Voices from Israel: Regional Impact of the Russian War in Ukraine

Israeli Flag and scales of Ukraine war
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation

On February 24, 2022, the invasion of Ukraine ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin began. The actions of the State of Israel since then have been like walking a tightrope: On the one hand, it has joined a condemnation of Russia's actions by the United Nations General Assembly; on the other, it has not joined Western sanctions. It provides humanitarian aid but excludes arms deliveries.

Israel traditionally maintains good relations with all three major parties to the conflict, Russia, the Ukraine and the USA. Naftali Bennett, who is prime minister of a country whose largest minority are Russian-speaking Jews (over 1 million) from the former USSR, mediated between Vladimir Putin, whose stated wartime goal is the "De-Nazification" of Ukraine, and Volodimir Zelensky, who is himself Jewish. To better understand Israel's seemingly paradoxical policy and the impact of the Russian war of aggression on Israel and the Middle East, I interviewed four renowned experts for their thoughts, assessments and forecasts.

Russia expert Dr. Dina Zisserman-Brodsky first gives us an overview of the internal Russian conditions, the state of the opposition there and explains the importance of the Jewish minority in Russia, Ukraine and the consequences of possible flight movements of these to Israel. Zisserman-Brodsky is convinced that “the state of rights and freedoms in Russia has reached rock bottom, and this year will be remembered as the year of an unprecedented fall of human rights and civil liberties.” She admits Putin has succeeded in restricting free press and in replacing the federal state with a centralized state built around him. She describes the reaction of European-oriented, democratic-minded Russians to the war as a "shock". Despite some protests, there has not been a snowball effect.

"On the one hand, the opposition has been utterly crushed; on the other hand, state repression is too effective. These developments in Russia are an expression of an ideology in which the state is above society and opposes liberal and universal values. Racism and fascism have long been acceptable in public discourse". She emphasizes the heterogeneity of those who left Russia because of the war. Among them there are ardent democrats as well as apolitical opportunists. The motives of those arriving in Israel are also heterogeneous: among them there are those who want to build a new home in Israel, those who would prefer to return to Russia, and those who want to continue their journey to Europe or North America.

Zisserman-Brodsky rejects the claim that Russia is intervening in favour of the threatened Russian minority in Ukraine in a deeply divided country. According to her, there are regional differences and tensions, but there is no ethnic fractionalization, polarization, or politically excluded ethnic groups in Ukraine. Rather, she said, Russian actions are an expression of a dying empire suffering from phantom pain.

Zisserman-Brodsky also emphasizes the heterogeneity of the Jewish community in Russia. They experienced the war as individuals rather than as Jews. "Among them are courageous oppositionists as well as spineless financiers and propagandists of the war. Leaders of Jewish organizations are threatened and intimidated, so that they either do not speak out at all about the war or approve of it". She sees the Ukrainian Jews as well integrated into the Ukrainian multi-ethnic civic nation. They seem determined to defend their homeland and not to migrate to Israel.

She does not see the potential for a split in the Russian community between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian blocs. On the contrary, there is rather a united rejection of the Russian war. The majority of Russian-speaking Israelis do not support Putin. They are loyal to Russian culture but not to the Putin regime.

Historian Dr. Matitiahu Mayzel describes the paradoxical intertwining of Israeli and Russian policies in the Middle East.  He explains that after the results of the Arab Spring in 2011, Syria weakened, and Iran exploited this, became active on Syrian territory, and supported Hezbollah in Lebanon. These actions, he insists, aim to threaten Israel, which is unacceptable for Israel and is answered militarily.

The Russians supported the then and now Syrian President Bashar al-Assad militarily since 2015. Russia controls the Syrian airspace today, so according to Mayzel, if Israel wants to act against Iran in Syria, it must cooperate with Russia. "There is a kind of Israeli-Russian agreement based on mutual tolerance and a principle à la 'don't mess with us and we don't mess with you'". As long as Israel does not interfere with Russia, the latter should tolerate Israeli airstrikes. Even after the start of the war in Ukraine, this agreement appears to continue functioning and could explain why Israel shies away from a more assertive policy against Russia. It is likely afraid to jeopardize this delicate status quo.

Mayzel assumes that the United States will force Israel to take sides with them in the future. Something that the historian sees quite critically. He demands an independent and sovereign position of Israel, especially vis-à-vis the USA. The dependency is already too great. He does not deny Israel's ethical and ideological ties to the West, but politically Israel must follow its own neutral independent path, this is a "political necessity." Ukraine, He insists, can offer nothing to Israel and there is much to lose by rivalling Russia.

Regarding the question of whether Putin is a dictator, Mayzel comes to a different assessment: he denies this. "Without the military, administrative, and intelligence elite, the so-called 'Siloviki' and without the, at least passive, support of the population at large, Putin cannot act and operate. Because of this dependence on the elite and the social base, it is not yet a dictatorship".

"Israel is part of the world order that Valdimir Putin rejects", these drastic words were chosen by political scientist Professor Zach Levey to describe the position Israel is in. The political scientist emphasizes Israel's strong Western integration and strategic partnership with the United States. Relations with Russia cannot compete with those with America. Which automatically puts Israel in Russia's sights.

With regard to the question of whether Israel will position itself more strongly in foreign policy, Levey considers it clear that Israel stands by the side of the West. It remains questionable, however, what concrete steps will follow. Because of Israel's special situation, in particular because of Israel's need to cooperate with Russia in Syria, which has already been explained in terms of security policy, he expects Israel to be very careful not to anger Putin.  Levey supports the narrative that the country is currently searching for a foreign policy course, a course between realism and idealism, between interests and values. However, he believes that Israel will ultimately be morally "on the right side of history" and will oppose aggression, wars of aggression, and violations of international law, thus speaking out in favour of Ukraine.

"History never repeats itself one-to-one", says historian Professor Emeritus Yaacov Ro'i, "but it tends to follow similar trends, and those who are willing can learn from it". Following the thought, he compares the current Russian action with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. In fact, there are some parallels here. The logistic supply of the troops on the one hand, the denial of a war in front of the public on the other hand. For the time being, he claims Putin seems to have these two problems under control, but Ro'i is sure that the longer the war will last, the more difficult it will be to continue. He believes that the morale of the Russian troops will have a decisive, if not the most decisive, influence on the further course of the war. "Boredom, killing of civilians, lack of equipment, all this has helped to break the morale of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan and it is likely that something similar will happen to the Russian troops in Ukraine".

"Mikhail Gorbachev called the Soviet war in Afghanistan a "bleeding wound," a long, painful and unwinnable conflict. Sometime in the mid-1980s, this became clear even to the Soviet public, which made the mission enormously unpopular, put the government under pressure, and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. Something similar could well happen in Russia today.  If the war goes on long enough and continues to have high human and material costs, Putin will hardly succeed in keeping the public calm". Ro'i points out the special protest potential of Russian soldiers' mothers.

The withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2021 was quite chaotic. A "weakness of the West" that will hardly have gone unnoticed by Putin. According to Ro'i, Putin has tested U.S. President Biden, but is convinced that he poses no great danger. Similarly, when in 1979 Iran captured American employees of the Embassy and this revealed the weakness of the West.

All in all, Yaacov Ro'i is convinced that Putin has learned from the mistakes of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, but some of them will be repeated. Contrary to the pessimistic assessment of Zisserman-Brodsky, he is convinced that Putin will not succeed in convincing the public opinion about the war and about him.