Putin and Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Source: Ynetnews)

(version française)

There are lots of historic and major diplomatic announcements between Israel and Arab countries (UAE and Bahrain) these days, a development in which the United States are directly associated. In the last couple of years, we have observed the existence of another well-frequented diplomatic channel between Moscow and Jerusalem and I was very glad when acclaimed author Professor Mark Galeotti – author of an excellent biography of Vladimir Putin and more recently of A Short History of Russia – accepted to respond to a few questions about the subject a few weeks ago. Here is the content of our exchange.

Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.

Do you think the election of pro-Russian Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister in 2001 played a role in President Putin’s stance about Israel?

I think it certainly helped in that Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.

Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention […].

Judging by the number of meetings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin (10 visits by Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow since 2013 and 2 visits by Vladimir Putin in Israel since 2012), one could think that there is a notable rapprochement between Moscow and Jerusalem. How important is this relationship for the Russian president?

It’s important for both Putin and Russia. Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention – when the IAF bombs Hezbollah positions in Syria, for example, the Russian air defense system there is not activated and clearly they have been forewarned. Likewise, Russia at times shares intelligence with Israel about Iran.

How important are the Middle East issues in Russian domestic politics? Is there a link between Russian domestic politics and President Putin’s relationship with Israel?

Honestly, it’s not really a factor – neither a plus, nor a minus.

Some observers are of the opinion that Israel is just a pawn on Russia’s chessboard. Could Russia become a key strategic ally of Israel in the near future?

That gives Israel too little credit. Yes, it has good relations with Russia (the first drones the Russians fielded were bought from Israel, for example), but it is not going to be anyone’s pawn.

Putin sends the signal that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.

You mention it briefly in your book (on page 75), when you mention that President Putin demonstrates “[…] no hint of anti-Semitism”, but could you tell us more about where he stands on the issue and what he does to confront this trend?

One can’t say that he has especially actively fought against it, but his evidently good relations with Israel and also the Chief Rabbi of Moscow are certainly powerful symbols to powerful and ambitious Russians that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.

Compared to the trend observable in other East European countries (like Poland for example), what is the current status of anti-Semitism in Russia?

It’s present, of course, but subjectively it feels in decline – in the 1990s one could often see anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls or slurs in the media, but both are much less evident today. In some ways an interesting development is that the extreme nationalists, from whom one might expect some prejudice, actually express respect for Israel in terms of its willingness to stand up for its own interests, with force if need be.

Apart from the President and the Prime Minister, who are the engineers of the relationship between the two countries? Is there any track II diplomacy involved in your opinion?

Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, has been a very significant player in this respect – and, of course, there are many oligarchs and minigarchs of Jewish origins and often dual Russian-Israeli citizenship who act as connectors.

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(version française)

Poutine et Israël

On assiste ces jours-ci à plusieurs annonces diplomatiques historiques et majeures entre Israël et des pays arabes (les Émirats arabes unis et le Bahreïn), un développement auquel les États-Unis sont directement associés. Dans les dernières années, nous avons observé l’existence d’un autre canal diplomatique très fréquenté entre Moscou et Jérusalem et j’étais très heureux que le Professeur Mark Galeotti – auteur réputé d’une excellente biographie de Vladimir Poutine et plus récemment du livre A Short History of Russia – accepte de répondre à quelques questions à ce sujet il y a quelques semaines. Voici le contenu de cet échange.

Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.

Pensez-vous que l’élection d’Ariel Sharon, qui était notoirement pro-russe, au poste de Premier ministre en 2001 a joué un rôle dans la position du président Poutine sur Israël?

Je pense que cela a certainement aidé, dans la mesure où Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.

Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables.

À en juger par le nombre de rencontres entre le Premier ministre Netanyahu et le président Poutine (10 visites de Benjamin Netanyahu à Moscou depuis 2013 et 2 visites de Vladimir Poutine en Israël depuis 2012), on pourrait penser qu’il y a un rapprochement notable entre Moscou et Jérusalem. Quelle est l’importance de cette relation pour le président russe?

C’est important pour Poutine et pour la Russie. Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables. Par exemple, lorsque l’IAF (les forces aériennes israéliennes) bombarde les positions du Hezbollah en Syrie, le système de défense aérienne russe n’est pas activé et les Russes ont clairement été prévenus. De même, la Russie partage parfois des renseignements avec Israël au sujet de l’Iran.

Quelle est l’importance des questions moyen-orientales dans la politique intérieure russe? Existe-t-il un lien entre la politique intérieure russe et les relations du président Poutine avec Israël?

Honnêtement, ce n’est pas vraiment un facteur – ce n’est ni un avantage, ni un inconvénient.

Certains observateurs estiment qu’Israël n’est qu’un pion sur l’échiquier russe. La Russie pourrait-elle devenir un allié stratégique clé d’Israël dans un avenir prochain?

Ce serait accorder trop peu de crédit à Israël. Oui, ce pays entretient de bonnes relations avec la Russie (les premiers drones russes qui sont entrés en fonction avaient été achetés en Israël, par exemple), mais Jérusalem ne deviendra le pion de personne.

Vous mentionnez brièvement, à la page 75 de votre livre, que le président Poutine ne manifeste « […] pas une once d’antisémitisme », mais pourriez-vous nous en dire davantage à propos de sa position sur le sujet et ce qu’il fait pour lutter contre ce fléau?

Poutine envoie le message que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.

On ne peut pas dire qu’il l’a particulièrement activement combattu, mais ses relations manifestement bonnes avec Israël et avec le grand rabbin de Moscou sont certainement des symboles puissants pour les Russes influents et ambitieux à l’effet que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.

Par rapport à la tendance observable dans d’autres pays d’Europe de l’Est (comme la Pologne par exemple), quel est l’état actuel de l’antisémitisme en Russie?

Le phénomène est présent, bien sûr, mais subjectivement, il semble en déclin – dans les années 1990, on pouvait souvent voir des graffitis antisémites sur les murs ou des insultes proférées dans les médias, mais les deux manifestations sont beaucoup moins évidentes aujourd’hui. À certains égards, une évolution intéressante est observable à l’effet que les nationalistes extrémistes, de qui on peut s’attendre à des préjugés, expriment en fait leur respect pour Israël, au niveau de sa volonté de défendre ses propres intérêts, avec force si nécessaire.

À part le président et le premier ministre, qui sont les architectes des relations entre les deux pays? À votre avis, y a-t-il une diplomatie parallèle à l’œuvre?

Pinchas Goldschmidt, le grand rabbin de Moscou, a été un acteur très important à cet égard – et, bien sûr, il existe de nombreux oligarques et minigarques d’origine juive et souvent détenteurs de la double nationalité russo-israélienne qui agissent comme entremetteurs.

Why Vladimir Putin came to occupy the driver’s seat

TheEdge2It is too easy, in the Western context, to perceive the armed forces as a ceremonial tool used during commemorations and the military sector as a greedy budgetary expenditure for governments. As Mark Urban writes in his recent and sublime book, The Edge: Is the Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End?, “[…] most of the European public has been conditioned by education and popular culture to be repulsed by war, yet has little experience of it.” (p. 49).

Alas, this far too common perception and phenomenon associated with blind pacifism ignores the deep currents of history. Since time immemorial, armies have been used to conquer, defend, impress or intimidate. I know he’s been quoted already too many times for any reference to him to be original, but Clausewitz said it best when he said that: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.

Failure to take these factors into consideration will come to a price to those who are guilty of ignorance. The future of the world will not solely be influenced by the tectonic plates of the economy, but also by the capacity of the emerging power to promote and defend it with the bayonet and the fighter jet. China, for instance, has understood that lesson very well.

We can’t say the same about Western countries, the United States chief among them. Outside the high-flown discourse they articulate and promote, Washington’s capacities to implement it in a concrete military way are decreasing. “What seems clearer is that many in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have not yet registered how old much of the United States military equipment has become, how far its numbers have already fallen, and how projected cuts will make it impossible for America to have the kind of military reach it used to.” (p. 79-80). In other words, the Emperor is loosing his clothes.

Enter Russia. One of the main gaps in how the West perceives Vladimir Putin is the fact that the Russian president is a keen student of history. Incidentally, one of the only observers not to fall in the trap of assuming that Putin is a shallow brain is journalist Ben Judah – but that’s another story.

Mark Urban notes that Russia has “[…] the will to use its armed forces to re-draw the map and [is] also reaping the dividends of a long reinvestment in these capabilities.” (p. 86) Vladimir Putin knows that, on the ground, good and modern tanks are better than eloquent United Nations resolutions or huge vocal protests without consequences. As Field Marshal Erwin Rommel reportedly once said: “in a man-to-man fight, the winner is he who has one more round in his magazine.”

For Vladimir Putin, military power is not just a beautiful toy to be displayed on the parade square or during commemorations, but a powerful and meaningful political tool. They’ve been an essential part of history making for ages and the Russian president knows that more than many other statesmen. That’s why he will, most probably, remain in the driver’s seat for many years to come.

All in all, Mark Urban’s book is one of the very best I have had the pleasure of reading since a long time. To be honest, I was sad to finish it. Short, very well researched and thought provoking, it should have a place on the bookshelves of any policymaker or serious student of history.

The best soldiers of the Red Army?

Permit me to come back on the subject of Victory Day celebrations and Russian (Soviet) veterans. I’m coming back on it because this is a neglected aspect of World War II history.

When I watched those Jewish-Israeli Soviet veterans marching in Israel last week-end, I started looking for some books or articles on this subject. After all, this blog is not called “Books and Bayonets” for nothing.

And I found an excellent article by historian Kiril Feferman about the “’The Jews’ War’: Attitudes of Soviet Jewish Soldiers and Officers Toward USSR in 1940-41” in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (vol.27, no 4, 2014), which is edited by none other than military historian David M. Glantz.

This article covers the attitudes and motivations of Jewish soldiers who fought under the hammer and the sickle banner during WW2. Before the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941, “[…] a minority of the Jewish military men held indifferent or even hostile attitudes toward the Bolshevik regime.” But that was to change.

The German attack against the USSR “[…] promptly transformed all Jewish soldiers and officers into the staunchest anti-Nazi force and hence, probably one of the most reliable groups in the Red Army. This occurred even before the knowledge of the Holocaust became widespread.”

What motivated them to act in such a way? A combination of the desire to be fully recognized as citizens of the Soviet Union, of avenging the persecution of the Jewish people by Nazis or even the fact that they simply had no alternative because they knew what would happen if they fell into the hands of the Nazis.

All in all and based on the works of other academics, Feferman observes that “[…] the Jewish contribution to the Soviet victory over Germany was not lower but probably even exceeded in relative terms that of other Soviet peoples.”

It is unfortunate, in the context of the Western discourse, that the essential contribution of the Red Army to the victory of 1945 is overlooked or undermined. It is also a fact that the Jewish soldiers contribution on the battlefield is a neglected area of collective memory.

It would be an act of legitimate and deserved gratefulness not to restrict this remembrance to a couple of days in May or in the few pages of an excellent academic journal.

USSR and Red Army contributions were essential in defeating Hitler

With the risk of sounding repetitive, I feel it is important to stress the contribution of the USSR to WW2. With the Western countries’ voluntary amnesia when the time comes to commemorate and express gratitude for the sacrifices endured by the Soviet people, I strongly believe certain truths need to be reminded, often. I came upon these very interesting graphics yesterday on Twitter, which led me to the following blog. Even though they are in French, the images speak for themselves.

High and low estimations of war casualties, in the millions. source: www.les-crises.fr
High and low estimations of war casualties, in the millions. source: http://www.les-crises.fr

For every American soldier killed, 60 Soviet soldiers were killed. source: www.les-crises.fr
For every American soldier killed, 60 Soviet soldiers were killed. source: http://www.les-crises.fr

Without the Red Army, winning World War II would have been just impossible. True, Winston Churchill provided with the moral courage to carry on during the darkest hours of the conflict, notably at the very beginning and the United States provided essential material through the lend-lease agreements. But, when you look at these two very eloquent graphics, you cannot fail – if you are intellectually honest – to realize that the Soviet boots were essential to win the war on the ground.

I use the word sad, but I should write shameful. You can’t rewrite history with the blood of those who fell and the sweat of those who fought.

Victory Parade in Moscow

Today, I wish I was in Moscow, most probably on Tverskaya street, to watch the impressive parade that is now unfolding to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi hordes – a victory made possible by the huge sacrifices consented by the Soviet people and the Red Army.

But since I’m not there, I’m watching victory parades of the past. Understandably, I’m more interested in the one that was organized in 1945. So it’s a pleasure for me to share these images with you!

For those of you who might have a bit more time on a Saturday, the second video (below) is much longer but no less interesting. As for the first one, the most powerful moment comes at 10 minutes when the Nazi flags and banners are laid down on the ground. Nobody could have marched on that day anywhere in Europe, if millions of Soviet and Allied soldiers had not fallen or poured their hearts into battle.

Lest we forget!

“Most of the Holocaust survivors were saved by the Red Army”

The Soviet War Cemetery in Warsaw, May 2015.
The Soviet War Cemetery in Warsaw, May 2015.

There is a sad tendency, these days, to rewrite history for political purposes.

In a recent book, French historian Philippe Richardot writes in his introduction: “The deciding factor of World War II is what occurred on the Eastern front” (my translation). And there is ample academic evidence to support this statement.

Alas, because of the current geopolitical context, in which many world leaders are opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is hard for many to resist the temptation to equate this situation with the intention of rewriting history.

Fortunately, there are people who are holding these revisionists to account.

Take for example this Israeli man who was interviewed by the Russian radio.

Here are two revealing excerpts of his interview:

“Most of the Holocaust survivors were saved by the Red Army. And they are live witnesses up until now. So it never happened in Israel anything like in Europe, nothing undermining the Russian part in the Second World War.

[…]

There are 39 memorials commemorating those who were responsible for this great victory, 39 memorials for the soldiers of the Red Army primarily. You don’t have anything like this in any other parts of the world. So today together with the Holocaust there is a memory of the great victory in Israel combined together.”

Scoring easy political points on the back of a leader you dislike is one thing, distorting history and betraying the memory of those who fell to ensure victory of barbarism and Nazism is another one. And it is unacceptable.

The Red Army deserves credit for the 1945 victory and we should never shy away from being grateful.

The T-14 Armata tank and the military buildup of the Russian army

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The new Russian T-14 Armata tank. Source: http://bit.ly/1DS5YTD

Jane’s is a gem of a resource for anybody interested in military affairs and analysis.

This video shows that, with new acquisitions for its land forces, the Russian army will benefit from a big increase in capability.

Watching it reminded me of a very interesting and revealing quote in Mark Urban’s new (and honestly excellent and impossible to put down) book, The Edge:

“But even if his [President Putin’s] planned military buildup cannot now be funded, Russia has already taken its forces to the point where it is the global leader in several areas. Equally important, given the need of any aspiring military power to match capability with intent, the Kremlin has shown the willingness to use them.” (p. 89).

And this disposition will only benefit from economic recovery.

While the countries in the West continue to play cheap political games with cutbacks in military resources.

Remembering Jewish Soldiers of the Red Army

parade-031209According to a very interesting story published in the Jerusalem Post today, almost half of the Israelis polled are in favor of making May 9th, which is the day when Soviet Victory over Nazism is commemorated in Russia, a national holiday in Israel, too. Even more interesting is the fact that Yad Vashem (the Memorial and Museum to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem) evaluates that no less than 1,5 million Jews took arms and fought barbarism during World War II. Here’s the eloquent example reported by the JPost:

“Anatoli Shapiro, for example, a Red Army officer who commanded the division that liberated Auschwitz, was the first man to open the gates and inform its prisoners ‘the Red army has come to liberate you.’ His story reflects most of all the essence of the Jewish fighters, fighters who didn’t just ask to bring freedom to Europe, but fighters who fought to save their brothers and sisters.”

There is ample academic research (you could fill a few bookshelves of books about that subject) supporting the fact that, without the USSR, it is doubtful that the Allies would have crushed Hitler’s hordes. It is no less significant to recognize the service of Jewish soldiers who were part of the Red army. On May 9th, we not only salute the Soviet (Russians, Ukrainians and others) men and women who made tremendous sacrifices, the ultimate one in the case of several millions, but also these Jewish and Israeli people who also carry that involvement as a badge of honor. A national holiday is not an exaggerated way to say: Thank you!

Poland vs. Russia

Photo credit: Polish Ministry of Defence
Photo credit: Polish Ministry of Defence

In the current geopolitical context, Poland is on the first line of any potential extended military confrontation with Russia. And you can feel, when you speak with people, a sense of nervousness. After all, Poles are historically very close to Ukraine (a significant part of the territory of Ukraine was once part of Poland – but that’s for another discussion).

It therefore comes as great news that the Polish government has decided to increase its military budget.

And this decision seems to have gained legitimate support across partisan party lines:

 ““A condition for Poland’s independence is her own strength. It is worrying that it is considered a success that Poland increased its defence spending by a mere 0.05pp, whereas a success would be to up it by 1pp to 3% of GDP,” left-leaning commentator Jerzy Rolicki wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza on April 14, in an article that well depicts the mood in Poland, where even the traditionally less hawkish left is now demanding more money for the armed forces.”

In front of the military might of Russia, Poland comes across as David having to potentially confront Goliath.

As the Romans said, Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum. With contemporary history as a witness, who could blame the Polish people for taking no chance?

Merci, soldat soviétique!

Dans le contexte actuel de confrontation entre l’Occident et le monde russe, il est facile de sombrer dans un sentiment anti-Moscou primaire et dénué d’une profondeur dépassant les grandes lignes du discours ambiant.

Mais éloignons-nous un instant des lignes éditoriales, des ateliers de rédaction de discours de chefs de gouvernement occidentaux ou des analyses des prétendus « experts » perchés dans leurs tours d’ivoire académiques à cent lieues de la réalité sur le terrain, pour nous pencher sur un fait indéniable.

Il y a de cela 70 ans, le monde était à la veille de vaincre le péril hitlérien. Sans les troupes soviétiques, nous n’aurions pu accomplir cette besogne.

Je prends à témoin l’historien militaire Jean Lopez qui, dans son excellent livre Opération Bagration : La revanche de Staline (été 1944) cite l’historien Rüdiger Overmans lorsqu’il évoque le fait suivant :

« Rappelons que, par année de guerre, les Occidentaux éliminent en moyenne 200 000 soldats allemands (tous fronts et toutes armes confondus), les Soviétiques presque 1 200 000. » (page 3).

Si les hordes nazies ont pu être stoppées, ce sont les soldats qui se battaient sous l’emblème du marteau et de la faucille qui en ont payé le plus lourd tribut.

Tâchons de ne pas l’oublier, alors que nous nous apprêtons à commémorer le 70e anniversaire de la victoire de 1945.

Si vous n’êtes pas familier avec la langue russe ou encore l’anglais, vous ne comprendrez peut-être pas les paroles de cette chanson dédiée aux anciens combattants soviétiques (russes), mais vous pourrez sans doute en deviner le sens, celui de la reconnaissance et du souvenir.