The Jerusalem Post
How Russia’s role in the Baumel repatriation symbolizes its Mideast strategy
Last week the remains of Sgt. Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier who went missing during the First Lebanon War, were repatriated to Israel after 37 years. The extraordinary story culminated in an emotional burial after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended an official Russian Defense Ministry ceremony on April 4 in Moscow.
The Russian statement on the handover provides an insight into Moscow’s view of the importance of this ceremony. A statement published by the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv notes that Russia is searching for remains of fallen Red Army soldiers who fought against the Nazis in the Second World War. The remains of 120,000 Soviet soldiers have been found.
“I believe the same fate befell Israeli serviceman Zachary Baumel,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said. “Our military personnel and their Syrian partners helped find Zachary’s remains.” It was a difficult mission, he added.
It is highly unusual for a third country to find the remains of an Israeli soldier, and for Russia to help repatriate them. It was also a complex operation that goes back at least two years. According to a report on Ynet, the families of the missing, including those of two other missing IDF soldiers, approached then chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot to “push for new information on their loved ones in light of strong ties with Russia.”
But what’s important here is the dignity Russia sought to accord this mission and the handover. It is part of a wider Russian interest in positioning itself as the key player in the Middle East, and presenting itself as a responsible country that one can go to in order to achieve things. This is in contrast to the way Russia is perceived in some Western political and media circles, which portray Moscow as being behind troll farms, bot networks, hacking, election collusion and even poisoning dissidents.
The two faces of Moscow may not be mutually exclusive. Moscow has presented a consistent and clear line regarding its policies in the Middle East. It wants stability and territorial integrity of states, and it has argued that the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring and the rise of various extremist or jihadist groups are a threat to the region and the world.
Of course this is not because Moscow is just a benevolent country looking out for the region’s best interests. It has its allies and its clear interests. Its allies are often a legacy of Cold War alliances. So Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria is a Moscow ally because it always has been. Countries that are critical of the West, or authoritarian regimes tend toward connections with Russia, whether that is Maduro’s Venezuela, or Iran, or increasingly, Turkey.
Russia also wants to carve out closer relations with countries that are US allies, including Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. All of these relationships may have different interests for Russia. And there is no reason to doubt that Putin’s relationship with Netanyahu is not one of genuine respect and warmth as it appears to have been over the last years.
And the relationships are mutually beneficial for different reasons. Egypt and Saudi Arabia both felt put out in the cold by the Obama administration, and Israel was nonplussed by the Iran deal. Russia’s role in Syria made it a go-to for Jerusalem on Syria issues when the US was increasingly incapable of setting an agenda regarding the Syrian regime.
Russia’s role is also complex. For instance, Russia’s stance on Libya is particularly interesting. In recent days, Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive against the Syrian capital of Tripoli. Haftar’s forces have expanded their control from eastern Libya and now are poised to unify the country after eight years of civil war.
Russia paid lip service to supporting a UN settlement. The UN backs the Tripoli government and opposes Haftar’s advance. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Saturday that Moscow would not apportion blame in Libya. “We keep a close eye on the armed forces’ advance, including the Libyan National Army and other groups, including those which are illegal armed groups and control a considerable part of the country’s capital and some other areas,” Lavrov said.
Haftar has also said that he will take Tripoli from “terrorists and armed groups.” It’s not a surprise that Haftar’s language appears to be similar to Moscow’s. In the end, the Tripoli government is supported by the West, and Moscow likely sees Tripoli as a hot-bed of instability and extremism, whereas Haftar represents stability and centralized leadership.
One could see the Baumel repatriation as a unique incident with no larger context. But there are good reasons to see it as part of a general trend of Russia portraying itself as the reliable and consistent actor in the Middle East. It has played the same role in the Astana talks and in Sochi, in hosting Turkey and Iran to discuss Syria. At each step the US is not involved, as Russia positions itself as a “go-to” power for the region.
Russia also wants to set down some red lines eventually. Lavrov told Egypt’s Al-Ahram that Russia wants to prevent an upsurge in tensions” in Syria, in reference to a question about Israeli shelling Syrian territory. Lavrov didn’t mention Israel, but the headline at the Tass Russian News Agency noted that Russia’s stance on “inadmissibility of Israeli shelling” remained unchanged.
Another message of Moscow’s role in the Baumel repatriation is that Russia has unprecedented access to Syria and might mollify the Syrian regime on some issues. That might have ramifications for Israel’s desire to see Iranian influence reduced in Syria. Baumel’s remains could have been returned in a quiet, seemingly clandestine, manner. Instead, the public ceremony shows that Russia wants to be perceived as an honest broker able to help in these sensitive manners.