News of the recent attendance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Moscow’s 9th May Victory Day Parade provoked a predictable range of reactions ranging from anger, dismay, denial and – on the part of some of the US’s and Israel’s friends – even a certain amount of gloating.
For an example of the latter, see for example these words by the British historian Niall Ferguson in a lengthy article hailing Donald Trump’s supposed masterstroke in pulling out of the JCPOA.
Economically weak enough to suffer a wave of riots in December and January, the Iranians will not find it easy to withstand the snap-back of sanctions and the roll-back of its forces abroad. And if you think the Russians will help them, you must have missed Binyamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin last week.
By contrast The Saker – normally a supporter of Putin’s – sees the whole episode as disgraceful, and the Israeli missile strike on Syria which also happened on Victory Day, as a humiliation for Putin and for Russia
……Bibi Netanyahu [was] invited to Moscow to the Victory Day Parade in spite of him bombing Syria, a Russian ally, just on the eve of his visit. Once in Moscow, Netanyahu compared Iran to, what else, Nazi Germany. How original and profound indeed! Then he proceeded to order the bombing of Syria for a second time, while still in Moscow. But then, what can we expect from a self-worshiping narcissist who finds it appropriate to serve food to the Japanese Prime Minister in a specially made shoe? The man is clearly batshit crazy (which in no way makes him less evil or dangerous). But it is the Russian reaction which is so totally disgusting: nothing, absolutely nothing. Unlike others, I have clearly said that it is not the Russian responsibility to “protect” Syria (or Iran) from the Israelis. But there is no doubt in my mind that Netanyahu has just publicly thumbed his nose at Putin and that Putin took it. For all my respect for Putin, this time he allowed Netanyahu to treat him just like Trump treated Macron. Except that in the case of Putin, he was so treated in his own capital. That makes it even worse……
…..it appears undeniable that the Zionists have enough power to simultaneously force not one, but two (supposed) superpowers to cave in to their demands. Not only that, they have the power to do that while also putting these two superpowers on a collision course against each other. At the very least, this shows two things: the United States has completely lost its sovereignty and is now an Israeli protectorate. As for Russia, well, she is doing comparatively better, but the full re-sovereignization the Russian people have voted for when they gave their overwhelming support to Putin will not happen…..
The fact that the event took place at a time when the situation in the Middle East has been particularly fraught undoubtedly strengthened those reactions.
Now that the dust has settled a little, it may be a good moment to review what actually happened during Netanyahu’s visit and to judge which if any of these reactions were justified.
Guest of Honour or not?
The part of my article which first reported Russia’s invitation to Netanyahu to attend the 9th May Victory Parade which provoked the strongest reaction was its title, which referred to Netanyahu as being invited to the Victory Day celebrations as “guest of honour”.
Several commentators – including on the thread of the article – seized on the fact that the Kremlin’s announcement of the invitation did not use the words “guest of honour” in order to deny that this was the case. At its most extreme there were even suggestions that Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow was no more than a working visit which happened to coincide with the Victory Day celebrations.
The optics of the visit however tell a different story.
During the parade Netanyahu was on the podium, flanking Putin on his left whilst the other guest of honour, Serb President Alexander Vučić, flanked Putin on his right.
Netanyahu also flanked Putin on his left when Putin ceremoniously laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Garden near the Kremlin Wall (Vučić was again positioned to Putin’s right)
Netanyahu also marched alongside Putin during the March of the Immortal Regiment, and the Kremlin press service has released pictures of them together, this time showing Netanyahu on Putin’s right and Vučić on Putin’s left
Netanyahu also attended the official reception in the Kremlin. Here he is during the reception with Putin and Vučić in a group photograph with a group of Russian soldiers
And here is Netanyahu again with Putin and Vučić during the formal dinner
And here is Netanyahu again, this time talking to Putin during the dinner
Note that Netanyahu, unlike Vučić, was careful to wear a Russian St. George’s Ribbon throughout the ceremonies.
In light of the prominence given to Netanyahu during the Victory Day celebrations I think it is simply impossible to deny that he together with President Vučić of Serbia was the guest of honour.
Why then did the Russians extend such an invitation to him? Is it – as some argue – because Russia and Israel are in fact allies?
Russia and Israel are not allies
Two countries may be said to be allies if they (1) have a mutual defence or security pact with each other; or (2) share common enemies with each other.
Russia and Israel do not have a defence or security pact with each other. Neither Russia nor Israel have pledged to come to the defence of the other if either one of them is attacked. They cannot therefore be allies in that sense.
Do they however have enemies in common?
In recent years Russia has emerged as Syria’s most important ally and guarantor, and is forging increasingly friendly ties with Iran.
It is Syria and Iran which Israel says are its major state enemies. Yet it turns out that far from being Russia’s enemies they are Russia’s friends.
Israel for its part is a longstanding and close ally of the US – with which it does have a security pact – but which is Russia’s main geopolitical adversary.
Clearly Russia and Israel do not have state enemies in common, so they cannot be allies in that sense either.
Russia and Israel both say that they oppose Jihadi terrorism.
However, Israel (as it admits) has been providing material aid to Jihadi fighters fighting the Syrian government in the Golan Heights even though these are people whom Russia calls terrorists, whist Russia for its part maintains contacts with the Palestinian group Hamas, which Israel says is a terrorist organisation.
It turns out that not only do Russia and Israel not have state enemies in common, but their definition of who is a terrorist is so different as to render it effectively impossible for them cooperate with each other to fight terrorism together.
On the basis of the usual criteria used to define allies – a mutual defence or security arrangement and/or enemies in common – Russia and Israel are not allies. On the contrary, they are friends of each other’s adversaries.
Are Russia and Israel however allies in any some other less formal sense?
I cannot see how, unless the meaning of the word “ally” is to be stretched so far as to include all states which are on good terms with each other, in which case the word becomes effectively meaningless.
Russia and Israel are clearly not allies, and their relationship should not be described in that way.
Russia did not invite Netanyahu to the 9th Day Victory Parade in Moscow because Russia and Israel are allies. Any discussion of the invitation based on that theory is therefore wrong.
Russia and Israel are not enemies
If Russia and Israel are not allies, and should not be called that, it is also true that they are in no sense enemies.
I have discussed this on numerous occasions and at great length.
Briefly, with respect to Russia, when Russia did for a period become Israel’s enemy by siding with the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the result was a disaster for Russia
…….no one in Moscow wants to see Russia become embroiled in the Syrian-Israeli conflict, which far predates Russia’s intervention in Syria, and which goes back all the way to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.
When following the 1967 Six Days War the Russians did commit themselves wholeheartedly to one side in the Arab-Israeli conflict – backing the Arabs diplomatically, arming the Arabs intensively, sending a strong military force to defend Egypt in 1970 from Israeli air attacks, and breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel – the result for Moscow was a catastrophe.
The USSR’s large Jewish community became alienated, the USSR found that by making an enemy of Israel it had further poisoned its relations with the Western powers at precisely the time when it was seeking detente with them, and the USSR quickly discovered that its Arab ‘allies’ in whom it had invested so much were both ungrateful and treacherous, so that by 1980 the USSR’s entire position in the Middle East had completely collapsed.
The final straw came after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, when volunteers from across the Arab world rushed to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, in a way that they had never shown the slightest indication of wanting to do against Israel on behalf of the Palestinians.
Not surprisingly, the Russians have therefore since the mid-1980s been determined never to become directly involved in any part of the Arab-Israel conflict again.
Thus whilst Russia maintains good relations with the Arab states, and whilst Russia continues to voice support for the Palestinians, Russia has always striven to maintain good relations with Israel as well, and has forged significant economic links with Israel.
As for Israel, it knows that the only country which is even theoretically capable of redressing the military balance in the Middle East in Iran’s and the Arabs’ favour to the point of creating a genuine existential threat for Israel is Russia.
It was after all only during the period of the USSR’s intervention on the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflict when – especially during the period 1969 to 1973 – the conventional military balance shifted so far in the Arabs’ favour that Israel faced a serious risk of defeat in a conventional war.
Crucially, the only occasion when Israel lost its regional supremacy against its adversaries in the air was when it found itself pitted against the Soviet military in 1970 when the Soviet military successfully brought Israeli air raids into Egypt west of the Suez canal to a stop as a result of what the Soviets called Operation Kavkaz.
That fact in itself suffices to explain why Israel does not want to make an enemy of Russia.
Russia and Israel are (within limits) friends
If Russia and Israel have strong reasons not to want to be enemies of each other, they also have positive reasons for wanting to be friends.
Jewish immigration to Israel from the USSR and from Russia has created a substantial Russian speaking community in Israel, numbering around 900,000 people out of Israel’s total population of 8.8 million.
In keeping with their large numbers, Russian speaking Israelis now form a substantial electoral constituency, with one of their political leaders, Avigdor Lieberman, being Israel’s Defence Minister.
Though Russian speaking Israelis do not have a single set of views about Russia or indeed about anything else, many of them are proud of their connection to Russia, and are resolute in holding on to the Russian language and to Russian culture.
Many of them also seem to take an active interest in what is happening in Russia, and some of them not only retain links to Russia but are also active there.
The large number of Russian speaking Israelis therefore provides a strong electoral constituency within Israel which tends to support good relations between Israel and Russia.
Netanyahu, whose electoral coalition depends heavily on the votes of Russian speaking Israelis, and whose position as Israel’s Prime Minister depends heavily on the support of Russian speaking Israeli politicians like Lieberman, therefore has a strong political reason to want good relations with Russia.
Looking at the same issue from the Russian point of view, Israel is not only a powerful country, with which it would be in Russia’s interests to be on good terms, but it is also the one important Western ally of the US which has consistently refused over the last decade to join in the mounting campaign against Russia which has had the rest of the West in its grip.
Lieberman put it best in a recent interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, reproduced here by TASS
Israel reveres its relationship with Russia, which has flourished into efficient and transparent cooperation over the past couple of decades, even against the background of tough pressure from its closest partners, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview with Kommersant.
“For example, as far as the anti-Russia sanctions go, we flatly refused to join them. Many states expelled Russian diplomats not long ago, all due to the standoff regarding the use or non-use of nerve gas and so on. Israel did not join this action. We have a normal relationship with Russia and we comprehend its interests,” he said, adding that Tel Aviv also expects Moscow to “take into consideration our interests in the Middle East.”
Asked why the positions of Russia and Israel vary widely on such issues as the Syrian crisis, he said that Tel Aviv does not seek to pursue tensions with Russia. “On the contrary, we have established a very clear and frank, transparent dialogue with Russia over the past years, whenever we share opinions and even when we do not share opinions,” the minister said. “We do not interfere in Syria’s domestic affairs. In my viewpoint, Assad is a war criminal responsible for killing over half a million of his own citizens. Assad, the Islamic State, Al Qaeda (outlawed in Russia – TASS), all radicals, Hezbollah are no different in essence. Nevertheless, we do not intend to interfere in Syria’s domestic affairs. What we are not going to accept are any efforts taken by Iran to turn Syria into a foothold targeting us,” he added.
Lieberman acknowledged that Russian and Israeli actions are coordinated in Syria. “There is a phone hotline between Israel’s Defense Forces and the Russian contingent deployed in Syria. We always take into account Russia’s interests in Syria and hope very much that Russia will take into account Israel’s interests related to its security” he stressed.
According to the minister, Israel also bears no threat to Syria’s integrity. “There has been a murderous war for many years there, with at least half a million people dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, and I think the sooner it ends the sooner all of us could breathe easier,” he noted.
In fact the very attendance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Russia’s 9th May Victory Day Parade illustrates the point.
What other prominent Western leader would accept a Russian invitation to attend Russia’s 9th May Victory Day Parade at this time? Since the start of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 the answer is none of them. The last Western head of government to be offered an invitation to attend the Parade was Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in 2015. Characteristically, and to the great annoyance of the Russians, he failed to turn up.
Given that this is so, it is not surprising that the Russian leadership should value the continued friendship of Israel – the only member of the Western alliance which still seems capable of conducting a foreign policy independent of Washington’s – and should wish to preserve it.
That by definition requires – as Lieberman says (see above) – a need for Russia to take Israel’s concerns into account.
Having said all of this, it is important to stress that this friendship – real though it is – has limits.
Nothing can alter the fact that Israel is ultimately an ally of the US and is aligned with the West, and that its adversaries in the Middle East are Russia’s friends.
That does not mean that Russia and Israel cannot be friends with each other. It is a fallacy that countries cannot be friends even whilst they disagree on many issues with each other.
However, it does place a limit on how far that friendship can go, and it also means that the management of relations between the two countries requires careful handling.
No S-300 missiles for Syria
This accounts for Russia’s decision to refuse to supply S-300 anti aircraft missiles to Syria.
In the aftermath of the recent US missile strike on Syria there was talk that Russia might reconsider its decision to refuse to supply S-300 anti aircraft missiles to Syria.
I was skeptical.
Recently there has been some discussion in the media about the possibility of Russia supplying S-300 anti aircraft systems to Syria by way of response to the recent US missile strike on Syria.
Precisely because the supply of S-300 anti aircraft systems to Syria has the potential to disrupt Russia’s otherwise excellent relations with Israel – and given that the US strike on Syria was completely ineffective – I personally doubt the supply of S-300 anti aircraft systems to Syria will take place.
In the event – and to predictable cries of betrayal – the Russians have now confirmed that the supply of S-300 anti aircraft missiles to Syria will not take place.
This is a logical decision since from a Russian point of view supply of S-300 missiles to Syria at this time would be counterproductive and would make little sense.
The point about the S-300 missile system is that it is (1) a system of such range and power that it could potentially put at risk Israeli aircraft operating over Israel itself; and (2) the failure of the US raid on Syria, and the possible failure of the more recent Israeli raid on Syria, begs the question of whether Syria needs it anyway.
In fact it is very easy to see how the supply of the S-300 anti aircraft system to Syria, far from protecting Syria, might actually be dangerous for Syria.
The Israelis would be bound to see its presence in Syria under Syrian military control as a major escalation and as a challenge to their air supremacy. The risk would be that they would react to this challenge by planning a major air offensive to destroy it. In this they would unquestionably have the total support – including the technical support – of the US.
The Israeli air force – if it were to throw all its resources into doing it and if it were backed by the full might of the US – would undoubtedly have the means to destroy whatever limited number of S-300 systems Russia might supply to Syria, even if the Israelis were to suffer some losses in the process.
At that point the world would undoubtedly construe what had happened as a Syrian defeat, and that would almost certainly be the perception within Syria itself.
Syria’s many enemies would be emboldened, Russia would be humiliated, and pressure in the West from the regime change lobby for the sort of all encompassing air offensive against Syria which they have always hankered for would increase.
It is impossible to see how any of this would benefit either Syria or Russia.
Ultimately the only way the Russians can be sure of stopping all Israeli raids on Syria would be if they assumed direct responsibility for the defence of the entirety of Syrian air space themselves.
That is what the Soviets did in 1970 when they came to Egypt’s defence in what the Russians call Operation Kavkaz, but which the Israelis misleadingly call the “War of Attrition”.
However that would pitch the Russians right back to the centre of the Arab-Israeli conflict, making them again a direct player in that conflict, forfeiting Israel’s friendship in the process, and risking a repeat of the catastrophe which Russia suffered in the 1970s.
No one in authority in Moscow wants that, and the Russian people certainly do not want it either.
When I previously discussed the possibility of Russia supplying S-300 missiles to Syria I speculated that the Russians – if they were really considering doing such a thing – would give the Israelis assurances that they would retain operational control over the missiles so that they could not endanger Israeli aircraft.
That would however have taken away the whole point of supplying S-300 missiles to Syria in the first place, so wisely, if that idea was ever considered, it has been dropped.
In truth it is impossible to see why the Russians would want to change an air defence situation in Syria which from their point of view is working well.
The Russians have established a powerful air defence system under their own control in Syria. It includes advanced S-400 and S-300V4 Antey-2500 air aircraft missiles and their associated radar systems as well as shorter range Buk-M3 and Tor-M2 missile systems and the very effective Pantsir-S1 point defence system.
This air defence system is supplemented by the powerful Krasukha-4 electronic warfare system, and is able to call on various electronic reconnaissance aircraft including the Beriev A-50 AWACS aircraft, which now routinely operates in Syria.
The Russians have repeatedly made clear to the US, the Israelis and the Turks that this system is ready for use and is there to enforce Russia’s red lines in Syria.
These prohibit (1) attacks on Russian troops or Russian bases in Syria; (2) attacks which threaten the survival of the Syrian government; and (3) attacks which disrupt the Syrian military’s anti Jihadi operations.
The Russians have established hotlines with the US, Israeli and Turkish militaries, enabling them to coordinate with those militaries and to warn those militaries when it appears that those militaries are coming close to crossing Russia’s red lines.
Whenever the US, Israeli or Turkish militaries have in fact come close to crossing Russia’s red lines the Russians have responded forcefully, in some cases by switching off the hotlines. On three occasions when that has happened it has forced the US and Turkish militaries to limit their air operations in Syria because of fear of action by the Russian air defence system.
Since the US missile strike on Syria in April last year the Russians have also upgraded Syria’s own air defence system.
This has been done without the supply of S-300 missiles to Syria, hugely risky and destabilising as that would be.
Instead it has been done by the radical upgrade of Syria’s existing air defence system, with technical improvements to Syria’s Soviet era systems, a comprehensive retraining of Syrian air defence personnel, and an apparently successful attempt to unify the system and to improve its radar surveillance capabilities. In addition a number of short range but highly effective Pantsir-S1 systems have been supplied, providing the Syrians with effective point defence against missile strikes on their key facilities.
Russian accounts of the recent US and Israeli raids on Syria suggest that this effort to upgrade the Syrian air defence system has been successful. Given that this is so, why take the enormous risk of supplying Syria with the S-300?
In summary, supplying Syria with S-300 missiles from a Russian point of view makes no sense, and no one should be surprised that the Russians have decided not to do it.
Almost certainly the Russians are telling the truth when they say that it was not Netanyahu who talked them out of it. I say this because almost certainly they never seriously planned to do it in the first place,.
As for the talk that they might do it, in retrospect that looks like the angry talk of some Russian officials immediately after the US strike. Decisions made in anger are repented at leisure and the Russians, knowing this, pulled back when their anger died down.
Though the Russians would not have needed Netanyahu to talk them out of the idea of supplying S-300 missiles to Syria, they did probably make use of his visit to inform him that the supply of S-300 missiles to Syria would not take place.
That of course would have improved the atmosphere of the visit, which from the Russian point of view would have been the one benefit they would gained from this affair.
As for suggestions I have seen that the Russians extracted concessions from Netanyahu in return for agreeing not to supply S-300 missiles to Syria, there is no evidence of that and I am sure it did not happen.
The growing crisis in the Middle East
Why then was Netanyahu invited to come to Moscow at this time?
For the answer to that it is first necessary to look at the fast deteriorating situation in the Middle East.
Since the Russians extended their invitation to Netanyahu the following things have happened in the Middle East in quick succession:
(1) The US has pulled out of the JCPOA and has announced that it intends to impose all encompassing sanctions on Iran. Moreover the US is making clear that it intends to enforce these sanctions by imposing secondary sanctions on third country companies or businesses – including European companies and businesses – which continue to do business with Iran. Already the French oil major Total is saying that the US sanctions will cause it to disinvest from Iran unless it is provided with a waiver by the US authorities.
(2) Israel has launched a major air strike on Syria, which gives every impression of having been intended to defeat the Syrian air defence system the Russians have upgraded there;
(3) The US has transferred its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem;
(4) There has been a massacre of Palestinians in Gaza protesting the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and demanding for all Palestinians their right to return to their homeland.
All of this has been happening against a background of increasingly angry rhetoric, including a preposterous comment by Netanyahu whilst in Moscow comparing Iran to Nazi Germany.
Adding to the tension are what look like reliable rumours, which have been – somewhat unconvincingly- denied, that a position paper is being circulated within the US National Security Council calling for a US sponsored regime change/’colour revolution’ to be organised by the US in Iran.
It is not difficult to see in all this a drift towards war in the Middle East, and that is what many people are increasingly saying is happening.
No change in Russia’s Middle East policies
A second point to make about Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow, is to point out what has not happened in the Middle East following that visit.
There has been no change in Russian Middle East policy whatsoever.
Russia continues to support Syria militarily, with the Syrian military backed by the Russian air force continuing to score advances against Jihadi fighters throughout Syria. Damascus is now on the brink of being fully secured, and the remaining Jihadi pockets in central Syria have now been almost completely cleared.
Russia continues to be committed to the JCPOA with Iran. It has rejected US and Israeli calls for the JCPOA to be scrapped and for a new deal with Iran to be negotiated.
Far from scaling down its economic relations with Iran in response to the US sanctions, Russia appears intent on upgrading its economic relations with Iran. Talks continue to be underway to establish a free trade area between the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union and Iran. The ‘oil for goods’ deal Russia and Iran agreed with each in 2015 remains in effect.
Russia continues to make clear its strong disagreement with the US decision to transfer the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It continues to call for East Jerusalem to be made the capital of a future Palestinian state, explicitly rejecting Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is and can only be Israel’s sole undivided capital.
Russia continues to say that it will only transfer its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the day when it is able to open an embassy to Palestine in Palestinian East Jerusalem.
In addition Russia continues to be strongly opposed to any military action by the US or Israel against Iran.
In no sense has Netanyahu’s visit to Russia brought about any change in Russia’s policy positions in the Middle East.
Russian policy remains consistent in its opposition to recent US and Israeli moves against Iran, and to the US’s regime change policies in Syria (which are supported by Israel).
Russia also continues to support Palestinian ownership of East Jerusalem and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in Palestine.
Russia’s priority: prevent a Middle East war
These two facts – the gathering crisis in the Middle East and Russia’s continued adherence to its well established and unchanging foreign positions – provide the reasons for the invitation to Netanyahu.
The Russians do not want war in the Middle East and are alarmed by the deterioration of the situation there, and are doing what they can to prevent it from deteriorating further.
They do not want war between Israel and Iran in Syria because such a war could rapidly escalate, threatening to drag them in, and putting the future of the Syrian government, which the Russians have worked so hard to save, in jeopardy.
They do not want war between the US and Israel and Iran because that would disrupt their plans to extend the Eurasian institutions into Central Asia, and would risk creating a further zone of chaos and crisis there in a region close to Russia.
They cannot talk to Donald Trump about these matters because the Russiagate scandal has made high level contact between them and him all but impossible.
On the rare occasions when Trump and Putin have talked or met with each other, the result has been uproar and scandal in the US, making meaningful discussions between the two men impossible.
Since the Russians cannot talk to Trump they have no choice but to talk to the other leading player in the anti Iran enterprise, who is at least willing to talk to them, and who is none other than Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
That is why the Russians invited Netanyahu to Moscow.
The talks in Moscow
The Russians have only provided the text of the introductory comments Putin and Netanyahu exchanged with each other when the two men met following the festivities on Victory Day.
By this point the two men would have been physically exhausted after a packed day’s events, making it unlikely that the talks went on for very long, or that they were very detailed.
However we know from things Netanyahu said before the talks that the focus of the talks was the situation in Syria, with Netanyahu raising Israeli concerns about the supposed Iranian build up in Syria, and the supposed need by Israel to counter this supposed Iranian build up there.
That makes it possible, based on the known positions the two leaders have previously expressed, to make educated guesses about what they said to each other during the talks.
Putin would have taken the opportunity to remind Netanyahu of Russia’s red lines in Syria.
I have set these out many times, but for the sake of clarity I will now do so again. They are
(1) a prohibition on attacks on Russian bases and Russian facilities in Syria, and on attacks which threaten the lives of Russian soldiers in Syria;
(2) a prohibition on attacks which threaten the survival of the Syrian government; and
(3) a prohibition on attacks which disrupt the operations of the Syrian military against the Jihadis the Syrian military and the Russians are fighting.
Contrary to what some people are saying, I think it is most unlikely that Putin would have given Netanyahu any assurances that Russia would act to rein in Iranian activities in Syria.
If Netanyahu asked Putin for such assurances (which I also think unlikely) Putin would almost certainly have told him what the Russians always say when faced with requests for such assurances: Iran and Syria are sovereign states and Russia cannot interfere in arrangements two sovereign states make with each other.
Netanyahu must know Putin sufficiently well by now to know that this would be Putin’s answer if he were ever asked for such an assurance, which is why I doubt a request for such an assurance was made.
However Putin almost certainly did reassure Netanyahu that provided Russia’s red lines are not crossed Russia will not interfere in any Israeli military operations in Syria, including those which Netanyahu says are directed against Iran.
Putin might have used the opportunity to remind Netanyahu that Russia is not a party to the Arab-Israel conflict or to the state of war which has existed since 1948 between Israel and Syria.
However as Netanyahu knows this already, I think that is also unlikely.
In return Netanyahu would have assured Putin that Israel would continue to observe Russia’s red lines in Syria.
As it happens the Israeli raid on Syria on 9th May 2018 did observe Russia’s red lines, showing that the Russian warnings are being heeded. Talk of this raid being a humiliation for Putin and for Russia is therefore wrong.
The JCPOA would undoubtedly also have been discussed, though the exchanges on this subject would have been short, since Putin and Netanyahu had discussed it previously over the course of a telephone conversation the two had with each other just days before.
Putin would have reaffirmed Russia’s support for the JCPOA, and would have made clear that Russia remains committed to improving its relations with Iran.
However what look like strategically placed leaks suggest that Putin may have reassured Netanyahu that Russia would not supply “offensive weapons” to Iran.
“Offensive weapons” in this context means weapons like the SU-35 fighter and the Iskander land attack missile which Iran could use to attack Israel from Iranian territory.
An Interfax report timed 13:15 on 9th May 2018 (the day of the talks) says Russian Deputy Defence Minister Fomin confirmed that “Russia [is] not supplying offensive weapons to Iran”.
That almost certainly repeats an assurance Putin gave to Netanyahu during the talks.
Since Netanyahu knows of Russia’s intention to improve its relations with Iran, and would also have known that nothing he could say would change Putin’s mind about that, he was probably satisfied with this assurance.
It would have told him that Russia, despite forging ahead in its relations with Iran, is not going to put Iran in a position where Iran can challenge Israel militarily from its own national territory.
Almost certainly the question of a possible military attack by the US or Israel on Iran was not discussed.
There do not seem to be any plans for such an attack at the moment, and Putin would not have wanted to spoil the mood on what was after all a festive day by talking about a possible attack which may never happen.
However Netanyahu and Israel are under no doubt of Russia’s strong opposition to any such attack.
Russia made known its strong opposition to such an attack a decade ago when the possibility was first floated by hardliners within the George W. Bush administration. Nothing has changed to alter Russia’s position about that.
In summary, the primary purpose of the talks and of the invitation to Netanyahu was – almost certainly – (1) to give Netanyahu a forceful reminder of Russia’s red lines in Syria at a time of heightened conflict between Israel and Syria and Israel and Iran; and (2) to give Netanyahu a promise that provided Israel exercised restraint and observed Russia’s red lines Russia would not interfere in Israeli military operations in Syria or provide Iran with weapons which Iran could use to challenge Israel from Iranian territory.
Over and above this, with the threat of a war in the Middle East increasing almost by the day, the invitation to Netanyahu keeps open a line of communication to one of the likely parties in that war, should such a war ever come to pass.
That is essential if diplomatic action is ever needed either to prevent that war happening or – if the war cannot be prevented – to prevent the war spreading and to limit the damage it causes whilst preparing the ground for diplomatic action to broker a compromise with the intention of bringing the war to an end.
The need to maintain a line of communication to Netanyahu – meaningful communication with Donald Trump being for the moment impossible – explains Russia’s muted reaction to the recent massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.
Many people are very upset by this. From the Russian point of view the need however to keep a channel of communication open to Netanyahu overrides the rhetorical benefits of a condemnation which can in practice change nothing.
If that seems calculated and cold blooded, then that is because it is. However it is the tough minded way the Russians conduct their diplomacy.
Why Victory Day?
All of this could have been discussed between Putin and Netanyahu at any time. Why then did the Russians take the further step of inviting Netanyahu to Moscow on Victory Day?
Undoubtedly one reason was to reassure Netanyahu that despite Russia’s increasingly close relations with Iran Russia continues to place a high value on its good relations with Israel. It would be difficult to imagine a better or more public way to do that than to invite Netanyahu to attend what has become Russia’s most important and emotionally charged public holiday: the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow.
However if the invitation was in part a case of extending the velvet glove, it also came with a very public brandishing of the mailed fist.
It would be difficult to imagine a better way to impress on someone like Netanyahu the reality of Russia’s military power than to make them sit through the gigantic military parade Russia now routinely puts on in Red Square every year on Victory Day.
The sight of tens of thousands of perfectly drilled Russian troops – drilled to a level of perfection no longer attainable by any Western army, including the Israeli army – as well as the hugely impressive display of advanced weaponry, including S-400, Buk-M3, Tor-M2 and Pantsir-S1 anti aircraft systems deployed in Syria and the Iskander and Tornado land attack missiles and the SU-35 and SU-34 fighters and fighter bombers also deployed there, tells its own story.
This is the powerful military that is now entrenched across Israel’s border in Syria. Does Israel want to tangle with it?
Perhaps Netanyahu is oblivious to that sort of warning, or perhaps he is not the sort of man to be impressed by a warning like that.
However with the Middle East drifting into crisis it is very easy to see why the Russians might think differently, and might think that now is a good time for such a warning to be given to him.
Dressing up a warning as a compliment is perfect diplomacy, and by common agreement diplomacy is something the Russians are very good at.
As a matter of fact Netanyahu, despite his belligerent reputation, is a strongly risk averse leader who has so far kept Israel out of wars.
I suspect that he understands the implicit warning he was given perfectly well, and understands fully the enormous risks he and Israel would be taking if they tried to take on Russia.
That is a major constraint on Netanyahu’s and Israel’s behaviour, and the pointed reminder of Russia’s military might Netanyahu was given on Victory Day can only have reinforced it.
As the situation in the Middle East deteriorates Russia, probably to its own surprise, finds itself at the centre of Middle East diplomacy.
Russia is now the only country able to talk to and influence both sides in the coming conflict: the alliance of the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel on the one hand, and the so-called “Axis of Resistance” of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and possibly Iraq on the other.
The invitation to Netanyahu is not an act of capitulation, or a sign that Russia is succumbing to Israeli influence. Nor in my opinion is it some great public relations misstep.
It is the exercise of diplomacy at a particularly dangerous moment in the contemporary history of the Middle East.
The same is true of the other steps the Russians have been recently taking, such as President Putin’s two recent telephone conversations with Turkish President Erdogan, and the latest meeting in Sochi between President Putin and Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad.
Indeed at a time when no else is conducting diplomacy in the Middle East there will be many who think that it is just as well that the Russians are doing it.
This is being said in some surprising quarters. By way of example, the Financial Times, normally a relentless critic of President Putin and of the Russian government, has recently published an editorial with the extraordinary headline: “The march to another Middle East disaster; Only Putin and the balance of terror stand between Iran, Israel and war“.
This editorial ends with these interesting words
In this far-from-ideal situation, the only country with viable bridges to both Israel and Iran is Russia. Fortunately, President Vladimir Putin is speaking to both sides. Whatever his motives, he looks the stronger for it.
Whether Russian diplomacy really can prevent war from breaking out in the Middle East is debatable. However even if war does break out that does not mean that Russia’s actions would be wasted.
Positioning Russia where it can talk to both sides in a future war, and where it has leverage over both, might make it possible for the Russians to limit the conflict and to prevent it escalating beyond a certain point.
At the very least it puts Russia in a better position where it can act to protect its own interests.
There is no doubt that much of the ill feeling about Netanyahu’s presence in Moscow on Victory Day stems from a widespread view that Netanyahu is a war criminal and the arch warmonger in the Middle East.
It is doubtful however whether the Russian leadership sees the situation in that way. From their point of view Netanyahu is the leader of a powerful country, which though a member of the Western alliance and a close ally of the US continues to want friendship with Russia at a time when relations between the West and Russia have become extremely bad.
Netanyahu and Israel are also central players in the Middle East, a region in which Russia is now heavily involved, and where it now has important interests..
For all these reasons the Russians must talk to Netanyahu, both in order to preserve their good relations with him and Israel, and so that they can pursue their own strategies unhindered in Iran and Syria.
In the particular circumstances of the moment Victory Day in Moscow provided the perfect venue to do it, and nobody who studies Russian policy carefully should therefore be surprised that the Russians invited Netanyahu to it.