The Ukraine War, Israel, and the Middle East (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- August 7, 2023)


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 revisit the Ukraine war now?

A. August 24 will mark a year and a half to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Kiev’s much-heralded summer offensive does not appear to have gotten very far. And it looks like this war will be with us for some time to come. All these are good reasons to look again at the Ukraine war and its relevance to Israel and the Middle East.

Q. This weekend, Saudi Arabia hosted in Jedda a brief Ukraine peace conference. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy attended along with representatives of over 40 countries. But not Russia. Needless to say, there was no peace breakthrough. Is this how the Saudis mediate?

A. Saudi Arabia’s leader Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has registered a few interesting accomplishments in negotiating Russian-Ukrainian prisoner exchanges. And he has mended relations with Iran, an ally of Russia in the Ukraine war. Beyond that, he is trying to position energy-rich Riyadh as a global power or at least mini-power. So you can’t blame him for trying his luck at even one-sided mediation.

Besides, hosting Zelenskyy, who presented his ten-point peace plan, should please Washington, with which MbS is negotiating both a security pact and a civilian nuclear package within the framework of prospective normalization with Israel. It’s all connected.

Q. Seen from an Israeli perspective, why is Ukraine’s much-ballyhooed summer offensive stagnating?

A. The Ukrainians launched the offensive with units trained by the United States in armored warfare maneuvering and with a fresh supply of American, British and German tanks. But instead of dynamic penetration and flanking maneuvers designed to get behind the Russian lines and envelop them, we have seen mostly costly frontal assaults against heavily mined Russian fortifications, backed by artillery.

This is not Israel conquering the Sinai Peninsula in four days in 1967. This is sadly reminiscent of World War I trench warfare. The Ukrainian military, for all its improvisational spirit and its bravery, has disappointed observers and supporters.

Q. Has the war affected Russia’s deployment in Syria, across Israel’s northern border?

A. Some Russian air and air defense units have been redeployed to Russia and to occupied Ukraine, thus diluting Moscow’s forces in Syria. But Russia is not giving up its foothold in Syria, and this continues to have a deterrent effect on Israeli readiness to assist Ukraine militarily.

Q. Still, there does appear to be greater Israeli involvement in Ukraine . . .

A. Israel is providing the Ukrainian armed forces with a comprehensive anti-missile defense network that draws on Israel’s Iron Dome technology. An Israeli cargo ship recently was the first to penetrate the Russian naval blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea grain exports--to load grain sold to Israel. The Israeli media carries first-hand coverage of Israelis of Ukrainian origin who, after serving in the IDF, have returned to help Kiev’s war effort. But Israel still avoids aiding Ukraine’s offensive capabilities.

Israeli arms sales to western European countries have also expanded. Israel has answers to the kind of missiles the Russians are capable of firing at Europe.

Q. Let’s go back first to the beginning of the war, then forward to beyond the current stalemate. What can Israel learn for the long term?

A. The most obvious lessons regarding the beginning of the war relate to Russia and President Putin. First, intelligence. An invasion based on a poor understanding of enemy determination to fight spells disaster. By the same token, Ukraine’s President Zelensky notoriously ignored very specific and public American warnings of Russia’s aggressive intentions back in February 2022.

These days, Israel’s intelligence agencies are warning publicly that Iran and Hezbollah are liable to misread Israel’s public protests against the Netanyahu government’s ‘judicial reform’ intention, interpret them as a sign of weakness, and attack. Yet there is no evidence that the Prime Minister is taking these warnings to heart and abandoning judicial reform. Note that in both the Ukrainian and the Israeli case, the warnings are unusually public. The apprehension in Israel of another ‘Yom Kippur’ (1973) intelligence fiasco is palpable.

Second, regarding any invasion of enemy territory, you had better know not only how to go in, but how to get out. Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 offers good illustrations of both pitfalls--so much so that the Israel Defense Forces have carefully avoided any similar adventure ever since.

Q. What about Iranian drone and possibly missile sales to Russia for use against Ukraine? How does this affect Israel’s assessment of Iranian capabilities?

A. Iran is also establishing drone manufacturing plants on Russian territory and training Russian personnel. Russia may be reciprocating with advanced aircraft sales to Iran. This bespeaks a Russian-Iranian alliance that could prove to be a force multiplier for Iran--Israel’s only sovereign-state enemy in the Middle East.

Further, Iran is moving into the Russian and Chinese strategic-economic orbits. Last year, when Tehran joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the influential Kayhan daily trumpeted the convergence of “the three great powers”--Russia, China and Iran. Does anyone remember Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous strategic dictum for Iran, “neither East nor West”?

The role played by the Russia-Ukraine war in catalyzing and/or accelerating these developments in Tehran’s global orientation cannot be dismissed.

Q. Is there a nuclear angle here?

A. Putin’s threats to deploy tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine are troublesome not only for NATO and the West. Israel is already at war with Iran on Syrian territory. Suppose that war escalates. Russian forces are already deployed in Syria. Russian-Iranian military cooperation has been boosted by the Ukraine war.

Could Putin at some point cease turning the other way when Israel attacks in Syria, and threaten Israel with tactical nuclear weapons? Given Israel’s own reputed capabilities in this regard, that is doubtful. Besides, Putin is known to admire Israel (and Germany)!

Q. Some 40 percent of Ukrainians have become refugees or internally displaced since the war began. Is this relevant to Israel?

A. Some Ukrainian refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish, have come to Israel, where the welcome for Ukrainian non-Jews has been highly problematic. But overall, the scope of Ukraine’s and Europe’s refugee problem is not relevant to Israel.

An additional aspect, however, is very relevant. During this war, multitudes of Ukraine’s civilian population have been able to withdraw to the ‘strategic depth’ of Central Europe: Germany, Poland, Hungary, etc. In contrast, Israeli civilians have nowhere to withdraw to at wartime.

This is not an idle statement. The most likely scenario for war between Israel and the combined forces of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas is a rain of tens of thousands of missiles and rockets that saturate Israeli civilian targets throughout the entire country. Israel’s missile defenses could be overwhelmed. It will take time for Israeli air and armor forces to penetrate neighboring enemy territory and, at a heavy cost in military casualties, overwhelm at least the proximate missile bases. Civilian losses in Israel could be staggering.

Israel’s civil defense infrastructure is acknowledged to be woefully inadequate to the task of absorbing this anticipated attack. Where can Israeli civilians flee to?

Q. Finally, the Russia-Ukraine War and the energy sphere . . .

A. This is where the war has generated good news for Israel. And for its neighbors Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, who share with Israel natural gas discoveries beneath the sea floor of the Eastern Mediterranean. Europe’s drive to boycott or bypass Russian natural gas deliveries has stimulated interest and investment in LNG (liquified natural gas) deliveries from Egyptian liquification plants that are fed by pipeline from Israel. Turkey, whose land-based gas transport pipeline infrastructure can supply Europe without reliance on LNG, is warming up relations with Israel to try to get into the act.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Overall, in terms of energy and arms sales to Europeans who are concerned with Russian aggression, Israel has benefited economically from the Russia-Ukraine war. That is perhaps the only good news for an Israeli economy that is otherwise being decimated by Netanyahu’s ‘judicial reform’ and its domestic and international ramifications. It is hard to find a silver lining anywhere else.