Netanyahu‘s high-stakes game of chess with Putin in Moscow

MOSCOW – The Kremlin, for a variety of reasons, brings chess to mind.

Perhaps it’s because the Kremlin is a clear symbol of Russia, a country that has given the world one chess grandmaster after the next.

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Maybe it’s because parts of the Kremlin’s outer wall look like the rooks on a chessboard.

Or maybe it’s because of the chessboard-like pattern on the stunning wooden floor in the stately hall where Russian President Vladimir Putin greets his foreign guests.

Whatever the reason, it’s chess – not dominoes, checkers or backgammon – that shouts out at you from the Kremlin.

Chess, where all the moves are interconnected; where a skilled player is thinking many steps down the road; where one seemingly innocuous move on one side of the board can have a huge impact a few moves later on a critical piece somewhere else.

And it is chess that Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were engaged in Wednesday evening, when they met in that high-ceilinged, green-glass-chandeliered, oval room in the Kremlin with that chessboard-looking wooden floor.

The first thing that can be said about that meeting is that Netanyahu did not fly all the way to Moscow for a 90-minute meeting with Putin just to tell the Russian leader that Israel is resolutely opposed to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, or that Jerusalem is adamant that the 1974 Separation Agreement between its troops and Syrian forces on the Golan Heights is honored in its entirety.

Netanyahu could have repeated those talking points to Putin on the phone. Or, as he told Putin himself during a brief photo opportunity before their meeting, “it is clear that our focus is Syria and Iran. Our opinion that Iran has to leave Syria is known; this is nothing new to you.”

And to reiterate that position, or to hear that position reiterated, is neither the reason Netanyahu went to Moscow again this week, nor why Putin invited him. Netanyahu and Putin meet so often because they need to manage a situation whereby the two countries’ cardinal interests in Syria do not clash.

As a senior member of Netanyahu’s delegation put it after Wednesday’s meeting, “Russia’s central goal, and one in which they are heavily invested, is that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad will continue to rule, if not over all of Syria then over most of Syria.

That is what interests the Russians. And who can bring down the Assad regime? Jordan? Who can easily confront the Syrian Army, and Assad’s regime with ease? Israel.

Israel, the official noted, has been careful not to get involved in Syria, except on the edges through humanitarian aid. But when Iran goes into Syria, Israel gets involved, and if Israel gets involved, then the whole equation changes.

“The Russians have a great interest in seeing the Assad regime stable, and we have an interest in removing the Iranians from Syria,” the official said. “Those interests can either clash or support one another.” The Netanyahu-Putin meetings, writ large, are efforts to ensure that those two interests do not clash.

BUT THAT is only part of the game, said Zvi Magen, a fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, who has served formerly as ambassador to Russia, to Ukraine, and as head of the Nativ liaison organization inside the Prime Minister’s Office dealing with the former Soviet Union.

To listen to Magen speak is to hear someone who thinks Putin is playing chess not just with Netanyahu but with the whole world. What is visible at one time, in his telling, is just a small part of what is happening on the bigger board.

The real motivation behind Wednesday’s meeting for Putin, Magen assessed, is p. Netanyahu himself told reporters that he discussed with Putin the overall situation in Syria in advance of that meeting.

According to Magen, when it comes to Syria, it is clear what the West expects with regard to what Russia can give: the removal of the Iranians from Syria. What is less clear – albeit something around which there is a great deal of speculation – is what Russia expects in return.

And that, Magen said, is what is worrying the Europeans: that Putin’s price for the removal of the Iranians from Syria is the lifting of economic and diplomatic sanctions that the West clamped on Russia following its invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Magen has a theory about Putin’s involvement in Syria that truly makes Putin sound like a chess master. For Magen, Putin’s military engagement in Syria in 2015 is intimately connected to the Russian adventure in Crimea in 2014 and its aftermath.

“The Russians went into Syria in the middle of a war in Europe, after they were sanctioned by the West,” he said. He added that those sanctions, though dismissed as inconsequential by Russia, hit the country hard.

“In the middle of this, they found a way to use counter leverage by going into Syria,” Magen said.

“For three years they have been trying to translate their successes in Syria into something that will lead to diplomatic discussions with the West, but no one would speak to them – there were only more sanctions and more opposition to them in the US and Europe.

“All the Russians wanted was a chance to speak and negotiate with the West, get a package, in exchange for Syria. They want an agreement in Europe. That is the game, Syria for Ukraine,” he said.

On the same day that Magen spoke to the Post, The New Yorker published an article saying that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel have all in the past approached the US with this idea – removal of sanctions on Russia in exchange for Moscow’s help in getting the Iranians out of Syria.

And after many years of Russia trying to open a diplomatic dialogue with the US and the West, Trump has finally agreed to speak to Putin.

The important thing for Putin now, Magen said, is that the Iranians don’t complicate matters for him. It should have come as no surprise, therefore, that along with Netanyahu in Moscow this week for talks with Putin was none other than Ali Akbar Velayati, a top aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

And this is where, in Magen’s telling, matters get especially dicey.

“The Iranians are part of the price” Putin is willing to pay to lift the Crimea sanctions, he said, adding as a cautionary note that Israel should not think that the Russian leader would not “sell us for a good price” somewhere down the line as well. But right now, he said, he is “selling the Iranians.”

But the Iranians are ” as he put it, and can cause problems for Russia as well in Syria.

Which is where Israel comes into the picture.

It is no coincidence that a few hours after Netanyahu met Putin in Moscow in May, Israel embarked on a massive attack on Iranian positions inside Syria. Nor is it a coincidence, according to Magen, that just a couple days before Wednesday’s meeting, there was an attack at the T4 air base near Homs that was attributed to Israel.

This shows an Israeli freedom of action over Syria, a freedom of action that would not be possible without Russia’s acquiescence, and an acquiescence Moscow has an interest in Tehran seeing.

The first thing that Netanyahu told reporters after meeting with Putin was that one of the outcomes was that this freedom of action remains intact.

This, according to Magen’s thinking, is not only a clear Israeli interest but also a Russian one. The Russians have made clear that they would like to see Iran exit Syria, but Iran – for its own interests – has not been overly forthcoming.

Moscow has a problem with the Iranians not willing to accept the Russian requests, and Israel is helping to convince them by demonstrating its freedom of action.

Russia asks, and Israel enforces. In other words, as Magen unceremoniously put it, Israel serves here as a stick for the Russians to convince Iran to do its bidding.

What is not clear, however, is what the carrot will be. And this, too, could very well come up at the Putin-Trump Helsinki summit.

ANOTHER ANALYST of Russia, the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies’ Micky Aharonson, who served from 2006 to 2014 as the head of the foreign relations directorate in the National Security Council, said that while Russia can’t force the Iranians out of Syria, it can pressure them to leave, but will then have to pay something in return.

And here, Tehran might ask in return for concessions on the Iranian nuclear issue. For instance, if the US gets sanctions lifted on Russia in return for Russia getting Iran to leave Syria, then maybe the Russians – in Iran’s thinking – can get the US to soften up its new sanctions clamped down after Washington walked away from the nuclear deal. Perhaps, in fact, that is something that Putin tried to get Netanyahu to agree to.

The bottom line, Aharonson said, is that “the Russians have realpolitik views. They have their interests, and are trying to leverage everything on behalf of those interests.

“Everything is connected to everything else,” she continued, Syria is connected to the Ukraine, which is connected to the nuclear issue. “Anyone who looks on one front, separate from the others, is not seeing the whole picture.”

Just like in chess.