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Russia and Israel: The Perfect Partnership?

Russia and Israel: The Perfect Partnership?

For all his “democratic shortcomings”, there is one very “Western” thing about Vladimir Putin: he is the most pro-Israeli Russian ruler since Stalin (for all his anti-Semitism, Koba the Dread actually supported founding the Jewish state, and the US and USSR were the first countries to recognise it).

Putin’s position is odd for two reasons: 1. His mix of KGB past (much of it spent harassing Jewish dissidents), Russian nationalism, and desire to restore ties with traditional Soviet allies (e.g., the Arab world) might have made him predisposed in the opposite direction; and 2. Why haven’t there been more pro-Israeli Russian leaders in the last 60 years?

Like in some cheesy romantic comedy, Russia and Israel are the perfect couple who somehow don’t realise their mutual attraction despite it being super-obvious. The tension is killing us!

There was a hint of chemistry early on when one of the first things Putin did in office was to try to establish better ties with Israel. There are obvious reasons for taking this even further today.

  1. Russia is second only to the US in the strength of its cultural ties to Israel. Most residents of Tel Aviv and many more in the other urban centres speak Russian. Millions of Israelis were Soviet refugees. Most of the rest are descendants of immigrants from Tsarist Russia.  Basically, Russia is to Israel as Britain is to the US. So where’s their special relationship?
  2. Now that the old Arab dictatorships are giving way to elected democracies, Israel is no longer the West’s golden child, and risks going from being the only democracy in the Middle East to becoming the only internally repressive, apartheid-like state in the Middle East. Sooner or later, the West might turn its back on its old ally like it did with Batista: talk about fair weather friendship! It’s about time Israel start looking for a European(ish) partner who isn’t as boringly hung up on human rights, someone that knows when it’s good to teach a restive province a lesson or two…
  3. Everyone knows about “traditional” Russian anti-semitism. That may well have been true once, and still rears its ugly head from time to time, but a lot of it has been superseded by hatred of Muslims and blacks! Jews may still face some discrimination and mistreatment in Russia, but, with their Russian heritage, language, and “European” culture, they are suddenly considered much “closer” to Russians than Arabs and Africans, who are the ones currently facing the brunt of violent racism.
  4. Under Putin, Russia has increasingly defined itself as a bulwark against  “Muslim extremism,” with government propaganda decrying the twin threat of a  “demographic crisis” and Islamic terrorism. Sound like some other country out there? That’s right! And, as neither Israel nor Russia exactly lack squeamishness in dealing with the supposed threat, there is a lot of scope for mutual understanding and knowledge sharing.
  5. Science and technology: Between the 1970s and the late ’90s, Israel was responsible for at least half of all Russian brain drain. Many of these scientists are still publishing and researching in Russian. Why not take advantage of all the opportunities to collaborate and revive the old networks arbitrarily ruptured by Cold War imperatives?
  6. Iran: As popularly elected conservative regimes continue to kick out Russia’s friendly Sunni dictators, Putin’s ability to influence events in the Arab world will continue to diminish. At this point, Iran remains the only country friendly to Russia in the entire region. Coincidentally, it is also the one country that Israel is the most scared of and has found most difficult to manage. By becoming Russia’s big regional ally, Israel could help Putin regain a foothold in the region and achieve a vital detente with its looming Shia neighbour, which might even help rein in Hezbollah.

Russia and Israel’s eventual embrace seems overdetermined by their centuries old cultural ties, a common linguistic heritage, a fear of “Islamic infection” from the Arab Spring, and an unsavoury approach to pacifying their respective separatists, underpinned by a mutual dislike of Muslims.

With America and the EU’s  increasingly moralistic interference in the way sovereign states conduct their “internal affairs”, maybe it’s time for Israel to ditch its nagging old American partner for an enthusiastic new mail order bride from the East!




Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs