The War in Ukraine Is Not Necessarily Playing Into Iran’s Hands

The harsh sanctions on Russia could actually strengthen its desire to push Iran out of Syria. And even if the signing of the nuclear agreement has to be postponed – Iran still wants it

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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A view of the square outside the damaged local city hall of Kharkiv, today.
A view of the square outside the damaged local city hall of Kharkiv, today.Credit: SERGEY BOBOK - AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Even without understanding what is going through the head of Russian President Vladimir Putin and what the goals of his war in Ukraine are – at the end of the first six days of fighting it is possible to say quite clearly that his army is faltering.

Western intelligence assessments that the Russians would capture Kyiv within 48 hours of a "blitzkrieg" war turned out to be wrong. The Ukrainians are adopting smart tactics, using anti-tank missiles, Turkish made drones (based on knowledge from Israel Aerospace Industries) and conducting information warfare on social media, including pictures of Russian prisoners of war and appeals to the mothers of Russia’s soldiers.

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At the same time, we mustn’t underestimate the Russian “war machine,” even if this Western description was found to be exaggerated. On the evening of the sixth day of the fighting, Tuesday, the Russian army is at a distance of only of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from the center of Kyiv, and it looks as if it intends on putting the city under siege.

A Russian Armoured personnel carrier burning next to unidentified soldier's body during fight with the Ukrainian armed forces in Kharkiv, on Sunday.Credit: SERGEY BOBOK - AFP

It is doubtful whether even the harsh sanctions (which are already shaking the Russian economy), the international condemnations and boycotts of sporting and cultural events will deter Putin. As the Russians recover from their shock in the initial stage of the Ukrainian resistance, it is expected now that the Russians will increase the pressure through bombardments, similar to those in Kharkiv on Monday.

The war in Ukraine has and will continue to have repercussions on the campaign Israel is conducting against Iran in Syria, on the nuclear deal negotiated with the Islamic Republic and on Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony. Nonetheless, in contrast with the fear of Putin that grips the defense and political establishment in Israel, and worries of his long arm – his strategic moves, as well as his hints of a threat to use nuclear weapons, actually expose his weakness.

Putin’s decision to place his “deterrent forces,” the code name for his nuclear capabilities, on “high alert” for the first time since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, was meant to deter NATO from continuing to arm the Ukrainian military.

Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun paint a mural in the rebel-held town of Binnish in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. last week.Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP

To a certain extent, it testifies to panic and an apocalyptic, messianic mood. The fact is the United States is not getting too anxious over it, either. The Biden administration continues to demonstrate restraint and calm and has not responded with similar statements or decisions of its own. When President Joe Biden was asked on Monday whether he was worried about a nuclear war, he answered with a single word: “No.”

Putin is not all-powerful, but also not a paper tiger. He is an ideologue who has been repeating his doctrine for years: Russian nationalism and a return to the glory days of the Tsarist empire and the Soviet Union as a superpower. For him, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was "a historical tragedy."

The conquest of all of Ukraine, or parts of it, or the establishment of a puppet government in Kyiv, will only increase his appetite. For example, Moldova, which is also not a NATO member, can be rather easy prey. This is only one of the reasons that the Israeli attempt to juggle between the Moscow–Washington–Kyiv triangle is a mistake.

There are already signs that the U.S. is not pleased with Israel’s double game, which was seen in part in its stuttering response to the question of condemning Russia in the United Nations General Assembly this week. The U.S. Treasury Department and the White House have already warned Israel against allowing Russian companies and oligarchs to launder and smuggle their funds into banks in Tel Aviv.

Without a doubt, if Israel takes the next step and imposes sanctions on financial transfers and flights from Russia, Putin can take his revenge through the halting of security coordination in Syria, which would make it much harder for Israel’s air force to operate there freely. In addition, Putin cold also allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to use his S-300 antiaircraft batteries, which were sold to the Syrian army – and even worse, the advanced S-400 batteries deployed in the

However, it should be remembered that Russia has turned a blind eye to Israeli operations in Syria for the past few years, and has sometimes even encouraged them. Putin is not doing this for sentimental reasons or out of a great love for Israel, but because of Russia’s desire to constrain Iran’s actions in Syria and to take control over the large contracts for rebuilding Syria. This economic motive is only expected to grow as a result of the Western sanctions on Russia.

Another assessment that has been heard in Israel in recent days is that the war in Ukraine is playing into Iran’s hands, because it reduces the chances of signing a new nuclear agreement. In my opinion, the picture is exactly the opposite: The war came at a bad time for Iran, and for now, it is one of the biggest losers from it.

The Iranians very much want to return to the 2015 agreement and to be freed from sanctions. If it weren’t for the Russian invasion, it is possible that it would have been signed already. In addition, as in other places around the world, the Iranians too are drawing conclusions from the uniting of the ranks demonstrated by NATO and the European Union, and from their determination to make Russia a pariah state. Iran has many reasons to worry about the strength the West is demonstrating at the moment.

With or without an agreement, Israel needs to think about the day after so its situation doesn’t change regardless of whether such a deal is reached. Israel must start from the assumption that the Iranians are in control of the enrichment of uranium and the quantities of its the nuclear materials, and focus on disrupting the next two stages of the nuclear program. The first is weaponization: the engineering work that will enable Iran to place the fissionable material into a bomb and build a detonating mechanism. The second stage is miniaturizing the bomb and mounting it as a warhead on a missile.

These efforts will require violent operations under the Mossad’s responsibility. In the discreet and secret meetings of diplomacy, Israel must send a clear message to Washington: “Give us the tools and we promise you we won’t cause you trouble and drag you into a war. If there is something that you, the Americans, need to learn from the war in Ukraine is to stop and arm before the battles begin – not during or after.”

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