Opinion |

What Israel Can Do for Ukraine – and What It Can't

Israel faces growing pressure to take a more explicitly pro-Ukrainian position, but it fears angering Russia. On Iron Dome, mediation, field hospitals and cold hard reality, this is what Israel can actually offer Ukraine

Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich
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Children Vlada, Katrin and Danilo look out from the unheated carriage of an emergency evacuation train which is travelling from Kharkiv to Lviv, further away from the Russian bombardment of Ukraine
Children Vlada, Katrin and Danilo look out from the unheated carriage of an emergency evacuation train which is travelling from Kharkiv to Lviv, further away from the Russian bombardment of UkraineCredit: AP Photo/Andriy Dubchak
Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich

To paraphrase FDR’s immortal words, February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, will live in infamy. Once again, a ruthless dictator of seething resentments and unbridled ambition, has challenged the world order. Now as then, it will not end with Ukraine. Now, as then, states near and far, are called upon to take a stand.

The international community has rapidly banded together to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia. Even Switzerland has joined. The U.S. dispatched 15,000 additional troops to Europe and committed to another 12,000, as necessary. NATO states are rushing military assistance to Ukraine, largely anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. Sweden, a non-NATO state, is also doing so.

Israel, perhaps more than any other people, relies on a moral claim for international support and is expected to take a stand. More importantly, we should expect this of ourselves.

When the fighting takes place in the Ukrainian expanses that were the scenes both of Hitler’s extermination plans and Stalin’s programs to starve millions, when a building next to the Babi Yar Memorial site is struck by missiles, it must be clear to all that Israel is on "the right side of history."

Protestors against Russia's invasion of Ukraine outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, this weekend. Israel faces growing pressure take a more explicitly pro-Ukrainian positionCredit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Were life so simple. Responsible leaders also have to take cold strategic considerations into account.

The U.S. has demonstrated impressive leadership in the Ukrainian crisis, but set clear limits from the outset. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and will not be treated as such. No troops to be sent to Ukraine and most of those rushed to Europe deployed to states that do not border either it or Russia. Significant, but not overwhelming supply of arms to Ukraine. No cyber attacks against Russia, a nonviolent form of conflict, out of fear of retaliation.

The U.S., understandably, does not wish to risk World War III with a Russian leader who has already invoked the nuclear spectre. When playing with a bear, grizzly by disposition if not genus, even the greatest military colossus in history balances moral imperatives with strategic constraints.

The aid provided by some 20 other members of NATO, celebrating their newly found unity and cojones, does add up in total, but it is hardly massive.

Britain has sent 2,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and 1,200 soldiers to Estonia and Poland, with some tanks. Germany will provide Ukraine with 1,000 anti-tank and 500 anti-aircraft. France will provide defensive weapons and has sent troops to Romania. Poland is providing antiaircraft systems, reconnaissance drones and artillery shells. Canada sent 1,200 troops to Latvia.

To avoid overly antagonizing Russia, all of this and more is being marketed as the initiative of each individual member, not collective action.

Economic sanctions are one of the lower common denominators of international action. They have also rarely ever proved effective, assuming that the objective was to affect a change in the adversary’s policy, rather than simply punish it for misbehaving. North Korea and Cuba have been under sanctions ever since the 1950s and – hold your breath – are not about to change their policies any moment now. Under the threat of severe sanctions Iran agreed to partial and temporary compromises on its nuclear program, but no more.

Taken together the international response so far, just one week after the invasion, is impressive, but it is probably too little, too late, after the West essentially abandoned Ukraine to its fate. The formal justification is there, of course: Ukraine is not a member of NATO. The Sudetenland and Alsace-Lorraine were also not covered by a formal treaty.

Israel has taken a cautious approach, publicly condemning the Russian invasion and joining the General Assembly condemnation, but not the binding Security Council resolution: humanitarian assistance, but not military. Its public caution and repeated offers to mediate take on a new perspective with the announcement of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s flash visit to Moscow and from there to Berlin.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev / SPUTNIK / AFP, Yoav Dudkevich, Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

Playing the role of intermediary in a global crisis is certainly a tribute to Israel’s standing and a salve to its national ego, for those who need it. It is also risky and not just because it may be blamed by both sides and derided by others for vainly seeking to play in the major leagues, above its station.

Ukraine, understandably, wants an unequivocal expression of Israeli support.

To this end, Ukraine has mounted an effective campaign to emphasize Jewish aspects of the conflict, repeatedly invoking the Holocaust and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s background, damning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grotesque "de-nazification" excuse for the war. It has also used fluent Hebrew speakers to appear on Israeli TV – Ukrainian Jews who had immigrated to Israel and now returned for the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zalenskyy calls on "millions of Jews" around the world to speak up after the bombing near Babyn Yar: Russia has ordered the erasure of Ukraine's history and its peopleCredit: Screenshot/YouTube

In monstrous defiance of all historical fact, Ukraine’s ambassador in Israel even tried to appeal to its conscience by citing the great efforts his people had ostensibly made to save Jews during the Holocaust. Zelenskyy publicly chastised Israel for not being sufficiently supportive.

Putin, who could have accepted the good offices of any of the major powers, clearly accepted Naftali Bennett as an intermediary for his own nefarious reasons. An intermediary whose power is so much more limited than Russia’s and heavily dependent on it for its own strategic needs, risks becoming not a global negotiating star, but a lapdog.

Israel has five primary strategic interests at stake.

First, Russia is a critical player regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Russia has supplied Iran with nuclear reactors in the past and can do so again, with fewer restrictions. A resentful Russia can also play a disruptive role in the nuclear negotiations, where it has thus far sought to moderate Iranian demands in order to reach agreement, but has now drawn a link between them and the situation in Ukraine.

Second, Israel faces a dire threat from Hezbollah’s mammoth rocket arsenal and Iran’s growing presence military in Syria and must, therefore, retain the freedom to continue conducting aerial operations against them. Russia has deployed the most advanced anti-aircraft system in the world in Syria, the S-400, which can significantly constrain Israel’s freedom to fly there and beyond, at any time it so wishes. The very fact that Russia has indicated in the last few days that Israel will continue to enjoy the freedom to operate in Syria merely serves to emphasize its ability to change the situation at will.

Photos on porcelain decorated with the images of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad are displayed in a souvenir shop in Damascus, SyriaCredit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Third, Russia is overtaking the U.S. as the leading foreign power in the Middle East and may get a further boost from the current crisis. Russia has air and naval bases in Syria from which it projects power throughout the region, it has used the sales of weapons and nuclear reactors to drive a wedge between Turkey and the U.S. and it is trying to do the same with Egypt. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab states, have already adopted a hedging approach in the face of American retrenchment in the region and may now seek closer ties with Moscow.

Fourth, both Russia and Ukraine have relatively large Jewish populations. Their safety, welfare and ties with Israel, including the ability to make aliyah (immigrate), are all critical concerns.

Fifth, and most importantly, is the overriding imperative to ensure the strength and vitality of Israel’s relationship with the United States, a fundamental pillar of its national security. Israel’s positions must be closely coordinated with the U.S., which has demonstrated understanding for its considerations regarding Ukraine so far and apparently supported Bennett’s diplomatic mission, as he claims.

Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid have taken a carefully choreographed and balanced diplomatic approach so far, whose wisdom was further demonstrated by the mediating role Israel has gained. Should this mediating role prove to be more than a fleeting episode, however, Israel will face growing to pressure take a more explicitly pro-Ukrainian position. It risks at least partially angering Russia no matter how it does so and antagonizing the U.S. to the extent that it procrastinates.

Israel's Iron Dome defense system in action last May. Israel denies any approach from Ukraine about purchasing the antimissile batteries.Credit: ANAS BABA / AFP

A balanced and effective Israeli position should not include the supply of weapons to Ukraine, whether offensive or defensive, including the Iron Dome air defense system. Russia would fear losing missiles and aircraft to Iron Dome and thus view it as a direct threat. The system is also specifically tailored to Israel’s specifications and probably unsuited to Ukraine’s needs, at least without significant changes. In any event, Ukraine has denied interest in it.

What Israel can and should do is to provide aid designed to save civilian lives; food and medicines, medical teams and a field hospital, treatment of wounded and injured in Israel, emergency teams from the Home Front Command to help save those buried in the rubble. Even this could be construed as indirect support for Ukraine’s war effort, but is at a level that Russia can accept.

The cold sad truth is that there is almost no way that this ends without a devastating Ukrainian defeat. We in Israel will still have a state to defend long after it is over.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, teaches political science at Columbia and Tel Aviv universities. He is the author of "Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change" (Oxford University Press)" and the forthcoming "Israel and the Cyber Threat: How the Startup Nation Became a Global Cyber Power." Twitter: @chuck_freilich

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