Is Israel’s Russian alliance over?

What does the war in Israel mean for the country’s complicated relations with Russia and Ukraine?

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Is Israel’s Russian alliance over?

A police officer checks a man’s documents as he leaves flowers outside Israel’s Moscow embassy. Photo: EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV

Joseph Epstein

D.C.-based analyst covering the Middle East and Post-Soviet Space

The night of the Hamas massacre in Israel, the Israeli flag lit up on buildings throughout Kyiv in solidarity with the Jewish state, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the terrorist group and called Israel’s right to defence “unquestionable”. Zelensky even criticised Iran’s role in the attack, going farther than even US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Contrast that with the muted statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which framed the attack as “another … vicious circle of violence” and called for the establishment of a Palestinian State on 1967 borders. In Moscow, three days after the massacre, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the United States for the incident and didn’t offer a word of condolence or condemnation. In St. Petersburg, police even prevented people from laying flowers outside the Israeli consulate.

Russia has not always been so cold to Israel, nor has Ukraine always been so warm. In the past Putin has made efforts to court Israel, even holding yearly meetings with Israeli leaders. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously campaigned on his purported close relations to Putin. The Russian president himself once reportedly warned Yasser Arafat that he would consider an attack on Israel an attack on Russia due to the millions of Russian citizens living there.

Ukraine has openly criticised Israel multiple times for its lack of support during the war. In June, Israel summoned the Ukrainian ambassador after he accused Jerusalem’s policy of being “pro-Russian.”

In fact, Russian propagandists including RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan showed open delight over the attack, with some gleefully saying it would divert Western attention from Ukraine. Russian state media blamed Israel for the attack due to its “years of humiliation of Palestinians.” Belarusian state media published an article by Igor Molotov, which was subsequently deleted, calling for a thermonuclear bomb to be dropped on Israel. Not one of them even decried the loss of Russian life in the attack.

Israel and Russia have drifted apart since Putin invaded Ukraine last February.

In the early days of the war, Israel did everything it could to stay neutral, much to the fury of its Western partners and Ukrainian officials. Yet Israel felt that it didn’t have a choice as Moscow was in de facto control of the skies over Syria.

The Russian tactics used in Israel are the same as those it used in the South Caucasus: positioning itself in the middle of a conflict and making itself indispensable to both sides. By controlling Syria, Russia placed itself between Iran and Israel. Sometimes it would open the Syrian skies for Israeli strikes on Iranian targets, sometimes it would keep the skies closed to allow Iranian convoys to pass through to Lebanon. This made both Jerusalem and Tehran beholden to Moscow.

But things changed.

Russia became more dependent on Iran and Russian capacity in Syria has fallen to the point where Israeli intelligence considers Moscow’s threat capability in Syria to be “negligible.”

As Russia began stepping up its cooperation with Iran, it started meeting more with Iranian proxies including Hamas. As the Russian military began using Iranian Shahed drones against Ukraine, Israeli intelligence started cooperating with their Ukrainian counterparts on anti-drone technology. Throughout, Israel’s Western allies have been pressuring Netanyahu to distance himself from Putin.

For its part, Moscow began pushing Jerusalem away not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. Five months after the start of the war, Moscow closed the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency, while in June, the Israeli ambassador was called in by the Russian Foreign Ministry after the Israeli government objected to Kremlin propaganda that compared the Ukrainian government to Nazis.

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Following the onset of war, Moscow’s calculations regarding Israel changed as it began to see the world in binary terms of “East” and “West.” This sentiment was echoed by Alexander Dugin, one of the most prominent Kremlin ideologists, who said on Monday that

Russia must stand with “its friend, ally and brother Iran” against the “Western vassal” Israel.

The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.As Israel is Washington’s closest ally, it is also a fair target in Moscow’s eyes. Russian policy toward Israel has now shifted to the point that it’s broadly aligned with the Soviet one, which viewed Israel as a Western outpost and institutionalised anti-Semitism through its anti-Zionist rhetoric.

In the past year there has been an uptick in anti-Semitic remarks from Russia that have irritated Israeli officials. Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attempted to explain how Zelensky could be both Jewish and a neo-Nazi by claiming that “Hitler had Jewish roots.” After drawing Israeli condemnation for the comments, Lavrov doubled down by accusing Israel of supporting the “neo-Nazi regime” in Kyiv. Putin himself also accused Zelensky of supporting neo-Nazis despite his “Jewish blood.”

Currently, Israel is unlikely to make any bold moves that might draw Russian ire. It is in the midst of an all-out war on its southern border and is threatened by Hezbollah, Iran and Iranian proxies in Iraq and Yemen. It does not need or seek any more enemies. However, Israel will eventually have to make a choice, and every day that Moscow pushes it away while Kyiv draws it closer makes that choice abundantly clearer.

Views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of Novaya Gazeta Europe.

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