History of Russian Foreign Policy in The Middle East

Highlights regarding the current aggravation of the Palestine-Israel crisis

16 mins read
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Each new Middle East crisis is one of a kind, similar to the previous ones – both in the sense of its impact on the region itself and on outside world. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, which was then owned by the British. London responded by joining forces with Israel and France and organizing a military intervention against Egypt. As a result, Israel came out the winner, while for Britain it all ended in a terrible fiasco and an exit from the club of the leading world powers. Just as the crisis was inexorably heading towards this outcome, the wife of the then British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, Lady Clarissa Eden, uttered a phrase that reverberated across the country: “Over the past few weeks, I have sometimes felt that the Suez Canal flows right through my living room.” Today, figuratively speaking, the Suez Canal once again flows through our living rooms, as well as through our airports, streets and minds.

Just a month ago, it seemed that a new violent outbreak in the Middle East would not come as still another test of strength for Russia. But it did. 

“Internal unrest is the replacement of the current Russian elites with transitional ones. As a result, Russia will focus on its domesticl problems for a certain period and begin to take the place in the world that it truly deserves (the place of a non-global player),” this is how, shortly after the riots in Makhachkala, Mikhail Podolyak, adviser to the head of the office of the Ukrainian President, described Kiev’s strategic goals. It is obviously with these goals in mind that the Zelensky regime is banking on promoting anti-Semitic sentiments in Russia, even to the point of organizing bloody pogroms.

Meanwhile, Russia has come under a political attack from Israel, incensed by the recent visit to Moscow by a delegation of top Hamas officials. 

“Israel views the invitation of Hamas leaders to Moscow as an undignified step that gives the green light to terror and legitimizes the atrocities of Hamas terrorists. We call on the Russian government to immediately expel the Hamas terrorists,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

When being pressured from all sides, you may be tempted to change or at least adjust your foreign policy course, but in this case, you should by no means succumb to this temptation. It is in Moscow’s best interest to pursue a balanced line in the Middle East because any tilt in one direction or another will seriously jeopardize its national interests.

Lessons of history

In 1991, when diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel did not yet exist, Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh paid a visit to Tel Aviv and was warmly received by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Shamir was a very tough man who, as he later confided with Russian representatives, never repented his “sins of youth,” such as organizing terrorist attacks, including the 1944 assassination of the British Resident Minister for the Middle East, Lord Moyne. That being said, Yitzhak Ezernitsky, (the surname he went under in his early years), who was born in 1915 in the Grodno province of the Russian Empire and was fluent in Russian, also boasted a good sense of humor, entertaining the Soviet delegation with the following story.

During a visit to the UN General Assembly in New York in the early 1980s, Shamir, who was then Israel’s Foreign Minister, caught sight of a fellow native of Belarus – his Soviet counterpart Andrei Gromyko. Shamir immediately walked up to his colleague and, speaking with that indescribable Jewish town accent, said, “Mr. Gromyko, why don’t you love us?”  “How can I not love you?” Gromyko replied with an equally indescribable Belarusian accent. “In 1948, I voted at the UN for the creation of the state of Israel!”

Here is another episode reflecting the complexity, ambiguity and versatility of the history of relations between Moscow and Israel. When receiving one of the Russian ambassadors in Tel Aviv during the Yeltsin era, the then Israeli President Ezer Weizman suddenly reminisced how, right ahead of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, he, then a young pilot, visited Prague, with portraits of Stalin emblazoned everywhere, and actively participated in secret deliveries of military equipment, including aircraft, from Czechoslovakia to Israel. Officially, these supplies were authorized by the Czech government, but in reality the decision was made personally by Stalin. Back in those days, the Arab states that objected to the creation of the Jewish state were under very strong Western influence. Therefore, at some point, the “father of all nations” thought about turning Israel into a Soviet outpost in the Middle East.

As we know, these expectations did not come true. By the time the next Arab-Israeli war broke out in the summer of 1967, Israel had become an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of the United States in the Middle East, and the Soviet Union had become an ally of the Arab world’s most influential country – Egypt. On the morning of June 5, in a surprise move, Israel went to war and within days established control over a territory that was more than three times its own size. The scale of the Israeli victory would have been even more impressive, but on June 10, the Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin sent an urgent telegram to US President Lyndon Johnson: “We propose that you demand from Israel an unconditional cessation of hostilities within the next few hours… We want to warn Israel that if this is not done, we will take the necessary steps, including military ones.”

The warning worked. Moscow clearly demonstrated the extent of its influence on the international stage. Unfortunately, the Brezhnev Politburo also demonstrated how not to conduct foreign policy. On that very same day, June 10, 1967, the Israeli Ambassador to Moscow Katriel Katz was summoned to the Foreign Ministry on Smolenskaya Square and handed the following note: “The Soviet government declares that due to the continuation of aggression by Israel against the Arab states and its gross violation of decisions by the Security Council, the government of the USSR has decided to break off diplomatic relations with Israel.”

This is how the famous Russian historian Gennady Kostyrchenko described the long-term consequences of this decision in his book “Secret Politics: From Brezhnev to Gorbachev”: “By breaking off diplomatic relations with the Jewish state and thus assigning it to the category of irreconcilable enemies, the Soviet leadership doomed itself to a one-sided orientation, burdened by the same onerous obligation to support the chronically weak Arab side. The defeatism and vulnerability of such a position became especially obvious after Egypt unilaterally terminated the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the USSR on March 14, 1976 and, having completely reoriented itself towards the United States and Israel, seriously undermined the political authority of the Soviet Union in the Middle East.”

The Egypt of President Anwar Sadat was not the only one who behaved in such a double-dealing manner. In his book “The Middle East on Stage and Behind the Scenes” Yevgeny Primakov thus describes the behavior of such a “great friend of the Soviet Union” as President Mengistu Haile Mariam: “Despite its verbally anti-Israeli position, the Ethiopian leadership, led by Mengistu, regularly receives weapons from Israel, delivered by sea to the port of Mombasa. Ethiopia was then at war with Somalia, and Mengistu swore allegiance to Moscow, but carefully kept under wraps his secret agreements with Israel.”

Ironically, it was from Israel itself that Yevgeny Primakov managed to learn about the existence of such agreements. As deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in the early 1970s, Primakov, acting on instructions from the Soviet leadership, maintained confidential contacts with the Israeli authorities: “While waiting for a meeting with the Prime Minister, we asked this question to Ben Elissar (the Premier’s chief of staff), who confirmed the fact of supply of these weapons. “Naturally,” he said, “the deal is strictly confidential… As compensation for the supplied weapons, the Ethiopian leadership agreed to release to Israel 20,000 Falashas – Ethiopian citizens professing Judaism.”

Big politics in the Middle East has consisted, and continues to consist, of such nuances hidden from prying eyes, secret layers, with even more secret ones lying underneath. Ignoring this fact in an attempt to pursue a policy in the region based on binary logic, where there are those who are for us and those who are against us, dooms even a great power to the role of an object that is manipulated by everyone. Accepting this fact gives a great power a chance to succeed even in such a complex region as the Middle East. During Putin’s presidency, Russia managed to take advantage of this chance 100 percent primarily because the Kremlin’s present-day policy is directly opposite to that e line of the Brezhnev Politburo.

Moscow does not drive itself into a corner, does not deprive itself of freedom of maneuver, and does not turn itself into a voluntary hostage of anyone. This line commands respect in the region. However, among some regional players this respect is mixed with discontent, a desire to return to the “good old Soviet times,” when, with rhetoric about “brotherhood, friendship and socialism” Moscow could be forced to pull chestnuts out of the fire for someone else. On the one hand, Tel Aviv is putting pressure on Russia, demanding that Moscow break all contacts with Hamas and take an unambiguous pro-Israeli position in the spirit of 1948. On the other hand, the Kremlin is being pressured by those with diametrically different views and positions (I express myself so euphemistically because the Hamas movement is far from being the first in this list). Hiding behind this pressure is a clear desire to get back to the situation of 1967 or even something worse than that.

Obviously, neither one suits Russia’s national interests. When choosing between the conflicting sides in the Middle East, Moscow must invariably choose itself, no matter how this might hurt the feelings of its partners in the region and beyond.

What’s happening right before our eyes

“Israeli Pearl Harbor,” “Israeli September 9” – the view that what happened on October 7 was a colossal failure by Israel’s intelligence services is just a banality now. However, because of the multi-layered nature of the political game in the Middle East I mentioned before, lying behind this failure is an even bigger catastrophe – a failure of political strategy, erroneous long-term calculations by the top Israeli leadership. Several years ago, a prominent Russian politician had a “heart-to-heart talk” with his equally prominent and influential Israeli colleague. A man from Moscow asked his guest from Tel Aviv (or rather, from Jerusalem, where Israeli government departments now work from): “You are not satisfied with the concept of two states – Jewish and Palestinian. You are not satisfied with the concept of a single state. What do you want then?” The answer was equally frank: “We don’t want anything. We are quite happy with the current situation.”

What was actually meant by “the current situation” was the marginalization of the political role of Palestinians in the Middle East. The leading Arab countries in the region had started to “forget” about their existence and to mend fences with Israel. This made everyone happy, except the Palestinians, of course. The Israeli leadership apparently ignored this, like “who is asking them?” A dangerous, even fatal, mistake, which eventually led up to the crisis now unfolding  there.

When the great ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu formulated his famous principle, “keep your friends close and your enemies even closer,” he did not mean that you should love your enemies or turn them into your friends. The meaning of Sun Tzu’s wise words can best be deciphered with the help of another quote – from the book “33 Strategies of War” by the American author Robert Greene: “The rule of warfare is not to rely on the fact that the enemy will not come, but to rely on the fact that how can you meet him.” Israel based its policy on the strategic assumption that Hamas would sit back and silently watch it being isolated and reduced to the position of an underdog.

Given what we know today, such a position seems hopeless, almost cartoonishly naive. But we are all strong in hindsight, aren’t we? What seems so obvious now did not seem so at all before October 7. The Hamas leadership is two-pronged. Their political leaders (the head of the Politburo Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Mashaal, a member of the Politburo and the head of the foreign policy department Musa Abu Marzuk, who recently visited Moscow) reside in the US-allied emirate of Qatar and, as experts assume, are being closely watched by Israeli agents.

The military leadership of Hamas (YahyaSinwar, Saleh al-Arouri, Muhammad Deif) exists right on the Palestinian territories where it is much more difficult, if not impossible, for Israel to infiltrate its agents. Moscow believes that the decision to attack on October 7 was made and carried out by the Hamas military leadership without consulting its political “superiors.” With the help of a simple trick like that, they managed to lull Israel and take it by surprise. This is just an assumption, though. What is not an assumption, however, is that as a result of Hamas’ actions a month ago, the Israeli leadership’s strategic plan A broke into pieces, while they did not and do not have a plan B.

Israel has no idea how to strategically solve the problem of the Gaza Strip. The military action it has taken is just a strategic improvisation, based on the principle “if you don’t know what to do, do at least something no matter what.” Legend has it that in October 1951, Stalin told the newly-appointed Minister of State Security Semyon Ignatiev: “A state security officer has only two paths ahead: to be promoted or to go to jail.” Likewise, Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also has only two options: to hang on to his job for as long as possible or to suffer the consequences. Even before the events of October 7, the Beit Agion mansion (the official residence of the Israeli Prime Minister) served as a means for Netanyahu to avoid prosecution on various corruption charges. After the Hamas attack, the stakes for Netanyahu went through the roof.

Here is a short list of Israeli prime ministers since 2009: Benjamin Netanyahu (March 2009 – June 2021); Naftali Bennett (June 2021 – June 2022); Yair Lapid (July–December 2022); since December last year – again Netanyahu. Clearly enough, the strategy that fell so miserably through on October 7 was the brainchild of the current head of government. The other two Israeli prime ministers went out the door before they got used to their new positions. The “authorship” of the worst disaster in the country’s history since 1973 clearly belongs to Benjamin Netanyahu.

On October 6, 1973, Israel came under a surprise attack by Syria and Egypt. After the end of that brief war, a special commission of inquiry led by the President of the Supreme Court Shimon Agranat was set up to find out why the country’s authorities had been caught flat-footed by that combined attack. As a result of the commission’s findings, Prime Minister Golda Meir and a bunch of top army leaders lost their positions. There is an important nuance though – even when taken by surprise, Israel took less than three weeks to win the war.

In 2023, Israel has found itself in a much more dire situation. Therefore, the verdict of the new “Agranat commission” may also be way harsher for those who slept through the Hamas attack. Fully aware of the vulnerability of his position, Netanyahu is trying to make up with tight-laced toughness towards the Palestinians and all those who criticize Israel’s actions. Moreover, the technologies for responding to the critics of the Israeli authorities’ actions have been brought to near perfection. This is how Jacob Rabkin, emeritus professor of history at the University of Montreal, who emigrated from the Soviet Union over 50 years ago, described these technologies in his article published in May of this year in the magazine “Russia in Global Affairs.”

“In the early 1970s, South African-born Abba Eban, whose eloquence as Israel’s UN representative and later Foreign Minister was legendary, devised a long-term strategy. Its goal was to prevent criticism of its country by accusing the critics of anti-Semitism. His efforts continue to bear fruit: accusations of Israeli apartheid towards Palestinians and even boycotts of Israeli produce in supermarkets are officially banned in many Western countries as manifestations of anti-Semitism. Thus, Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians is outside the bounds of free discussion.”

In view of what is now happening in Gaza, Eban’s strategy is losing its credence, but Israel, apparently (or rather obviously) believes that it has no other choice but to stick to this logic. Hence the aggressive accusations against Russia for allegedly supporting Islamic extremists and terrorists. A funny accusation against a country, whose efforts in Israel’s neighboring Syria, preserved a secular political regime. What makes this accusation even funnier (although this may not be the right word under the circumstances) is an article that appeared in the September 12, 2016 issue of the country’s leading newspaper, The Times of Israel.

“On Sunday, a member of parliament from the ruling coalition accused Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman of supporting an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria during the recent “merciless” attack on the Druze on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. A Druze member of Knesset, Akram Hasson from Kulanu, said that Lieberman provided the Fateh al-Sham Front (formerly the al-Nusra Front, banned and declared a terrorist organization in Russia) with protection, logistical support and, possibly “advanced technology” during its attacks on the regime-controlled city of Hader. ‘The al-Nusra Front attacks the Druze city of Hader under the cover and protection of Defense Minister Lieberman. We will not rest until… Lieberman ends his support for al-Nusra against the Druze,’ Hasson wrote… Hasson said the militant group launched a “relentless” and “indiscriminate” attack on Hadera, resulting in the death of dozens of people.”

Another example. Material, titled “Good Neighbor,” published on the official website of the Israeli Defense Forces on July 19, 2017, says, “A wounded Syrian arrived at the border and asked the Israeli Defense Forces to provide him with medical assistance. There was no established policy on this at the time, but the local commander decided to treat the wounded civilian. Since then, such assistance has been provided almost on a daily basis. In June 2016, as part of a decision to expand humanitarian assistance efforts, the Northern Command of the Defense Forces established the headquarters of Operation Good Neighbor.

The goal of Operation Good Neighbor was to provide humanitarian assistance to as many people as possible while maintaining Israel’s policy of non-intervention in the conflict. The first events coordinated by the headquarters took place in August 2016. More than 110 relief operations of various kinds have been carried out ever since. “Based on my 20-year medical career, I can say with confidence that the medical care we provide to our neighbors here in northern Israel is one of the most significant efforts to treat those in need that I have ever seen,” said Colonel Dr. Noam Fink, Chief Medical Officer, Northern Command. “I really hope that our contribution will have a direct impact on the lives of our Syrian neighbors.”

A very touching text, accompanied by even more touching illustrations. Just look at the photo of an Israeli military man holding a Syrian baby in his arms. One “small detail” that the Israel Defense Forces’ PR people missed out on is that during that period the abovementioned areas of Syria were controlled by extremist militants. And that the story about “humanitarian assistance to civilians” is only a cover for the fact that assistance – not only “humanitarian” – was actually provided to these same militants.

The country that is hated the most by Islamic radicals is playing some strange games with these very radicals. How come? An  explanation can be very long, complex and confusing, but what will definitely be an integral part of it is geopolitics.

Real situation

Yevgeny Primakov’s book mentions his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1971: “Having greeted me, she started by saying that she admired Moscow (so beautiful!), the Russian language (so sonorous!), and recalled our Ambassador Bodrov (so witty!), his daughter and son-in-law – a Yemenite Jew (he is so fluent in Russian!)… ‘Well, now, she said, ‘let’s cut to the chase. Israel is interested in improving relations with the Soviet Union. We will never join any actions directed against the USSR. The United States knows well that it cannot dictate our policies.’ But we also knew that Meir at one time, on the direct orders of Ben-Gurion (the first Prime Minister of Israel), was talking in Washington about Israel’s possible joining NATO.”

What was true in 1971 remains so in 2023. Israel still has a vested interest in good relations with Moscow. However, for Israel, Washington remains a political partner number one, number two and number three. Hence Israel’s flirtation with Islamic radicals in Syria (and not only in Syria), as well as its position regarding the Ukrainian crisis. True, unlike other countries of the collective West, Israel did not impose sanctions against Russia. But, as the Israeli ambassador to Germany Ron Prozor babbled on January 30 of this year, Israel is actively helping Ukraine – “albeit behind the scenes, but much more than is known.”

Israel’s anti-Russian bias was especially pronounced during last year’s brief premiership of Yair Lapid. But, as I understood from conversations I had with senior Russian officials in Moscow, hopes for more constructive relations between the two countries inspired by Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power have never materialized despite the fact that Vladimir Putin and the current (or, rather, still current) Israeli Premier share a long history of trusty relations. The logic of geopolitics is stronger than any personal factors. So it was, so it is and so it will be.

During his last visit to Israel in January 2020, Putin told his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin: “You just said that we don’t know where anti-Semitism ends. Unfortunately, we know. It ends in Auschwitz. Therefore, you need to be very careful in order not to miss anything like this in the future, and to resist any manifestations of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, wherever it happens and whoever it comes from.”

Who would have thought in those blissful last days of normal life (the coronavirus pandemic was already looming then) that just four years later the crisis in the Middle East would turn anti-Semitism into a real threat to internal stability in Russia? Probably no one. But today, we are where we are. Nostalgia for the past is devoid of any practical meaning. Based on its status as an influential global and regional player, Russia must contribute to the establishment of peace in the Middle East, and at the same time prevent itself from becoming another “Middle East.”

I don’t know to what extent and how fast Russia and the other global powers will manage to solve the first problem. The experience of many generations of politicians shows that establishing peace in the Middle East is not just a difficult matter, but an extremely difficult one. This being said, I still have confidence in maintaining civil peace in Russia. Civil peace is the most precious, most important resource for a country’s development, much more valuable than, for example, oil, gas and gold. Since 2000, Russia has been working hard to consolidate this resource. The results of this effort should under no circumstances be nullified. And, as the Kremlin assured me, they will under no circumstances be nixed. According to my information, the authorities are ready to take the toughest, most decisive measures in order to maintain stability, interethnic harmony and civil peace in this country.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. Both these tasks – promoting peace in the Middle East and maintaining stability in Russia – are interconnected. And both now imply a readiness to say a decisive “no” to certain Israeli plans, including the idea of “solving the Gaza Strip problem” by deporting all (or many) of its residents to neighboring Egypt. If such readiness does not sit well with Israel, then this is mainly its problem, not Russia’s.

Originally published in Moskovsky Komsomolets Newspaper

Mikhail Rostovsky

Mikhail Rostovsky, a Moscow based journalist, who has been with Moskovsky Komsomolets since 1991 can be classified as a systemic liberal.

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