By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Russia and the United States

 


Tensions, competition, or dust-up—call it what you will—between Russia and the U.S. presents a fascinating subject for analysis.

No doubt, the U.S. is stronger by far economically and militarily. It was left standing at the end of the Cold War, while the Soviet Union disappeared.

Now Russia is a fragment, albeit a significant fragment, of its former self, without the populations and resources of the Baltic Republics, Ukraine, Central Asian Republics, and tightly held allies of Eastern Europe.

However, it has Vladimir Putin, who learned how to do things while climbing through the ranks of the KGB. Barack Obama’s apprenticeship in Chicago community action was not in the same league.

Remember Lebanon in the 1980s, in the midst of a civil war that was spilling over to others. 

When a U.S. Marine base was attacked with significant loss of life, Ronald Reagan withdrew his forces from Lebanon.

At about the same time, a gang kidnapped a Russian and demanded payment. The Russians responded by seizing a close relative of one of the kidnappers, and sending his head instead of a ransom payment. 

Obama is known and chided throughout the Middle East for two speeches. One called for democracy and equality in Cairo. Another condemned Assad’s use of chemical weapons, threatened drastic action, and ended with a call for diplomacy.

Russia cooperated in removing substantial chemical weapons from Syria, but Assad segued over to chlorine gas, which he continues to use.

Putin makes no bones about his support for Assad. He’s backing it with substantial hardware, as well as ground troops. It’s not yet clear how far he is willing to go in using those assets, but they dwarf what the U.S. has committed to Syria.


Guesses are that Putin is less interested in Assad than in preserving a strong government in the areas important to Russia for military bases, which project Russian power into a strategic part of the Middle East. It’s part of his one-ups-man-ship vis a vis the U.S. If keeping Assad in power does the job, fine for Russia. If Assad goes, Russia will seek to replace him with a strong government that is a loyal client of Russia. It may not be important to Putin that the area in question is only a fraction what now appears on maps of Syria.

American policy is to oppose Assad, call for a political process, and to train what seems to be a small number of fighters to do who knows what for the sake of who knows which opponents of Assad.

Latest report is that American trained troops have transferred equipment to a militia allied with al Quaida, and may have joined the fighters allied to al Quaida.

Putin took Crimea from Ukraine. Since then Russian-speaking opponents of the Ukraine central government, in a region of Ukraine heavily populated by Russians, have all but broken off from their ostensible country, with considerable bloodshed.

The U.S. and its European friends have protested, imposed sanctions against Russia, but seem to be waiting for a miracle.

What is Israel’s role in all of this?

Trying hard to remain out of it.

As far as can be judged from news reports, commentary, and conversations, it appears that the betting in Israel is on Putin, even while Israel’s culture is closer to that of Obama.

Israel has acted more like Russia than the US when feeling pressure. Few Israelis have been mourning the deaths of 2,200 Gazans in a conflict that also cost the lives of about 70 Israelis.

West Bank Palestinians may have gotten the message, especially those old enough remember the second intifada. Urging kids to throw stones is one thing. Should buses and coffee shops begin to explode with suicide bombers, the results throughout towns of the West Bank could resemble what happened in Gaza.


Russia offers opportunity as well as problems for Israel. Its ties with Iran--expressed by cooperating in supporting Assad and the direct provision of sophisticated military, technological, and nuclear resources to Iran--provide it something far beyond the hostility toward the US that Iranian leaders and crowds continue to express, despite the agreement on nuclear energy. 


Assuming that Russia does not want its firmed up position in the Middle East sidetracked by significant warfare between Israel and Iran or even Israel and Hezbollah, it may operate against any provocations from those sources against Israel.

In exchange, one can expect that Israel will continue to distance itself from any heavy action against Russia’s Syrian ally, and not go out of its way to provoke Iran or Hezbollah.

Us commoners can do no more than guess about the details. Among the advantages of an Israeli commoner are friends who know Russia and Iran from the inside, as well as commentators with long experience in things Middle Eastern and  Russian.  

Sifting what one hears and reads is not simple, and not assured to provide a complete or accurate picture. If nothing else, however, those inputs help to protect against overly simple conclusions, or unquestioned acceptance of what comes from any single source.

We needn’t remind ourselves that this is the Middle East. Survival and defense in a nasty neighborhood are the principal goals. Secondary are the needs to be decent to decent people, but that problem is lessened by the limited numbers of neighbors who can be counted on to behave decently.

 

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