This Op-Ed/Analysis is the author’s personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of if you would like to send us your op-ed to be published – [email protected]

According to Yoni Ariel, as the threat of a world war that will probably start on our doorstep increases, it’s time for Israelis to put their differences aside and form a national unity government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

The Russian statement made on Saturday that relations with the US are at their most tense since the two superpowers nearly came to blows during the Yom Kippur War should not have come as a surprise. This statement came hours after leading Western media organizations (ABC and the British newspapers The Daily Mail and The Express) reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered all non-essential diplomats, diplomats’ families and Russian citizens studying in the US and other NATO countries to return home immediately. In addition, authorities in Moscow have initiated large-scale civil defense exercises.    

It may be tempting to regard this as merely further saber-rattling, designed to spook US President Barack Obama and his administration. America has already formally accused Russia of launching the cyber-assault on the Democratic National Committee. Under international law, such an attack could be regarded as a casus belli. Assuming Putin is posturing and threatening to deter Obama is not an unreasonable assumption.

However, in this case, it would be well not to be overly sanguine in this regard. Putin may be more desperate than is realized. Russia’s economy is in tatters. According to a recent FSB intelligence report that Western intelligence agencies have obtained, Russia will have to base its economic policies on the premise that oil, gas and other commodity prices will remain depressed for the foreseeable future. This augurs ill for Putin and the world. Russia’s economy is based almost entirely on commodity exports. Whatever small industrial base had started to develop following the privatization of the post-Soviet Russian economy has collapsed under the weight of Putin’s kleptocratic dictatorship.

Putin rose to power by getting the population hooked on two drugs. One was national pride. He told them that democracy was behind Russia’s demise and that only by reverting to traditional Russian values of autocracy, patriotic nationalism and conservative Christianity (Russian Orthodox), could Russia restore its greatness, and once again be the power it had been in the days of the USSR.

The other was prosperity. When he succeeded Boris Yeltsin, he inherited an economy in tatters. Democracy may have given the Russian people freedom, but it could neither feed them nor clothe them.  

High commodity prices enabled him to finance rebuilding the military and provide growth and prosperity at the same time. With their egos satiated by national pride, and their pockets relatively full, the Russian people willingly acquiesced in loss of freedom, and the return to an almost Soviet style dictatorship.

With commodity prices remaining low, and the economy battered by sanctions, he will not be able to continue giving the population its prosperity fix for much longer. Over the past two years, the standard of living has dropped, but not to the point where the population will risk protesting against the dictatorship. This could be about to change. His plans were based on the assumption that current commodity prices were unrealistically low and would increase. Now his own intelligence agencies are telling him that this assumption was wrong and that even if they rise somewhat, it will be nowhere sufficient to enable Putin to dodge having to raise taxes, slash subsidies and take other unpopular steps that will cause real economic pain to most of the public.

It seems increasingly likely that he has maneuvered himself between a rock and a hard place. Painful belt-tightening, while he and his buddies continue to maintain a corrupt autocratic kleptocracy in which corruption has become pervasive, could ignite mass protests that could threaten his hold on power.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

War is the one option guaranteed to keep the population loyal despite growing economic hardships. Dictators have always played this card when facing potential threats to their rule, and there is no reason to assume Putin is any different. The opposite, in fact, he is more bellicose than most. Hostility to the West runs deep in the Russian psyche, and as long as it seems victory is attainable, he will get public support for a war.

He may not actually want to start a war. His game may be brinkmanship, designed to intimidate the West into giving him the kind of diplomatic victories he needs to convince the population that the hardships are worth the pride and headiness of victory. At a minimum, we are talking about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad staying in power, and a division of Ukraine with Russia annexing the eastern half of the country. The more likely scenario is that he will seek to occupy the whole of Ukraine, and the Baltic states as well, in effect restoring Russia to its FSU borders.  

Problem is, he could easily end up becoming a captive of his bellicose rhetoric or misread the West and make a move that ends up in a war neither side wants.

This explains his gamble to intervene in the US election. There is growing evidence that Trump is not merely Putin’s useful idiot, but has been in cahoots with him for quite some time, to the point he can justifiably be called “Benedict Donald.”

The US has officially confirmed that Russian intelligence is behind the hacking and disinformation cyber campaign being waged against Hillary Clinton. A few days ago, it transpired that WikiLeaks doctored hacked e-mails before releasing them, making it look as if internal emails between John Podesta and Obama and other White House officials, dating back from the time Podesta was working in the Obama White House, were actually between Podesta and Hillary, and originated in Hillary’s campaign, not the White House. This is clear evidence of a high level of coordination between the Russian cyber-assault and disinformation activities and the Trump campaign.

In addition, there is credible evidence of long-standing business relations between Trump and some of the oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle. It was dodgy opaque Russian investments that saved Trump from post-2008 financial meltdown. This is why he has refused to release his tax returns or any other financial information as it could provide evidence linking him to Putin.

US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

In addition, credible evidence has emerged that Paul Manafort, who has been intimately involved in the Trump campaign from the beginning, was paid by Russia to advise former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president who was toppled by a popular uprising against his corrupt brutal regime.

More evidence as to Russia’s involvement with the Trump campaign can be found by looking at the milestones of Russia’s military involvement in Syria, and comparing them to developments regarding the Trump campaign. Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015. A month later, Russia began taking steps to military intervene in Syrian civil war. By the end of the year, with polls showing Trump likely to win the Republican primaries, Putin significantly increased Russian military forces in Syria. Once Trump had become the presumptive nominee, Putin upped the ante again. All this could be mere coincidence, but considering the overall picture, and the plethora of evidence linking Trump to Russia, it is highly improbable.      

The unavoidable conclusion is that Putin’s moves have been coordinated with Trump for quite some time and that they have reached and understanding that if he were to win the election, America will not move against Russia either in Syria or Eastern Europe. 

With a Trump victory looking less and less likely, Putin has convinced him to embark on a scorched earth campaign. The object being to create a level of polarization that will hopefully subvert and paralyze the American political system for months, preventing any American response to Russian aggression in East Europe, not just in Ukraine, but in the Baltic states (NATO members) as well. With the US out of the equation, Putin reckons France, Germany and the UK will not come to the defense of their junior NATO partners, enabling him to reoccupy the Baltic States, fulfilling his promise to restore Russia to its rightful borders, and probably dismembering NATO as well.   

Assuming Hillary wins, the most likely scenario is that Putin will make his move between the tenth of November, and the twentieth of January, most likely around Christmas. Christmas in Russia, which follows the Julian calendar, is on the seventh of January. If Putin hopes to catch the West unprepared, the best time to do it would be around the 10th – 20th of December. This is a period when the Western alert is low because of the proximity to Christmas yet far enough from the Russian Christmas to avoid spoiling its holiday season. If he is right and has succeeded in subverting and bullying the Obama administration into inaction, he could declare victory by the Russian Christmas, with his troops in Tallinn, Riga and Vilna.         

Alternately, he could decide to make his move shortly after Hillary Clinton enters the White House. Either way, all it needs is one miscalculation. A single misreading of either how Obama will react to overt aggression during the period between the election and his successor’s inauguration or the level of steel in Hillary Clinton’s backbone is what will cause Putin’s brinkmanship to go over the brink, and the world, in an eerie replay of 1914, will find itself engulfed in a war.  

While there is room for doubt as to whether Putin’s initial moves would include Eastern Europe, regarding Syria there can be none. If through design or by miscalculation, war does break out, Syria will be its first schwerpunkt.

This is because Putin must ensure his southern flank is secure before embarking on an offensive in Europe, the ultimately main theater. Cementing a victory in Syria means ensuring his current alliances of convenience with Turkey and Iran do not fall apart. This is a very unnatural axis since all three countries have been traditional enemies for over 50 years.    

While Israel has reached tactical understandings with Russia regarding Syria, it is ultimately part of the Western world and will remain so. Putin knows this. Moreover, the only prize he can offer Turkey and Iran is Israel. Both Iran and Turkey want Russian military pressure on Israel. The former in order to deter Israel from preventing it from building up its presence in Syria and the latter so it can threaten Israel’s offshore gas fields. 

The Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance is of strategic importance to Putin, the understandings with Israel are not. Israel, therefore, has to operate on the assumption it will become involved. Not to do so would be irresponsible folly of the first magnitude.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo Credit: Alex Kolomoisky/Flash 90

This means that until the international crisis is resolved on way or another, we must immediately put our differences aside and form a national unity government.

The prime objective of such a government must be to ensure that we do not find ourselves facing the Russian-Iranian-Turkish axis alone. Despite the fact that we are the most powerful nation in the region, we cannot take the risk of having to face such a situation by ourselves. 

This means forming a national unity government with one overriding objective, pursuing policies that will ensure we are an integral part of the NATO based Western alliance and will not have to face two regional powers and a would be global power by ourselves. Everything must be secondary to this.  

Everything means everything including the settlements. If the price to ensure we are an integral part of the Western alliance means imposing a total freeze on all settlement activity, so be it. Once the crisis is over, we can always resume settlement construction if there is a majority in the country that wants to.

If however, as a result of us continuing to pursue current policies, we find ourselves facing the Russian-Iranian-Turkish alliance alone, that option may not exist. Given the current attitudes towards Israel, the level of enthusiasm in the West to come to Israel’s aid would be lukewarm at best. Even if we are able to contain the axis (defeating it by ourselves is highly unlikely), it will take a huge toll on our resources. The best result we could hope for under such circumstances would be to achieve a bloody stalemate, leaving us seriously weakened and susceptible to international pressure. This would be among the most pyrrhic of victories.  

We need to ensure we will have Western support from the outset. We cannot take the risk of finding ourselves in a situation similar to Britain’s in World War II, where it had to come to the American’s cap in hand.

The only way to ensure this is to end our growing diplomatic and public opinion isolation. This means changing policies. We need those who will be our allies to feel we are giving them a smile and an open hand, not self-righteous indignation and the finger.

Since it is clear the current government is incapable of changing course accordingly, it needs to be expeditiously replaced with a national unity government. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unable to do this, he too must go. We may be facing the greatest crisis since the 1973 War and must ensure that we are not only right but smart as well.