In the wake of Israeli airstrikes targeting Iranian military sites in Syria, Russia released what seemed to be conflicting statements; decrying “arbitrary Israeli airstrikes” on one hand while at the same time claiming they were deeply concerned about “ensuring a very strong security of the State of Israel.” With a major military presence in Syria, it is essential to understand Russia’s intentions for the region.
Russia’s role takes on apocalyptic implications when considering verses that identify the pre-Messiah War of Gog and Magog which, according to the prophet Ezekiel, will be a war against Israel fought by a multi-nation coalition led by a nation from the north.
Therefore prophesy, O mortal, and say to Gog: Thus said Hashem: Surely, on that day, when My people Yisrael are living secure, you will take note, and you will come from your home in the farthest north, you and many peoples with you—all of them mounted on horses, a vast horde, a mighty army. Ezekiel 38: 14-15
This was emphasized in a teaching from the 18th century Rabbinic sage known as the Vilna Gaon who singled out Russian aggression as a precursor to the Messiah.
“When you hear that the Russians have captured the city of Crimea, you should know that the times of the Messiah have started, that his steps are being heard,” the Vilna Gaon told his followers just before his death in 1797. “And when you hear that the Russians have reached the city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), you should put on your Shabbat clothes and don’t take them off, because it means that the Messiah is about to come any minute.”
It should be noted that in 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.
Russia was also named as playing a major role in events leading up to the Messiah by the late Rabbi Haim Shvili, a Jewish mystic born in the early 1900s. He made some predictions about the messianic era recorded in his book, Heshbonot Hageula (Reckonings of Redemption), which he wrote in 1935. Although obscure and largely unknown, the predictions in the text were shockingly accurate, stating specific dates and names he described a final terrifying vision of Gog and Magog as a war waged against Israel by a Russian-led coalition. He based this on a verse in Ezekiel.
O mortal, turn your face toward Gog of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. Prophesy against him. Ezekiel 38:2
In this verse, the Hebrew word for ‘chief’ is רֹאשׁ (Rosh), which Rabbi Shvili claims hints at ‘Russia.’
As an astute student of history, Rabbi Ken Spiro, a historian and Senior Lecturer and Researcher for Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, sees Russia’s intentions as more pragmatic than Messianic. Rabbi Spiro prefaced his statement with a quote from Winston Churchill.
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” Churchill is credited with saying.
Rabbi Spiro noted that there was good reason to see Russian President Vladimir Putin as having good intentions when it came to relations with Israel.
“Putin has very good personal relations with Jews from his childhood,” Rabbi Spiro noted. “In addition, Netanyahu has worked very hard to cultivate a positive relationship with Putin. Until recently, the Israeli Defense Minister was Avigdor Liberman, a Russian ex-patriot.”
But Rabbi Spiro added the disclaimer contained in the second half of Churchill’s statement.
“Perhaps there is a key,” Churchill famously said. “That key is Russian national interest.”
Rabbi Spiro cited a rule in politics attributed to many political figures throughout history.
“There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies,” he quoted. “Only permanent interests.”
“During the Cold War, Russia went into a decline and he [Putin] wants to reassert his country as a major player in the world. Rabbi Spiro said. “Russia has always wanted a presence in the region. It took decades during the Cold War for the U.S. to get control of the Middle East. Eight years of Obama’s administration allowed Putin to reassert Russia into the Middle East.”
Spiro applied this rule of Russian practicality to its alliance with Syria and Iran as well.
“The alliance with Iran and Syria is not ideological,” Rabbi Spiro said. “It is practical.”
The rabbi emphasized that Russia was most likely being candid when they claimed to have Israel’s security interests at heart.
“I don’t think Putin sees any reason to antagonize Israel,” he said. “A direct confrontation with Israel would make Putin’s job of reasserting Russia into the region just that much trickier. Russia does have our security interests at heart but only inasmuch as it serves their interests.”
Though Spiro said that Russia’s interests are clear, the complicated situation on Israel’s northern border makes it tricky for them to achieve these interests.
“The entire thing is surreal,” Rabbi Spiro maintained. “Russia put their army in Syria, covering Assad’s forces, while at the same time they are allowing Israel to come in and bomb stuff. It is a very delicate balance. Putin is doing a dance with everyone in the region: Syria, Turkey, Iran, and yes, even Israel.”
Spiro recognized the prophetic aspect of events on Israel’s northern border but understands it in a moderate manner.
“The north is a generic term for any country coming from outside the region,” he argued, “though it is interesting to note that Moscow in due north of Jerusalem. But at the same time, Russia is not Israel’s nemesis. During the Cold War, Russia supported the Arab countries only because Israel was America’s proxy.”
Additionally, Spiro expressed a more general understanding of how Gog and Magog may play out.
“The War of Gog and Magog doesn’t necessarily have to be a military confrontation,” he explained. “I understand the imagery includes chariots and that would imply a physical war but it could also be a war of ideologies. In that case, the multi-national war of Gog and Magog could be fought in the United Nations General Assembly, much like what we are seeing now.”
On the ideological battlefield, Spiro sees Biblical conflicts being expressed in modern terms.
“It is remarkable that the powers of Esav (Esau, i.e. the West and Europe) put aside their differences with Ishmael (i.e. the Arab nations) to unite against Israel,” Rabbi Spiro said. “On one hand, Jewish sources describe a pre-messiah scenario of Gog and Magog as a world alliance against Israel like we see in the UN.”
“On the other hand, we have descriptions of Esav and Yishmael fighting each other,” Rabbi Spiro said. “In fact, these two scenarios aren’t necessarily contradictory. The reality is that they are both currently happening simultaneously. Radical Islam is going after Europe’s weak underbelly,, the post-Christian Esav. They don’t like each other but they put their differences aside to attack us. They feel more threatened by us.”
“That is why we see these strange alliances of a Euro-leftist gay activist walking hand-in-hand on campus with a radical Muslim,” Rabbi Spiro noted.
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, a prolific author and end-of-days expert, emphasized Russia’s claims to caring for Israel’s security should be treated with caution.
“Russia only has their own interests at heart,” he told Breaking Israel News, agreeing with Rabbi Spiro. But he noted a Biblical reference as a guide:
“In the Midrash, Esav is compared to an animal that has one of the signs of being kosher but not the other; like cloven hooves, but not the other, such as chewing its cud,” Winston said. “You might say that this is better than a totally non-kosher animal, that maybe it is half kosher. But the Midrash says this is even worse. The animal can be deceitful, hold out is hooves and try to convince the Jew that they are kosher.”
Rabbi Winston applied this analogy to Russia.
“Russia is trying to create the external appearance that they are our friends, that they have our back and care about our security,” he claimed “The worst tactic of Esav is when they act like our friend. When Esav wanted to accompany Israel he was only waiting until Jacob lowered his guard so he could stab him in the back.”
“But Esav is enticing Israel, trying to make us sin with the negative trappings of technology that lead to improper behavior, or act like they are our allies so we can lower our guard in the Golan. In the end of days, Hashem is more angry at Esav than Ishmael. Ishmael comes at us directly with violence. Esav, on the other hand, is deceitful and lures us in, either to sin or to get us to lower our guard. This is precisely what Russia is doing.”
“The moment that someone uses this Esav tactic, like what Russia is doing here, when they tell you they have your back, that’s when you need to turn around and defend yourself,” Rabbi Winston concluded.