Opinion |

Ukraine War: How Israel Is Helping Putin Crush Anti-war Protests in Russia

The Russians protesting Putin's war in Ukraine, despite intense Kremlin propaganda and repression, are the conscience of the world. Israeli cyberweapons and its shameful, sycophantic policies are betraying them

Eitay Mack
Eitay Mack
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Russian police block demonstrators' path during a protest against Russia's attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia last week. Protestors now face 15 year jail sentences
Russian police block demonstrators' path during a protest against Russia's attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia last week. Protestors now face 15 year jail sentencesCredit: AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky
Eitay Mack
Eitay Mack

Russia's protesters against President Vladimir Putin's irrational, immoral war in Ukraine are the conscience and hope of the world.

In 1991, as the tanks and troops of an attempted putsch advanced towards Moscow, in lieu of reporting the news, Soviet state television broadcast Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" ballet on loop. The failed putsch was the harbinger of the downfall of the Soviet regime.

When, last week, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin closed down the last of Russia’s independent TV stations, capping the strangulation of independent media over recent years by threats, false incrimination and the extortion of journalists, some forced in to exile, the channel signed off with a call of "No war!" – and an image of Swan Lake.

But despite the intensity of the propaganda and the fake news spread by the Kremlin, there are still many in Russia whose conscience, and knowledge of the horrors of past wars, have led them to the conclusion that this war is a disaster.

The State of Israel is exceptional among Western countries in that it has refrained from sharply condemning and imposing sanctions on Putin and the circle around him that are responsible for the war.

Israeli officials' statements have, for the most part omitted the identification of who is actually attacking Ukraine, committing crimes against the Ukrainian people and against the stability of the international order. As if it were a natural disaster or an alien invasion from another planet.

This behavior is not new. For example, the Israeli government acted the same way during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Back then, the Israeli government expressed only weak and opaque condemnations of Serbian atrocities. For a long time, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres resisted all attempts by reporters in Israel and abroad to extract a word of explicit denunciation from them.

Even after the Bosnian Serbs bombed a Sarajevo market in February 1994, a massacre that shocked the world and in which dozens of civilians were killed and hundreds injured, the Israeli government's announcement included only an abstract condemnation that did not distinguish between the identity of the criminals and their victims.

Ukrainian soldiers help a fleeing family crossing the Irpin river in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine this weekendCredit: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

As today in relation to Russia (and similarly to Turkey, a NATO member), during the Balkan wars Israel didn't join the sanctions on Serbia while it was committing crimes against humanity. In July 1994, during the war, the then chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MK Uri Or, visited Belgrade and declared in solidarity with the Serbs (!): "We have a good memory. We know what it is to live under sanctions and boycotts."

In the case of the current war in Ukraine, this shameful conduct is justified in the Israeli media and by Israeli officials by the fact that Israel must maintain freedom of action in Syria, where Israeli airstrikes bomb terrorist targets from time to time, and where Russia is the de facto potentate.

But the connection between Putin and the State of Israel does not only exist in Syria. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "helped" Putin upgrade his internal repression tactics, while spending time flattering him.

For example, every year on October 7, Netanyahu joined the queue of leaders of former Soviet republics calling Putin to congratulate him on his birthday. Netanyahu was so proud of their association that he put up giant election posters of himself and Putin side-by-side under the slogan "Netanyahu. A different league."

The Israeli government has authorized the Israeli Cellebrite company to sell its mobile phone hacking device to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (Sledstvenny Komitet), which serves President Putin as a key tool of internal repression and political persecution in the country. The device, known as a Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED), that allows all information to be extracted for a mobile phone and to recover information that was erased.

Russian police in St. Petersburg detain a demonstrator during a protest against Russia's attack on Ukraine. People are taking to the streets despite mass arrestsCredit: AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky

According to an official publication on the website of the Investigative Committee, on July 21, 2020, its head, Alexander Bastrykin, had a video call with the heads of his district and regional units, summarizing activities in 2019. It was stated at the meeting that during that year the main and most popular forensic tool was the UFED system, which was used more than 26,000 times to hack into mobile phones.

The Cellebrite system was used in late 2020 to hack into the cell phones of Lyubov Sobol and other activists in the Anti-Corruption Organization headed by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, later poisoned and imprisoned by Putin. This civil society organization was then outlawed and Sobol was forced to go into exile. Navalny is still in jail.

After 80 Israeli human rights activists petitioned against both the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Cellebrite to revoke Cellebrite's export license to Russia, the company announced in March last year that it would stop providing services in Russia but refused to commit to disabling all its equipment already handed over to the Investigative Committee.

A sign reading "No War" which hung over Nevsky Prospect, the central avenue of St. Petersburg, Russia, is taken down Credit: AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky

Therefore, it is not surprising that seven months later, the Chechen Republic’s Investigative Committee published a report showing Cellebrite’s UFED system is one of its most important tools.

Unfortunately, it is likely that some of the anti-war protesters in Russia now courageously braving 15-year jail sentences will, once arrested, have their mobile phones confiscated and hacked using the Cellebrite system.

It is important to know that just as not all Russians support the war in Ukraine or Putin's policies, so not all Israelis support successive governments’ political and personal ties with Putin and Israel's involvement in the repression and incrimination of the Russian opposition.

It is only through solidarity between all supporters of democracy and peace, and by holding both governments and technology companies to account, can we overcome the challenge of dictatorships and fascism.

Eitay Mack is a human rights lawyer and activist based in Jerusalem specializing in Israel’s arms trade

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