Washington — Escalating tensions between Russia and the West over the war in Georgia are raising concerns in Israel that broken relations with Moscow might jeopardize international efforts to block Iran’s nuclear program.
Washington has threatened Moscow with diplomatic retaliation for its military operations on Georgian territory, and has hinted that it would push for a ban on Russian participation in international forums if Moscow does not cooperate with attemp ts to reach a lasting cease-fire. Israel has noticeably departed from the American line, going so far as to freeze its military ties with Georgia in an effort to placate Moscow.
Washington and Jerusalem’s divergent reactions to the war in Georgia are indicative of the split among Western policymakers on the efficacy of engaging a resurgent Russia in efforts to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions. While some have warned that shakier relations between Moscow and the West may lead to less Russian cooperation, others are citing the conflict in Georgia as evidence that Russia cannot be trusted as a diplomatic partner.
“Russia’s role is not one of pure partnership,” said Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia Program. “The longer we go on this path, the more difficult it will become. We will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.”
Even before fighting broke out in the separatist enclave of South Ossetia, Israel took steps to curb arms sales to Georgia, in response to concerns raised in Jerusalem by Russian diplomats. After the conflict erupted, the Israeli Foreign Ministry called on the Defense Ministry, which is in charge of licensing and approving private arms sales to foreign nations, to halt permits for military assistance to the Georgian armed forces. Officials with the Israeli Defense Ministry said that defense contracts with Georgia had been halted in order to avoid further tension with Russia.
Israel’s military cooperation with Georgia is limited to the private sector and is estimated to have totaled no more than $500 million over the past decade. The assistance includes training of Georgian ground troops by former senior Israeli military officers, as well as upgrades for Georgian fighter jets and the supplying of advanced unmanned aerial vehicles. An Israeli-made Georgian UAV was shot down by Russia last May, leading to a formal Russian complaint to Jerusalem. Israel’s freezing of military ties to Georgia has not gone unnoticed in Moscow. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told CNN on August 12 that Washington should follow Jerusalem’s example.
“Israel, which has also been one of the arms suppliers, is reconsidering its sales in the arms area,” Churkin said.
To date, the United States has dismissed Russian calls for a halt in American assistance to Georgia and is outspokenly offering diplomatic backing to President Mikheil Saakashvili.
In an August 13 statement, President Bush strongly hinted that the United States is considering punitive diplomatic measures against Russia. Flanked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Bush spoke of Russia’s attempts to integrate into international diplomatic and economic bodies, warning that Moscow is now “putting its aspirations at risk.”
The diplomatic actions considered against Russia include blocking its efforts to join the World Trade Organization, delaying approval of an American-Russian nuclear treaty and excluding Russia from the group of industrialized nations known as the G-8.
If the White House were to push for such measures, it would likely enjoy widespread support from Congress.
Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that lawmakers might withhold backing for the nuclear treaty, which requires congressional approval. Berman made clear that he is not concerned about having sanctions against Russia backfire and affect the effort to stop Iran.
“Russian cooperation on Iran has been of overwhelming importance,” Berman told Congressional Quarterly on August 11. Yet “even that priority can’t lead us to just overlooking and sweeping under the rug a massive overreaction by Russia that constitutes an invasion of a neighbor.”
By any measure, Russia wields substantial influence on efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.
On the diplomatic front, Russia holds the key for imposing strict sanctions against Iran. Rice said earlier this month that answers provided by Tehran to a proposed deal that would halt uranium enrichment in return for an incentive package were not sufficient, and that Washington would pursue another round of sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. Such sanctions, however, would need the support of Russia, a country that, along with the other four permanent members of the Security Council, wields veto power.
On the military front, Russia could seriously complicate an Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities if it goes through with a deal to supply Tehran with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Reports of the planned arms sale surfaced last month, but according to an Israeli diplomatic source, Moscow made clear that the deal was not finalized.
At any rate, the tough rhetoric coming from Washington is raising concern in Jerusalem. An Israeli official said that America’s wish to make clear its objection to the Russian conduct is understandable, but “we are also looking at the day after.”
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, added that Israel sees the coming months as crucial for making progress on the diplomatic front, stating also that playing a constructive role with Iran could be a way for Russia to move beyond the conflict in Georgia.
“Cooperating on the Iranian issue can actually be Russia’s way to win back the trust of the West,” the Israeli official suggested.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman