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Israel-Russia relations are in decline

June 21, 2022 at 3:53 pm

This picture taken on December 20, 2021 shows a view of an Israeli flag flying near the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene atop the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. [AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images]

A decline in relations between Israel and Russia has been noticeable recently after a few developments that cast a shadow on both countries. These include Israel’s bombing of Damascus International Airport and its continued siding with the West over Ukraine, as well as its agreement with the EU to supply natural gas as an alternative to Russia.

The attack on the airport disrupted commercial services and prompted questions about the real objective of this escalation towards Syria. It was the first attack of its kind since the start of the Israeli aggression in 2013.

The exchange of accusations about it was not limited to Tel Aviv and Tehran; it also involved Moscow. Israel’s Ambassador to Russia, Alex Ben-Zvi, was summoned to a meeting at the Russian Foreign Ministry to provide more details about the bombing. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov stressed that the Kremlin would not allow Syria to become a battlefield for other countries.

According to Moscow, the Israeli explanations are not acceptable, and it issued a strong condemnation of the attack, which it described as an “irresponsible act” and a violation of international law. Such attacks, said Russia, not only pose serious risks to international air traffic, but also endanger the lives of innocent people. It demanded that Israel must stop these “wicked” practices. Israel’s explanations focused on intelligence reports and satellite images which revealed that one of the transport lines serves the civilian part of the airport, while the other route serves the military, and heavy vehicles were visible near the runways.

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It is clear that the tension in Russia is not because of love for the Syrian regime, or out of concern for the airport, because Israeli aggression against Syria has been going on for nine years. Russia’s objection seems to be linked to Israel’s position in favour of the West with regard to the Russian war in Ukraine. In response, Moscow has told Israel that this stance may mean that its aircraft may not be cleared to use Syrian airspace.

Meanwhile, Russia realises that the gradual withdrawal of its troops from Syria so that they can be deployed in Ukraine will lead the warring parties in Syrian territory to intensify their air strikes, especially Iran and Israel, turning the country into a lawless zone, and a new arena for military confrontations that have been underplayed for years. It will be difficult for Russia to fight on both fronts, which is why it has warned Israel against intensifying its air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

Moreover, Moscow announced recently that nine Israelis have been killed fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, albeit in a personal capacity. The news sparked a new dispute between Russia and Israel, which did not deny that its citizens are in Ukrainian ranks. Although the Israeli Foreign Ministry did not comment on the Russian news, it is clear that this matter represents a substantial addition to the crises that have erupted between Moscow and Tel Aviv since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine four months ago. According to Russia, 35 Israelis were fighting alongside the Ukrainians, nine of whom were killed. Another eight who fought against Russia have already left Ukraine, leaving 18 still in the Ukrainian armed forces.

Russia has actually accused Israel of supporting the “neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv” since the outbreak of the war, adding that Israeli “mercenaries” are fighting against the Russian army. The Chief Rabbi of Russia, Moshe Asman, has claimed that 200 Israelis are fighting alongside the Ukrainians.

Moscow’s disclosure of this news coincided with its announcement that it is drafting an unprecedented draft resolution against Israel in the UN Security Council concerning the bombing of Damascus airport. The draft states that the attack violated international law, undermined regional stability and violated Syria’s sovereignty. As such, those responsible must be held accountable, not least because it has had an impact on the flow of much-needed humanitarian aid in Syria.

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It is clear that we will see an escalation of the crises between Moscow and Tel Aviv, especially if Moscow excludes Israeli jets from using Syrian airspace.

Furthermore, a deal to supply gas from the occupation state to Europe via Egypt, agreed at the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Gas Forum (EMGF), might lead to another crisis with Russia, according to leaks from Israel. The agreement is part of the effort by Europe to get an alternative supplier instead of Russia.

At a time when the global energy crisis represents a great opportunity for Israel to export stolen Palestinian natural gas, it gives Moscow a reason to impose more restrictions on Europe’s access to such energy supplies. This in turn indicates yet another potential dispute between Moscow and Tel Aviv.

The differences between the two arose when Israel sided with the West over the war in Ukraine. They escalated with Israeli attacks on Iranian sites in Syria, the latest of which was the bombing of Damascus International Airport. Now there is the Israel-EU gas deal to provide an alternative supplier and avoid violating European sanctions against Russia.

Neither side really knows where this is leading, but the lengthy honeymoon period is drawing to a close. It may be temporary, but there is still the possibility of further escalation in the coming days.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.