Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q: Why can’t Israel just sit this one out and be completely uninvolved and unaffected?
A: Israel has good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv. Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs live and invest in Israel. But just as Russia and Ukraine are not equal, Israel’s relationships with them are not comparable.
Of course, it is very possible there will be no Russian incursion into Ukraine. Only Russia’s President Putin seems to know. But just in case, let’s look at the ramifications.
Q: The basic issues?
A: For starters, one of the prospective combatants, Russia, is effectively a military neighbor of Israel’s thanks to its forces in Syria. As part of its buildup against Ukraine, Russia is currently concentrating a large naval force in the Eastern Mediterranean--Israel’s neighborhood. NATO is also maneuvering in the Mediterranean, to “reassure Europe”. The West, meaning NATO and especially the United States, is likely to seek Israeli condemnation of Russia for invading Ukraine.
Then too, both Russia and particularly Ukraine still have sizable Jewish communities that could be affected by a war. Further, Israel’s neighbors may take sides: Turkey, which is currently engaged in concerted efforts to improve relations with Israel, appears to favor Ukraine. Syria is clearly in the Russian camp. Presumably Iran will be too.
Q: Let’s break this down. Why would Israel not openly condemn Russia if it invades Ukraine and Washington asks Jerusalem for its vote on, say, a UN resolution?
A: Back in 2014 when Russia took control of Crimea, Israel’s United Nations delegation walked out rather than vote in the General Assembly to condemn this open act of aggression. Israel has cancelled arms deals with Ukraine and Georgia at Moscow’s request.
Israeli officials apparently calculate that Israel has too much at stake in its relationship with Russia. Put differently, Israel has too much to lose by angering Moscow over non-existential issues.
From Israel’s standpoint, it would be far preferable to mediate between Russia and Ukraine than to condemn either party. In the course of the past year, first Prime Minister Netanyahu then his successor, Naftali Bennett, made this offer to President Putin and Prime Minister Zelensky. Reportedly, Putin turned them down.
Q: Last week, Russian and Syrian combat aircraft jointly and pointedly patrolled the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border. More such patrols are anticipated. Could this be connected to the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation?
A: A connection to the Russia-Ukraine confrontation is the most likely explanation of the timing. Note that the advent of these joint patrols has not hindered alleged Israeli attacks against Iran-linked targets in Syria, most recently Sunday night near Damascus. Those attacks are, by mutual agreement, broadly coordinated with the Russian military based in Syria. So if the objective of the joint patrols is not to deter Israel, it is apparently--like the growing Russian naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean--to impress NATO and the US with Russia’s broad regional reach and readiness.
Q: Syria’s loyalty to Russia is obvious; Putin intervened there in 2015 to save Syrian President Assad from almost certain defeat by Islamist insurrectionists and the Russians are now based in Syria. But how do you explain Turkish President Erdogan’s planned solidarity trip to Ukraine at such a critical juncture, on February 3?
A: Despite buying advanced air defense systems from Russia, thereby angering Washington, Erdogan indeed appears to be tilting toward Ukraine. Turkey has sold Ukraine attack drones of the type that tilted the recent Azerbaijan-Armenia war in Baku’s favor. Turkey condemned Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea; Crimean Tatars expelled by Stalin who resettled in Turkey bear a long grudge. Turkey reportedly backs Ukraine’s desire to join NATO.
Could Turkey become a casualty of a Russia-Ukraine war? Erdogan doesn’t seem to think so. Perhaps he is also going to offer to mediate.
Q: Suppose Putin emerges from this confrontation with some sort of strategic achievement, registered despite the threats of the United States . . .
A: Globally, the Biden administration is perceived to have been humiliated by its troubled withdrawal from Afghanistan. A Russian gain in Ukraine is liable to be understood in many international circles as yet another setback for Washington.
True, in the long and even medium term, these ‘humiliations’ have no real effect on the global strategic balance, particularly where the US and Russia are concerned (the US-China balance is a separate issue of long-term concern). But in the short term, where Israel is concerned, the perception of a rising Russia with a coherent global strategy confronting a declining and confused America could be interpreted in Tehran and by Islamist militants like ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas as encouragement for aggression.
It almost certainly already is understood in a number of key Arab countries as a signal to upgrade strategic and economic relations with Russia and ignore Washington’s strategic requests and admonitions.
Israel is already hard put to balance its economic relations with China and its ‘neighborly’ (Syria, the Mediterranean) relations with Russia with its fundamental strategic alliance with the United States. A Russian achievement in Ukraine would render those calculations that much more difficult.
Then too, heightened American-led economic sanctions against Russia could well affect Israeli high-tech exports. On the other hand, if a Russian invasion disrupts supply to Europe of Russian natural gas, Israel and its Egyptian partner in the export of LNG (liquified natural gas) could benefit economically, as they do already by exporting natural gas to economically-crippled Lebanon.
Q: Where do the Ukrainian and Russian Jewish communities enter the picture?
A: With aliyah--immigration to Israel. Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory could spur tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews to leave. Heavy US-led sanctions against Russia could so damage the Russian economy that some Russian Jews would leave.
Here it bears recalling that since 1990 well over a million Jews from the former Soviet Union have moved to Israel. They have political influence in Israel, Russia and Ukraine. Some still vote in Russian elections. Many maintain business and family ties in Moscow and Kyiv. A Russia-Ukraine war would affect them in ways difficult to predict. If the current aggressive basing of Russian forces in Belarus drags that country into the fray, Belarussian Jews could be affected as well
Q: Back in 1994, Ukraine was induced to give up the nuclear weapons remaining on its soil following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Could the guarantees it received in return prove worthless? Could that affect Israel?
A: Libyan ruler Moammar Qaddafi did something similar--giving up a nuclear weapons development program--in 2003. The Qaddafi regime assumed it had traded a nascent and fairly primitive nuclear program for understandings with the West regarding its long-term stability and prosperity. Yet Qaddafi was deposed and killed with the help of a NATO air intervention force in 2011.
In 1994, in return for transferring its large nuclear stockpile to Russia for dismantling, Kyiv received guarantees for its sovereignty and security from Russia itself, along with the US and the UK. Moscow has already violated those guarantees by annexing Crimea. Now the US and NATO appear to be making it clear that, no matter what Russia does on Ukrainian territory, their response will be economic and diplomatic, not military.
If the sanctions do not force Russia to withdraw, and if this failure is seen to be the ultimate meaning of American guarantees for sovereignty, not only Israel will be watching this drama play out.