Russian president Vladimir Putin made his second visit to Israel last week. His brief trip included high-level talks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which they agreed at least in the abstract that Bashar al-Assad should stop slaughtering civilians in Syria and that the world would be a better place if Iran did not get a nuclear weapon. But the real purpose of Putin’s visit was to attend the unveiling of a memorial to the Soviet soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany in World War II.
The elaborate monument in the Israeli seaside city of Netanya was designed by Russian artists Salavat Scherbakov, Vasiliy Perfiliev, and Michail Naroditsky. It includes a black marble labyrinth, representing the historical trials of the Jewish people from enslavement in Egypt to the Holocaust. After passing through this darkness, visitors emerge onto an open circular plaza where a pair of monumental white wings represents the ultimate liberation of the Jews. The monument is not particularly innovative, and relies heavily on war monuments from the ancient Greek Victory of Samothrace, which was the model for the wings, to the 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., which inspired the labyrinth. But the message of perseverance through adversity is clear, and the complex takes excellent advantage of the beautiful coastal setting.
For all its attractiveness, the memorial at Netanya—which is the first memorial to the Red Army to be constructed since the fall of the Soviet Union—is a curious object. Putin is always amenable toward events that burnish the reputation of the U.S.S.R., as Netanyahu knew well when he proposed the monument two years ago. But given the cruel oppression of the Jews by the Soviets, a history Netanyahu also knows well, it might seem a bizarre project. The fact is, however, that over the last three years Israel and Russia have quietly been forging closer ties, a process that included Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow during which he first mentioned the monument and has culminated in Putin travelling to Israel to see it.
Strange bedfellows they certainly are, and Putin and Netanyahu may not be personally simpatico, but that is hardly the point. They are both pragmatic politicians who have clear and simple bottom lines: in Putin’s case, the return of Russia to superpower status, and in Netanyahu’s, the preservation of the state of Israel. The monument at Netanya symbolizes the intersection of these lines, as Russia sees an opportunity to expand its sphere of influence at the expense of the United States, while Israel, concerned at the steady erosion of American engagement in the Middle East, sees a new, albeit unlikely, source of support.
Last Monday’s ceremony at Netanya provided an interesting contrast to an event at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington last April attended by both the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and the American president Barack Obama. It was a sober occasion at which Obama pledged that, for him, the promise to “never forget” would be more than just words. But for all his insistence that the establishment of an “atrocities prevention board” at the White House will prevent future holocausts and his repeated claims that Israel has no greater friend than Obama, we have seen precious little real action against the chaos in Syria or the pursuit of nuclear weapons in Iran, both of which pose grave dangers to the Jewish state.
Against this backdrop, the monument to Soviet soldiers on Israeli soil begins to make sense. It is a symbolic gesture, perhaps, but this diplomatic dance is full of symbolic gestures that have practical repercussions. For example, Putin cancelled his visit to the United States to attend the G8 in May—a trip that was supposed to mark the reset of the reset of the U.S.-Russia relationship—on the grounds he was too busy. But he found the time to go to Israel on the first official state visit of his second presidency. Meanwhile, Obama, who has been in office for three and a half years, has yet to squeeze a visit to Israel into his travel schedule. Netanyahu, it seems, has drawn his own conclusions.
The most recent unexpected twist in the labyrinthine history of the Jewish people commemorated at Netanya may be an increasing rapprochement with the Russian strongman. Having survived so many attempts at extermination, however, the Jews know that they do not always have the luxury of choosing their friends. Given that Russia has significant leverage with both Syria and Iran, while the United States appears to have none, it may seem only prudent to celebrate an example of Russian-Israeli friendship at this juncture. Certainly Israel would prefer to ally with the successor to Washington, Lincoln and Reagan than with a man who considers Joseph Stalin a hero and the break-up of the Soviet Union a catastrophe. The monument at Netanya does not mean the US.-Israel alliance is irrevocably broken. But it is a tangible reminder that we need to take the responsibilities of that relationship seriously, or risk ceding the rights to another—and decidedly unfriendly—party.
Victoria Coates is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a consulting curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art.