Russia and Israel: A Complicated Friendship

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Moscow and Jerusalem have walked a fine line in their relationship that has allowed them to pursue divergent goals, a new journal article explains. 

Earlier this month, the United Nations Security Council passed a U.S.-drafted cease-fire deal hoping to halt the Gaza war after eight months of Israel’s campaign against Hamas that has killed more than 35,000 civilians. Though the US, Russia, and China have vetoed different proposals in the past, the powerful eastern states allowed this deal through: Beijing voted in favor, while Moscow abstained from voting. 

Despite its abstention, Russia has been public in its concern over the war. Tacking onto its many statements regarding the brutality of the war in recent months, President Vladimir Putin condemned the campaign as a “total destruction of the civilian population” that “does not resemble a war.” 

This level of pressure on Israel represents a shift. Over the last few decades, Russia has developed close ties to Netanyahu’s regime, a relationship that has influenced Israel’s indifference to Moscow’s war in Ukraine while its many Western partners are against the war. Israel has remained largely quiet on Ukraine and is hesitant to engage Moscow’s denouncement of its own in Gaza. While Jerusalem treads lightly, the Kremlin has not hesitated to criticize its longstanding partner. 

The complexity—and unlikelihood—of this friendship is explored by Chen Kertcher and Dima Course of Ariel University in a new Middle East Policy article. The authors analyze how Moscow and Jerusalem have maintained a strong relationship through “friendship balancing,” a situation in which states may have conflicting interests but seek to maintain relations to achieve their goals. 

“Friendship balancing” requires two primary practices: the sharing of identity and values and the use of de-escalation structures. The former is the root of Israel and Russia’s relationship. Under Putin, the Kremlin has adopted a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish stance and a close friendship was formed between the two presidents. Leaders have “played on and strengthened the deep roots shared by the two societies,” embracing a shared identity rooted in the diaspora community of Russian Jews in Israel. 

De-escalation strategies have also been vital to the maintenance of relations. To demonstrate this, the authors highlight the Syrian civil war: both Moscow and Jerusalem were highly engaged in the conflict but had divergent interests. Russia’s primary goal in the Middle East is to counter American influence and project its own power, so supporting the Kremlin-allied Assad regime was critical. Meanwhile, Israel was attempting to maintain the ceasefire line along its border and reduce the influence of Iran in Syria through paramilitary forces like Hezbollah. 

Despite their clashing interests, the two states maintained robust and consistent diplomatic contact while engaging in deconfliction to prevent unintended engagement between the two militaries. Russia requested regular updates to avoid errors, which allowed Israel to maintain its bombing campaign, and utilized its position to control the ceasefire zone and keep it in what Israel considered friendly hands. 

Despite the diplomatic successes over the years, the Gaza war is proving to be a challenge to the friendship. Russia has been outspoken against the campaign and has supported UN resolutions to end the conflict, though it has not delivered offensive weapons to Iran nor training to pro-Hamas groups.  

Also of concern to Israel are the growing ties between Russia and Iran. The Islamic Republic has been supplying Moscow with materiel to wage the war in Ukraine, and its support of Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel, has always been of serious concern for Jerusalem. Increasing cooperation between Tehran and the Kremlin “threatens the values and structures so carefully balanced by Netanyahu and Putin,” the authors write. 

Constant conflict and regional states’ many complex friendships have come to define the Middle East. For the time being, “it is clear that the structural practices established in Syria continue.” As the campaign in Ukraine continues and the Gaza war risks larger regional fallout, Russia may be forced to choose between Israel or the friendly regime in Iran, and Jerusalem may be left without a key partner. 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Chen Kertcher and Dima Course’s Middle East Policy article, “The Practice of Friendship Balancing: Russia-Israel Relations, 2015 to 2021”:  

  • Friendship in global politics is a concept that can help explain relations between actors strengthened by treaties, alliances, or political integration.  
    • Relations are often based on shared values and enforced by strict mechanisms. 
  • Russia and Israel engage in “friendship balancing,” which occurs when two countries have conflicting interests but do not want to risk the deterioration of relations. 
  • Despite many recent disputes and differing alliances, there are not clear signs that Russia has become hostile towards Israel. 
    • Moscow maintains relations with Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Shia actors, while Jerusalem aligns with the US. 
  • The relationship has been tense historically, but critical changes have occurred since the end of the Cold War, notably between the two presidents. 
    • Despite a history of antisemitism in Russia, Putin has a positive view of Jews and is considered the most pro-Israel and pro-Jewish leader in Russian history. 
  • Israel and Russia maintain a sense of shared identity and culture. 
    • Significant emigration of Russian Jews to Israel has created a closely connected diaspora community that helps bridge cultural gaps. 
    • Putin promotes a shared experience of suffering during World War II. 
  • Both Israel and Russia were actively involved on different sides of the Syrian civil war. 
    • Moscow seeks to extend its influence in the Middle East and the collapse of the Assad government threatened an important regional allyship; in response, Russia organized a military intervention to support the regime. 
    • Israel utilized the war to wage campaigns in Syria against Iranian proxies like Hezbollah and attempted to maintain the Golan Heights ceasefire line from 1981. 
  • Cultural and structural mechanisms were vital to prevent a deterioration of relations during the conflict in Syria. 
    • Both leaders also share a realist worldview that helps them accept each other’s interests. 
    • Normative practices include frequent meetings and discussion of a shared identity that help demonstrate to the populaces that the friendship is still in place.  
    • Structural practices included deconfliction—which allowed Israel to maintain its bombing campaign provided it gave sufficient warning and did not harm Russian assets—and a shared focus on maintaining the ceasefire area for Israel by placing it under Russian-supported Syrian army control. 
  • The Gaza war is threatening the friendship. 
    • Moscow has appeared vocally hostile towards Israel but has not provided aid to anti-Israeli actors that the government is allied with. 
    • There is a rising level of antisemitism in Russia, greater cooperation with Iran, and support and hosting of Islamist groups that have put relations on the line. 

You can read “The Practice of Friendship Balancing: Russia-Israel Relations, 2015 to 2021” by Chen Kertcher and Dima Course in the Summer 2024 issue of Middle East Policy. 



(Banner image: Kobi Gideon / GPO via Getty Images)

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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