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Sarah: Good afternoon and welcome to yet another topical and timely EMET webinar. Over the past 75 years, we have observed many permutations in Russia’s relationship with Israel. During World War II, many Jews fleeing the Nazis escaped to the Soviet Union. In 1948 the Soviet Union recognized Israel three days after the declaration of independence. However, as we all know, the practice of Judaism was outlawed in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union backed the Arab armies during the 1967 war and we know the KGB was responsible for training and equipping Palestinian military groups in the 1960s and 70s.

Fast forward to the 2000s when Russia invaded parts of Syria. At that time, the Russians looked the other way, for the most part, while Israel launched defensive air operations over Russian-controlled airspace. For a while, there seemed to be a working relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Russia has maintained a very cozy relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran has sent thousands of drones and missiles to Russia to execute its war against Ukraine. Israel has walked a very fine line, balancing diplomatic support for Ukraine, but refusing to provide it with armaments.

As we enter the fourth month of the war in Gaza, many world powers are chiming in on how best to resolve the conflict. National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, has spoken about a “revamped and revised Palestinian authority” and a contiguous Palestinian state stretching from Gaza through Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank. Since the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7th, relations between Moscow and Jerusalem have degenerated. On October 26th, shortly after the October 7th massacre, leading Hamas officials visited Moscow. This delegation included Abu Mazen.

On November 2nd, the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vasile Nebenzya, declared that Israel does not have a right to defend itself. Since then, Prime Minister Netanyahu has categorized Russia together with its other existential enemies, including Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. This past Monday, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayye announced he is dissolving the Palestinian Authority (PA). This might be an attempt to revamp the PA’s corrupt image and improve its popularity overall. Russia, of course, wants to show it can flex its muscles as a major world power. Russia therefore announced they will be hosting thirteen Palestinian factions from February 29th through March 2nd.

Dr. Stephen Blank, a wonderful friend of EMET, is here to discuss the meeting between the Russians and Palestinians. He will also address Russian involvement in other Middle East issues. Dr. Blank is an internationally recognized expert on Russian foreign and defense policies and on international relations across the former Soviet Union. He is also a leading expert on European and Asian society. He has been a senior fellow at the Forum Policy Research Institute since 2020. From 2020 to 2021, he was a senior expert for Russia at the US Institute for Peace. From 2013 to 2020, Dr. Blank was a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, and from 1989 to 2013, he was a professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Blank has been a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute since 1989. From 1998 to 2001, he was a Douglas MacArthur Professor of Research at Moore College. He has consulted for the CIA, major think tanks, and foundations. He has chaired major international conferences in the USA and abroad and has published or edited 15 books. Dr. Blank has testified frequently before Congress on Russia, China, and Central Asia. He has appeared on CNN, the BBC, and CNBC Asia, and is a regular guest on Voice of America. Dr. Blank holds an MA and a PhD in Russian history from the University of Chicago. His BA is in history from the University of Pennsylvania.

Steve, what is going on with Russia and the Middle East?

Stephen: To understand what Russia is up to in the Middle East, one has to understand their objectives and how they view the Middle East. Their overriding objective is that Russia be acknowledged as a great global power. As one Russian analyst told me, they want a seat at the table of world affairs on all questions. They want the status the Soviet Union had after 1945. Russia is a status-obsessed culture and society.

If you want to use an analogy that might appeal to your audience, they want to dance at all weddings at the same time. I think they would rather not only dance at all the weddings they would like to be the rabbi who is the Messiah as well. They want to be the one who arranges the betrothal and the wedding and one with a voice in everything that happens. That is what they want. Although the Soviet Union ended 30 years ago, Russia today remains an empire and thinks in imperial terms.

The starting point for their Middle Eastern policy is not only this obsession with being a great global power involved in everything in the Middle East. They also view the Middle East strategic frontiers as theirs. It does not matter that central Asian states like Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are now independent of Russia. In their view, the Middle East strategic frontiers that end in Turkey and Iran in the north, are Russian. So, they have a prosaic interest in stabilizing the Middle East.

They see the Middle East as a place where they must be able to do a lot of business. There is an oil and gas connection between them and OPEC. Russia and OPEC have cooperated to some extent for a long time. Together they have tried to regulate energy markets or energy production. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are places of interest for Russia because a lot of Russian money is stored there. Much of this money belongs to oligarch criminals of one sort or another. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say we are dealing with a mafia state in Russia. Both my colleagues and I have said it and it is in the literature if you care to look for it.

From a defense perspective, they want naval and air, if not land, bases in the Middle East. This will enable them to threaten NATO, and US allies and deter them from getting close to Russia. That is a capsule summary of Russian objectives in the Middle East and why they want to be there.

At the same time, it is clear that they do not like the idea of war in the Middle East. War in the Middle East would bring the United States back into the Middle East in full force, and they know they cannot compete with America. Now, whether you like what President Biden is doing or not, it is clear that we are heavily engaged diplomatically, and to some degree militarily, in all the conflicts taking place in the Middle East. These conflicts include Gaza and Israel and the Houthis in the Red Sea. The US is also involved in the Middle East because of the attempts by various pro-Iranian terror groups to strike at American forces, or at American interests in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

The Russians would prefer American involvement be moderated. However, as a result of the war in Ukraine, they are now connected to Iran. They depend on Iran for weapons, and Iran has sent them several hundred if not thousands of drones and ballistic missiles. Iran built a drone factory in Russia. Today, the Russians are in Tehran, supposedly negotiating further economic agreements. We have yet to see what Iran gets from Russia in exchange for the weapons they are providing. Until now, the Russians have always opposed nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. They do not want other nuclear states in general, and they also are afraid it would lead to war.
Because of their ill-advised war in Ukraine, they have had to come to terms, at least to a certain degree, with Iran.

Today’s newspapers reveal Russia is also cooperating with the Houthis. I think both the British and Americans have evidence of Russian phone conversations with the Houthis. The Houthis have announced they are going to attack underwater connections between Europe and Asia that go through the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. That kind of operation is a classic Russian naval operation. We are very concerned about their intention and capability to accomplish a similar objective in the North Atlantic. They mobilized their Northern fleet when they invaded Ukraine. That is the fleet based in the Arctic. Apparently, in 2022, they were prepared to sail it out into the North Atlantic and cut the communications between the United States and Europe if we retaliated. So, we see a deepening anti-Americanism, a deepening support for the Palestinians, and a desire to be recognized as a great power.

The Russians have always attempted to get the Palestinians to act in a united fashion. Going back years, they expended enormous diplomatic effort in getting all Palestinian factions on the same page. That is what tomorrow’s meeting in Moscow is going to be about. The Russians have never openly admitted that the Palestinian Authority or the PLO in its previous incarnation, or Hamas, are terrorists. This is despite the fact they have supported them from inception and know perfectly well they are terrorists.

Sarah: Interesting. You covered a lot of ground. The axis of countries comprising Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and China is very anti-Western. Perhaps Russia is providing Iran with access to this anti-Western anti-American alliance. It might be a kind of diplomatic quid pro quo.

Stephen: Diplomatically, Iran is now getting support from Russia. We exited the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) during the Trump administration. This gave Iran the green light to go nuclear. This is not commonly understood, but it should be and I think it was a terrible mistake on our part. In 2015, the United States, Russia, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Iran signed the JCPOA. In 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from the deal, saying Iran was building a nuclear weapon. Be that as it may, we now have no leverage whatsoever over Iran. Even if you think the JCPOA was an insufficient or weak agreement, our withdrawal from it left Iran completely free to do what they wanted.

There is no sign in open-source literature that the Russians are helping the Iranians build nuclear weapons and I cannot address classified information. It strikes me that the Iranians are eager to get economic assistance from Russia. They are also probably looking to get military assistance, either for them or for their proxies. Iran supplied both Hamas and Hezbollah with Russian weapons. There is a famous incident from 2007, after the first Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006. The Israelis protested to Moscow that the Russians were supplying weapons to Iran, understanding that the end user would be Hezbollah. They showed the Russians weapons with Russian markings on them. This is still going on with Hezbollah the same is true for Hamas.

Some people believe that Russians were involved in, or aware of, the planning for the October 7th massacre. That may be true although there is no definitive proof. However, we now have captured telephone conversations between Moscow and the Houthis proving they are considering blowing up the underwater cable communications in the Red Sea between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. We also know the Russians are supporting Hamas as a political entity within any new Palestinian political framework. They have always tried to have the Palestinians present a united front but they have always failed because the Palestinians have never been able to accomplish this on their own. That is why they are including Hamas in the meeting they convened tomorrow in Moscow.

Sarah: Right. What is Russia’s military capacity?  I am really surprised they have extra capacity given their war against Ukraine.

Stephen: Their Navy for example, has never been particularly large compared to, say, the United States Navy. However, up to 45% of GDP was earmarked for military purposes under the Soviets. The country is being re-militarized and has undergone a steady acceleration of military spending since 2001. One of the things Putin did upon becoming president was to straighten out Russia’s state finances and get the country out of debt to Europe. He was then able to start re-forming the military industry and the armed forces and to start producing new weapons. They have been doing that for 23 years and it is very clear they are set up to continue over the next three or four years.

They are consuming weapons at an enormous rate in Ukraine and their defense industry has serious problems. They are not able to keep up with the demand for weapons. However, they can use weapons from the 50s and 60s because they never got rid of their Soviet stockpiles. So, they are using weapons from the 50s and 60s, particularly tanks against Ukraine. They can produce weapons and are going to attempt to produce more of them. They are getting a lot of support from China, not in terms of lethal weapons, but in terms of supporting technologies. We know North Korea is sending them missiles. Iran is sending them missiles and has organized a vast covert operation to circumvent the sanctions, with considerable success. So, the economy is being militarized, they are using up earlier stocks, and they are getting weapons from friendly countries.

Sarah: We know the way the Russians are very anti-Islamist. How does this impact its support for Iran and the Sunni Palestinian causes?

Stephen: Iran does not play inside Russian Islam. They know better. The closer Sunni and or Shiite Muslim groups get, the more circumspect they are about influencing them. This is a big subject that goes beyond our purview, but the Russians see Iran as a power that they are going to have to deal with. In their eyes, Iran is a potential partner, if not ally, and both are against the United States’ domination. Russia has attempted to establish a working relationship with Iran since Primakov became foreign minister in 1996.

As I said, Russia is opposed to the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons for several reasons. Firstly, they do not want other countries to have nuclear weapons because that diminishes their status. As I said, they are obsessed with status. Secondly, they know that if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, Israel will attack. The United States will join the fight, they will be left out of the game and there will be nothing they can do about it. They do not want that to happen. They would rather have controlled tension and non-proliferation. That said, they are not above helping Iran covertly in many ways. For approximately twenty years now, they have been running guns to Hezbollah and Hamas. As we discussed, they are supporting the Houthis. They are also sending arms to Iran’s Middle Eastern and Northern African allies. If we were to discuss what is going on in both North and Sub-Saharan Africa, we would see a similar picture of gun running, arm sales, base building and influence operation.

Sarah: Right, so these are Russian-controlled influence operations in Africa?

Stephen: Oh, yes, a lot of them. The biggest success they have had is in what used to be called Africa French. These are the former French colonies in Africa.

Sarah: Unbelievable. So, do you think Putin is engaged in trying to reinvent or restart the Cold War?

Stephen: No, he is fighting his own Cold War. As an academic, I define the Cold War as a strategic and ideological global conflict between two bilateral camps. In this case, the Cold War is not just between the United States and Russia. It also includes the United States’ alliance network in Europe and Asia, and the Soviet satellite network in Europe and Asia. Today China is much stronger than Russia, which was not the case during the original Cold War period. Second, the ideology is no longer Marxism-Leninism versus democracy. It is democracy versus autocracy. The Russian ideology is essentially a 19th-century creation that extolled the autocracy, the Russian Orthodox religion, orthodoxy, and Russian nationality. They have gone back to the ideology of Nicholas I which emerged in 1849 to counter the European revolutions of the year before. The part of this ideology that appeals to the Russians is the idea they are a sovereign national state and no one has any business interfering with their affairs.

Sarah: Do you believe Putin is antisemitic? He has had very strong relations with Jewish oligarchs in Russia, I think it sounds like his approach to the Middle East is more of him flexing his muscles, and trying to regain power against the West. Is that a fair assessment?

Stephen: Well, my understanding of this is that he is not personally antisemitic but is perfectly willing to use the Jew-hatred card if it suits his interests. Jew hatred still resonates in Russian society. They played it a while back but may not have been satisfied with the results. Russian society today is not what it was 60, or 70 years ago when we saw it in full flower. However, if antisemitism will benefit him, Putin will use it without any scruples.

Sarah: Right. Now it is my honor to hand the podium over to Joseph Epstein, who I think knows a lot more about the post-Soviet space than I do. It is my pleasure, Joseph.

Joseph: Thank you so much, Sarah, and thank you Stephen for agreeing to participate. You mentioned the cooperation between Iran, Russia, and China. All of these countries are known as regional bullies who often have disputes with their neighbors and they vie for strategic influence. Russia and China share a border. Iran is separated from both Russia and China by one country each. Can you discuss any sort of strategic competition between these countries, or areas of disagreement?

Stephen: If there is competition among them, it is muted at present and weaker than the consensual points that drive them together. I have done a lot of work on Russia and China. I gave a paper on their relationship at a conference in Singapore on Sunday night. I think their alliance is de facto and not de jure and that is an important distinction. As an example, a de jure alliance like that of NATO means that if one NATO member is attacked, the others are obliged to come and render assistance under Article 5. On 9/11, when we were attacked, all of NATO declared war on the terrorists who attacked us.

Russia and Iran are not allies they are partners. The nuclear issue is a serious break. Many people are worried about the Iran-China treaty from four years ago. That treaty promised the sun and the moon to China but nothing much has come of it.

Again, the cooperation between Russia, China, and Iran is rhetorical, normative, and ideological. All three of them do not want anybody interfering in their domestic affairs. There is also another common denominator between them. They all still think of themselves as empires and want some semblance of their empires back. There is a very good book on this by a colleague of mine named Jeffrey Mankof. The book is available on Amazon. When I was teaching, I used to say that these kinds of states were sort of like Rodney Dangerfield. They always believed they did not get enough respect, and that eats away at them.

We hear the Russians say they are a great power all the time. We heard the same from them in the 90s when they were bankrupt. That is the obsession that drives them. We cannot cure their obsession because there’s no psychiatrist performing therapy on international relations. As a result, they are left to stew in their resentments. Mankof illustrates how this imperial status obsession drives a lot of their foreign policy.

I think the alliance between Russia and China is de facto, not de jure. It is an alliance where China is the rider and Russia is the horse. That horse versus rider comparison in an alliance is a famous Bismarck analogy. Russia is the horse. The Russian military is dependent on Chinese supplies and the Russian economy is increasingly dependent on China. We now see Russia inclining more and more to China on major issues in foreign policy.

I will give you an example that should be of concern. Around 12 years ago, after the New START Treaty was signed between Obama and Putin, the Russians wanted to move forward on arms control. At that time, they said publicly that all declared nuclear-armed states must participate. They wanted participation from France and Britain, possibly India and Pakistan, and of course China. As allies with China, they are now unwilling and unable and unwilling to say that China should participate in international arms control treaty negotiations. This example illustrates how Russia has become subordinate to Beijing on a major foreign policy point. There are other examples as well and Russian dependence on China is growing because of China’s undoubted economic superiority.

Joseph: Thank you. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russian capacity has dropped significantly and because of that Russians have been losing influence in their strategic spheres of influence. For example, the Chinese are getting more and more involved in Central Asia and Iran is taking Russia’s place in the Middle East. I wanted to ask you, what is happening in the Caucuses. Do you think there is an opportunity for America or the West to get more involved and extend their influence over any of these regions, whether it be the Middle East, the Caucuses or Central Asia?

Stephen: Okay. I do not think the idea that Iran is replacing Russia in the Middle East is the best way to understand what is happening. Iran is pursuing its long-term strategy, and the Russians are doing the best they can with the cards they have. In many cases, Russian objectives do not align with Iranian policy.

There is no doubt that we see the recession of Russian economic political influence in the Caucuses in Central Asia. In the Caucuses, Azerbaijan took advantage of Russia’s diminished capacity or disinterest in continuing support for Armenia. The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia goes back centuries. Armenia was a Christian state, then it was anti-Turk. Azerbaijan and Turkey, on the other hand, maintained a very close relationship. In 2020, Azerbaijan launched a war in Karabakh, a disputed region between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan took control of the territories in Karabakh and the areas surrounding it. They are continuing to pressure Armenia because they want to create a trade corridor between Azerbaijan, with the reconstituted territory that they now have, and Turkey. This would cut off more of what Armenia believed to be its territory. You can find it on a good map if you go and Google and search for it.

Armenia was very pro-Iran because Azerbaijan and Iran are enemies. Azeris are Shiite Muslims who look to the West. They have looked to the West since the 19th century. Further, northern Iran is part of historic Azerbaijan. There is a very large Azeri minority in northern Iran who are not well treated by Tehran because Tehran doubts their loyalty to the Regime. So, there is a built-in enmity and suspicion between Iran and Azerbaijan. In the past, the Russians played a game of using the Azerbaijanis against Tehran. For these reasons, Tehran supported Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Armenia received oil, weapons, and other kinds of support from Iran. The Iranians are very nervous about Azerbaijan’s victory because it brings the Turks into the area on their border. The Turks are Sunnis and the Iranians do not trust them. In addition to the Sunni-Shia ambivalence, Turkey and Iran are competing neo-imperial states with normal great power rivalries. Israel and Azerbaijan have a common interest in that they are both threatened by Iran.

For the reasons described, Iran sides with Armenia while Turkey and Israel side with Azerbaijan. Israel and Turkey, however, have been at odds for a long time and Azerbaijan has to thread those needles.

Turkey and Azerbaijan have an alliance and Turkey has a continuing military presence in Azerbaijan, which the Russians have had to accommodate. What is more, because the Russians betrayed Armenia, Armenia is walking away from Russia. They just announced that they froze their military relationship with the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This is an organization set up by Moscow to project military power in central Asia and the Caucuses. They still have military bases in the Caucuses and in Armenia but it is very clear Armenia is looking for a western exit.

The United States is now presented with a major opportunity to bring about peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This would enable us to enhance Western diplomatic influence and presence in the Caucuses. Armenia and Azerbaijan have to live with each other and will need to work to resolve their differences even if they do not like each other. A comparable example is the relationship between Israel and Egypt. However, we have been unable to achieve peace between the two countries for several reasons. One of these is the influence of the Armenian lobby which is even more extreme than the most extreme faction in Armenia. They regard any agreement with Azerbaijan as treason, and they denounce anybody who opposes their point of view. I can tell you from personal experience, it is a very complex situation.

Central Asia has its own complexities. The five states making up the former central Asian republics of the Soviet Union all conduct what they call a multi-vector foreign policy. Per this policy, they cultivate as many sponsors, patrons, and friends as possible so they are not excessively dependent on anyone. They conduct this policy to the best of their ability, and their ability varies by state. The most advanced player in this game is Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan has enormous attraction to the European Union, which is possibly the largest foreign investor there. Their oil and gas pipelines, however, go through Russia.

We should be trying harder to get oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia through the Caucuses that is Azerbaijan to Europe, Georgia, Turkey, and then into the Balkans and North, through the Black Sea so that Russia will not have leverage on that energy.

The Russian language, which is very important to Russia, is in retreat in education in Central Asia. This drives the Russians nuts. There are still Russians who claim that Kazakhstan is Russia, particularly the Northern part where a lot of Russian immigrants settled. Other central Asian states like Uzbekistan are looking to diversify. China is the key foreign economic actor in Central Asia with tremendous investments there. The Belt and Road initiative is China’s attempt to open up trade routes to the West through Central Asia while bypassing Russia. The objective is to enable Chinese trade to reach the West faster with fewer political and economic impediments than before.

India is trying to do the same thing and is also trying to build an international North-South Transit Corridor from India through the Indian Ocean to Iran, up through the Caspian Sea to Russia, and then from Russia to Europe. So, you can see there is an enormous competition in this arena. The United States is active and Biden has done some constructive things. Trump came out with a very good platform for this in 2018 but then did not follow up. Although Biden has initiated some activities, we need to be more active in both regions.

Joseph: You mentioned the possibility of getting gas and oil from Central Asia to Azerbaijan, bypassing both Russia and Iran. While we are on that topic, I wanted to ask you about the Middle Corridor. For the viewers at home, the Middle Corridor is a proposed trade corridor connecting China to Europe while bypassing both Iran and Russia. It goes through Central Asia and then through the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.

Stephen: It also involves India as well, not just China.

Joseph: Yes of course. It connects the east and west. This corridor would be good for China, but it would be really bad for both Russia and Iran. Considering that China has leverage over both countries, do you think this is something they would attempt to sabotage?

Stephen: Russia and Iran have been unable, thus far, to work out their own alternative even though they have been discussing it since the turn of the century. The year is 2024 and they have nothing to show for it. Both of them are currently too dependent on China to sabotage what is increasingly a vital Chinese interest. So, we may get talk from them but I do not think we are going to get a lot of action. Eight to ten years ago, the Russians discussed the Chinese Belt and Road through Russia and the greater Eurasia. The Russians are great at coming up with these plans and horizons, but there is no follow-through on them. You have people discussing great ideas at academic professional conferences, but nothing happens on the ground. On the other hand, the Chinese build things. Their Belt and Road was overhyped, but it is real. Projects and trade are happening on the ground. I am very skeptical about the potential for the Russians and Iranians to sabotage this initiative although I do not think it is going to live up to what China is hoping for.

Let’s think for a minute about what we learned in school. Why was Columbus going to America? He was looking for a trade route to China the Orient and Asia. Before the war in Gaza, the United States and India were working on setting up a trade route to include Israel and the Arab states. Although the war interrupted the initiative, I would not be surprised to see India, Israel, Washington DC, the UAE, and some other Arab states re-engaging once the war ends. The Saudis may be part of this initiative as well. The route would go through the Indian Ocean to the Arab states in the Gulf, then Israel, and then to Europe. It makes perfect sense. The route would go through the Red Sea because there is an infrastructure coming into place for that. The Arctic is another potential route, but we are not going to be talking about the Arctic today.

There are massive Saudi constructions taking place. There is also infrastructure in place in the Gulf. If you travel to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, you will be able to see this infrastructure. It can be done if the will is there and if there is peace.

Joseph: You said that Russia and Iran are not likely to sabotage China’s trade corridor because they need China so much. Do you think that China understands how bad it could be for both Russia and Iran? Do you think China would be willing to invest in a project that could be so harmful to its important allies when it comes to countering Western influence?

Stephen: The Iran-China treaties from three or four years ago stipulated there would be a great deal of investment in Iran. We are still not seeing it. What is more, Chinese banks will not lend to Russia due to the sanctions imposed on Russia at the beginning of the war in Ukraine. If you are a businessman in China, you do not want to run afoul of the US treasury. Also, doing business with the Russians is painful. The Chinese will complain to you that the Russians are corrupt and inefficient. They complain the Russians do not have a culture of work and do not get things done. They say the Russians are often drunk. All of this is true.

I have been studying Russia and Asia for 30 years. We continually hear about ambitious plans for a pivot to Asia. There is no pivot to Asia. The Russians have burned their relations with Japan and South Korea. They have a relationship with China, but China is not building the Belt and Road through Russia. Much to the Russians’ discomfort, they are now dependent on China and cannot do anything about it. Also, the Russians cannot get Arctic gas out of the ground without Chinese investment. These are historically rooted problems in the Russian economy, going back to when the Elizabethans made contact with them. This attitude is endemic to Russian culture and the economy, and it has been that way for a long, long time.

Joseph: I would like to bring the discussion back to the Middle East. Since October 7th, Russia has gone all out in supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. As you said, before Russia maintained a decent working relationship with Israel, especially with Prime Minister Netanyahu. What do you see as the future of Israeli-Russian relations once the war is over?

Stephen: The Russians have not gone all out to support Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, by any means. If they were all out, we would be seeing a very different picture than what we see currently. The nature of Russian-Israeli relations after the war will depend on the outcome of the war. I think that the critical issue is going to be the question of a two-state solution. I think the Russians understand perfectly well that Israel will not accept a terror state on its doorstep. In their heart of hearts, they know the Israeli decision to reject such a state is justified. They know a Palestinian terror state will be for Israel what Afghanistan was to them in the Soviet period. They are worried about Afghanistan even now because a terrorist state in Afghanistan threatens their investments in Central Asia. If there is a Palestinian state that is somehow functional, then some kind of Russian-Israeli relations will develop over time.  I am skeptical about the possibility of a functional Palestinian state. If there is no Palestinian state, or they create a Palestinian state and it becomes a disaster like all the other previous attempts, there will be a different kind of relationship between Israel and Russia. We cannot answer that question today based on where we are at the moment and we do not know what the status quo will be at the end of the war.

Hamas turned down a potential ceasefire agreement today, just after Biden said he expected an agreement by Monday. Hamas said they will not release Israeli soldiers as part of their prisoner exchange. As far as they are concerned, every Israeli is an Israeli soldier. Once again, Hamas has illustrated their utter faithlessness and their consistent resort to, what I call, strategic evangelism.

Joseph: Thank you, so we have a question from the audience about potential secession from Russia. What do you think Russian politics would look like if there was a new leader?

Stephen: If I knew the answer to that, I would be living in a mansion somewhere. A number of my colleagues and friends believe that if Russia loses the war, secession will take place. Other people argue against it but it is a fascinating discussion. Throughout Russian history, wars that end badly, result in some sort of domestic upheaval. It does not have to be a change of regime, but it does mean major reform at the very least. If Russia loses the war with Ukraine, it will not be Putin leading these reforms.

Putin is 71 years old. We often hear he has cancer, Parkinson’s disease or another serious illness. We also hear rumors he is dead and has a double acting in his place. I do not believe any of these theories. However, if Russia loses the war, there will be tremendous pressure for fundamental change at home. I am skeptical as to whether that would lead to secession because the Russians will not tolerate the breakup of the state and they have the guns. If you consider the revolutions that have taken place over the past 20 or 30 years, those with the guns win. I think my colleagues are engaging in wishful thinking, and I know this subject intimately.  I have been studying this subject for a long time and it was the content of my PhD dissertation. I am skeptical about secession, but major reform could affect the constitution of the state and this is a real possibility.

Joseph: Thank you. I want to ask you about Putin’s grip on power. Last summer there was an attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin to march on Moscow. Some have speculated that Putin’s grip on power has loosened. How do you see it right now?

Stephen: I think his grip on power is very tight. It is extremely regressive. Domestically, Russia has reverted to late Stalinism minus Marxism or Leninism. We have a different ideology, but many similar characteristics. The Gulag, the political prisoner population, is growing. There is major repression for the smallest infraction. If people donate $50 to a Ukrainian cause, they get thrown in jail. Obscurantism and mobilization of the state for war are also characteristic of high Stalinism and the mature Soviet Union. So, Putin’s grip on power is currently strong. If Russia loses the war, then we will be dealing with a different situation. If they win the war, the domestic situation in Russia will get worse. They killed Navalny even though there were reports there was some sort of prisoner exchange negotiation involving him taking place. Why would they kill Navalny at this time? I think this testifies to their paranoia. They were afraid of Navalny and they are weak. However, their grip on power over the Russians is strong. I do not think the Russians are going to rebel. There are a lot of social problems and discontent, but I do not think we will see active uprisings until, and unless major defeats come home.

Joseph: Thank you. We have some questions from the audience about China’s relationship with Israel. They want to know specifically why relations have soured since October 7th?

Stephen: China does not want the US to get any stronger in the Middle East. It does not want to get involved directly in the conflict since it is not the Chinese modus operandi to get into military adventures far from home. They have anxiety about their international trade. They have an enormous political, and to some degree economic, investment in the Middle East and in Africa. They are riding the wave of anti-Israeli sentiment in those places now. I think you may see a reversion of Israeli Chinese relationships to something more normal if Israel wins the war. On the other hand, because of the impact of the rivalry between the United States and China, Israel is not in a position to become too close to China under the best of circumstances.Again, the relationship between Israel and China is contingent on how the war ends and we really do not know yet what will happen after the war ends. Also, there is a question of personalities as regards who will lead Israel. Ganz or Lapid might relate to China differently than Netanyahu.

Joseph: When it comes to the war in Ukraine, Israel has been careful about maintaining neutrality. What do you think of that policy? Has it spared Israel from Russia’s potential wrath? What should Israeli policy be in your opinion when it comes to the war in Ukraine?

Stephen: Morally, I want to see Israel support Ukraine. I have an article coming out which says that their causes are the same. Both Israel and Ukraine are facing genocide. Regarding Israel, Hamas admits its intent and does not even try to hide it. Putin does not try to hide what he is up to in Ukraine. His intent is genocide according to the UN definition of genocide. Ukraine has been very disappointed in Israeli policy, and I think that policy was shortsighted. The idea was that if we did not actively challenge Russia, Russia would not actively support Iran and would allow Israel to attack Iranian targets in Lebanon, Syria, and other places. I do not think it was the best policy under the circumstances. I am not sure it gave Israel all it hoped for. This policy will not change under Netanyahu although it might change under his successor and will likely evolve depending on the outcome of the war. We cannot say right now what the situation will look like when the fighting stops. I am not referring to a cease-fire but rather when the fighting ends. I do not think it would be sensible to speculate on contingencies.

Joseph: Do you think Russia may win the war with Ukraine? It does seem like it would be very hard, if not impossible for Russia to win the war outright. Do you think they will create a sort of forever war like they did before with Donbas or like they did with Georgia and others? What do you think the Russian plan would be?

Stephen: They did not try to freeze the war in Donbas state. They were not prepared to commit sufficient forces at that point. They tried to rely on the Minsk agreements, which if carried through, would have broken up Ukraine de facto. The Russians, by the way, never carried out their end of that bargain either. I think Putin has bet the farm concerning Ukraine. He will not be satisfied until and unless he has it all. Right now, he cannot get it all and he knows it. However, he wants to destroy the very possibility and idea of independent Ukrainian statehood.

There’s a phrase in Russia that a self-standing Ukraine never was and never will be. That is an article of faith to the Russian regime. Ukraine never was and never will be. They are not going to let go of that principle because they are now committed to Putin. He took them all in the raft and down the rapids and now they have to negotiate the rapids. That is why they have to win

Joseph: Thank you so much. It appears we are out of time. I would like to thank our guest, Stephen Blank for this very informative webinar, and I would like to thank our viewers for tuning in. If you like what EMET does, please consider contributing to . It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Stephen: Thank you for having me, and I know there are a lot of questions that we did not get to. If you do have questions that you feel were not answered, you can write to me and I will get back to you. Sarah has my email

Sarah: Thank you so much, Steve. It was a pleasure. I have more questions of my own, so I will write to you or talk to you. Thank you so much, Joseph, for fielding the questions and proposing some excellent ones of your own. Thanks so much.



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