Hard Questions, Tough Answers: War in Ukraine: Israeli Dimensions (February 28, 2022)


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: Exactly a month ago you looked at potential ramifications for Israel of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now that the invasion is underway, can you offer an update on the Israel-related dimensions?

A: Perhaps Israel’s biggest dilemma concerns how to navigate its wartime relations with Russia on the one hand and the US and the West (and Ukraine) on the other. Here Russia’s military presence in a second war zone, Syria, looms large. Russia, which the late Middle East expert and Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov once defined to a senior Mossad official as “also a Middle Eastern country”, is Israel’s neighbor. It is the Syrian regime’s protector, yet it tolerates and even coordinates Israel’s alleged attacks on Iranian and Iranian-proxy forces on Syrian territory.

Squaring the US-Russia circle is the strategic challenge. In Israel, there is also a human dimension. Not a few militant right-wing Israelis identify with the aggressive behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin: he’s a ‘man’, while the US and the West are appeasers, behaving like scared mice.

The view of President Biden as misguided appeaser is, incidentally, shared by not a few Israelis who do not identify with the right. They understand realpolitik and appreciate Biden’s rationale for avoiding military involvement. Yet when the invasion began, they were disconcerted and disappointed by Biden’s offer of little more than prayers and sympathy for Ukraine. Israel knows what it is like to feel isolated at a time of crisis.

Israel also tends to doubt that economic sanctions will work. Prior to 1967, it managed quite well under the sanctions of the Arab boycott.

Then too, many Jews from the former Soviet Union identify Ukrainians as neo-Nazis--an image that dovetails with World War II memories of Ukrainians murdering Jews and Russians rescuing Jews. Never mind all those Jews in the Ukrainian leadership. These Russian-speaking Israelis are heavily influenced by Moscow’s portrayal of the Russian position (‘de-Nazification’) in this war, and they have some influence on overall public opinion.

In contrast, Israelis on the political left are comparing Putin to Israel and the beleaguered Ukrainians--soon, apparently, to be occupied--to the Palestinians. As with Israeli politics in general these days, this is a minority view.

Still, official Israel and much of the Israeli media were shocked by the Russian invasion. They are closely attuned to the need to align with active American and European opposition to the Russian move.

So Israel is walking a tightrope. Foreign Minister Lapid has officially condemned Russia. He noted lamely that “traditionally, of course, we go with the Americans,” then added pointedly that “our border with Syria is, for all intents and purposes, a border with Russia.” Government ministers from Meretz and Labor cautiously approved Lapid’s stance. Yet Prime Minister Bennett and Defense Minister Gantz have not joined even this nuanced criticism of Russia.


Q: Can Israel help end this war?

A: Humanitarian aid is being sent to Ukraine. But there has been no official moral denunciation of Russia’s behavior. And Russian Jewish oligarchs loyal to Putin are seeking shelter in Israel from global sanctions: just to be on the safe side, Roman Abramovich just donated tens of millions of dollars to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, then joined efforts at mediation.

Here Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s official request that Israel (‘the only democratic country that is friendly with both Russia and Ukraine’) mediate, is a godsend. It rationalizes Jerusalem’s relative neutrality even if Putin is clearly uninterested in Israeli mediation and a negotiating channel had already opened by Monday on the Ukraine-Belarus border.

Israeli media coverage of the war is huge, with seemingly more correspondents in Ukraine than the major international networks. Here the Jewish angle, and interest, is key: Israeli emissaries are busy facilitating the exit to Eastern Europe of thousands of Ukrainian-Israeli dual citizens and the possible immigration to Israel of beleaguered Ukrainian Jews fleeing to Poland. Here, too, cooperation with an occupying Russia may become vital. Cooperation with Poland, too, the main exit-point for those fleeing Ukraine: its right-wing government’s anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial are being forgiven and Israel’s ambassador is returning to Warsaw after a two-year protest absence.

The tightrope that political Israel is walking extends to the political opposition. During Israel’s many Knesset elections of recent years, then-PM Netanyahu campaigned with huge election posters juxtaposing him with Putin (and with Trump). Now, Netanyahu is laying low.


Q: We are treated in the media to learned analyses of the profound global strategic effect of Russia’s invasion: end of an era, beginning of a new cold war, etc. How do these affect Israel?

A: We need to exercise a measure of caution about these learned insights. Washington’s effort to compartmentalize the conflict to Ukraine alone reflects this caution. Note that in Vienna, Russia and the West continue to cooperate in a last-ditch effort to renew the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal. Note that China, which was expected to gleefully support Russia in preparation for its own drive to retake Taiwan, is decidedly lukewarm about Putin’s Ukraine adventure (lest we forget, Russia and China have never resolved all their historic border disputes).

Nobody knows how this conflict will be resolved. If US-led efforts to cripple Russia economically, coupled with Ukraine’s efforts to bloody the Russian invaders militarily, succeed in inducing second thoughts in the Kremlin, Putin’s invasion may actually end up strengthening the post-Cold War world order. It may illustrate dramatically the critical role played by the global economy, even in warfare.

And if not? If Israel finds itself facing a triumphant Russia, fresh from conquering Ukraine and humiliating the West, across its border with Syria? Here it may be helpful to recall Israel’s situation vis-à-vis Russia in the summer of 1970. Israel and Egypt were fighting a War of Attrition across the Suez Canal. A large Soviet military force, including an air warfare division and an air defense division, was stationed on the Egyptian side of the canal at the invitation of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Israel held its ground. On July 30, in a historic dogfight, 12 Israeli Mirage and Phantom combat aircraft ambushed 30 Soviet MiGs and shot down five of them west of the Gulf of Suez, with no Israeli losses. The War of Attrition ended a week later. Eventually, in 1972, the Soviets went home to the USSR.

That looked like an Israeli victory. But in the summer of 1970 Israel was so fearful of Soviet retribution that it censored any media mention of the battle. I recall conversations in the Mossad about the possible ‘Finlandization’ of Israel, meaning adopting a neutral stance between Washington and Moscow, in order to keep the USSR at bay.

Right now, there is no danger of Israelis and Russians shooting at one another. Still, this is food for thought.


Q: More immediate ramifications for Israel in the Middle East?

A: Like its Middle East neighbors, Israel imports grain from both Ukraine and Russia. It also imports coal from Ukraine for a fifth of its power plants. The boycott of Russian energy exports means Israeli motorists will pay more at the fuel pump due to higher global prices. But since Israel maintains a constant economic preparedness for the hardships of war with its neighbors, the overall effect should be less intense than, say, in Egypt, which is the world’s largest importer of wheat, much of it from the Black Sea region.

Israeli arms exports to Ukraine will presumably cease under Putin’s threats that Israel “will pay” for any more such sales. A Russia that emerges victorious from Ukraine is liable to beef up its military presence in Syria, reflecting a renewed global super-power status. It could send proxies to pick a fight with the much more limited US military presence there, thereby heating up the entire region.

As for Israel’s neighbors, Egypt is not the only country affected in the short term. The Middle East appears to be actively gauging, in terms starkly lacking in nuance, the ramifications of a resurgent Russia and an ostensibly recalcitrant America. Lest we forget, the authoritarianism common to nearly all Middle East regimes is more attuned to Putin’s message than to Biden’s.

The United Arab Emirates, a UN Security Council member and normally a very pro-western country, abstained on the recent resolution to condemn the Russian invasion. Saudi Arabia refused US President Biden’s request to pump more oil to compensate for the global loss of imports from Russia (world’s second largest oil producer) and thereby prevent the price from rising above $100 per barrel. Less surprisingly, Iran blamed NATO provocations for the Ukraine crisis.

Turkey, almost alone alongside a reluctant Israel, has criticized Moscow, fearing the spread of Black Sea violence. In retaliation, Russia is already punishing Turkey economically. Yet even Ankara rejected a (legal and legitimate? apparently, it’s debatable) Ukrainian request to close off the Black Sea to Russian naval vessels. When Turkish President Erdogan and Israel’s President Herzog meet in Ankara in two weeks, Russia and Ukraine will be high on their agenda. Kuwait, which was briefly conquered by Iraq in 1990-91, also explicitly supported Ukrainian sovereignty.


Q: How about strictly military ramifications? What can Israel learn by observing this war?

A: Some Israeli military observers, like those elsewhere, are struck by what appear to be Russian difficulties in gaining full dominance of the air and in moving rapidly on the ground. This, despite a huge quantitative and qualitative military advantage, at least on paper. On the other hand, we cannot but take note of Russia’s successful use of (dis)information warfare, cyber warfare and fake maneuvers to generate an element of surprise in launching the offensive, despite months of attrition and visible preparations.

Impressive, too, was US readiness to reveal hard intelligence about Russian aggressive intentions in an effort to embarrass and deter Moscow and keep its war preparations off balance.

Any sort of serious assessment of the efficacy of the weapons fielded by the two sides will have to wait. But what is already apparent and very relevant for Israel is the ongoing significance of large-scale ground-based warfare: the maneuvers of armor, infantry and special forces. This appears to signal to the Israel Defense Forces that Israel still needs a large army. It still needs tanks. In an age of missiles and cyber, and with the IDF perpetually bogged down in policing the occupied West Bank and bombing the Gaza Strip, Iran is still the enemy to the north, Russia is still Iran’s ally, and they field conventional armies.


Q: Bottom line?

A: Israel must demonstrate consistently that, as a member of the global democratic community, it opposes Russia’s aggression. In parallel Israel must not cease its military efforts, with a Russian amber light, to blunt the Iranian advance in Syria. This means maintaining good relations with Russia.

Two developments could help Jerusalem descend from this strategic tightrope: either playing an active mediation role in the Ukraine conflict, or a quick end to that conflict. Perhaps Turkey can help, too: in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Ankara and Jerusalem could move closer.