The motivation for a full-blown Russian invasion of Ukraine is usually framed in terms of polar opposites: While Kyiv is looking West and wishes to join the EU and NATO, Russia seeks to assert its influence over its neighbour and prevent Kyiv from institutionalizing its European identity and from joining the U.S.-led alliance.
But there is an unlikely point of congruence between the two sides. Despite their antagonisms, both Russia and Ukraine find value in a similar model: Israel, as the paradigmatic example of a modern Sparta. It is seen as a state that stands alone against all, dedicates itself to its defense and relies on the force of arms to survive. However, this model has major drawbacks, and Israel should be wary of exporting it.
In many ways, Ukraine sees itself as being in Israel’s shoes at the start of the 1948 War of Independence, and seeks to mimic Jerusalem’s success. As a young nation, Kyiv must protect its territorial sovereignty while surrounded by hostile Russian troops on all sides: Belarus from the north, Kursk from the north east, Donbas from the south east, occupied Crimea and the Black Sea on its southern flank and Transdnistria from the south west.
Ukrainian newspapers are full of praise for Israel’s military might, including its drones, tanks, bombs and secret operations. Its President Volodymyr Zelensky has declared that Ukraine intends to develop its "sphere of defense and security following the example of lsrael."
While there is some tangible value in this model for a new and threatened state like Ukraine, the belief that militarization is key to all success is an illusion. It serves as a convenient way for Kyiv to blind itself to domestic issues unrelated to Russia, such as state capture, the rise of neo-Nazi militias and the lack of separation of powers.
Russia also sees inspiration in a similar image of Israel. Over the years, President Vladimir Putin has painted an image of his country as a "besieged fortress," under constant pressure from Western states that seek to alter the very essence of the Russian state.
Following the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, political scientist and former MP, Sergey Markov, argued that: "Russia has the right to defend itself against ‘Anti-Russia’" – in Putin’s view, a Western-backed project to turn Ukraine into a springboard against Russia by making it part of NATO – "with all the steadfastness, determination, and toughness that Israel demonstrates to us as an example."
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Russia uses the Israeli model as part of its over-militarization. This is useful for the Kremlin in boosting its legitimacy and justifying domestic repression.
While Israel might find comfort if not prestige in being viewed as an example to both sides of the conflict, this model is outdated, not least for Israel. This Spartan approach was essential for Israel to survive in 1948 when Israel was a young country with neighbors seeking its immediate destruction, few resources and allies. But today, Israel has allies and other assets beyond its military.
It has one of the top 20 economies in the world based on GDP per capita and a booming tech sector.
Notably, despite the mythmaking, it is also far from self-reliant: the IDF heavily relies on American military aid estimated at $3.8 billion in 2020. And while it still has very real enemies that threaten its security on a daily basis, its list of Arab allies is expanding: The historic 2020 Abraham Accords opened up peace with the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain, which up until then had no formal relations with Israel. The country today is more prosperous and less isolated than ever before.
And yet, Israel continues to insist primarily on depicting itself to the world as an isolated Spartan nation. Indeed, it has sometimes paradoxically used this ‘lone ranger’ portrayal to strengthen bilateral ties.
When Ariel Sharon deepened Israel’s relations with Russia, in the context of Moscow’s second war in Chechnya and the shared narrative of both countries’ unyielding fight against Islamic terrorism, it was largely the result of the then Israeli prime minister’s promotion of Israel as a military power house fighting against domestic and foreign threats.
This self-depiction strategy, between strength and victimization, continues today. It extends to the rejection of all international criticism as potentially subverting Israel’s struggle for survival, even when those critiques are warranted.
When one of the leading think-tanks in Kyiv held a 2018 conference entitled "Israel’s Experience of Nation-Building: Lessons for Ukraine," speaker Ron Prosor, former Israeli UN representative, emphasized that Israel is constantly "attacked on all levels" by the international community, thus drawing a continuous line between 1948 and today.
Israel certainly faces real threats. And there is some truth to the fact that Israel is often singled out. But constantly pushing this depiction of itself as warrior and victim is disingenuous and blinds Israel to some legitimate criticisms.
Domestically, this Spartan model, if not Spartan complex, has worrying implications as well. With the trauma of the Holocaust firmly embedded in Israeli children from a young age primarily through the national education system, and with mandatory military conscription, Israelis end up spending a significant part of their lives under arms and feeling under threat.
This leads to the increasing militarization of society, which seeps into all spheres of life, including politics, to which the military serves as a direct pipeline.
Such over-militarization can at times bite back, as most recently exemplified in the Pegasus cyber surveillance scandal. A state overly focused on developing tools to gain the upper hand over its enemies might become oblivious to their potential implications when used in its own society.
Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, warned against the risks of militarization early on: "I am full of fear and dread over the militarization of the youth in our country. I already see it in the souls of the children. I didn’t dream of such a people and I want none of it," he told a cabinet meeting in 1949. Indeed, this unflinching emphasis on security comes with a heavy price.
Every polis in the ancient Greek world wanted effective warriors, but no one other than Sparta was willing to pay so high a price. The Israeli Spartan model is a double-edged sword, and countries – not least Russia and Ukraine – should think twice before adopting it so wholeheartedly.
Anat Peled is a Rhodes Scholar pursuing a Masters degree in history at the University of Oxford on Labor Zionism. She is also a research fellow at Molad – The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy. Twitter: @AnatPeled1
Milàn Czerny is pursuing a Masters degree in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Oxford on Russia in the Middle East. Twitter: @milanczerny