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The Kremlin Comes Calling

Viewpoints, November 2016
Ambassador Zvi Magen

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The yearlong Russian involvement in Syria has intensified the tension between the Kremlin and Washington. The strain between the two powers has escalated into an international crisis and has assumed the mantle of a renewed cold war.

Since September the crisis has been deepening and has brought in its wake a slew of reciprocal accusations and denunciations. Russia has advanced provocative demands; such as a halt to Nato’s expansion into Russian areas of interest and the cessation of sanctions and subversive actions against it and recognition of its status as a major power.

The Kremlin triggered the current international crisis, which has been accompanied by a series of demonstrative military measures – a hostile deployment of missiles near its borders with Nato countries; engaging in massive military maneuvers; reinforcing the Russian Mediterranean fleet; expanding its military presence in the Mideast, including the signing of an agreement with Syria for the permanent acquisition of the Tartus naval base; joint military maneuvers with Egypt and discussions about the establishment of a permanent Russian military presence in Egypt; while Moscow continues diplomatic  efforts  to advance its interests in the region, including with Israel. All this while declaring its readiness for a military confrontation with the US, if necessary.

The Russian drive to inflate the crisis from a regional issue to a global confrontation was not spontaneous, but a calculated challenge to the US. The Kremlin sees the current crisis as the continuation of its basic conflict with Washington in the global arena and it is possible that the trigger for the crisis was Russia’s reaction to its lack of success in the Mideast on the one hand and the damage to its interests in East Europe on the other, including its shaky internal situation.

The aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov leads a Russian naval battle group on its way to Syria; Credit: World-wide aircraft carriers.

The aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov leads a Russian naval battle group on its way to Syria; Credit: World-wide aircraft carriers.

The apparent purpose of the crisis is to embarrass the US and to drag it into a series of undesirable reactions from its point of view at a time that it is not comfortable for Washington to confront Moscow in the run-up the US presidential elections. Russia hopes to exploit the situation and change the rules of the game in the international arena and then subsequently open a dialogue with the new US government from a position of strength.

It would appear that Russia, in cooking up the crisis, is acting in our region to effect an understanding to end the conflict in Syria so as to shorten the war, which has lasted longer than is desirable from its point of view, under conditions favorable to Moscow. It is less concerned with the terms of the arrangement, including the fate of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, but rather with enhancing its status in the region while consolidating its permanent strategic presence since this directly affects its international standing.

“The potential dangers of the Kremlin embedding itself in the neighborhood must be taken into account”

America, meanwhile, had adopted a tough stance against Russia on the global level and in the Mediterranean including: the termination of bilateral cooperation in the region; accusations of war crimes in the wake of widespread harm to the civilian population, and other accusations, including complaints of hacking into the computers of the Democratic Party, thus interfering with the US elections. However, because of the elections, Washington has been keen to reduce tension, even temporality, so while maintaining pressure, has sent out feelers suggesting future compromises.

It therefore seems the Russia-America confrontation, that blew up at an awkward time for Washington because of the election, will end after a new president is elected with a compromise convenient to both sides. Though it is also possible that the crisis, at a different level of intensity, could continue and affect relations between the Kremlin and the new US administration.

In the meantime it is possible to observe several developments affecting our region, including Israel interests: the expansion of the Russian military presence in the Mideast, notably air and naval bases in Syria and the injection of advanced armaments into the region; Moscow’s deepening cooperation with Iran and its satellites in Syria and Lebanon and the challenge this presents for Israel; the developing  Russian military ties with Egypt, which could mean an even further increase in its air and naval presence in the region and the expectation of Moscow’s involvement in all regional crises, now and in the future.

While Russia sees Israel as an appropriate regional partner and recognizes its deterrent capabilities, Jerusalem needs to take into account the potential dangers of the Kremlin embedding itself in the neighborhood.

Zvi Magen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies affiliated to Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to Russia.