By Dmitri Shufutinsky
(JNS) A year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Israeli officials may feel the time is right to step up aid to Kyiv. To date, Jerusalem has withheld military aid to Ukraine, out of concern regarding the prospect of angering Russia, a country with a large Jewish population and a military presence on its border with Syria. Much to the frustration of the Ukranians, Israel has provided only humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainians, as well as diplomatic backing through United Nations votes and statements in the Knesset.
Now, however, it seems that the Jewish state is preparing for a potential policy shift.
Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, paid a visit to the Ukrainian capital in mid-February, promising up to $200 million in loan guarantees for humanitarian aid, visiting Dmytro Kuleba, his Ukrainian counterpart and holding a meeting with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Cohen also paid visits to Babyn Yar–the site of a massacre of Ukrainian Jews in the Second World War–as well as Bucha, a town where Russian troops massacred Ukrainian civilians.
Zelenskyy and Cohen discussed bilateral relations as well as working together to counter Iran. The Islamic Republic has provided hundreds of drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, and is likely to send another shipment of such weapons, as well as ballistic missiles. Just days later, Yuli Edelstein of Israel’s ruling Likud Party and Ze’ev Elkin of the opposition National Unity party also visited Ukraine for high-level meetings with officials. Both lawmakers were born in Ukraine, and demanded that Israel stop “sitting on the sidelines” and provide unequivocal, expanded support to the embattled nation.
All of this begs the question: Is Israel about to openly take sides in this war and openly oppose the Kremlin?
Though it shares much in common with embattled Ukraine, Israel is still very hesitant to challenge Russia, not least because it is itself currently mired in crisis.
“Israel is in the midst of an unprecedented internal crisis, therefore the government is impaired when it comes to the change of course on Russia and Ukraine,” said Ariel Cohen, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
“The provision of weapons systems is extremely limited, and is focusing on some defensive measures; this is not the time for Israel to talk about offensive systems,” Cohen told JNS, adding that there were three main reasons for this.
“The main challenges for Israel in terms of operation with Ukraine against Russia are threefold. One is that Russia is a major defense industry partner of Iran, and Jerusalem is trying to limit Russian military tech and sales from Moscow to Tehran. Second, Russia is playing a key role in Syria and has an understanding with Jerusalem about freedom of operations for the Israeli Air Force there. Last, but not least, the Jewish community in Russia is a de facto hostage population–the Kremlin may severely limit immigration in case of Putin’s displeasure with Israel’s activities towards Kyiv,” he said.
“Jerusalem is extremely limited, therefore, in what it can or cannot do,” he added.
Indeed, some 15% of Israel’s population speaks Russian. In 2011, Putin even stated that both Israel and Russia were “part of a common family.” In what was described as a “one-off incident,” Russian forces launched an S-300 surface-to-air missile at Israeli jets over Syria last summer. It is possible that this was truly a one-off incident, given Russia’s repeated (and increasingly aggressive) condemnations of Israeli air strikes in Syria, this could be a warning from the Kremlin that Israel would be better off staying out of the Ukraine war.
Of additional concern could be Israel’s increasingly positive relationship with Azerbaijan, which opened an embassy in Tel Aviv this year and is growing closer to the West in light of sanctions targeting Russian oil sales. Iran, which is fast becoming a close ally of Russia, has already expressed alarm over potential Israeli bases on its border with Azerbaijan. Given that Baku has historically been fearful of Moscow and borders what some call “Russia’s soft underbelly,” it is possible that the Kremlin shares similar fears and wants to put Israel in its place.
Of further note is that Azerbaijan has poor relations with Iran, as Iran and Russia both tend to side with Armenia over the conflict with Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh, to Armenians), while Israel supports Azerbaijan. With Israel’s natural gas fields preparing to sell gas to Europe and several Central Asian countries readying to do the same in the Caspian Sea, Israel has started solidifying ties with the area’s Turkic states–which are all wary of Moscow. Israel’s warming ties with Turkey are an important part of this strategy.
Russia does not want Israel—a strong and Western-aligned country—to take advantage of its weakness and get too big for its britches. Given the unpredictability of weakening great powers and authoritarian regimes, Israel is not quite sure how far it can, or should, push Russia.
If Israel takes a more pro-Ukraine stance in the war, its relations with the West—already strained due to ongoing tensions with the Palestinians—could improve. Not long before the Israeli officials visited Ukraine, a number of drone strikes attributed to the Jewish state by anonymous Western officials and media outlets targeted Iranian drone factories. Around the same time, alleged Israeli air strikes hit other Iranian drone factories in Syria. Notably, Russia condemned the airstrikes. Ukraine was quick to praise the attacks, while pledging to cooperate with Israel against Iran and isolate the country.
Yevhen Korniychuk, Ukraine’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, has requested more Israeli military assistance while also praising the Jewish state for its aid so far. President Zelenskyy stated that Israel is Ukraine’s most “important Middle Eastern partner.”
So far, Israel has not taken the plunge into providing weapons to Ukraine. It has a lot on its plate, with internal issues like judicial reform, ongoing Palestinian violence and Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Furthermore, Russia has warned Israel not to send weapons to Kyiv. Israel, for now, is perhaps going to stay the course, limiting its assistance to humanitarian aid.
Signals coming out of Kyiv and Jerusalem, however, indicate that there is growing interest in eventually increasing the level of aid and cooperation. If things calm down enough for Israel on the domestic scene, we may perhaps see a gradual change in policy regarding Israeli military aid to Ukraine.
Main Photo: Israelis carry placards and flags during a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Jerusalem, Oct. 22, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.