Political minefield: Why Ukraine is a stress test for Israel-Russia relations

8 min read
09 March, 2022

With the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Israel found itself in a political conundrum. As thousands of Israelis demonstrated in support of Ukraine, the Israeli government’s position on the crisis remained ambivalent.

This cautious posture is interpreted as a deliberate effort within the government to maintain crucial ties with Russia without compromising Israel’s commitments to its Western allies.

Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, who initially spoke on Ukraine only in terms of “territorial integrity” without mentioning Russia, broke away from passive voices within his government shortly after, but maintained a guarded tone on the crisis.

“The Russian attack…is a serious violation of the international order,” he said, but “Israel has good relations with both sides.”

"This cautious posture is interpreted as a deliberate effort within the government to maintain crucial ties with Russia without compromising Israel's commitments to its Western allies"

Lapid’s assertive statement prompted Prime Minister Naftali Bennett later that day to reaffirm his government’s passivity, expressing sympathy to Ukraine but without directly condemning Putin. “These are difficult, tragic times…Our hearts are with the civilians of eastern Ukraine who were caught up in this situation,” he said.

In a phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Bennett reportedly turned down Kyiv’s request for Israeli “assistance with military implements and weapons.”

Zelenskyy also asked Bennett to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, which translated to a phone call between Putin and Bennett. Putin, the Kremlin said, told Bennett that Moscow's security interests were among the key conditions for settling the conflict.

Days later, Bennett held talks in Moscow with Vladimir Putin in talks that reportedly lasted three hours.

A Kremlin spokesman told Russian news agencies that they were "discussing the situation in Ukraine," in what appeared to be the first meeting with a foreign leader devoted to the Ukraine conflict.

Israel’s mediation has not yet borne fruit, much like in 2014 when PM Benjamin Netanyahu failed to mediate a settlement in the Crimea conflict or use Israel’s leverage in Washington in Ukraine’s favour.

At the UN, Israel initially refused to join the eighty-one countries that answered the Biden Administration’s request to co-sponsor a UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia.

People hold Ukrainian flags and placards during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem, on February 28, 2022. [Getty]
People hold Ukrainian flags and placards during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem, on 28 February 2022. [Getty]

But a few days later, even though many in Tel Aviv were pushing for abstention, the Bennett government voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion, alongside 140 other member states.

The vote reportedly came after US officials privately urged Israel to take a clearer stance on Ukraine, and in response to US-based media reports which criticised Israel’s reluctant position.

On the same day of the vote, one day after a missile hit close to a Holocaust memorial site in Kyiv, Zelenskyy appealed to Jews across the world to speak up for Ukraine.

Whilst this was interpreted as the Ukrainian leadership’s attempt to use all possible outlets of support, it particularly signalled that Ukraine was still holding out hope for Israeli military assistance, even after repeated rejections.

Experts estimate that Kyiv is especially interested in acquiring the Israeli Spike anti-tank weapon system. But performing a delicate dance with Russia, Israel has not sold Ukraine any weapons in the last decade.

As the Russian troops began massing on the Ukrainian border, Israel reportedly took a pre-emptive step by informing the three Baltic states - Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia - which had already acquired Israeli weapon systems, that Tel-Aviv would block any requests to supply Ukraine with Israeli weapons.

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The Syria effect

For Tel Aviv, Europe’s new war is still a remote concern, and it pales in comparison with perceived threats on Israel’s immediate border. Containing Iran’s activities remains the country’s top priority, and the last thing officials in Tel Aviv want is to anger Russia and lose their operational edge in Syria.

Israeli politicians seem to agree that current Israeli-Russian relations are as good as it gets. This is especially true once placed against the backdrop of the non-linear, often tense relations between the former Soviet Union and the Jewish state.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the newly emerged Russian Federation deepened its ties with Israel on the societal, economic, and political levels.

In the early 2000s, economic cooperation and social ties (Israel has nearly 1.5 million Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants) were deprioritised, although not decentralised, in favour of the two sides' overlapping security and strategic interests.

Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 only deepened this so-called primacy of realpolitik. Israel benefited greatly from Russia’s ability to compartmentalise its foreign relations to maintain open channels with countries despite contradictions on certain policies. At this point, the Israeli military had already been conducting airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria.

"Containing Iran's activities remains the country's top priority, and the last thing officials in Tel Aviv want is to anger Russia and lose their operational edge in Syria"

To avoid unintentional military accidents, Israel and Russia set up a de-conflicting mechanism. It entailed frequent high-level discussions between Putin and the Israeli prime minister, as well as between the two countries’ defence ministers and intelligence service chiefs. This is in contrast to Turkey, whose activities in northern Syria have resulted in numerous military confrontations with Russia.

The Ukraine effect 

Despite its cooperative ties with Russia, Israel remains Washington’s closest ally, and US support is still the primary pillar in Israel’s national security doctrine. This has made maintaining an Israeli bilateral relationship with Russia vulnerable to external stressors.

In the past months, Moscow has been sending indirect but strong signals to Israel, starting with Russia rebuking Israel’s violation of Syrian airspace to, most recently, rejecting Israel’s demands to stop jamming GPS signals in Israeli airspace, which Moscow said was necessary to protect Russian troops at Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia.

In late January, Russian and Syrian air forces conducted joint patrols along the Israel-occupied Golan Heights. The patrols “will continue on a regular basis,” said Russia’s Ministry of Defence.

As the Russian army approaches Kyiv, Israeli-Russian tensions are set to rise. Tel Aviv fears that maintaining an ambiguous posture on the invasion will be difficult to defend. This is despite Israeli army commanders urging the government to remain neutral in the crisis.

Passengers disembark from an aeroplane carrying Jewish immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine, upon arrival in Israel's Ben Gurion Airport on 6 March 2022. [Getty]

If the crisis deepens, reported Israeli Channel 12, Israel will have no choice but to escalate beyond the soft condemnation approach. “Israel will be compelled to join the Western effort to impose sanctions,” said the Channel.

But this will not be without a price. Although the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv reassured Israelis that military coordination within Syria will continue as usual, many in Israel’s decision-making circles are apprehensive that as Russia becomes isolated, its regional policies will become more assertive and aggressive.

A primary casualty of a new Russian posture will be Israel’s freedom to operate in Syria against Iran. An isolated Russia will possibly resort to deepening its relationships with Syria and changing its “reserved friendship” with Iran to a more open and meaningful alliance.

Among other things, Russia will try to compensate for the losses resulting from economic sanctions by fulfilling some or all of Tehran’s shopping list of Russian weapons. Because of the sanctions, Iran’s ability to upgrade its arsenal, especially its antiquated air force, had been extremely difficult.

Tehran acquiring the long-coveted Russian SU-30 fighters and S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system, which Russia previously refrained from selling, will probably disturb the Tel Aviv-Iran power balance.

"Israel remains Washington's closest ally, and US support is still the primary pillar in Israel's national security doctrine. This has made maintaining a bilateral relationship with Russia vulnerable to external stressors"

This will be very bad news for Israel, suggests Ksenia Mitvim of the Institute for Regional Foreign Policy and a former Knesset member. Freer and better armed Iran might seek to substantiate its presence near the Israeli border.

The US attempt to accelerate the sealing of a nuclear deal with Tehran to neutralise Iran and curb a potential Russian-Iranian alliance might still present a difficult calculus for Tel Aviv. Bennett pre-emptively declared on Sunday that Israel will not be bound by any nuclear deal with Iran.

The situation might also change for Syria’s S-300 missile system, which has been under Russian control and  limited the Syrian military’s defence against Israel’s frequent attacks.

Tel Aviv is also concerned that antagonising Russia will provoke a wave of anti-Semitism against Ukraine and Russia’s large Jewish communities. Speculatively, Naftali Bennet’s secret visit to Moscow on Saturday aimed, among other things, to ensure the safety of these communities and possibly facilitate their immigration to Israel.

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As soon as the war erupted, Tel-Aviv invited Ukraine’s 200,000 Jews to immigrate to Israel. Around 10,000 of them are expected to arrive in the coming weeks and plans to construct 1,000 housing structures to accommodate them have been announced by the World Zionist Organisation’s Settlement Division.

This comes amid calls by Israeli military experts to enhance Israel’s military self-reliance, stressing how Washington let down Ukraine despite the former pledging in 1994 to assist the latter if it came under attack.

“When the day came, Ukraine was left on its own,” said Yaakov Amidror, former major general and National Security Advisor of Israel, suggesting that putting all of Israel’s eggs in Washington’s basket might not be the wise course of action.

Indeed, the Ukraine war has turned over the chess table. Whether it will have an impact on the Middle East’s geopolitical scene remains a question of degree, not kind.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa