Why Israel will watch the US-Russia standoff anxiously

Simmering tensions over Ukraine could spill over into the Middle East

An Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman watches through a spyglass on a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists close to Lugansk village in the Donetsk region last week. AFP

Russia’s talks with the US and Nato ended with no resolution last week, thereby increasing the likelihood of Moscow sending troops into neighbouring Ukraine, which would invite some form of retaliation from Washington and Brussels. Russia considers Ukraine to be in its sphere of influence – both are former Soviet republics – and has warned it against moving ever closer to Nato, a US-led western security umbrella.

Should conflict break out, who will pay the price for the worsening crisis between the West and Russia, and who will benefit from it? The obvious answer as to whom it will undermine is Europe – primarily for geographical reasons. But Russia’s so-called militarised diplomacy could also have dire consequences for Israel, with the beneficiary likely to be Iran.

As to why that could be the case, the reason is simple: Moscow will want to retaliate in ways that would undermine and embarrass the US. This brings Israel, America’s biggest ally in the Middle East, into the picture. Iran, which is a sworn enemy of Israel and no fan of the West, would be very glad to teach the West a lesson.

Decision-making circles in Russia seem to have determined that now is the time to push back against Nato expansionism. Their rationale is that US President Joe Biden, who already has multiple challenges to deal with at home, will be hard-pressed to handle multiple crises abroad – in Ukraine, the Middle East and Venezuela – all at the same time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to host Ebrahim Raisi, his Iranian counterpart, in Moscow next week. One topic of discussion is likely to be the future of war-torn Syria, where both countries have stakes and maintain close relations with the Assad regime. It is possible they will discuss how to deal with Israel, particularly within the Syrian context.

Moscow, it seems, will consider delivering a message to Israel that it has gone too far by carrying out strikes on sensitive positions inside Syria. It could use this as a pretext to warn Israel that it may ignore Iranian retaliations against these strikes. At this point, it is highly unlikely that Iran will entertain the idea of launching pre-emptive attacks against its foe.

This tactic to use Iran to target Israel could be part of Moscow’s ruse to put Washington in a corner, as the former believes the latter will not intervene militarily. The Russians will hope the implications for such a scenario are two-fold: damaging the Biden administration’s credibility and curbing Israeli military action inside Syria.

Indeed, Moscow – particularly the military brass – is said to be unhappy with Israel’s strikes last month on the Syrian port of Latakia, which is close to Hmeimim, a Russian air base equipped with cutting-edge radars, anti-aircraft missiles and early warning systems. The military may be considering ways to remind the Israelis that they can and must be held accountable for these actions. One way could be to turn a blind eye as the Syrian regime resolves to down Israeli warplanes that enter its airspace and claim responsibility for it.

Furthermore, if the nuclear talks between Iran and the global powers are to collapse by the end of January, Tehran’s anger will converge with that of Moscow, with the latter losing patience with the West over what it sees as interference in Ukraine. Mr Raisi’s intended visit to Moscow would be to prepare for such an eventuality and co-ordinate plans.

Mohammad Eslami, who heads Iran's nuclear agency, left, and Kazem Gharib Abadi, Iran's governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, during a conference in Vienna last September. AP Photo

Russia no doubt enjoys excellent relations with Israel, with the two countries having common areas of interest. For Moscow, however, Israel could serve as “a small part of the mosaic” – as one source described it to me – within the context of its ongoing geopolitical tensions with the West. One of the reasons could be that the Russian leadership has deemed its relations with Iran to be more important than its equation with Israel. The relationship with Iran is strategic, and in Syria, it is a direct military partnership. Iran, Moscow seems to believe, can be called upon to advance Russian interests when necessary.

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Russia determines that now is the time to push back against Nato expansionism

Meanwhile, Moscow also takes a dovish position regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It believes that the world needs to learn to coexist with a “peaceful and stable” nuclear Iran and its position is to largely agree to Iran’s demands. These include rejecting any additional mechanisms to monitor its nuclear programme beyond the already-existing arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and returning to the JCPOA – as the 2015 nuclear deal is called – as it stands, in return for US-led sanctions being lifted against Tehran.

It is important to note that one other power – China – agrees with Russia on reviving the JCPOA without adding new conditions demanded by the West. The US and the three European powers involved in the Vienna talks – France, Germany and the UK – object to this stance.

If the western nations end up acquiescing to Iran’s demands, then that will be the end of the long-standing nuclear standoff for, at least, the foreseeable period. But if they don’t, then the battle will take on a different dimension in the wake of the failure of the Russia-Nato talks, and the beginning of a confrontation in an era of militarised diplomacy. This will include measures to build and expand Russian bases in Europe, such as in Belarus, and hold large-scale military exercises. The Ukraine crisis has turned the page on diplomacy to resolve differences, and Russia will not sit idly by as Nato continues its post-Cold War expansion eastwards.

In all this, we need to consider what Russia has to lose – and that will primarily be to its economy, as the West considers severe sanctions against it. They could include – if the US Senate carries out its threat – sanctions on Mr Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

But a much bigger loss would be to the world – not just by way of geopolitical instability, but also by way of an arms race that will be both prohibitively expensive for all those involved and dangerous for the planet.

Published: January 16, 2022, 4:00 AM