Can the United States Overcome the Russian Challenge?
by Ksenia Svetlova | June, 2021
Spotlight: Russia & The Middle East
The first summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin took place in Geneva just days ago. The two leaders recently stated that they believed the bilateral relations between the United States and Russia were at an all-time low, and neither was optimistic about the possibility of any breakthrough during the summit. Russia would have to deal with a determined president who is highly aware of human rights, and has formerly identified Russia as one of the key threats to his country. By contrast, in the Kremlin, the United States will find a president who's been in office for 21 years, is oppositional to the West, determined to advance the Russian policy and establish Russian impact worldwide, if possible, at the United States' expense. The two leaders will attempt to mark the boundaries of their clout, strive for collaboration on important topics such as the climate crisis, fight against COVID-19, and oversight of weapons of mass destruction.
Nevertheless, Russia will undoubtedly continue to establish its status in many regions across the globe, primarily the Middle East, Africa, and post-Soviet republics, while posing a significant challenge to the global American agenda.
Although it has not successfully developed its economy, and continues to rely on its national resources – some 39% of the Russian economy depends on oil and gas – over the past decade Russia has managed to restore and enhance its army, establish its presence in areas in which it was formerly inactive (the Mediterranean Basin, Africa, and several countries in the Middle East), and gain a footing in all strategic regions within the close circle of post-Soviet republics: the Crimean Peninsula, Donbas, Abkhazia and North Ossetia, Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. In each of the above, Russia has bases, military forces, or peacekeeping ones. It has learned not only to set up bases and position corps, but to connect the different dots on the map too – as it is currently doing with Syria and Libya (Russian aircraft often take off from the Russian airbase in Syria – Khmeimim).
These days, when the Chinese challenge and domestic situation in the United States are keeping President Biden busy, will he also choose to address a reality in which Russia has skillfully transformed into a far-reaching, highly capable actor? Biden is undoubtedly determined to strengthen NATO as well as the United States' ties with its European and Asian partners. However, it is hard to imagine him taking steps to reduce Russian presence in the Mediterranean Basin as this region is of lesser importance to the United States (compared to other regions), push Russia out of Syria, or prevent its growing impact in Iraq or Libya. The Putin-Biden summit was important in terms of the messages conveyed and emphases placed, but it did not fundamentally alter the current state of affairs, nor will it lead to a change in current U.S. strategy vis à vis Moscow.
Israeli-Russian relations in the Bennett era
For the first time in 12 years, President Vladimir Putin would have to engage in dialogue with an Israeli prime minister other than Benjamin Netanyahu. The outgoing prime minister actively sought to bring Moscow and Jerusalem closer together, paid frequent visits to Moscow, and was even a personal guest of Putin's at his Dacha in the resort city of Sochi. He also attended the May 9 military parade celebrating Russia's victory in World War II. The two leaders underscored the closeness and intimacy of their relations, and often resolved complex issues while conversing on the phone. Netanyahu successfully juggled both the United States and Russia, avoiding a crisis with both superpowers. Nevertheless, one must recall that, 12 years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu's second term in office coincided with a "restart" in Moscow-Washington relations, and, during the past four years, the U.S. president was indifferent to Russia's human rights violations, and did not view it as a threat at all.
The new Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, will have to build his relations with Putin from scratch, and it will not be an easy task, as the Russian president tends to stick to the people with whom he is most familiar with respect to foreign relations and his close surroundings. Moreover, Russia views Bennett as a "short-term prime minister", for his term in office is limited by his coalition agreement with Yair Lapid.
Bennett (as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs Lapid) will have to be especially careful to avoid conveying problematic messages to Israel's only strategic ally, the United States. However, it is in Israel's best interest to continue having freedom of action in Syrian and Lebanese airspace, and that requires being in good relations with Moscow. In this area there will be no change, nor is one expected, as Iran will not change either, and does not intend to stop operating from Syria. No international or regional force is currently capable of pushing it out. Israel will therefore have to take determined and creative steps to prevent Iran from positioning and entrenching itself on the Israeli border, and, to do so, it needs to be closely and precisely coordinated with Russia.
The Bennett-Lapid government will also need to grapple with several strategic and moral issues: Will Israel continue to have an Israeli embassy in Belarus, where the regime imprisons its citizens, curbs free media, and tortures political prisoners? Will it voice its opinion if the situation in the Ukraine or Georgia should worsen? Netanyahu knew how to bypass all of these traps, mostly by choosing a neutral position, or remaining silent. Can Israel keep playing the same game during Biden's presidency, and avoid choosing to side with one party or the other? That, too, will greatly depend on Naftali Bennett's ability to forge personal ties with the Russian leader, without sacrificing the special relations between Jerusalem and Washington in any way.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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