A year ago, Russia’s mask of non-hostility towards Israel was still in place, in the form of strategic coordination with Israel regarding the latter’s bombings in Syria. This allowed it to conceal that it fully sided with Israel’s enemies: Syria and Iran. Even as it refrained from trying to stop Israel from bombing Iranian targets in Syria, as if it could have prevented this, it was at the same time enabling and sponsoring Iran’s expansion into Syria.
An article I wrote a year ago presented the unvarnished facts about Russia’s support for Iran’s expansion in Syria at the expense of Israel’s national security. It asserted that the Iranian forces’ presence in Syria constituted an existential threat to Israel. It further explained, for the benefit of those who could not conceive of Putin as so anti-Israel—after all, he had made Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a guest of honor at the Moscow Victory Day parade in Red Square in May—that this was nothing personal against Israel, but, as they say in the mafia, just business connected to Russia’s rivalry with the U.S. In truth, the strategic Israel-Russia coordination of Israeli bombings in Syria served Russian interests: Israel declared that it would continue the bombings no matter what, and an Israel-Russia military escalation could only draw the United States into the melee and expose Russia as a mere regional power that was no match for the United States.
Following the Sept. 18 downing of an Ilyushin-20 plane by Syrian missiles, Russia’s mask dropped, and the true anti-Israel face of its policy was fully revealed. Indeed, Putin first attempted to conceal it by refraining from fully blaming Israel for the tragedy. But soon enough he joined his subordinates in blaming Israel, and announced that Russia would equip Syria with S-300 missile systems, which would, inter alia, protect Iranian forces in Syria from Israeli attacks.
Now the picture is crystal-clear: The Russians, who originally enabled and sponsored the Iranian expansion in Syria as an anti-U.S. measure, will now also protect the Iranians in Syria from Israeli attacks. This constitutes an undeclared act of war against Israel by an enemy, i.e., Russia—since it will not be the Syrians operating the S-300s against Israeli aircraft, because they yet face a long learning curve to do this; it will, for an indeterminate time, be Russian officers.
But with Russia’s equipping Syria with S-300s, and their inevitable operation by Russian officers against Israeli aircraft, the Russians risk a major military and technological debacle. They will learn, if they haven’t yet from the Ilyushin tragedy, that Israeli-American technology is far superior to Russia’s – and that goes not just for the S-300s now being shipped to the Syrians, but also for the S-300s and S-400s that Russia already has in place in Syria for its own defense. Perhaps only an internal Russian military investigation can show what these systems were doing when the Ilyushin was shot down.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu rejects the Israeli version of events, according to which the Israeli planes were already back over Haifa when the Ilyushin was shot down. The Russians argue that the radar picture showed an Israeli plane using the Ilyushin as a shield. A possible explanation for this, revealed by the Israeli daily Haaretz, is that the radar picture available to the Russians was not actual, but was the product of Israel’s electronic warfare. Given that this will continue to be part of any future Israeli bombing, the advanced Russian missile defense systems will be rendered no longer marketable. Perhaps this is why the Russians, upon announcing that they will deliverer S-300s to Syria, simultaneously announced their willingness to negotiate with the United States on this delivery, in order to avert any possible clashes with Israel and their ramifications.
Russia’s true face has been revealed not only in the military/strategic sphere—by providing S-300s to Syria, but also by its reversion to the old Russian/Soviet anti-Semitism that not even Russian President Putin’s “special relationship” with Chabad can camouflage. Former Israeli Ambassador to Russia Zvi Magen noted: “The media blamed Israel on the day of crisis in a well-timed orchestrated manner, filled with anti-Semitic elements. This wasn’t random.” Given Russia’s actualpolicy towards Israel, this should come as no surprise.
Yigal Carmon is president and founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). From 1988-93, he served as an advisor on countering terrorism to two successive Israeli prime ministers.