Russian Orthodox church in Israel.

Putin as Bismarck: Ehud Barak on West’s Russia Blind Spots, the Middle East and More

November 28, 2016
RM staff

Ehud Barak served as the prime minister of Israel in 1999-2001 and as defense minister in 2007-2013.

NB: This interview was conducted before the U.S. presidential election of Nov. 8, 2016. It has been abridged and edited for clarity. Mr. Barak spoke to Russia Matters Project director Simon Saradzhyan and editor Natasha Yefimova-Trilling.

RM: In what ways do you believe American and other Western policymakers most often and most significantly misunderstand Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin?

EB: There is a certain demonization of Russia in the West, for a number of reasons: remnants of the “Evil Empire” mythology, clashing interests, a little closed-mindedness. Sometimes people compare Putin to Hitler and that’s ridiculous. I know him quite well. We have met many times and worked very closely when I was prime minister and minister of defense. If there’s a German statesman he resembles, it’s Bismarck: an extremely realpolitik player. He’s very cerebral, but with very good intuition for people’s underlying emotions. He’s also extremely practical and much less ideological than others. He understands what is needed to control the Russian people; being a leader there is not the same as being a leader here [in America] or in Israel.

 

America has to be totally transparent in its policies, totally accountable, pre-factum, to the public. Russia is relieved from that.

Apart from personalities, the West has a major blind spot in its attitude toward Russia. We are taught from early childhood that World War II is proof that democracy prevails over totalitarian regimes. But that’s not the truth! The real truth is that twice in modern history it was the courage, solidarity, patriotism, stamina and dedication of the Russian people that saved the world from the reign of dictatorships. Both Napoleon and Hitler were defeated by the Russians. I spent decades in uniform; we had to study this professionally. It was the Red Army that broke the backbone of the Nazi war machine. There were two dictatorships that clashed and one destroyed the other, at a huge price. I think this goes deep into the Russian collective mind—that there’s not enough respect or appreciation of what the Russian people did.

This type of blind spot does not apply only to Russia. If you want an effective, balanced, successful geopolitical strategy, you need to invest some intellectual resources in understanding who others are and how they perceive themselves. And to do this, [you must] remove all the normal filters used for domestic politics or fighting for resources in your own backyard. I think that’s missing from the picture, not just in regard to Russia, but to an extent in regard to everything—China, Saddam Hussein, Assad, ISIS. With more effort to understand, you might find yourself much more effective.

Ehud Barak, October 2016
Ehud Barak in Cambrige, Mass., October 2016. Photo by Bennett Craig.

That said, there is a big difference between Russia and America: America has to be totally transparent in its policies, totally accountable, pre-factum, to the public. Russia is relieved from that. It’s run a different way, so its leaders can play their cards very effectively and they are skillful at it. Russia can afford, for example, to send “volunteers” [to Ukraine], in uniforms without insignia, perhaps even with identification papers that don’t show they are Russians. They can afford to do all of that if they feel it helps them. It’s a great technical edge on the gray lines of operation.  Americans can’t afford doing something and denying it bluntly. And it limits them in a way. It may give them a greater sense of legitimacy, but less effectiveness.

RM: How much did such misinterpretations and differences play a role in the Ukraine conflict?

EB: Putin did not initiate Ukraine. It was a force of nature unleashed by recklessness in Brussels and overenthusiasm in Kiev. Those who pushed to get Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit created a challenge for Russia without understanding the nature of that challenge. Kiev for Russians is like Philadelphia or Boston for America, the birthplace of Russian identity. To think that you can take Luhansk, Kiev and not to mention Slovyansk and Donetsk from Russia, to grab them and turn them by some trick into a Jeffersonian democracy—it’s total naiveté! And even if somebody proposed, for example, deploying half a dozen advance jets in Latvia, the Americans were not reading the Russians correctly: I told them, “The Russians will not see the half squadron you deployed in Latvia; they will see that you didn’t dare to do anything in Ukraine, and that means Ukraine is free [for the taking].” It was total naiveté.

 

We [in the West] see as a given that we derive meaning and strength from the openness of our societies ... so we underestimate other forces that hold people together.

RM: How would you summarize Russia’s weaknesses and strengths in today’s world?

EB: I think any doomsday scenario that Russia or China is going to take over the world is a huge exaggeration. Russia is significantly exposed: It has an economy that is a small fraction of America’s. It has its own troubles. The fact it has a huge nuclear arsenal, makes it a superpower. But the Russians need to be, and are, assertive because they have weighed all this and they understand the situation, including their weaknesses, though they don’t admit them. And, disappointing as this may be to my American friends, Putin’s high favorability rating among his people—something that no democratically elected Western leader can expect—is genuine. It’s real, not fake.

RM: Why do you say that?

EB: Part of the difference [between Russia and the West] is that we are the products of Jeffersonian democracy. In judging the world, we see as a given that we derive meaning and strength from the openness of our societies, freedom and the rights of the individual, from fairness and the apparent effort to avoid cheating and manipulating each other, from our choice of liberty over oppression. So we underestimate other forces that hold people together.

You can give a sense of meaning, of direction, not necessarily by making your people lead a more successful, better life. Even in America this is not done at a satisfying enough pace, and that’s part of the frustration here. But other groups of people draw a lot of meaning from solidarity, from identification with a wider collective, with a great history, a sense of glory and identity, from loyalty, from accepting a certain authority and order, and from holding certain things sacred. Being unable to provide people with the standard of living, and the kind of freedoms, that people enjoy in North America, you give them meaning by making them strong, proud, respected in the world, having this solidarity and national pride. National pride is a powerful motivation for human beings. It was not because of freedoms that Russia defeated two powerful adversaries that threatened the world; it was [because of] national pride, even if its own regime was far short of being the perfect solution for mankind.

 

It’s probably not wise for a super power to set explicit red lines.

RM: Let’s move on from previous wars to current ones. How do you see the U.S.-Russian standoff in Syria?

EB: For a long time, Russia stayed on the sidelines in Syria, leaving it to the Americans. And a few years ago, America had two chances for a very different situation: First, they could have followed the Turkish recommendation to declare the whole area from Aleppo to the Turkish border a no-fly zone and protect it as a safe haven for refugees. The real Turkish idea—though they cannot express it explicitly—was that once you announce a no-fly zone over about one quarter of Syria, you will inevitably clash with the Syrian air force. That, in turn, will provide a reasonable excuse to destroy the air force, the air defense, command-control systems, some leading ground forces units, some installations of the regime. It would have thrown Assad beyond recuperation and he would have had to enter into negotiations. But America missed that chance.

Then came the chemical warfare red line. It’s probably not wise for a super power to set explicit red lines. But once it was uttered by the commander in chief, there was a heavy price to pay throughout the Middle East for not following through. The Pentagon was cautious because they knew recommending military action would mean they would have to execute. So they told the president the truth: It’s not going to end in one strike; we cannot expect to destroy more than one-third of it [the chemical weapons arsenal]; the other third is too close to populated areas; the third third is probably dug into hills that you cannot penetrate without nuclear weapons; we will need 80,000 people on the ground; it might take many months, probably many years, and hundreds of billions [of dollars].

But no one was ready to point out that it’s not a binary question: Chemical weapons are not nuclear weapons, where if you don’t destroy all of them you will suffer. The Syrians could do nothing with these weapons, even with a lot of them, against America, or Israel, or Turkey. Their only choice would have been to swallow the strike. And, once again, if you launch such a strike, you end up inevitably clashing with the Syrian air force. And that would provide the perfect justification—and legitimacy—for destroying the air force, air defense, command-control, and throwing Assad beyond recuperation. But, once again, the opportunity was missed.

No one was there to tell [President Obama], as a military professional: “We can make a short strike, shorter even than Serbia—not 60 days, but probably six days, or 60 hours, and it’s over. And with huge impact.” At that time, Russia could have done nothing about it. Russia was involved in Ukraine. But once they [in Washington] rejected these ideas, the door was open.

 

The Russians are not in a love affair with Assad personally; I know this from the very top level there.

RM: What are the objectives of Russia’s military campaign in Syria? Is Russia really married to the idea of keeping Assad in power? Can its interests be reconciled with those of other stakeholders?

EB: The Russians are not in a love affair with Assad personally; I know this from the very top level there. They focus on their interests. They have invested 40 years in this dynasty, even during Soviet times, with the father [Hafez al-Assad], and they simply understand something that is objectively true: They cannot afford for Assad to experience, as a Russian client, what Mubarak experienced as an American client—that the moment someone is against him, in this case his own people, he is removed. They have a lot to lose: They have two bases; they have a presence there; they have prestige. Prestige is something of value in the Middle East.

At certain stages, the Russians were almost ready to accept that negotiations would have to start, with Assad staying in power for one, 1 1/2 years with some sort of reconciliation overseen by the international community. But the Americans had to press Assad and it didn’t happen. The Russians see that he cannot rule effectively over the whole of Syria as we knew it; they are not stupid. But they cannot afford to have him or, more generally, a UN member state’s regime removed by external forces. It’s no surprise that both the Russians and the Chinese are extremely against any precedent being set of this nature.

The Russians stepped in to help Assad for defensive reasons, to save him from collapse. But they were quite careful not to give him too many promises and even, at a certain point, announced they would pull back their forces—which they didn’t do. Along the way they probably became convinced that they would lose more by abandoning him, and they probably decided to help him take over Aleppo as symbolic proof of who won.

The Russians and Americans have met repeatedly to discuss Syria, but they were not hearing each other. I had the opportunity to listen to both sides, at the highest levels, after those meetings around some of the tensest moments some three years ago. They could not have an effective exchange of views, of observations, of interests.

RM: Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center, has urged responsible policymakers in America to learn from Israel on how to deter ISIS effectively. Do you think there’s something to be learned not only for the U.S. but for Russia?

EB: There are probably many lessons to be learned from Israel on the technical, tactical level—how to collect and use intelligence effectively, for example. But the needs for dealing with ISIS are somewhat different. While ISIS is very effective in using the internet and sowing fear around the world, militarily speaking they are very weak foes: 50,000 people and 5,000 Toyota pickups with World War II machine guns, plus some tanks they grabbed and some howitzers and Hummers to protect them against light fire. They have succeeded because no real forces were attacking them.

ISIS must be defeated on the ground in the Middle East, but this should be done by Muslims. If it is done by “infidels,” by “crusaders,” it will strengthen ISIS in a way. Which opponents can do it? I’m not optimistic about the Iraqi army. Egypt is too deeply stuck in its own problems. I don’t believe any of the Gulf States has enough self-confidence to operate aggressively far from home. Perhaps the Turks could be the lynchpin of a force that could crush ISIS very fast. But there is a need for cooperation.

 

For Israel Putin is definitely the best person who ever sat in the Kremlin.

RM: A Haaretz columnist recently observed that Russian-Israeli relations are better than they’ve ever been. Do you agree?

EB: Yes, but this has been true for the last 10 or 15 years, since the wave of 1 million Jews came from Russia. For Israel, this was a great, formative change. We became a country with more philharmonic orchestras per capita than any other, more chess masters, more ballet teachers. They transformed neighborhoods on the fringes of the country that before, to us [locals], seemed doomed to deprivation. They have taken over the more demanding faculties at the universities—the sciences, physics, mathematics, engineering. One in five of the soldiers fighting in these small wars we had since the early 90s were suddenly Olegs and Vyacheslavs and Igors.

I think Putin has a great sentiment for them. And for Israel Putin is definitely the best person who ever sat in the Kremlin.

RM: Why?

EB: First of all, he has this sentiment—because of the Russians in Israel, because of his personal experience with Jewish friends. And I think he respects Israel for its achievements. He likes inner strength, self-reliance, realists. And, as I’ve said, he’s extremely practical—trying to identify the real problem and what’s optimal for everybody. It’s never perfect, but in my experience Russia has tried to minimize causes of friction. I visited Putin several times—and I’m not the only one—to draw his attention to certain risks to the security of Israel as a result of potential steps that Russia might take. And I found him to be sensitive and thoughtful. He may not respond outright, but his later actions show that he uses his common sense.

RM: Russia has recently offered to hold Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Moscow. What do you think of its prospects as a peacemaker? Is there reason to hope Russia will be more successful at it than the U.S.?

EB: There is always reason to hope. Hope is better than despair. But I don’t see any immediate breakthroughs in the conversation between us and the Palestinians, be it negotiated by the Americans or the Russians. Progress will not come in one big leap—because the whole story is not a love story. It’s about a painful divorce.

 

Even if we had peace with the Palestinians ... the Muslim brotherhood would still have taken over Egypt, the Arab Spring would still have erupted and then turned into Islamist winter...

For the time being, it’s more important to look at two other aspects. First of all, what can Israel do on its own—not fully unilaterally but backed by the Americans, the Quartet, including Russia—to take the first steps to secure itself? Let’s call this “security first.” Israel remains open in the longer term to a breakthrough with the Palestinians, but in the meantime must keep protecting its security interests and must avoid the slippery slope toward a one-state solution, which would be really dangerous for Israel.

The second element we should focus on is an international conference on regional security. There is a strong underlying common interest for Israel and the moderate Sunnite regimes—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey—to focus on suppressing radical Islamic terror and fanaticism and putting at bay the hegemonic and nuclear intentions of Iran. This can be a basis for a wide range of agreements about security, cooperation, urgently needed regional infrastructure projects and normalizing the relationship between Israel and the region. Of course, that needs the support of the Quartet, and it’s urgent, but it’s been on the table for a year and a half and hasn’t gone anywhere.

One reason is that Arab leaders cannot push for these common interests as long as Israel is not showing explicit readiness to move forward with the Palestinians. This is not necessarily because they harbor any great love for the Palestinian leadership, but because they do not want to face the pressure from their own public in the streets who perceive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the source of the Middle East’s problems.

Of course, that’s not true. Even if we had peace with the Palestinians—the same peace we have had with Egypt or Jordan for a generation now—the Muslim brotherhood would still have taken over Egypt, the Arab Spring would still have erupted and then turned into Islamist winter, Iraq might also still be on the verge of disintegration, or Syria mired in terrible civil war. I think the events of the last few years prove to anyone who had any doubts about it that Israel is not—I repeat, is not—the root cause of all the problems in the Middle East.