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The Ukraine crisis is a no-win situation for Israel

For most Israelis, Ukraine’s frigid, snow-shrouded expanses are far away, out of sight and out of mind. If they think of Ukraine at all, it is primarily as one of WWII’s horrific killing fields, the site of Babi Yar and other Holocaust atrocities, the home of Uman, where thousands of Haredim converge each year in memory of an obscure 19th century rabbi, and a country whose Jewish president is a former actor and comedian, in distinctly unfunny times.

Israeli TV news devote the briefest of items to the Ukrainian crisis, in between a mind-blowing litany of domestic crime, corruption and sexual misconduct. Unlike Las Vegas, however, what happens in Kyiv does not stay there. Events in Ukraine have great importance not just for the international system, but for Israel and the Middle East as a whole.

It is difficult to see how the crisis can end without Russia coming out ahead and the U.S. and West weakened. Russia has staked out positions from which it probably cannot back down from, and which the West cannot accept.

Emboldened by the American debacle in Afghanistan and his successful pro-regime intervention in Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears determined to revamp the post-Cold War global order and reassert Russia’s global stature and its sphere of influence. The U.S., consumed by its domestic controversies, sought to devote its attention in foreign affairs primarily to containing China, not a resurgent Russia.

The Western response to the possibility of what Biden has called the "largest invasion since World War II" does not project determination and strength. Biden has sought to rally NATO, but he has ruled out direct military intervention and limited the American response to stringent sanctions, modest military aid to Ukraine and a fainthearted threat to deploy 8,500 troops in neighboring states. Germany’s feeble response has been even more disappointing. 

The crisis in Ukraine is a free win for China, which shares the Russian objective of ending "American hegemony" in the international system and whose interests are served when the U.S. is humbled. Russia’s rapid resurgence, however, may be more than China bargained for, a fully tripolar global system, rather than the primarily bipolar one they had anticipated, with Russia playing a supporting junior role. The future of the post-Cold War order and Western alliance have rarely been at such risk. 

Success in Ukraine will embolden Russia in the pursuit of its strategic objectives of pushing the U.S. out of the Middle East and becoming the dominant superpower in the region, objectives that it shares with Iran. 

Russia has already taken major strides in this direction. It successfully intervened in Syria, saved the regime, ensured its ability to project power in the region by signing long-term agreements for air and naval bases there and made Israel’s efforts to thwart Iranian entrenchment in Syria dependent on its goodwill. It has sold nuclear reactors and advanced weapons to Turkey, thereby creating a rift between it and the U.S. and is now trying to do the same in Egypt, using the same tools. Russia has gained a role of influence in Libya and further strengthened its strategic relationship with Iran.

For Iran, the timing of the Ukrainian crisis, just as the nuclear talks were set to reach a critical make or break point, could not have been more propitious. At a minimum, the crisis diverts attention from Iran and the nuclear issue, renders the U.S. and E3 even less capable of staking out forceful positions and gives Iran further time to drag out the negotiations and continue development of the nuclear program. The Great Satan looms smaller.

The prospects for a new nuclear deal may be one of the casualties of the Ukrainian crisis. The new hardline Iranian government’s already limited willingness to make concessions will diminish even more and its determination to drive the U.S. out of Iraq, Syria and the region will be reinforced. A resentful Russia, smarting from the imposition of heavy additional U.S. sanctions, will be even less inclined to pressure Iran to reach a nuclear compromise. The ramifications for Israel’s national security and the security of the region will be far-reaching. 

The reasons behind Russia’s aggressive aerial patrols along the Golan Heights recently are unknown, whether a one-off event, part of a decision to curb Israel’s attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, a signal that Russia expects Israeli neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis, or some combination thereof.

Whatever Russia’s intentions, a preoccupation with the European theater will further decrease the U.S.’s already limited tolerance for engagement in Syria, strengthen Russia’s role there and make Israel’s ability to counter Iranian entrenchment in Syria even more dependent on Russia.

Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and especially the Gulf states, whose security is largely dependent on the U.S., will increasingly question whether they can continue to rely on it. Arab confidence in the U.S. has already been badly shaken by its "abandonment" of Mubarak, limited willingness to mend fences with Saudi Arabia, its pivot to the Far East and ignoble withdrawal from Afghanistan. A further blow to their confidence in the U.S. is likely to give added impetus to two existing and conflicting trends. 

On the one hand, the Gulf’s interest in a further expansion of ties with Israel will grow, as part of a regional rebalancing designed to counter Iran and the growing Russian-Iranian-Turkish axis.

This is especially true of the UAE and other Gulf states, which may already be interested in heightened missile defense cooperation following repeated Houthi strikes against them. Civil and commercial cooperation will also continue to expand the pace, especially with the UAE, a remarkable trendsetter that has gone out of its way to embrace Israel not just substantively, but warmly and publicly. 

On the other hand, Israel cannot be a substitute for the U.S. in their security calculus and, given fundamental differences, there probably are limits to how far the relations can grow, even if we are nowhere near there yet. Gulf states will thus likely seek to improve ties with Russia and redouble bilateral efforts to de-escalate tensions with Iran, questionable though the prospects for success in the latter endeavor may be. 

The Ukrainian crisis will further decrease the already diminished international and regional interest in the Palestinian issue. This makes life easier for Israel in the short term, but is certainly not conducive to progress towards resolution of its foremost national security challenge.

Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, frustrated by the lack of attention, but heartened by perceived Western weakness, may choose, once again, to make their presence known kinetically increasing the prospects for hostilities in Gaza and beyond.

If, as expected, Russia launches a major cyber campaign against Ukraine prior to an actual invasion, to soften it up, or as part of the invasion itself, Israel will have much to learn for its own future cyber capabilities, both offensive and defensive. Russia has repeatedly launched cyber attacks against Ukraine, using it as a testing ground for its cyber capabilities.

Israel’s ties with Ukraine, one of only nine countries with which it has concluded a Free Trade Agreement and an important offshore source of manpower for Israeli high-tech firms, will be negatively impacted. On a more positive note, aliyah (immigration) from Ukraine may increase. A quarter of a million Jews from Ukraine already came to Israel in the 1990s, on top of earlier generations who made their way over. Indeed, at the start of the 20th century, a remarkable 30 percent of Ukraine’s urban population was Jewish. 

For Israel, whose national security is inextricably linked to that of the U.S., any diminution in American stature reflects badly on its own. Israel also has closer ties with NATO than any other non-alliance state and growing military ties with individual members, including the U.K., France, Italy and Greece.

Expanded ties with the Sunni and Gulf states may partly offset a weakened Western alliance, but when the home team, with whom Israel shares its basic cultural and normative values, not just strategic interests, takes a hit, Israel is less secure.

The Ukrainian crisis places Israel in a no-win situation. Its nearly total dependence on the U.S. was demonstrated once again by the recent decision to bar Chinese companies from tenders for the new Tel Aviv light rail system. In practice, and in spirit, Israel cannot but support the U.S.

However, Israel also cannot afford to alienate Russia, which can severely curb its air operations in Syria and beyond, and whose at least partial cooperation on the nuclear issue remains essential. Israel has walked a delicate diplomatic tight rope on Ukraine since 2014 and will have to continue treading carefully.

The  hostilities in Crimea and the Donbass region, together nearly 70,000 square kilometers, have already led to the deaths of 14,000 people, including 3,000 civilians. The occupation of these and now maybe additional parts of Ukraine, are unlikely to have an effect on one long-standing zone of contention between Russia and Israel: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, an area of less than 6,000 square kilometers. Bears play by different rules.

Chuck Freilich