How Israel is Pulling Russia Away From Iran: Eli Lake, New York Post, June 4, 2018— Since Iran and Russia reached an agreement in the summer of 2015 to coordinate a military campaign to save the regime of Syria’s dictator, that war has held together an unholy alliance of those three states.
The Russian Collusion No One Cares About: Noah Rothman, Commentary, May 21, 2018— By now, those who began the Trump era convinced that the president was Vladimir Putin’s puppet are surely frustrated by the dearth of supporting evidence.
Ukraine: Is Russia Planning A New Invasion?: Judith Bergman, Gatestone Institute, May 1, 2018— This April marks the fourth year of the ongoing war in Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and Russian backed separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine…
Russia vs. the West: The Beginning of the End: Emil Avdaliani, BESA, May 13, 2018— Contrary to the much-touted opinion that Russia has been successful of late in projecting its influence across the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s influence has in fact significantly receded on the Eurasian continent.
On Topic Links
Putin Warns That a Nuclear ‘World War III’ Would End Civilization: Mark Moore, New York Post, June 7, 2018
As Iran and Assad Move in Southern Syria, US and Russia Must Discuss Response: Seth J. Frantzman, The Hill, May 31, 2018
Dramatic Understandings Between Israel and Russia: Mordechai Sones, Arutz Sheva, May 28, 2018
HOW ISRAEL IS PULLING RUSSIA AWAY FROM IRAN
New York Post, June 4, 2018
Since Iran and Russia reached an agreement in the summer of 2015 to coordinate a military campaign to save the regime of Syria’s dictator, that war has held together an unholy alliance of those three states. It worked. Bashar al-Assad has withstood the uprising.
Now, as that war comes to a close, the Iranian-Russian alliance that saved Assad appears to be fraying. Consider recent developments. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Assad foreign military forces will exit Syria at the onset of a political process to end the war. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all foreign forces — a reference to Iran and its allied militias — should immediately leave the Daraa province, which borders Israel. On Friday, a leading Arab newspaper reported that Israel and Russia reached an agreement this week for just that.
All of this is significant for a few reasons. To start, being forced to withdraw from Syria would be a major blow to Iran’s prestige at a moment when its economy is bracing for crippling sanctions following America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. The removal of Iran and its allied militias from Syria would stymie Tehran’s plans for a land bridge to southern Lebanon — a supply line of advanced weapons to Iran’s most important client, Hezbollah.
Preventing a permanent Iranian presence in Syria has been a top priority for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the last two years. In 2017, he pressed the Trump administration to commit to challenge Iranian forces in Syria after victory in the campaign against ISIS. He wasn’t successful, so he tried something different: He went to Moscow.
Israel has had a channel to Moscow since Russia first established its air presence in Syria in fall 2015. That channel, though, was primarily to warn Russia’s military when Israel launched airstrikes on convoys and shipments of arms to Hezbollah.
In the last year, Netanyahu and his top ministers have stepped up diplomacy with Moscow to make the strategic case that it’s not in Russia’s interest to allow Iran to turn Syria into a client state like Lebanon, according to US and Israeli officials.
The latest such visit was on Thursday when the Israeli defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, flew to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart. Following those meetings, Lieberman tweeted: “The state of Israel appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security concerns, particularly regarding the situation at our northern border.”
So far, that understanding has resulted in a new policy from Russia toward Israeli airstrikes in Syria. Russia has the ability to protect Iranian forces with its own air force and air defense systems in Syria, but it has opted not to use them to stop Israel.
An element of the Israeli strategy has also been to back up the diplomacy with force in Syria. In the last two months, the Israelis have gone farther into Syrian territory to strike Iranian targets than they had before.
In April, Israeli airstrikes hit a base deep in Syrian territory, where Iranian commanders were coordinating militias. On May 10, a day after Trump announced the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, Iran and Israel exchanged strikes, with Israel hitting major Iranian infrastructure inside Syria.
What’s notable about the May 10 strike is that no Russian officials condemned it. The day before, Netanyahu was in Moscow for meetings with Putin. Netanyahu told Israeli reporters after he returned home that he did not expect Russia to try to protect Iranian targets from Israel.
It’s too soon to say whether Israel’s diplomacy with Russia will result in the removal of Iran and its allied militias from Syria altogether. A senior Israeli diplomat warned me this week no agreement has been made for all of Syria, and that Israel wouldn’t be satisfied with an agreement to only keep Iranian forces away from its border. Even so, Netanyahu has succeeded diplomatically where the Obama and Trump administrations had failed. The prime minister understands something the Americans have forgotten: Diplomacy can be effective only if the other side believes you are willing to use force if it fails.
THE RUSSIAN COLLUSION NO ONE CARES ABOUT Noah Rothman
Commentary, May 21, 2018
By now, those who began the Trump era convinced that the president was Vladimir Putin’s puppet are surely frustrated by the dearth of supporting evidence. Donald Trump has spent his tenure repaying the Russian Federation for its interference in the 2016 election by imposing stiff sanctions on the Kremlin and its associates, arming the regime’s opponents, and degrading the capabilities of its allies. While there are few areas where Washington and Moscow have collaborated, that is not to say that they do not exist. If there is one particularly important arena where the White House has been happy to cede turf to the Russian president, it is in Syria.
President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire to see the United States extricate itself from its commitments in Northwestern Syria as soon as possible. In early April, the president announced that all U.S. troops in Syria would be withdrawing “like very soon”—an announcement that confused his State Department and contradicted the statements of his commanding generals, who had assured the public that the American mission in Syria has only just begun. Cooler heads might have convinced Trump not to create a power vacuum in the heart of the former ISIS caliphate on a whim, but the president seems unpersuaded that either U.S. interests or allies in the region are of much value. If America cannot simply cut ties with its partners in Syria, it seems, it will simply allow those relationships to wither on the vine.
Last week, the administration announced that it would cut off all non-humanitarian aid to groups on the ground in Northern Syria. Some $200 million in recovery funds for the region devastated in the fight against ISIS were frozen in late March, and they are not going to be restored. If the civilian infrastructure devastated in that part of Syria is going to be repaired, it won’t be with American reconstruction funds. Among the organizations that the White House has abandoned is the Syrian Civil Defense, known colloquially as the “White Helmets,” which have attracted positive attention from American lawmakers for their highly-publicized efforts to rescue civilians from collapsed buildings over the course of the seven-year Syrian civil war.
All of this will be welcome news in Moscow. Russia has alleged that the “White Helmets” staged a recent chemical weapons attack on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Daouma. Moscow-backed mercenaries and Assad regime forces have repeatedly attempted to make inroads in the territory Americans occupy east of the Euphrates, recently resulting in a bloody armed confrontation between U.S. forces and Russian contractors. A U.S. withdrawal from Northern Syria would allow Russia and Iran to flood the zone while allowing Turkey a substantial presence in the North (where it could at finally neutralize America’s Kurdish allies). More troubling still, American withdrawal could provide enough space for Islamist organizations like ISIS or the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra group to reconstitute themselves. That would serve Assad’s purposes just fine. The existence of brutal Islamist groups creates a favorable contrast with his genocidal but secular regime, and it is a contrast Assad has skillfully deployed to generate Western sympathy for his ruling cabal.
The Trump administration has long sought to enlist Russia’s help in its effort to extricate U.S. troops from that conflict, no matter the costs to U.S. interests. In early 2017, the Trump administration entertained the prospect of ceding its position in Syria as a bargaining chip that, it was thought, might convince Russia to abandon its Iranian allies. It became clear that overture failed when Russian officials began telling regional governments like Israel that Iran’s military presence in Syria was a permanent feature of the landscape.
The Trump administration’s belief that Russia could be convinced to share American aims in Syria did not abate even after the president ordered strikes on Assad regime targets. In July of last year, the Trump administration ended a CIA program that armed and trained anti-Assad regime rebels in the hopes of currying favor with Russia. The president has all but surrendered the post-war planning process to Russia, which began ironing out a power-sharing arrangement with its Turkish and Iranian partners last November.
Despite the souring of Russo-American relations, the Trump White House still appears to cling to the notion that Russian and U.S. interests can align in Syria. In truth, the only alignment is that both Washington and Moscow want to see American soldiers and their Western allies leave. Yet for both the dovish left and the isolationist right, this is the kind of collusion that raises no eyebrows. It is the sacrifice of American influence and allies that generates no calls for Trump’s resignation from the usual suspects on the left. Conservatives, too, are loath to reconcile their conclusion that the “collusion” narrative is hollow with this conspicuous display of deference toward Moscow.
If there is one thing recent history has taught us, it is that Russia is not a reliable steward of U.S. interests. Americans who rediscover their mistrust of Vladimir Putin’s goals only when it suits their partisan interests are invested in a political game. Unfortunately, the stakes are so much higher than that.
UKRAINE: IS RUSSIA PLANNING A NEW INVASION?
Gatestone Institute, May 1, 2018
This April marks the fourth year of the ongoing war in Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and Russian backed separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine, also known as the Donbas region. Prior to the beginning of the war in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, Russia annexed Crimea.
Russia’s aggression into Ukraine came in direct violation of its obligations under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Under the memorandum, in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons, Russia reaffirmed its “obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” and promised that none of its weapons would ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
Now, the question of further Russian or Russian-backed military operations in Ukraine has surfaced. In March, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asserted that Russia has been strengthening its military presence on the border of Ukraine. According to Poroshenko: “For more than one year, we have been repelling Russia’s military aggression on the front line… In his latest report General Zabrodsky reported in detail on the strengthening of the military presence of the Russian Federation along our border and continued stay of Russia’s regular troops in the occupied territories”.
Poroshenko explained that the Russians have, since 2014, deployed and reorganized their forces in a way that will be able to support a rapid invasion both from the north and from east of Ukraine. “Several mechanized divisions are fully prepared for intervention,” he said.
In April, Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak also claimed that Russia “has massed 19 battalion tactical groups of the combat echelon and reserve forces with over 77,000 troops,” adding that they have almost 1,000 tanks, 2,300 combat vehicles, over 1,100 artillery systems and about 400 multiple rocket launchers. According to Poltorak, 40,000 Russian troops, which he detailed as an integral part of the Southern Military District of the Russian Armed Forces, are stationed in the Donbas. Also according to Poltorak, in 2017 Russia’s military forces shelled Ukrainian army positions in Donbas more than 15,000 times.
There appears to be some internal disagreement on the exact number of Russian forces amassing on Ukraine. At the Kyiv Security Forum, on April 13, the chairman of Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council Oleksandr Turchynov noted: “After four years of war, Russia has at least 260,000 troops deployed along the Ukrainian border, in addition to another 35,000 troops in the Donbas and 30,000 in Crimea, who could be used to conduct a large-scale continental war… The Russian aggressor is preparing a powerful force in Crimea — and not only to protect its presence there. And the two occupation army corps in the Donbas have been positioned to provide cover and buy time for the main force to deploy at the borderline.”
Turchynov also warned that the 260,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border are ready to advance with 3,500 tanks, 11,000 soft-skin vehicles, 4,000 artillery units, and over 1,000 multiple launch rocket systems. Russia, according to Tuchynov, has also fielded four guided-missile brigades in the region. The brigades, he says, are armed with Iskander-K cruise missile systems, which have a range of up to 2,500 kilometers. Apart from investing in conventional arms, Russia is also enhancing its hybrid warfare capabilities, “including terror attacks and subversive actions,” in Ukraine, Turchynov said.
First Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), Viktor Kononenko, also recently reported that Russia might be planning another attempt to destabilize Ukraine in the fall. He said that the SBU has information on Russia’s plans, including “the existence of a group in Putin’s entourage, which has as goal to create prerequisites for the introduction of Russian troops to Ukraine in autumn under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population”. He added that Moscow allegedly plans to use criminals and other criminal-related structures “for beating participants of pro-Russian events and religious processions.”
The war in Ukraine has already exacted a steep price. On April 21, UN representative to Ukraine, Neal Walker, announced that, “After four years of conflict, 3.4 million people in Ukraine are struggling to cope with the impact of the humanitarian crisis and urgently require humanitarian assistance and protection”. More than 2,500 civilian men, women and children have been killed, and more than 9,000 injured in the past four years, according to the UN. Landmines in eastern Ukraine are affecting1.9 million people. “Last week,” Walker said, “landmines killed a family of four in eastern Ukraine. In 2017, over 235 civilians were killed or injured by landmines and other explosive remnants of war.”
In December 2017, humanitarian agencies launched a US$187 million appeal to reach more than 2.3 million of the most vulnerable people in Ukraine with assistance. 97% of this funding appeal remains unfunded. The world at large has forgotten the war in Ukraine. Despite the humanitarian toll on the region, the United States for the first four years of the war, refused to supply the Ukrainian government with lethal weapons. The Obama administration reportedly feared that sending lethal weapons to Ukraine might escalate the conflict with Russia.
Arguably, this lack of forceful response to Russian aggression against its “near abroad” only emboldened Russia further. So much so, apparently, that Russia felt confident launching airstrikes in 2015 on behalf of Syria’s President Bashar Assad against the people opposing him in the Syrian civil war. Undeterred by the US in both Ukraine and Syria, Russia had returned as a substantial military and political actor, not only in what has become known as the “post-Soviet space” — the area inhabited by the former republics of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine — but in the Middle East, as well…
RUSSIA VS. THE WEST: THE BEGINNING OF THE END
BESA, May 13, 2018
Contrary to the much-touted opinion that Russia has been successful of late in projecting its influence across the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s influence has in fact significantly receded on the Eurasian continent. US pressure is important here, as are internal economic problems in Russia. But a closer look can easily reveal that it is the EU that has undermined Russian political, economic, and even cultural influence in eastern Europe and the former Soviet space. Moscow has lost influence the Baltic states, Moldova (at least in part), Ukraine, and Georgia, and is losing credibility in Armenia. Europe, meanwhile, has never been so united and unanimous in its internal as well as foreign policy actions.
Why has Europe never been so successful against Russia in the past? A partial answer lies in Europe’s unfortunate geography. The European continent represents a peninsula of Eurasia, with Russia right on Europe’s edge. Peace between them has been a fleeting phenomenon as each has tried to dominate or influence the other. Russia’s rise to power was basically a product of constant European internal fighting. There were times when the Continent was unified and Russia was threatened, but the creation of a truly unified European empire that could economically challenge Moscow in the long term was a daunting task.
The building of a European empire had at least three phases. Military victories were essential, but these did not provide a lasting foundation. A ruler needed a centralized administration and cooption of the local elites of large invaded states, something that could have taken decades to achieve: a virtually impossible task. Europe also had the problem that the continent was full of ambitious, technologically and militarily advanced states very much unwilling to abandon their freedom.
Even when a conquest of Europe was achieved (as in the case of Napoleon and Hitler), the continent faced its two “big enemies on the periphery,” Britain and Russia. London was willing to keep the balance of power among the European states while Moscow controlled Eastern Europe. This simple geography explains why throughout the centuries, a united Europe was not a viable project and peace with Russia was an unachievable goal. However, geopolitical developments in Eurasia since the breakup of the Soviet Union show that a united Europe is a plausible project when unified non-militarily. Modern Europe poses a serious challenge to Russia, as the battle between the two is – for the first time in history – in the economic sphere. Modern Europe is in fact a powerful economic and political machine based not on coercion, but on state and elite cooption.
Never before has Europe posed such a fundamental challenge to Moscow. Neither Napoleon nor Hitler worked towards the fundamental weakening of Russia, as a military conquest of Russia was impossible at the time. A fundamental weakening of Russia is only possible through the purposeful economic dominance of the territories around the Russian heartland (the modern western part of the Russian Federation).
That is what is now happening. Russia is losing to Europe in terms of competition and economic relevance. Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltic states show how far Russian influence has receded into Eurasia. What is even more interesting is the fact that this process will continue unabated, at least for the near future. Russia will remain isolated while its immediate neighborhood will deepen its cooperation with the West.
Is Eurasia in the midst of a fundamental transformation? Will Russia’s weakening allow small states on its periphery and elsewhere in the Middle East to improve their geopolitical situation? There are plenty of indications to support this scenario.
On Topic Links
Putin Warns That a Nuclear ‘World War III’ Would End Civilization: Mark Moore, New York Post, June 7, 2018—Dredging up Cold War-era rhetoric of mutual destruction, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Thursday that another world war could end civilization.
Russia to Host its Annual National-Day Celebration for First Time in Jerusalem: JNS, June 6, 2018—Russia has announced that it will host an annual “Russia Day” reception in the Sergei Courtyard in Jerusalem, better known as the Russian Compound, on June 15. Prior to this year, the celebration was conducted in Tel Aviv. This will be the first year that the event will take place in Jerusalem.
As Iran and Assad Move in Southern Syria, US and Russia Must Discuss Response: Seth J. Frantzman, The Hill, May 31, 2018—For seven years, Syrian rebels have held a chunk of southwestern Syria. Now the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is planning an offensive to retake the area that borders Israel and Jordan.
Dramatic Understandings Between Israel and Russia: Mordechai Sones, Arutz Sheva, May 28, 2018 —Channel 2 News reports that dramatic understandings were reached between Israel and Russia in which the Assad army would return to southern Syria on its border with Israel, Russia will undertake that there will be no Iranian or Hizbullah presence in this area, and Israel will maintain freedom of action against Iranian consolidation in Syria.