Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel on June 25 for his first state visit since retaking the presidency. The visit was arranged in mid-May, and so at least part of the agenda was set, given events in Syria and Egypt. The interesting thing about Israel and Russia is that while they seem to be operating in the same areas of interest and their agendas seem disconnected, their interests are not always opposed. It is easy to identify places they both care about but more difficult to identify ways in which they connect. It is therefore difficult to identify the significance of the visit beyond that it happened.
An example is Azerbaijan. Russia is still a major weapons provider for Azerbaijan, but the Israelis are now selling it large amounts of weapons and appear to be using it as a base from which to observe and, according to rumors, possibly attack Iran. Russia, which supports Armenia, a country Azerbaijan fought a war with in the late 1980s and early 1990s and technically still is at war with, ought to oppose Israel's action, particularly since it threatens Iran, which Russia does not want attacked. At the same time, Russia doesn't feel threatened by Israeli involvement in Azerbaijan, and Israel doesn't really care about Armenia. Both are there, both are involved and both think Azerbaijan is important, yet each operates in ways that ought to conflict but don't.
The same is true in the more immediate case of Syria, where its downing of a Turkish plane has created an unexpected dynamic for this visit. To think about this we need to consider Russian and Israeli strategy and its odd lack of intersection in Syria.
Russia's Need for a U.S. Distraction
Russia has complex relationships in the region, particularly focused on Syria and Iran. Russia's interest in both countries is understandable. Putin, who has said he regarded the breakup of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical catastrophe, views the United States as Russia's prime adversary. His view is that the United States not only used the breakup to extend NATO into the former Soviet Union in the Baltics but also has tried to surround and contain Russia by supporting pro-democracy movements in the region and by using these movements to create pro-American governments. Putin sees himself as being in a duel with the United States throughout the former Soviet Union.
The Russians believe they are winning this struggle. Putin is not so much interested in dominating these countries as he is in being certain that the United States doesn't dominate them. That gives Russia room to maneuver and allows it to establish economic and political relations that secure Russian interests. In addition, Russia has tremendously benefited from the U.S. wars in the Islamic world. It is not so much that these wars alienated Muslims, although that was beneficial. Rather, what helped the Russians most was that these wars absorbed American strategic bandwidth.
Obviously, U.S. military and intelligence capabilities that might have been tasked to support movements and regimes in Russia's "near abroad" were absorbed by conflict in the Islamic world. But perhaps even more important, the strategic and intellectual bandwidth of U.S. policymakers was diverted. Russia became a secondary strategic interest after 9/11. While some movements already in place were supported by the United States, this was mostly inertia, and as the Russians parried and movements in various countries splintered, the United States did not have resources to respond.