond industry could get the rough diamond from Russia.
Russian Diaspora in Israel / Jewish factor:
20 percent of the Israeli population is Russian speaking community which immigrated to Israel from former Soviet Union and present Russian federation. On the other hand, there are large numbers of Jewish people in Russia after United States and Israel. Israel is interested in Jewish Diaspora in Russia. This phenomenon provides the strong base for cultural relations between both the countries. One of the major implications of Perestroika and Glasnost, which resulted in the de-ideologigation of internal and external policies of the Soviet Union, was the liberalisation of emigration laws. Resultantly mass exodus of Jewish Diaspora from Russia to Israel took place since 1989. Russian is the second official language in Israel. There are political parties of Russian speaking community in Israel. Netan Saransky and Avigodor Liberman formed the party of this community and contested elections in Israel.
Russian speaking community in Israel is not that strong enough to influence the formulation of Israeli foreign policy to the effect of shaping Russo-Israeli relations in a decisive manner. However, Russian immigrants in Israel are in favour of developing beneficial, friendly and active Russo-Israeli relations. According to Prof. Stefani Hoffman, an Israeli scholar on Russian Affairs, this attitude of Russian immigrants in Israel has had some positive effect in bilateral political relations in various ways. For one, in the past decade, mindful of the “Russian” vote, Israeli political leaders have obligatory promised to upgrade relations with Russia if elected; in addition, they often travelled to Russia and obtained interviews on Russian television stations that are widely watched in Israel in order to attract the local vote. After the election, however, local leaders have usually dropped this item from the agenda.
More interestingly the new post-Soviet Russian attitude towards Russian Diaspora in Israel is not of betrayal from the motherland but it consider them as a capital, which can be used to fulfill its foreign policy purposes. Russia regards them positively as a potential lobbying force. Emphasizing the importance of the presence of the one million Russian speaking community in Israel during the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s official visit to Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin observed, “a sizable number of Israel’s citizen are from the USSR and Russia, still have contacts with our country and friends here, and make frequent visits and regard Russian culture as their own. We want them to live in peace and security.”18 The concern of Russia President regarding the Russian speaking community in Israel showed the interest of Russia in its Diaspora in Israel.
Russia and Israel are working together to upgrade Russian equipment mainly for exports to third countries. Israel has developed the know-how to upgrade the ex-Soviet equipment. Many ex-Soviet scientists who are working in the military-industrial complex before immigrating to Israel provided the basis for this know-how.19 Thus it seems that the presence of the politically organised Russian speaking community in Israel also has the potential to some extent to shape the relations between the two countries in positive direction.
Israel has always showed its interest and concern towards the Jewish Diaspora in Russia. Since its emergence it tried to seek Jewish immigration to Israel. Though hundreds of thousand Jewish people arrived in Israel, many still are living in Russia. Existence of anti-Jewish elements and sporadic incidents of Anti-Semitism in Russia are a major cause of concern for Israel.20 Russian federation always condemned any act or manifestation of anti-Semitism. Jewish community in Russia has the potential to influence the policy of Russia towards Israel to some extent.
Thus after a long gap of diplomatic relations now Russo-Israeli relations are moving slowly towards some positive direction. Both the countries have developed close relations in cultural, economic and military field. Before this current phase of friendly relations since the end of cold war, Russo-Israeli relations had witnessed only one year of cordial relations in 1947-48. During this short period relations between the two states were on its peak. Still the future of Russo-Israeli relations seems highly unpredictable.21 It depends on the future course of the Russian foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East. 
Russia is in favor of the stabilization of the region so that it could develop economic relations with both Israel and Arab states. However, it has the potential to destabilize the region by undermining the US led negotiations and by developing deep political and military involvement in Syria and Iran.
Russia’s military involvement in the Middle East is major hurdle in Russo-Israeli relations. Russo-Israeli relations would be affected seriously with the increasing Russian arms supply to Syria and its military and nuclear cooperation with Iran.22 So far Russia and Syria have signed one arms sale contract for the supply of 1000 “Metis-M” and “Kornet-E” anti-tank missile. Israel expressed concerned over these sale to Syria.23 During the current political crisis in Syria against the Asad regime, Russian federation extended full support to Asad and is against any military move for changing the present regime in Syria.
Iran is the third largest recipient of Russian arms after China and India. Russia is not only selling conventional weapons to Iran but also helping her in developing nuclear power plant in Busher in southern Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “accused Russia of endangering Israel’s existence by helping Iran in developing ballistic missiles”.24 Foreign minister of Israel, Shimon Peres had described Iran as “the mother of terror in the Middle East.”25 Iran’s connection with Shiite organization Hizbullah in southern Lebanon is a problem for Israel.
Internationally speaking, US factor is very important in bilateral relations of both the states. If Middle Eastern dynamics creates rivalry between US and Russia and moves towards zero-sum game in the region, it will have its bearings on Russo-Israeli relations. Though both the United States and Russia are cooperating on the issue of countering terrorism at global and regional level. Russia’s honeymoon with US has its own limitations though it is not fully over.
As far as Middle East is concerned, this is the only region where Russia can achieve something by opposing the US policy initiatives.26 Because this the most vulnerable region for the US interests and here exist the anti-US national actors like Iran, Syria, Iraq. Russia in the long run can exploit this situation for furthering its interest in the region and for expanding its influence in the region. But at present Russia seems in favour of stability and status quo in the region. Russia’s economic and military weak position is a major restraint in achieving its foreign policy goal in the region.  Militarily Russia is not in a position to counter the American interests in the Middle East but diplomatically it shall be active to promote its national interests in the region.
The presence of pro-Arab elements in the domestic politics of Russia is also a hurdle in developing close relations between both the countries. Eurasian forces are in favor of developing close relations with Arab states. Arms sale agencies and oil companies in Russia also see their economic interest in Arab states.
Russia is a Eurasian power. Though Russia is culturally closer to West but its strategic and economic interests lie in Asia or the East. It is a historically proven fact that Russia had a tendency to look towards East. Russia cannot come very close to Israel because of its economic interests in short term and politico-strategic interests in long-term perspective in other Middle Eastern states. It seems that Russia would develop close relations with Israel but shall keep low profile in its bilateral relations with Israel. At present Russia is developing separate relations with Israel and other Middle Eastern states and its policy seems to be compartmentalized in the region. Basically, has adopted a pragmatic foreign policy in the Middle East.

1. For detail see, Yaacov Ro’i, The Soviet Decision Making in Practice: The USSR and Israel, 1947-54, New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1980; see also Dagan, Avigdor, Moscow and Jerusalem: Twenty Years of Relations between Israel and the Soviet Union, London, Abelard-Schuman Limited, 1970; Krammer, Arnold, The Forgotten Freindship: Israel and the Soviet Bloc, 1947-53, University of Illionis Press, Chicago, 1974.
2.See Yaacov Ro’i, “Soviet Policies and Attitudes towards Israel, 1948-78-An Overview”, Soviet Jewish Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1978, p. 35.
3.For the detailed study of Soviet behavior in connection with Arab-Israeli wars see, M. S. Agwani, The West Asian Crisis 1967, Meerut, Meenakshi Prakashan, 1968; Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition, 1969-1070, New York, Columbia University Press, 1980; Galia Golan, Yom Kippur and After: The Soviet Union and the Middle East Crisis, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977, Foy D. Kohler, The Soviet Union and the October 1973 Middle East War: The Implication for the Detente, Florida, Centre for Advanced International Studies, University of Miyami, 1988. 
4.For the Soviet perception of Israel and Arab-Israel conflict see Y. M. Primakov, Anatomy of the Middle East Conflict, (Moscow: “Nauka” Publishing House, 1979); see also Galina Nikitina, The State of Israel: A Historical, Economic, and Political Study, (Moscow Progress Publishers, 1973).
5.For the detailed study of Russo-Israeli relations during Gorbachev period see Robert O. Freedman, Soviet Policy towards Israel under Gorbachev, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1991.
6.Kommersant, August 9, 2000, translated in The Current Digest of Post-Soviet Press, Vol. 52, No. 32, September 6, 2000, p. 17.
7.Ibid. pp. 17-18.
8.See the Daily News Bulletin of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, December 6, 2002, Web address:
9.The Current Digest of Post Soviet Press, Vol. 53, No. 36, October 13, 2001, p. 17.
10.Nina Gilbert, “Sharon: Russia has halted sale of SA-18 missile to Syria” Jerusalem Post Online edition,  October 28, 2002, Web address:,
12.Venic, March 5, 1999. See at
13.Washington Times, December 13, 1997. quoted from the web site:
14.Ha’aretz, January 2, 2003.
15.Voice of Russia, February 16, 2010,
16.Voice of Russia, February 16, 2010,
17.Posted on March 22, 2010,
18.The Current Digest of the Post Soviet Press, Vol. 53, No. 36, October 13, 2001, p. 17.
19.Oksana Antonenko, “Russia’s Military Involvement in the Middle East” in Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2001, p. 13. Web address:
20.For detail see Anti-Semitism World Report 1995, Institute of Jewish Affairs, 1995, London, p. 197.
21.Sasson Sofer, “Israel in the World Order: Social and International Perspectives” in Sasson Sofer (ed.), Peace Making in a Devided Society: Israel After Rabin, (London: Frank Cass, 2001), p. 20.
22.For the detailed study of Russia’s arms supply to Middle Eastern state in 1990s see Oksana Antonenko, “Russia’s Military Involvement in the Middle East” in Middle East Review of International Affair (MERIA), Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2001, Web address:; also seeAriel Cohen and James Phillips, “Russia’s Dangerous Missile Game in Iran” The Haritage Foundation, Executive Memorandum No. 503, November 13, 1997, Web address:
23.For military implication of these arms transfer on Israel see Jane’s Defense Weekly, Vol. 030, Issue 005, August 5, 1998, quoted in Oksana Antonenko, “Russia’s Military Involvement in the Middle East” in Middle East Review of International Affair (MERIA), Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2001, Web address:
24.Dow Jones Business News, March 5, 1997, see at
25.Ellis Shuman, “Iran successfully test missile capable of striking Israel” Israelinsider, May 27, 2002, Web address:
26.Sasson Sofer, op. cit. p. 20.
Dr. Anoop Kumar Gupta
Author of the article is Ph. D in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
He has been visiting researcher at Hebrew University of

Jerusalem, Israel.