Israel joins Russian ballet school
By M K Bhadrakumar
The mystery surrounding the death of the deputy head of Russia’s military intelligence agency has somewhat eased. When 52-year-old Major-General Yuri Ivanov’s body was washed up on an eastern Mediterranean beach in the Turkish province of Hatay in mid-August, bloggers had a field day.
Ivanov was on a sensitive mission to Syria to oversee the Russian military base in Tartus and was apparently heading for a meeting with the Syrian intelligence when he went missing. Israel is concerned about Tartus, a technologically advanced Russian listening post that could spy on its communications and military movements.
However, any speculation that Israel was involved in Ivanov’s death can now be laid to rest. Or else, the military agreement between Russia and Israel signed in Moscow on Monday would not have been possible.
A strategic alliance …
That is only taking a momentary measure of the developing Russian-Israeli military ties, which promise to be an absorbing aspect of the geopolitics of the Middle East.
No matter the relatively modest scale of the military relationship so far, it is high-tech and has a leitmotif distinct from what Russia has with Israel’s two main adversaries in the region – Iran and Syria – insofar as it is symbiotic and goes beyond commercial considerations that galvanize Moscow’s arms sales.
Israel is a grandmaster in exquisitely carving on small pieces of ivory and has the genius to transform small steps into long, profound journeys. This was how the saga of Israel’s strategic ties with India, which from its humble origin in 1992 has today come to assume such profundity that neither side can contemplate doing without it.
Equally, when Russia and Israel, two countries untainted by idealism in their foreign policies bond, anything is possible. Hardly a month passed, after all, before Russia commenced the loading of nuclear fuel in the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran, a move that was bitterly criticized by Israel, and they are already looking ahead.
The Russian-Israeli military relationship is also a keen battle of wits since it involves two countries that invariably see things through the prism of their self-interest but are open to trade-offs. The Russian-Israeli pirouette is already stunning. When Defense Minister Ehud Barak headed for Moscow last weekend, Israeli media reported that his mission was to lobby the Kremlin to stop arms sales to Syria.
If Russia’s P-800 Yakhont supersonic cruise missile, a highly accurate weapon with a 300-kilometer range capable of carrying a warhead of 200 kgs reaches Syrian hands, it will be a force multiplier, enabling Syria to target Israeli naval ships. The Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper reported recently that Israel was working to “thwart a Russian arms deal with Syria” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to stop the sale of P-800 Yakhnot.
The report provoked the Kremlin to clarify that Russia “honors all the agreements that were previously signed” with Syria. Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko alleged that the Israeli media were “distorting Russia’s position on the implementation of its obligations to Syria, including in the sphere of military and technical cooperation”.
Evidently, Barak didn’t take Prikhodko as the last word. Following the signing of a five-year military agreement with his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov in Moscow on Monday, Barak headed for Putin’s summer residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for a meeting where they discussed the range of securityand diplomatic issues.
The agreement, according to the Russian media, “boosts military ties … to help them fight common threats, such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”; “sketches out” a five-year prospective military cooperation program that includes “exchange of experience and information in spheres of mutual interests” relating to issues of international security, development of military education, medicine, physical training, etc.
Serdyukov said, “Our views on many modern challenges are close or coincide. First of all, it has to do with terrorism and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” He seemed to hint at intelligence-sharing over the activities of militant groups operating in the Middle East and North Caucasus and Iran’s nuclear program.
Barak said Israel “follows closely” the situation in Russia’s North Caucasus, because both Russia and Israel are under the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism”.
…or tactical move?
Whether Russia would want to overtly identify with Israel’s war against “Islamic terrorism” remains to be seen. Russia views the Caucasus security to be extremely vital to its regional strategies and is loathe to see external influence upset the current balance in a direction that could lead to unpredictable consequences. What Russia expects Israel to do is not to mess around in the Caucasus and, specifically, not to arm Georgia or train the Georgian soldiers.
A highlight of Monday’s agreement is the US$100 million deal for Israel to provide unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia – which enables the Russian security forces to tighten surveillance over Georgia. The Russian military keenly felt the need to develop advanced reconnaissance systems in the wake of the brief military conflict with Georgia in August 2008, when the effectiveness of Russian military operations was severely hampered by the lack of reliable intelligence.
The Russian military reportedly needs up to 100 UAVs and at least 10 guidance and control systems to ensure effective battlefield reconnaissance. Russian defense companies tried to launch UAV development programs but so far have failed to come up with effective spy drones. Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin said in April that Moscow spent about 5 billion rubles (US$170 million) on the development of indigenous drones, which ultimately failed the tests.
Israel is now agreeable to setting up a $300 million joint drone production facility in Russia. No doubt, it is a leap forward to graduate to the sophisticated level of co-production of weapon systems. Fifty Russian technicians are presently undergoing training in Israel to operate the drones.
Moscow is expected to spend up to 10 billion euros (US$12.2 billion) on European and Israeli weaponry in the coming five-year period. Russia is a large-scale exporter of weapons but also has a need to revamp its arms industry (and fulfill the needs of its own military’s modernization) after years of underinvestment, for which technology infusion from Israel is useful.
Meanwhile, in an extraordinary gesture usually reserved for strategic partners like India, Moscow has shown willingness to build laser-distance measuring stations in Israel linked to Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (Glosnass). Putin revealed that the specialists of the two countries are discussing the project.
This brings up an interesting issue, though. Israel sources its cutting-edge technology from the United States. In the case of India, Israel became a conduit for transfer of advanced US technology although Washington had restrictions on directtechnology transfer to India. But in the case of China, Washington prevented Israel from transferring advanced military technology. What could be Washington’s position vis-a-vis Russia?
Arguably, Israel would oblige Russia provided the latter agrees to work together within an overall framework of strategic and political cooperation.
An Israeli boost to ‘reset’
In the case of India, the Israeli lobby in Washington even helped out in the accretion of critical mass in US-Indian strategic partnership at defining moments like the conclusion of the US-India civil nuclear agreement in 2008. Conceivably, Moscow can expect the Israeli lobby to create positive energy for the reset of US’s ties with Russia.
Indeed, Barak’s talks with Putin took an overtly political character. Barak sought moderation in Russia’s military ties with Syria and Iran and to keep up pressure on Iran’s nuclear program. The situation in the Middle East also figured.
Russia is modernizing the Tartus naval base to accommodate heavy warships by 2013. However, the Israelis would estimate that Moscow’s Syrian track is vastly different today from the Soviet era strategic partnership and is driven primarily by its burning ambition to become an actor in the Middle East so as to earn points on the global scale. This is no more a zero-sum game between Russia and the US, as during the Soviet era.
As regards Iran, though, the paradigm is entirely different. Russia’s urge to have a good relationship with Iran emanates out of profound considerations. To quote from a recent Chinese commentary:
Iran is also an obstacle to US expansion in the Middle East. It can be made use of by Russia to bargain with the US when discussing other important international issues … Russia is very clear about Iran’s significance to it. Out of its own interests, Russia would love to take flexible actions concerning Iran’s controversial nuclear program and maintain the bilateral relations instead of leaving Iran alone.
What Russia wants is to please Iran and win hearts and minds of the Iranians, thus having an upper hand in dealing with Iran’s nuclear issue and forcing the West, especially the US, to make concessions to Russia over other key international issues.
The Iranian media cautiously reported on the Russian-Israeli military agreement as “a bid to improve bilateral relations”.
All the same, the Israeli ingenuity to move mountains is a legion. The dynamism of Russian-Israeli ties could get connected to the template of US-Russia reset. Moscow is nervous about Obama’s ability to push through the reset. Obama means well but the reset should go beyond detente. The US politics is in flux and influential quarters in America still view Russia in adversarial terms, while for Russia the key to modernization lies in the Silicon Valley.
Again, the US-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty’s (START) future is precarious but the treaty is crucial to maintaining Russia’s “strategic parity”. The US Senate foreign relations committee may vote on it in mid-September and the ensuing debate coincides with the acrimonious congressional election campaign. The Republicans have posed 700 questions regarding START.
The influential pro-Israel lobby in Washington can do a great deal indeed by way of addressing the Russian angst although it may not have 700 ready answers.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd