Thinking About Red Square ….and how things have changed

by Stephen Bryen

Russia, Israel and the United States

In October, 1973 I stood in Red Square for the first time.  The Yom Kippur war was raging, and Washington had just declared “Assume DEFCON 3.”

DEFCON refer to “Defense Condition,” and DEFCON 3 means “Increase in force readiness above normal readiness.”  The US was worried Russia was about to intervene and send forces into Egypt to confront Israel.  There was no doubt Russian army and air force units were getting ready.  Unlike US military, Russia always operates its forces on a fully integrated basis, meaning that if they came to Egypt’s aid, they would be nuclear ready.

Israel, too was nuclear ready, and while the tide of war was changing in their favor, Russian forces airlifted into Egypt would have triggered a much bigger war.  Israel got its specially equipped F-4 Phantom jets armed with nukes prepared “just in case,” and its Jericho intermediate range ballistic missiles, also nuclear ready, were on high alert.

Standing in the cold October weather in the heart of Red Square, what crossed my mind, more than all the other concerns, was that Red Square had to be Number 1 on the US nuclear target list.  What made it worse is the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe were heavily jammed, and it was difficult (but not entirely impossible) to keep up with developments in the Middle East.  

Earlier the same day I met with Adolph Dubs, the US  charge d’affaires in Moscow.  At that time there was no US ambassador.  Dubs was very candid, but unfortunately he was mostly out of the loop, since everything regarding the USSR and the Middle East was controlled by Henry Kissinger.  And as I stood in Red Square, Kissinger had just arrived in Moscow (leaving Dubs to sit back in the embassy and soak up the radiation bombarding the place, courtesy of the KGB).  It was October 21st (Nixon had dispatched Kissinger on the 20th).

Dubs would later (February 14, 1979) be murdered in Afghanistan where he served as US Ambassador in Kabul.

In the intervening years a lot has happened.

By 1988 when I visited Moscow on behalf of the Defense Department to negotiate a new Space Treaty, I was far more comfortable in Red Square.  The Russian demeanor had, by then, changed dramatically, mainly because the USSR was failing and they knew it.  In a few years it would be gone.

Flash ahead.  In September 2009, thirty six years after the Yom Kippur War, the military band of Israel’s Defense Forces marched into Red Square, playing beloved Israeli and Jewish music.  The band was warmly received.

Flash ahead.  On Sunday night, December 22, 2019, a cold Sunday night, in Red Square a huge party took place to celebrate Hanukkah, featuring Hanukkah songs and dancing, and a huge Menorah, gas fired, that was lit for the first night of the holiday.

2019 Hanukkah Celebration in Red Square

So much has changed.

Russia is not perfect, and there is still antisemitism there.  And sometimes there are strong disagreements between Israel and Russia, most recently involving visas to visit Russia (triggered it seems by Israeli restrictions on Russian visitors to Israel).

But as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the midst of fighting for his political life in Israel, observed: “Putin told me that were it not for our relationship, we could have found ourselves in the midst of a military clash… Only because we meet every few months has this been avoided,” Netanyahu said in an interview on Israeli Army Radio.

What Netanyahu was talking about were the Red Lines Israel has drawn in Syria where Iran and Hezbollah continually threaten Israel.  Rather than jumping into the fire using Israel’s military, Netanyahu sought and got coordination with Moscow so that the Israeli Air Force could act to knock out missiles and drones in the hands of the Iranians and Hezbollah.  Called “deconfliction,” the US followed Israel’s lead and made similar arrangements with the Russian Defense Ministry.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin in 2018.
( [CC BY 4.0 (])

But most of all Putin has made it a major plank of his presidency to restore Jewish life in Russia, just as he has opened up trade and technology exchanged with Israel.

It is a far different time when Jewish dissidents were arrested, sometimes tortured, thrust into Gulags, and when Jews were excluded from good jobs and a future in Russia. 

In those years now mostly gone, Jews were not allowed to emigrate, to Israel or elsewhere, and only exceptional political pressure from abroad and constant agitation inside Russia by Refuseniks got some of them freed. 

Fast forward: Now there are 1,975,000 Russian Jews in Israel with a political party, Yisrael Beiteinu (“Our Home”) representing them.

These policy changes in Russia, and in Israel are of great importance.  No one knows at this moment whether Netanyahu will survive as Prime Minister, but if not, it would be huge wisdom on the part of Israel (a commodity not always available) to make Netanyahu the special envoy to Russia.

The Israel-Russia relationship carries great importance outside of the Middle East, and especially for the United States.  That’s because Israel can be a bridge to finding solutions to the tense relationship between Moscow and Washington.  

We do not need another DEFCON.

I prefer the Hanukkah Party at the entrance to the Kremlin.