Tel Aviv Diary: What Next for Israel and Russia? | Opinion

On Sunday the Russian Defense Ministry announced the completion of its investigation, concluding that Israel was responsible for the downing of a Russian Surveillance plane carrying 15 Russian airmen. Though the aircraft was actually hit by Syrian SAM missiles, Israel was blamed for causing the Syrians to fire when Israel attacked Iranian targets in Syria. The Russian announcement claimed that Israel's actions were criminally negligent. Russia's Defense Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov said, "This is an extremely ungrateful response to all that has been done by the Russian Federation for Israel and the Israeli people recently." More troubling for Israel was the announcement on Monday that as a result of the downing of its plane, Russia was supplying Syria with advanced S-300 anti aircraft missiles together with advanced automated targeting equipment.

The essence of the Russian claim was that Israel misled the Russians as to where the attack was going to take place. That is, the attack was expected in Northern Syria when it was, in fact, in Latakia (which is questionably northern Syria.) Thus, the Israeli notification had not given the Russian Ilyushin-20 enough time to get out of the area.

The Russian statement was issued even though Israeli Air Force commander, Major General Amikam Norkin, traveled to Moscow on Thursday and brought with him proof that Israel was not responsible for the attack. Frankly, the only surprise in the Russian announcement is the fact that anyone was surprised.

Did anyone expect the Russians to be truthful? Would they admit to the fact that, although they have been coordinating with the Syrians for the past three years, the Syrian air command is so incompetent that it could not distinguish between Israeli F-16s and a large lumbering IL-20 transport plane? The answer: no. So much of the newly-evident Russian power is based on an illusion—an illusion of competence and ability. Yes, the Russians were successful in carpet bombing the Syrian opposition; but the precision bombing to eliminate ISIS was almost exclusively carried out by the U.S. and its allies. These realities make it imperative for the Russians to lie in order to maintain the aura of competency.

Israel and Russia have had a clear understanding since the Russians began their intervention to save the Assad regime. Israel would have a green light to deal with Iranian attempts to develop an infrastructure in Syria or to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, as long as Israel did nothing to endanger the Assad regime's survival and no Russian troops were harmed.

Leaving aside the moral aspects of this deal that kept criminal Assad in charge of Syria, the agreement has worked to the strategic interest of both sides. Vladimir Putin would like a Syria where Assad remains in power, with Russia—and not Iran—as the principal patron of the regime. Israel is willing to allow Assad to stay in power despite the mass murder of his own people, as long as the Iranians are not allowed near Israel's borders and are not allowed to establish an advanced military infrastructure in the country. The question on everybody's mind is, can this agreement withstand the death of the Russian airmen?

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia July 11, 2018. Yuri Kadobnov/Pool via REUTERS

The answer is possibly yes. The Russian report was very critical of the Israeli air force—not of the Israeli government. According to the statement, the Russian Defense Ministry "…believe[s] that the blame for the tragedy of the Russian Ilyushin-20 lies entirely with the Israeli air force and those who made the decision to carry out such actions." Russia benefits from its relationship with Israel on many different levels, with Russian businessmen calling both places home and making Israel an important bridge to much of the rest of the world. In addition, Russia has mostly replaced the United States as the one country that maintains good relations with both Israel and its enemies, thereby strengthening Russia's hand diplomatically.

Finally, Russia has no interest in having its military hardware shown to be wanting in any confrontation with Israel. In this era of fake news, it is easy to blame Israel for what happened, even if the facts tell a different story. Israel is likely to quietly accept the criticism and things are likely to remain much as they have been. All that said, the Russian announcement on Monday that they were going to supply the S-300 to Syria is a troubling development for Israel. Israel had fought hard without success to stop the Russians from providing the system to the Iranians. Their additional announcement that they were going to jam all satellite navigation systems over Syria, together with supplying the new S-300 systems, will no doubt provide challenges not only to Israel, but to the U.S. forces operating in Syria as well.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​