Is Ukraine the winner?


October 24, 2023

Tablet Magazine

The Hamas massacres in the Israeli south that killed more than 1,400 Israeli civilians and members of the Israeli Defense Forces on October 7 constituted the worst day of violence against Jews since the Holocaust. The terrorist incursion also had the effect of undermining multiple long-standing and delicate balancing acts of regional diplomacy, which rested upon logic, predicates and assumptions that turned out to be delusional. The efficacy and wisdom of the neutrality entente between Moscow and Jerusalem, formerly a pillar of regional security arrangements, suddenly looks a lot less rational or defensible than it did to Israeli leaders before the attack.

Israel’s steadfast commitment to a doctrine of nonintervention in the wars raging in Eastern Europe and the Middle East was a key part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s regional security policy. The original entente reflected the conflict-averse Netanyahu’s desire to keep the Israelis out of the cauldron of the Syrian civil war. Positioning the advancing Iranian forces and their proxies at a remove from Israel’s northern border was a corollary of the deal, which stipulated that the Iranians would be prevented from operating along the Golan Heights, with the Russians acting as a de facto arbitrer of who controlled the territory adjacent to Israel.

Crucially, Moscow allowed the Israeli air force to carry out air strikes against Iranian proxies that operated in Syria, where the IDF would routinely request that Russian missile and air defence systems in Syria be temporarily powered down. The arrangement allowed Israel to stay out of a war in which Tehran’s proxies rampaged across Arab lands, but that augmented the power of the ring of Iranian-backed enemies that surrounds Israel. That encirclement further cemented Jerusalem’s military alliance with the Sunni Arab bloc.

Netanyahu’s arrangement with the Russians allowed the Israeli leader to portray himself as a masterful geopolitical strategist over multiple election cycles. He had always considered his close personal relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin to be both a political and national asset, grounded in a symbiosis of mutual respect and transactional necessity.

Yet the Netanyahu-Putin relationship had noticeably cooled over the last year-and-a-half before October 7, for numerous reasons. While Putin genuinely respects—and somewhat fears—Israel, he has continued to balance his relationship with Netanyahu against Moscow’s commitments and alliances within the Arab world as well as with other Muslim allies. Russia’s relationships in the Middle East with powers hostile to Israel represent a direct continuation of the regional position of the Soviet Union; many of the USSR’s regional terror assets were inherited either directly or indirectly by Iran.

Nevertheless, the Israeli-Russian neutrality pact has constrained Israel from engaging more closely with or arming the Ukrainians against the Russian invasion. In turn, Israel has paid a substantive diplomatic price with numerous allies because of its neutral stance since the start of Russia’s invasion. Many people around the world (including prominent Israelis like the the ex-refusnik leader and former Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky) have viewed that arrangement as placing Israel on the wrong side of a historical conflagration. The president of Ukraine has repeatedly and fruitlessly deployed his own Jewish background in order to shame Israel into ramping up military assistance.

Yet as the war against Ukraine, which is now well past its 600th day, turned into a disastrous quagmire for Moscow, Putin has turned to his Iranian allies for assistance. While Russia’s alliance with Iran is inherently transactional, it is of ever-growing importance, sanctions have made it difficult for Moscow to procure weapons systems, munitions, and microchips. The Russian-Iranian relationship therefore imposes both a new threat to Israel, and a form of commonality—and even solidarity—with Ukraine.

Ukraine and Israel are now both at war with Iran, either openly or by proxy forces that are being directly supplied, trained, and commanded by Tehran. This is a fact that Ukrainian military and diplomatic officials have tried to hammer home to their Israeli counterparts over the last 19 months of the Russian invasion. The Iranian-made Shahed suicide drones that Iran first provided to the Russians in the summer of 2022 have been critically important in the drone arms race between the Ukrainians and Russians. These drones have been responsible for the deaths of many Ukrainian civilians in Odessa, Kyiv, and other cities, as well as for the crippling of numerous Ukrainian armored vehicles. The Israeli military has observed the technical capacity of the Iranian drones in the Ukrainian battle zones with great interest. The Russian-Iranian alliance has already destroyed half of all Ukrainian electrical pylons and infrastructure hubs. As a result, Ukrainian athletes now routinely refuse to shake hands with their Iranian competitors while taking part in international sporting events.

In return for drones and other support, Tehran, which continues clamoring for Russian technical assistance with its nuclear program, was proffered a certain amount of Russian diplomatic support to go with Russian upgrades on their drones. Moscow is also reported to have allowed Iran to build a massive drone factory in Russia. A great deal of discreet cooperation also takes place on the level of bypassing Western sanctions—an art that Tehran has mastered over the past 40 years, and which Moscow is now learning.

Last year, Russia also promised to sell Tehran a fleet of modern Russian Su-35 attack fighter jets—a transaction that could have potentially realigned the dynamics of air power in the Middle East. However, that deal seems to have been halted or scuppered, and the reasons for the deal not taking place have never been publicly explained. Moscow skillfully manages to find a common language between antagonistic Arabs, Iranians, and Jews, dealing with each discreetly on their own terms.

Yet because Putin had always been seen as viewing Israeli security concerns with appropriate consideration, his waffling, cagey and diffident response to the Hamas attack took many by

surprise. Three days after the assault, Putin proffered his first comments on the war between Israel and Gaza during a conversation with the prime minister of Iraq. He stated that “it was a clear example of the failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East, in that the Americans had not taken the core interests of the Palestinian people into account (that is working to create an independent Palestinian state).” The statement worked on numerous registers: placating Arab audiences, reassuring the Iranians, restating Russian diplomatic commitments, and snubbing the Americans for their lack of skill in executing their chosen policy in the region. In other words, a typical aperçu for the trolling strongman.

It also took the Russian president an entire week-and-a-half to call Netanyahu in order to offer his condolences. Putin reportedly did not even bother to condemn the Hamas assault during the phone call. Ukrainian President Zelensky, meanwhile, was one of the first heads of state to render a call, offering to visit Israel. When that gracious offer of solidarity was declined, Ukrainian media and commentators felt deeply insulted by the rebuff.

Helpfully for Moscow, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has now been relegated to the back pages of the newspapers, sparking arguments within the U.S. Congress about which war to prioritize. Ukrainian elites have privately voiced concern about being isolated in the wake of the attack. Indeed, the Russians have taken the opportunity to embark on a substantial counteroffensive around Avdiivka. It is a counteroffensive which is going badly for them, but one which is also succeeding in attriting Ukrainian forces.

While the Russians will doubtless attempt to take full advantage of Hamas’ attack on Israel and have already benefited greatly from it, that is not a priori evidence of their having had a hand in planning or executing the massacre. The question of who did know about the incipient assault, which surely took months of training and several years of planning, as well as significant outside technical and logistical assistance, remains unanswered.

The technical prowess that would appear to be needed to take down the billion-dollar Israeli fence is necessarily either a Russian or Iranian contribution. If the American intelligence services had any early warning of what was about to transpire from active signals intelligence in Lebanon or elsewhere, it seems quite possible that the Russians may have also been offered advance notice by their Iranian allies. Moscow has also not backed Israel in the United Nations over the past weeks. After the Israelis destroyed the Damascus and Allepo airports last week, the Russians allowed Iranian military flights—presumably carrying supplies, arms and military advisers—to continue using a Russian military airfield in the north of the country. Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Tehran for talks with his Iranian counterpart.

For the past week and a half, some Ukrainian analysts have been attempting to demonstrate the existence of a direct link between the Russians and the Hamas attack. Proof of Russian involvement in the Hamas incursion would doubtless be a world historical event. Meanwhile, Ukrainians point to the Hamas attack as proof that Netanyahu and the Israelis badly miscalculated in their relationship with Putin, and must now change course.

“Netanyahu is guilty of expecting Putin to remain loyal to his deal with him,” the British Ukrainian analyst Taras Kuzio complained to me. “I have always thought that the official Israeli

arguments for why Israel was not aiding Ukraine—that is to avoid angering Putin in Syria—were overplayed and I find it bizarre that Netanyahu did not view the emboldening of Iran by Russia as a potential security threat.

“If Iran is to achieve its objective of a nuclear bomb,” Kuzio continued, “that would be because of Russian support.”