Joseph: Hello. I’d like to welcome all to today’s Endowment for Middle East Truth webinar. I am Joseph Epstein, EMET’s legislative fellow. Today’s Webinar features Dr. Stephen Blank, an internationally recognized expert on Russian, foreign, and defense policies across the former Soviet Union. From the time of the Soviet Union until today, Moscow has been a major decision-maker in the Middle East. Although a close ally of Syria and Iran, Russia also maintains good relations with Israel, despite Jerusalem’s close ties to the United States.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has had to reduce its presence in the Middle East in order to focus more on the war effort. Much to Israel’s discontent, Iran has been quick to fill this vacuum. While the war continues and requires more and more resources, what will the future of Russia’s role in the Middle East be?
Today’s speaker, Dr. Stephen Blank is a leading expert on Europe and Asian security. Since 2020, he has been a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Previously, he was a senior expert on Russia at the US Institute of Peace, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, and a professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of US Army War College in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Blank has consulted for the CIA, as well as major think tanks and foundations. He has published over 1300 articles and monographs on Soviet, Russian, American, Asian, and European foreign and defense policies. He is a regular guest on VOA and has also appeared on CNN, BBC, Deutsche Welle, and CNBC Asia.
Before we start, I’d like to mention that our work is only possible with the support of you all. If you find what we do informative and helpful, consider sponsoring a future webinar or contributing to EMET. It is your help and support that allows us to continue with our important work on Capitol Hill to ensure a prosperous and peaceful Israel in the Middle East, fight the influence of the Iranian regime, increase US National security, and improve the welfare of Jewish Americans.
Today’s Webinar will be recorded for future viewing, and I encourage those of you who find the Webinar informative to share the link once it has been sent out. If you have any questions for our speaker, please feel free to write them in the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen. Dr. Blank, I’d like to start by asking what is the current status of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Stephen Blank: Well, the current status of the invasion of Ukraine, as the media is telling us, is that Ukraine is now in the middle of an offensive some would call it a counter-offensive to try to regain territory that the Russians had earlier conquered.
They are encountering, as everybody knows, very stiff resistance from these mines and defensive obstacles that the Russians spent months building in the winter and spring. But they are still making progress. Overall, the war in 2023 has taken on the aspect of a war of attrition. This may not last.
There are already developments suggesting that the attritional phase might be coming to an end, although that’s not absolutely clearly definite. The naval war, for example, which does not get a lot of attention, has heated up now with the Russians leaving the grain agreement and as a result, they have declared the entire Red Sea a dangerous area and will shoot at any ship that they believe that is bringing trade to Ukraine.
They are also trying to destroy the Ukrainian economic infrastructure and particularly the agricultural economy by this remorseless bombing of Odesa and even of Danubian[?] stations, as they did the other day. The Black Sea is the exit point from the Danube, so there are areas around the mouth of the Danube, one side would be Romania, one side would be Ukraine. And they bombed these areas on, I think, Saturday or Sunday, causing a lot of damage.
And that indicates an escalation in the naval war. If Ukraine is successful in the offensive that it’s not carrying out, this will become a much more dynamic war of movement than one of attrition. So, I think we are sort of perched between one phase that’s drawing to a close and another phase that may be beginning in its wake.
Joseph: So, this war has taken up quite a bit of resources. So, I’d like to ask how has the war actually affected Russian foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Israel, and Iran?
Stephen: Well, the repercussions of this war are global. You could ask that question about any region in the world. But it has driven Russian foreign policy to look towards the Third World or the global South and Asia, the Middle East being part of the global South. It has had to draw down forces in Syria, which gives both Turkey and Iran an opportunity to enhance their presence there.
It has also had to rely on a very large number of Iranian UAVs or drones which are being exported to Russia on a regular basis. And they’ve just started building or may have even completed a factory inside Russia where Iran is going to produce drones in Russia for the use by the Russian army.
This situation has also brought about, I wouldn’t say an alliance, but an alignment between Tehran and Moscow, whereby Moscow is now supporting Tehran’s efforts. It’s obstructing US policy to try and prevent any further nuclearization of Iran. It is offering Iran a lot of economic advantages and has promised to give them all kinds of weapons.
The weapons have not yet been delivered and I don’t know that they ever will be. I mean, this is not the first time this has happened in Iran or Russian relations, where Iran is promised the sky and the moon and doesn’t even get a star. But it’s a potentially very dangerous entente that you see developing between Tehran and Moscow.
It has severe implications for the rest of the Middle East and potentially the Caucus of Central Asia as well. Also, Moscow is trying to collaborate with Saudi Arabia to keep the price of oil high. But it’s not succeeding because Europe for the most part has figured out how to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
It hasn’t been eliminated and we’re still trying to get European markets to move away from Russian oil and gas. But Russia’s oil revenues have taken a major hit and therefore they are trying to work with OPEC to keep oil prices high so they can get more money. But it’s not altogether working.
So, the equation in the Middle East is some advantages that Russia has gained, particularly with regard to Iran. And if you’re looking at North Africa, Algeria is a bright spot for Russia also in some respects. On the other hand, there have been obstacles in the economic sphere.
And it could be that the Russians, they’re certainly not able to compete with Chinese economic influence in the Middle East either. And in Israel, Israel’s already got enough domestic issues. But there’s a very serious debate with regard to Israel foreign policy. Many people believe that Israel should be supporting Ukraine much more enthusiastically. Even Zelenskyy criticized Israel for this.
And on the other hand, the government basically is Netanyahu because I don’t think too many other members of the coalition really are concerned about foreign policy. But Netanyahu has insisted on having ties to Moscow based on his personal relationship with Putin. So, that’s maybe a plus for Russia. On the other hand, the Russo-Iranian alignment is a serious threat to Israel.
Joseph: So, could you speak a bit more on Russia’s role in the Middle East and how this role developed historically?
Stephen: On how Israel developed historically?
Joseph: No, Russia’s role developed historically.
Stephen: This goes back to the Tsars who were trying to pick up pieces of the Ottoman Empire as it disintegrated during the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. And then after World War II, Stalin tried to get into the Middle East. Right after the end of the war, he was asking for a base in Libya. He wanted to revise the Montreux Treaty so that Soviet ships could go through the Black Sea and the Bosporus in peacetime.
Starting in the 40s, he recognized Israel in order to push the British out of the Middle East and maybe in the misplaced belief that Israel was going to be a socialist country. That did not end well for anybody as we know.
In 55, his successor, Khrushchev, begins this policy of trying to move into the Middle East, not least because the United States was trying to build part of its alliance system in the Middle East. And this interfered with Nasser’s plan.
So, you had a community of interest in the 50s whereby Nasser wanted to unravel the US alliance system because it excluded him and the Soviets wanted to break it also because they felt with some reason, that it was a threat to their interests. And thus, you see the Soviet Union becoming a major partner for Iraq, Syria, and Egypt during the 50s and 60s. This also has a strategic point of view for the Russian Soviets at that time which the Russians have inherited.
Namely, they want to keep the United States out of the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea and therefore they want to keep a naval squadron it’s called the Mediterranean Escadra in Russian in the Mediterranean, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean. So, they need bases for this in order to deter NATO presence in the Eastern Mediterranean from which NATO could strike at Russia or enter the Black Sea.
So, that’s the original basis for that. And they were very active right up to the 1980s. When Gorbachev comes in and the situation in the Soviet Union gradually begins to unravel, their position diminishes considerably into the 90s. Primakov, when he takes over as foreign minister in the 90s, who was an old Middle East hand and strove mightily to restore Russian position in the Middle East. And gradually they developed some stronger economic ties with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Iran having had its revolution in 1979.
Putin has built on that over the last, I’d say, 15 years, not only militarily by putting the Mediterranean Escadra back in the Middle East, but by also looking for bases all over the Mediterranean and even in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, inheriting the Soviet position. And he has tried to take advantage of American mistakes. For example, the war in Iraq and the mishandling of the Syrian Revolution under Obama. So, that led to the Russian intervention in Syria eight years ago, and they’re still there.
And now with the war, he has attempted to create this alignment with Iran and try to increase Russian friendship with both Saudi Arabia and Iraq. In other words, he wants to dance at all the weddings, but not have to be there for too long at any particular wedding. And also, a mainstay of his foreign policy was to try to maintain cooperation with Turkey. That may be coming apart now also. So, that’s in a very quick and dirty summary of Russian and Soviet position in the Middle East up till today.
Joseph: Yeah, no, it’s fascinating how much Soviet policy has actually affected it. And on that line, by the way, I’d like to ask, so after it became clear that Israel would be close to the United States, the Soviet Union began to see, or at least paint Israel as a Western imperialist outpost. And this lasted for almost 40 years. Has this affected how today’s Russia sees Israel?
Stephen: Not under Putin. There are these urban myths that Putin grew up as a kid and there was a rabbi in the apartment block, or at least a religious Jew who sort of looked after him, and he never forgot that. And he’s grateful for that. They certainly admire Israel’s capabilities and wealth and advancements in technologies. They also know that Israel is a useful channel to the United States if they want to get a message across. They also know that if there’s a war between Israel and an Arab state supported by them, the Arab state will lose and they will suffer accordingly.
So, they are not trying to take advantage of that, but they are trying to undermine the American alliance system in the Middle East. They are trying to get permanent bases. They have one in Syria. They want one in Egypt. They want one in Algeria. They want one in Libya. They’re trying to get one in Sudan. Opposite in the Red Sea, in the Horn of Africa. They had an air base in Iran up till for briefly in 2015/16 as part of the Syrian campaign until the publicity came out about it.
So, they’re eager to play a major role in the Middle East. The problem they now have is their resources are not sufficient to allow them to do that. And secondly, the Middle East is such a complex place that it’s very hard to maintain secure long-term footing. So, what they have substituted for that is this kind of agility where they want to be present at every wedding, as long as weddings at the same time, so they can be at all these events and play in all these theaters without compromising themselves.
Joseph: So, you mentioned that there’s an urban myth about Putin that when he grew up, there was potentially a rabbi who lived in the area and took him under his wing, or an Orthodox Jew. And along that line, I mean, a lot of people have called Putin the friendliest Russian leader to the Jews. And although he really doesn’t have strong competition in this regard, he seems to have a robust relationship with the Russian Jewish community and has spoken fondly of Israel quite a bit, calling it part of the Russian world. Can you discuss how this came about?
Stephen: Well, without trying to get into his psychology, he believes that the oppression of the Jews in the Soviet period that led to the mass Aliyah from the Soviet Union was a mistake because they lost a lot of talented people, among other things. Second, I don’t think he’s personally anti-Semitic, which is, of course, quite unusual in Russian politics, at least up until Gorbachev.
Third, they’ve learned from their experiences that tangling with Israel is not necessarily in the Russian interest. Rather, cooperation with Israel is. Fourth, the government of Israel is seen as a channel to the United States, so they want to communicate with the United States. Israel is very important in that regard to them.
And fifth, I mean, they make a lot of money, or they were making a lot of money on trade with Israel. Just to give you an example, I think there are two flights a day from Tel Aviv to both St. Petersburg and Moscow, and three kosher restaurants in Moscow, this is unheard of. So, that’s a sign of that. But this war and the political system show that the limits of friendship towards Jews and toward Israel are real.
It is perfectly possible for Putin to play the anti-Semitic card if he thinks it will benefit him. And already, for example, the former chief Rabbi Goldschmidt has been basically forced to leave Russia and now has been declared a foreign agent or something like that. And the stability of Jewish settlement in Russia, I would say, is fragile at best and precarious.
Joseph: So, in the Middle East, Putin has great relations with Tehran, with Damascus, and with Jerusalem. How does he balance these relations when it comes to countries that are very opposed to each other?
Stephen: Well, they’re all relations of convenience. I don’t know that their relationship with Russia is great. Certainly, the war, I think, has affected it. But the alignment with Tehran is that they have mutual enemies, namely the United States. Iran’s interests in the Caucasus do not coincide with those of Russia, but they don’t deal with that one, at least publicly in their bilateral discussions.
With Syria, Assad depends on the survival for Russia, but I doubt very much it’s a relationship of affection. Again, it’s a marriage of convenience or necessity, a shotgun wedding. But I wouldn’t call these relations terrific. I mean, they’re good, and we shouldn’t overlook that. But this is not, let’s say, France and Germany.
Joseph: Since the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the relations between Israel and Azerbaijan that are traditionally seen as very good have come a lot closer. Can you talk a little bit about their importance and what these relations look like?
Stephen: Well, it’s important for both sides. From the Azeri side, they get access to Israeli weapons technology and intelligence, particularly against Iran, which they regard as a major threat. Iran regards Azerbaijan as an irredentist state because if you look at the map, you see northwest Iran that borders on the Caucasus. That province is made up of ethnic Azeris. The area was split in 1828 between Tsarist Russia at the time and the Shahs of Iran back then.
And the Iranian government has always, and with good reason, been afraid that the Russians will try or that the Azeris now might try to do irredentist move and start off unrest in Azerbaijan to reunite those two Azeri communities. The Soviets played this game a lot. For example, 1945/46, 1921 as well.
The Iranians, therefore, regard their Azeri population and Azerbaijan as A, a threat to the integrity of the territory of Iran. B, the Azeris on the other side of the border, who are European-oriented and not particularly observant Shias, they’re Turkified, if anything, as one of my teachers would say, as apostates.
And that’s not too strong a word in this context, and they have constantly been trying to subvert it. Israel gets oil from Azerbaijan, 40% of its oil, I think, comes from Azerbaijan. So, already you see an economic interest, and it’s an incredibly convenient listening post for Israeli intelligence. There’s an arms trade between Israel and Azerbaijan, and there’s a real community of interest on both sides on monitoring and checking whatever Iran is doing.
Joseph: Thank you. Now I’d like to pivot to Central Asia. Earlier this year, Israel opened an embassy in Turkmenistan, just 20 km from the Iranian border. This is the closest embassy to Iran. What, in your eyes, is the significance of this move?
Stephen: First of all, it shows again that Israel can have productive diplomatic relationships with other Muslim states, which is very important to the Israeli government. Secondly, it’s obviously a loosening post. If you’re only 20 km or 20 miles from the Iranian border, there’s a lot of electronic intelligence you can pick up from the embassy there. So, that’s also a benefit.
If and when the Turkmen decide to export gas, which they have in abundance to Israel, that would also be a useful starting point for the negotiations to do this. But it’s important for Israel to show its face in the Muslim communities outside of the Middle East.
Joseph: Thank you. So, it does seem like Muslim republics beyond the Iron Curtain were shielded from the political Islam and thus don’t have the same historic animosity to Israel as many other Muslim countries. Do you believe this is why these countries are more amenable to relations with Jerusalem, or is it something else?
Stephen: Well, their Islam is not the same as Iran. First of all, most of them are Sunnis. Iranian culture only was big influence in Tajikistan, which is the furthest away from Israel of all of these states. Second, they have realized in one way or another, from the beginning of their independence 32 years ago, that it’s necessary for them to have what Kazakhstan’s founder Nazarbayev called a multi-vector foreign policy.
We want to be friends with everybody. Nobody’s going to be allowed to have excessive influence. We’re going to balance between everybody. And they have no quarrel with Israel. They’re not Arabs. The Palestinian issue doesn’t resonate in these areas. The religious issue doesn’t resonate either, perhaps because of their Soviet past or because strategically it’s really of no concern to theirs.
And Israel can offer them a lot of help in many, many ways, which they would be foolish to spurn. So, there’s no compelling obstacle to the establishment of decent relationships between Israel and all of the Central Asian governments.
Joseph: Recently, we have seen in Central Asia sort of rise of Islamism, mainly coming from being influenced by Turkey, Turkish private companies, and Uzbekistan, for example, we’re seeing more women start to wear the hijab. We’re seeing closer relations with Iran, with Qatar. Do you think that this will end up affecting the possibility of Israel to have relations with these countries?
Stephen: Well, I have to tell you here I mean, my graduate advisor was the world’s greatest expert on Soviet Islam at the time, and he kept saying that the Muslims are going to overthrow the Soviet Union, they didn’t. There’s this constant refrain that political Islam is growing in Central Asia, and there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in making this, but there’s no scholarly evidence that this is affecting foreign policy in any of those countries.
Second, there’s no real scholarly evidence that it’s a threat to the stability of all the regimes they say it is, because that gives them an enemy against which they can strike and preserve themselves in power and which they can present to their foreign sponsors. If you don’t help us, these guys are going to come and take over.
I have yet to see any evidence of this, and I’ve been looking at this now, I hate to say this, for 50 years. I’m sorry, but it’s not there. I just don’t buy that argument completely.
Joseph: Thanks. So, I’d like to move on to some questions from the audience. The first one is, have our NATO partners lived up to their obligations in terms of the war in Ukraine?
Stephen: Is that from the audience? Yeah, okay. Well, in my opinion, because other people may think differently, I think NATO has not done nearly enough. We haven’t done nearly enough. We keep stalling along. I mean, we’re still debating ATACMS. They should have had ATACMS six or eight months ago in Ukraine.
The problem with NATO is too many European governments and not only NATO members but too many European governments in general refuse to understand that the war against Ukraine is a war against Europe. It’s part of the Russian broader strategy and that Ukraine is fighting their battle. Second, they are in no way equipped to deal with the potential of war because they all took a holiday from history starting in the 90s. And pretended that there wasn’t going to be war anymore in Europe.
So, their defense industries are quite run down despite the fact that they are wealthy countries and could put together if they willed it, a credible defense industrial base and force. But as a result of this neglect of the defense sector, they are way behind. They don’t have enough weapons for themselves, let alone for Ukraine. And even though NATO countries in some cases, like I’d say, Great Britain and France have done quite a lot, others, like Germany, are not doing nearly enough.
And there’s all these pledges that you see in NATO summits that by a certain year we’re going to have x number of troops on the Baltic or in the Black Sea are rather dubious. And then here we have this problem that we debate these issues for six or seven months and we’re too inhibited about the so-called Russian nuclear threat to do anything. And that’s one of the reasons why Putin, for example, has just gone ahead and blockaded Black Sea again.
Joseph: Another question from the audience. Is it correct to say that Russia only invaded Ukraine in response to projected weakness on the part of the Obama and Biden administrations?
Stephen: Only? Let me put it this way. Never in any major political event, in this case, a war, there’s never just one cause. I have no doubt that they believe that the United States was projecting weakness and that the Europeans were, and that they could therefore get away with this without paying too severe a price. After all, that’s what happened in Crimea nine years ago.
So, that’s one factor. But I would remind your questioner that the issue of Ukraine in Russian history goes back to the founding of Russia, medieval Russia, which was founded in Kyiv, and the state was called Rus at that time.
And the founding of the state is in the 9th century. So, there’s a lot of history here that Putin is arguing about, and these polemics have gone on for years in both Russia and Ukraine. The calculation that the West would not resist was undoubtedly a factor, but it’s by no means the only one.
Joseph: Another question from the audience. What lessons are being learned from the Ukraine war by Iran and by Israel?
Stephen: Well, I mean, there are some lessons you can see in public that not only Iran and Israel are learning. Let me be frank, they’re not going to tell you what the lessons are they learned because, first of all, the war is going. And so, your assessment has to change with the information that you’re getting and with the situation you’re seeing as it evolves day by day.
But they’re not going to get up there and tell you, certainly Iran won’t and probably Israel won’t either what lessons they’re learning. There’s some things we can see. The increased role of drones, the necessity of having a self-sufficient defense industry to be able to fight a long war. Third, the necessity to have allies and to have a fully self-sustaining economy at home, which goes against the entire drift of the globalization mantra that we’ve had for 40 years.
And also learning that these wars are not necessarily going to be short wars. Many of the wars since the end of the Cold War were not long affairs, and that led people into the illusion that you could do this thing quickly and incur a minimal cost. That’s clearly not the case here. Just to give you off the top of my head the importance of UAVs and drones, the importance of the nuclear threat to deter a response, the necessity for integrated, self-sustaining economy that can produce defense capabilities and supply your national economy over a long period of war. The need for allies. That’s a few.
I mean, we could probably go on and talk about cyber and electronic lessons as well. The Russian cyber war on Ukraine has been there from the beginning, but it has failed for the most part. I mean, they launched cyber strikes on the eve of the war, and it didn’t get them the results they wanted. So, again, you have to go back and figure out how can cyber strikes be integrated with your overall strategy in all of its dimensions to produce a maximum effect, which normally the Russians would say with the maximum effect would be to basically collapse the government from within.
So, briefly, that’s some of the lessons. There are going to be more lessons as this war goes on. And the lessons you learn also depend on what your strategic situation and how you perceive it are.
Joseph: Do you believe this war could become what the Afghanistan war was to the Soviet Union?
Stephen: Oh, it could be much worse. Putin has, as we would say here, bet the farm. And he may still think he can win, but a few people outside Russia think that’s possible. He stated basically that the stability of his government and of Russia depends on Ukraine being absorbed into the Russian empire. And that’s not going to happen. What does that mean then? Is Russia going to fall apart? Is Putinism going to fall apart? We don’t know, but it’s not going to be Afghanistan.
The Soviet Union, if it had more intelligence about this, could have walked out of Afghanistan at any point. It would have suffered a loss, but in the fullness of time, it would have overcome that loss. And everybody loses in Afghanistan. I mean, nobody’s ever won there. It’s where Alexander the Great stopped. The British Empire stopped. We and the Russians also did not get anywhere in Afghanistan.
And Afghanistan is not strategically important. I mean, I wrote a book for the army on Afghanistan 30 years ago. It’s not that important a place. I mean, there were lessons that learned back then which we talked about, but Ukraine is critically strategic and the Black Sea is vital so, much bigger stakes.
Joseph: National secession helped bring the end of the Soviet Union, or at least it hastened it. Russia is made up of some 21 ethnic republics, I believe. Do you think there is a potential for the same sort of ethnic secession, say, in regions like Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan?
Stephen: Well, I have colleagues who believe there is. I’m rather more skeptical that that’s going to happen because those are all minorities within a much larger Slavic majority. It is possible, and I would say more likely than that, that if the Russians are defeated, and by that, I mean that Ukraine recovers all of its territory, Crimea, Donbas, and the territorial status quo of 2012/13, you might see uprisings and the Putinist state will come apart.
Some other form of government, not necessarily a democracy, probably not even might come in its place, because historically, long wars put the state to its supreme test in Russia. And if they don’t go well, the state shakes. We’ve already seen some of that with the Prigozhin mutiny. But I’m one of those people who, I don’t see that these regions like Chechnya and Dagestan are like Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The relationship between them and the center is not the same, I think, as it was in the Soviet period.
Joseph: If the Putin estate was to collapse, what do you believe would be next?
Stephen: I don’t think anybody has an idea what would be next. I can tell you that the American government’s first concern, and rightly so, would be who’s in control. Are the nuclear weapons safe? Same thing that happened in 1991 when there was a coup against Gorbachev. I mean, we can make forecasts all day long, but nobody has any idea how such a thing could come about and what would replace Putin and his system.
Joseph: Moving back to the Middle East, Russia announced that it’ll open up a consulate in Jerusalem. Why do you think they took this move? And what impact will it have on relations with their allies who are against Israel, such as Syria and Iran?
Stephen: Well, again, Iran and Russia are not allies and Syria is useless, politically speaking. It can’t do anything on its own. So, we need to keep our terminology straight here. Second, Russia historically has had a big interest in Jerusalem. In the 18th century, it signed a treaty with Turkey giving it the right to be the protector of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire and supervision of the holy places in Jerusalem i.e. the Christian holy places.
This issue was the cause of the Crimean War. It’s important for the Russian government, especially one that parades itself as this great religious crusade in some sense, or the last true bastion of the Orthodox Christian faith to be present in Jerusalem. It’s also a convenient place to put a lot of FSU agents, as they did in the old days, disguised as priests, or as is often the case, the priests are already KGB agents, to begin with. I met one once, and it’s important for them for that purpose also, it solidifies their relationship with Israel and shows Israel that they recognize Jerusalem as the capital.
Joseph: Do you think there’s a chance that they would move their embassy to Jerusalem?
Stephen: Not yet.
Joseph: What do you think would happen?
Stephen: Well, that’d be too much for the Arabs, I think, and Iran.
Joseph: Do you think that Netanyahu will have a meeting with Putin in the not-too-distant future? If so, what do you think they would discuss?
Stephen: Survival. Well, I don’t know what you mean by the not-too-distant future. I mean, Netanyahu has his hands full, and this crisis is not going to go away. He has brought the state to the brink of an abyss. Whether you support these plans or not, there’s no doubt that this is the greatest domestic crisis in Israeli history, and he’s going to be preoccupied with that.
What are they going to say to each other? Because Netanyahu’s foreign policy card is Iran is a threat. Iran is a threat and you have to do something about it. And the Russians are only going to say, no, they’re not. Now they might be able to do some business maybe regarding Syria or something, but there’s not a lot of substance in this relationship. It’s basically the two men and they’re both pretty beleaguered right now.
Joseph: Given that there isn’t much substance, do you think there is a chance that Israel would take a firmer role in backing Ukraine?
Stephen: No, because Netanyahu won’t do it now. I just think that foreign policy there is going to suffer as a result of the government’s precarious position. And secondly, because Netanyahu I don’t think he has anything to offer the Russians, and the Ukrainians are very angry. Clearly, they’re not getting enough from Israel.
Joseph: I’d like to bring up Elizabeth Tsurkov, the Russian-Israeli left-wing activist who was kidnapped by pro-Iranian forces in Iraq. Israel is in talks with Russia right now to help bring her back. What do you think Israel will have to do to make that happen?
Stephen: Well, this has to be a quid pro quo. That’s always the case in these kinds of affairs. Beyond that, nothing’s being revealed in public and there never is. The Biden administration has and is trying to get Americans out of Russia. We had this whole thing with Brittany Griner. We are still trying to get Whelan out.
There’s no doubt that you have to give something that the other side wants to get your people back. I don’t know what it is that Iran wants. I don’t know that the Russians can deliver Iran, so to speak, on this issue. It doesn’t hurt them to try because it consolidates their standing with both sides. But other than that, we don’t know what’s going on in these talks and we’re not going to know. These are always held, not just this particular hostage-taking incident, but all of these as you can see from recent and longer press.
All these discussions are held very closely. So, I don’t know what we can say about it further than that. Israel is going to have to give up something. That’s always the case.
Joseph: In general, Israel has taken a policy of trying to return its citizens at any price. We saw this with the girl who was arrested in Russia after they found marijuana in her suitcase, who was sentenced to, I believe, seven years. We’ve seen this a few other times. In the case of Elizabeth Tsurkov, however, it does appear that she went to Iraq on her own volition, using a Russian passport, and started talks with the group that kidnapped herself, under the idea that nothing bad would happen.
Do you think it is worth it for the Israeli government to give up something significant to Russia or to Iran in order to bring her back? And do you think it will do so given the circumstances?
Stephen: We don’t know what that significant thing would be. And then it’s going to come down to the question that the government is going to have to weigh its commitment to Pidyon Shvuyim, I mean, redemption of prisoners, which is a big Mitzvah in Jewish tradition, to whatever it is that is being demanded of it. And that’s why there’s a negotiation. You always try to get the most you can for the least cost. And that’s true on both sides.
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but Israel’s commitment to getting its people out, it’s not just nationally based, it’s religiously based. And because traditionally this has been a very intense point in Jewish history where we’ve had this kind of thing for centuries, right up through the Shewa, and maybe even afterward. So, I’m certain that the Israeli government will have to give up something of value. I just don’t know what it is. And they’re going to have to make that decision. I mean, that’s part of the responsibility that comes with office.
Joseph: I’d like to go back to Azerbaijan. Israel has a small Armenian community, mainly based in Jerusalem. How have good relations with Azerbaijan affected this community?
Stephen: Well, I don’t know what’s happening with the Armenian community in Jerusalem, so I really can’t answer that. What we should be doing and what Israel should be doing here, although friendship with Azerbaijan brings a lot of dividends, is should be encouraging the peace process with Armenia because it benefits both Armenia and Azerbaijan to come to terms, sign a treaty.
Azerbaijan, having won the war, will come out of it with more because it’s in a stronger position. But Armenia, once it signs a treaty, and hopefully the Turkish blockade of Armenia is lifted as a result of the settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia’s economic and geostrategic positions will improve.
And it might be a cold piece, but we’ve seen that in Israeli history. In 1979, there was no great affection for Egypt in Israel, and vice versa. And now Israeli intelligence has actually owned part of the oil firm going to Egypt back a few years ago. And there is a lot of cooperation between Egypt and Israel on several issues.
Joseph: It does seem like Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan has tried to make peace with Azerbaijan. However, he does have to deal with domestic hardliners at home and a pretty concerted effort on the part of Iran to try to disrupt this. Do you think it’ll be possible for him to go through and actually make this peace, given this backlash?
Stephen: He’s going to need help. I just did an article, is this America’s hour in the Caucasus? He’s going to need help from the European Union and the United States to get this done. Because in these kinds of things, and Camp David is an example, there has to be what political scientists call side payments. I mean, Azerbaijan is going to come away with the lion’s share of the benefits because it won the war. And that traditionally puts it in a stronger position.
But Armenia has to get something also. It has to get some real tangible guarantees of its security, be they economic or military, or political. And it would be a lot better for the European Union and the United States to be involved with Armenian Azerbaijan than for the Russians to be able to dominate the situation there. And neither is it in our interest that Turkey alone is there. And if Turkey would ever get into trouble, then we have an Article 5 situation for the NATO treaty, because Turkey is a member of NATO.
So, I mean, to whatever extent Israel has leverage here, I think its advice should be, look, we work with Azerbaijan, we value it, we derive a lot of benefit from it, and vice versa, and we want to keep on that relationship. But we think it’s basically in your interest to bring the situation to peace, take your gains, consolidate the Caucasus. Because then, if this Karabakh is out of the way, a process over time where you settle questions like refugees, much like Egypt in 79 and kept it.
Begins whereby Azerbaijan and Armenia can begin to start to learn to live with each other and maybe even ultimately, cooperate with each other. Armenia won’t have to depend on Moscow and Tehran to anything like the same degree and everybody benefits. Now, will that happen? I don’t know. But I’ve been saying this for 20 years, and I wrote about it for 20 years, that we really need to bring about this kind of virtuous circle, peace, start-up economic relationships, find avenues of cooperation.
Turkey and Armenia recognize each other and deal with the Turkish genocide, and the Armenian genocide rather, and get those issues out of the way. But then Armenia can become, it’s a European-oriented state, basically, and they can rejoin with the Western Europe economically and culturally and move forward.
Joseph: During the war in 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a major factor were the supply of Israeli and Turkish arms to Azerbaijan. Israel and Turkey both backed the country in terms of arms and in other ways as well. I wanted to ask you, during that time, relations with Israel and Turkey were not the best. Do you think this helped bring the two countries together?
Stephen: It might have. There are other reasons why Erdogan might be trying to make amends with the West in general and Israel in particular. His economic situation is atrocious. That’s certainly the reason. He wants the F-16s from the United States. He wants to get the oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. He now probably has reached the limit of the usefulness of his ties with Russia, and it’s in his interest, therefore, to improve connections with Israel.
Israel, of course, can always benefit by reducing tensions with a country strategically important in the Muslim world like Turkey. So yeah, it’s a possibility that Azerbaijan could be one of the issues where they see they can actually cooperate and work together and that it’s for everybody’s benefit to expand that level of cooperation into other areas.
Joseph: I’d like to shift to Israeli relations with Ukraine. Obviously, Netanyahu has done everything possible to not get involved in the Russian invasion to stay neutral, that is. However, it does seem like despite that relations are pretty close, at least collaboration is. There are frequent meetings between Ukrainian and Israeli counterparts. How do you see these relations?
Stephen: Well, I’m not so sure that the relations are good. They’re correct certainly, and the Ukrainians are trying constantly to get Israel to do more. I don’t think Netanyahu will move in that direction though. And what’s more, I don’t think he’s going to undertake any major foreign policy initiatives. He wants to keep the tie to Moscow open. The relationship with the United States is frankly going to hell because of Israeli domestic politics and because I think the Israeli government wrongly believes that the Democratic Party is anti-Israel and is trying to bank exclusively on Republicans and interfere in American politics. I think it’s a very misconceived strategy.
So, within that framework, I don’t see that he’s going to make any dramatic moves toward Ukraine, although there’s a lot of public opinion that would like to see him do that. Furthermore, if you have an unsettled domestic political situation at home and that’s certainly the case now in Israel that limits what you can do in foreign policy.
Joseph: When it comes to Eastern Europe, it seems that we’ve seen a sort of unprecedented amount of acceptance of Jews. For example, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. Previously the Prime Minister Groysman was Jewish. In Latvia, you even have a president who is half-Jewish. How do you think this came about?
Stephen: Democratization in one word. Democratization in the beginnings throughout Eastern Europe of a coming to terms with their history. It’s a very painful and slow process. I mean, I can tell you I was in Estonia in 2000 because they had a big conference center about them trying to get into NATO with all of Eastern Europe called the Big Bang in Vilnius. And I was in Estonian Vilnius for this. They had a parade one day there of the Estonian resistance to the Soviets who had been cooperating with the Gestapo. In honor of those guys and the people I were with, one of them said to me, well this is our history.
I said I know your history. I mean, you’re not going to get into NATO by celebrating people who fought with the Nazis. I think the big factor here is democratization. I think Jews do best in a liberal democratic society. I don’t mean that in terms of a Democratic party or a liberal party, but a liberal capital L, democratic capital D, small d rather, system which reduces religious and ethnic intolerance. That’s certainly been the case in America.
And also, with democratization, you get pressure to really take a hard look at all of the past history, good, bad, and ugly, and that forces an internal reckoning. And it was the same thing with Germany. Because if you have great leadership, that helps. I mean, we had Adenauer in Germany who started the reparation payments for Holocaust victims and also started the tradition of supporting Israel militarily, which continues right up to the present.
And you’ve had very strong leadership in the Baltic states, for the most part, in Poland as well, at least up till the present regime came in, in 2015. And if they are defeated in the next election, I think it’s later this year or next year. I think you’d get further into that process in Poland. It’s going to be a long time coming, but it shows what democratization can do, not only for domestic politics but in relationships between states.
Joseph: We have another question from the audience. While Russia and Ukraine both seem pretty dug into this conflict, do you believe there is a chance for a truce? And if so, what would the essential conditions be for such a truce?
Stephen: I don’t believe there are conditions for a truce. There are a lot of people in the West who think that this is going to end in negotiations. I doubt that. First of all, this is a war of genocide, and you have to call it that. I mean, it really is a genocidal war by Russia to destroy the Ukrainian statehood and the memory of it and the idea of it. And that means the people and the institutions. So, it’s a genocide.
You don’t negotiate with people over whether or not you can live. Second, as I said, Putin bet the farm and negotiation undermines his position. All he cares about is staying in power. But in many ways, I like to say he’s like a Shakespearean hero. Richard III says that sin shall pluck on sin for him because he has nowhere to go. He can’t retreat. Retreat means the end of his power. And the Prigozhin mutiny, I think, made that very clear because nobody came up to defend him, which is amazing.
So, I don’t see a basis for a truce. I think the only way this is going to end is in victory. And that’s why, as a policy recommendation, if you have been following my writings or when I appear around the media, my recommendation is that we ought to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to a Ukrainian victory in the fastest period of time. That will minimize the suffering, the murdering, the destruction. It will hasten the end of Putinism, and it will reduce the utility of Putin’s nuclear threat.
The longer this goes on, the more likely these threats will be more seriously brandished. The faster it ends, the sooner we can dispense with these threats and move on. And it’ll be less likely that those threats will have any resonance because the Russian army would be in retreat and just not able to pull this thing off. They also need to be told in no uncertain terms, both privately and publicly, that if Putin launches a nuclear weapon either against Ukraine or against Europe, it’s going to be the last thing he ever does, politically at least.
So, that’s my take on the war. The person who asked the question may have a different opinion. There are different opinions out there, but I don’t think they’re well-founded. And if you want to get more on this, Chatham House, the British institution, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, released a report today saying why negotiation is a bad idea.
Joseph: You’ve mentioned Prigozhin’s mutiny and how no one came to defend Putin, given that this was the case, and that if he wanted to, Prigozhin probably could have gotten to Moscow. Why do you think it is that he turned around?
Stephen: He might have gotten to Moscow, but he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere after that, and he didn’t have enough troops to sustain himself. On the other hand, Putin realized, nobody’s supporting me. He needs Wagner. He needs those kinds of paramilitary or private military forces to advance Russian cause in Third World, and they were needed in Ukraine. They fought pretty hard, particularly Bakhmut and places like that. So, Putin needs that. Again, Putin has always thrived by dividing the military.
So, there’s militaries watching militaries and competing with each other. And that’s the most important thing to him. So, since staying in power is his ultimate objective, he would be able to rebuff Prigozhin, but he would have to fight him in the streets of Moscow, and that might have undermined both of them. And on the other hand, Prigozhin didn’t want to precipitate that because he’d probably lose. So, that’s why we have this bizarre situation that we have now.
Joseph: Unfortunately, it appears we are out of time. I’d like to thank our guest, Dr. Stephen Blank, as well as the audience, for tuning in. If you enjoyed our webinar, please consider sponsoring your own or donating to EMET. Thank you.
The Two State Solution: What the Average Israeli Knows, but the Average American Refuses to Acknowledge Transcript
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