Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hold a press conference after meeting in Moscow on September 9, 2021. Israel has been trying to stay on good terms with both Russia and Ukraine. Photo: AFP / Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made a quick trip to Moscow just after the end of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) to meet with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.  The meeting was focused on Iran, the nuclear threat, and Iranian activities elsewhere, particularly Syria.

It is clear that Israeli-Russian relations need a restart.

The Lapid visit came after numerous reports of a falling out between Russia and Israel over Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah precision missiles shipped into Syria and threatening Israel. 

Starting in September 2015, in a remarkable deal between former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both sides had agreed on a “deconfliction” arrangement whereby Israel would pre-notify the Russians about a forthcoming attack, usually some hours before it took place.  The deconfliction agreement, in practice, had meant that Russian air defenses would not usually react to approved raids by the Israeli Air Force.

The deconfliction agreement was not always smooth sailing. In September 2018 an Il-20 surveillance aircraft was returning to Hmeimim Air Base in Syria when it was shot down by Syrian air defenses. The Il-20 mission took place during an authorized deconfliction event, but the Russians claimed that the Israeli fighter aircraft were using the IL-20 as a shield from Syrian air defenses as four of the jets attacked targets in Latakia province. The aircraft was destroyed some 20 kilometers from the coast over the Mediterranean sea.

In recent weeks the Russian military let it be known that the deconfliction agreement was not working well or at all and that, in any event, the Russians didn’t get anything for their cooperation.

The reality is somewhat different in that, for the most part, Israel has not directly attacked Syrian assets (unless fired upon) and has avoided taking out Syrian air defenses (also, unless fired upon over Israel’s territory).

The United States also set up a deconfliction agreement with Russia in 2015.  For a time in 2017 the US-Russian agreement was “suspended” by the Russians after the US retaliated against Syria for chemical weapons attacks on two towns, using Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from two US destroyers. In 2020 the US-Russia deconfliction agreement again came under scrutiny when four US soldiers were wounded in an incident.

The US-Russia deconfliction agreement differs from the Israel-Russia agreement in that it is focused on the presence of a small number of US troops in Syria rather than air attacks only. (The US has somewhere between 600 and 900 soldiers in Syria.)

After the IL-20 incident, the Russians started upgrading Syrian air defenses to make them more effective against Israeli attacks, and there is reason to believe that Russians are helping the Syrians man these air defense systems.  One of the reasons is that Syria typically fired off its air defense missiles well after an Israeli strike, showing a lack of coordination and command and control.

To avoid having to attack Syria’s air defenses or get into a confrontation with Russia, Israel has shifted to using precision stand-off weapons, often launched from outside Syria, mainly Lebanon.

Israel has a small arsenal of home-developed air-to-surface weapons. One of the newest is called Rampage, an air-to-surface ballistic missile that was first revealed in 2018. Rampage was designed to be able to evade or defeat the Russian S-300 air defense system. Unlike most of Israel’s air to surface weapons, Rampage is supersonic and difficult to hit. It is GPS-guided, has a 570 kg warhead and a length of 4.7 meters.

Another system that is equally important is “Rocks,” developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Rocks weighs about 1.3 tons and carries a 360kg warhead that comes in two versions, bunker busting or fragmentation.

“Rocks uses its INS/GPS for mid-course navigation, while homing in on the target is performed by using its EO seeker and advanced image processing algorithms, which ensures hitting targets with great precision, overcoming GPS jamming or denial” reports the Jerusalem Post.

There are a number of other systems available to Israel in the form of air to surface missiles. These include the venerable Popeye (in the United States, Have Nap AGM-142, used on the US B-52H) with a basic range of 80 kilometers and Spice smart bombs with a range of about 100 kilometers.

There is a submarine-launched version of Popeye called Popeye Turbo, which may be nuclear-capable.

Russia has reported shooting down a number of Israeli-launched missiles in Syria.  On September 3 an SA-5 (S-200) interceptor missile launched from Syria exploded in the air near Tel Aviv, with parts of the exploded missile falling in the Kfar Shalem neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Most of the missile body fell into the Mediterranean sea.

The same night Israel destroyed the Syrian air defense SA-5 battery that launched the missile that intruded on Israeli airspace. This followed two previous incidents. One missile appeared to target Israel’s Dimona nuclear complex in Israel’s Negev desert; the other, an SA-5 missile that exploded over the Dead Sea.

SA-5 systems have been upgraded over time with new radars, modern electronics and other improvements.

Israel also has an arsenal of loitering drones. One of them, the Harop, was used effectively against Russian-made air defense systems in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Harop has a long range (1,000 kilometers) but is slow flying. Harop, unlike the rest of the Israeli arsenal, is stealthy, radar evading. Harop has not been used against Syrian targets, probably because it is optimized against air defenses and command and control installations and has a relatively small warhead.

The most important issue for Russia and Israel is the presence of Iran and Iran proxy forces in Syria plus the lurking threat that Iran may soon have nuclear weapons. Israel has stated openly that Iran is only a few months away from having a working nuclear weapon and accompanying delivery systems.

One of the worrisome scenarios is the import of such weapons into Syria or Iraq, that is to Hezbollah or even Shi’a militias under the guidance of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Even the Biden administration, which wanted a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons, appears to be in retreat, with Secretary of State Blinken saying that the US is “getting closer to giving up” on trying to make an Iran deal. Israel has made it clear to the US and, in the latest Moscow meeting, to the Russians that Israel is prepared to act on its own to stop Iran from fielding nuclear weapons. Israel’s Chief of General Staff Aviv Kohavi said a few days ago that Israel is “accelerating” its Iran strike plans.

The Russians have a lot at stake in maintaining their power presence in the Middle East. While the Biden administration has made it easier for them, by backing away from traditional allies including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even Jordan, Iran’s aggressiveness can undermine the Russians as much as Israel is directly challenged by Iranian military growth and by the activities of Iran’s dangerous Revolutionary Guard.

The fact that Lavrov was willing, in fact anxious, to meet with Lapid, the first meeting with the foreign minister of a new Israeli government, suggests that the Russians are seeking some deals with Israel, although it is far from clear what these are. While Russia would like to replace the US in the Middle East, an ambitious goal, it is clear that it can’t do so, or even sustain the position it has, while permitting Iran to be the tail wagging the dog.