It’s hard to understand Vladimir Putin’s attitude toward Jews.
On the one hand, Putin-controlled media continues to pour out vulgar anti-Jewish memes, including a recent TV program in which Jews sunk the Titanic, blew up Chernobyl and took down the World Trade Center. And Russia has surprising connections and influence in European radical right-wing political parties like Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s National Front and more.
On the other hand, at the same time, Russia is hosting a conference of 500 European rabbis in order to discuss the problem of Jew hatred in Europe, and in January Putin even suggested that Jews fleeing Europe should go to Russia. Jews “should come here, to Russia. They left the Soviet Union; now they should come back,” he said.
On the one hand, there appear to be good relations between Putin and Israel’s PM Netanyahu. Arrangements in place to prevent accidental clashes between Israeli and Russian air forces operating in Syria seem to be working. It does not seem to be the case that Putin is preventing Israel from taking action against attempts to transfer game-changing weapons to Hezbollah.
On the other hand, Russia is supplying modern weapons to Iran, and it appears to be cooperating with the Iranian regime’s project to control the arc of land from its eastern border through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, as well as opening a direct line through Anbar province in Iraq, via Jordan, to Israel’s midsection. This is not “good for the Jews.”
When Putin occupied Crimea two years ago, he claimed that Ukrainian nationalists who overthrew the pro-Russian Yanukovych government were neo-Nazis who threatened Jews. He might have been partially right, but Jews there are also accused of being allies of the right wing. Vicious anti-Jewish propaganda has appeared, which the nationalists claim is produced by the FSB (the current incarnation of the Russian secret security service) to discredit them.
The explanation is not that Putin likes Jews or that he dislikes them. It is simply that the Jews and Jew-hatred are convenient and helpful tools for achieving his objectives. Some of these are to weaken the EU and NATO and destabilize Europe, at which he has been spectacularly successful. This is why Putin wants to strengthen the right-wing movements – to create as much chaos in Europe as possible.
You may recall that NATO was originally established to contain Soviet expansionism by building a nuclear-armed wall around the USSR. Today it is a quaint relic of that period, almost toothless. NATO didn’t stop Putin from taking Crimea and isn’t likely to send its tanks or bombers to protect Ukraine, Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria.
The Jewish state, too, can be helpful to Putin. In the Middle East, his immediate goal is to weaken the influence of the US over the region, both in objective geostrategic ways, by placing military assets in critical spots – S-400 air defense systems in Crimea and Syria, bombers in Iran, bases in Syria – and diplomatically, by driving wedges between the US and its traditional allies, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The US, either by incompetence or design, has played into Putin’s gambit. Both the US and Russia have wooed the Iranian regime, but only Putin has received anything in return. The Iranians have pocketed US concessions made during the nuclear negotiations without ending their hostility to the US, their support of terrorism or their intention to obtain nuclear weapons (which may have been delayed by a short period, if at all).
In addition to the strategic benefits Russia gets from its alliance with Iran, the American attempt to appease Iran has damaged relations between the US, its (former) Sunni allies and Israel; this is a definite plus from Moscow’s point of view.
As Obama continues to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians and to restrain her from taking action against Iran, Putin is offering help, both in controlling Iran and Hezbollah and as a mediator (along with Egypt) with the Palestinians.
Putin’s longer-range goal is to replace the US as the dominant power in the Middle East. This will place him in conflict with Iran, which also wants the role of top dog. Putin understands Iran’s expansionist ambitions. It would be rational for him to want to place limits on the regime, especially in regard to her nuclear weapons development. Iran is developing or may already have a nuclear-capable missile that can reach Moscow. I don’t believe that Russia wants to see such missiles with nuclear warheads in her backyard, 1500 km. from Moscow. Putin is willing to partner with Iran in order to achieve his objectives, but he very much intends to be the controlling partner.
Can Putin be trusted? No, of course not. Regardless of the propaganda flowing from his psychological warfare factories, he is not sentimental about Jews. The ex-KGB officer is not sentimental about anything. But I think he is smart enough to understand the potential stability that a strong Israel – the only nation in the Middle East that can at the same time be powerful without also being tempted to engage in aggression against its neighbors – would give to the eastern Mediterranean region, which incidentally contains large reserves of natural gas.
Unlike Obama, who I believe is both stupid and irrationally anti-Israel, Putin is both smart and rational, and the smart, rational thing for him to do is to allow Russia to benefit from a powerful but nonthreatening Jewish state that is prepared to view her as an ally.
Within the next few years it will become clear if he sees it this way too.