The Ukraine counteroffensive and the Middle East

BEHIND THE LINES: Ukraine success in the upcoming offensive will serve to stave off the possible realization of this picture. 

 A UKRAINIAN police officer inspects parts of an Iranian-made Shahed-136 suicide drone at the site of a Russian strike on fuel storage facilities in Kharkiv in October 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/VYACHESLAV MADIYEVSKYY)
A UKRAINIAN police officer inspects parts of an Iranian-made Shahed-136 suicide drone at the site of a Russian strike on fuel storage facilities in Kharkiv in October 2022.

Media reports over the last week have announced the long-awaited arrival of the Ukrainian spring counteroffensive against the invading Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. These announcements appear to be somewhat premature. As of now, the Ukrainian forces appear to be still at a stage of testing Russian responses and probing for vulnerabilities at multiple points along the front line. The decisive effort still lies ahead. 

All this might seem rather distant. The Middle East is currently passing through a moment of strategic tension. Evidence is gathering for a US push for a partial nuclear agreement with Iran, which threatens to leave Israel isolated in its stance of defiance against Tehran’s regional ambitions. Faced with this, the war in Ukraine might seem like an irrelevance, a far-off conflict of passing concern. Such a perception, however, would be mistaken. 

The strategic relationship between Tehran and Moscow has deepened exponentially as a result of the Ukraine war. The connection goes far beyond drones. Iran looks set to make a giant leap in its defensive capacities as a result of the crucial assistance it is currently rendering Moscow. 

There is today a de facto Moscow-Tehran alliance. As such, a decisive defeat for Moscow in its Ukraine invasion will be a defeat for Iran too. The seismic shocks such a defeat might well set off in Russia would weaken Moscow’s capacity for offering support and assistance to its emergent Mideast partner. 

The state of Ukraine's offensive action

Regarding the state of play in the offensive, while Western media reports are focusing on the capture of some villages by the Ukrainians in the Donetsk region, the most serious analysis as yet concludes that the decisive starting point has not yet been reached. Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, who commanded the United States Army in Europe and held senior command positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, writing this week at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), noted that the Ukrainian battlefield has not yet witnessed the gathering and deployment of large-scale Ukrainian armored and mechanized formations at a single point. 

According to Western media reports, Ukraine has created eight new combat brigades, of armored and mechanized infantry forces, and has been engaged in recent months in training these brigades to spearhead the counteroffensive during the summer. When two or three of these brigades (500-750 armored vehicles) are assembled and deployed on a narrow point in the frontline, it will be clear that the Ukrainian push has begun in earnest. This point has not yet been reached. It may still lie days, or weeks ahead. 

According to Hodges, three sets of considerations will be paramount in the minds of Ukrainian commanders when deciding that this moment has come: Does Ukraine possess sufficient combat power to punch through the Russian defenses; have these defenses been sufficiently disrupted and softened up in the preliminary moves; and have the optimal weather conditions been reached? 

In the latter regard, it is worth noting that eastern Ukraine has an average of 15 days of rain in May, and this year there has been some rainfall in early June. This may offer a clue. The armored vehicles of Ukraine’s new formations will need dry, hard ground for a rush to cover the 84 km. between their current lines and the town of Melitopol, predicted by many to be the likely direction of the push, when it comes. 

If an advance toward Melitopol comes, it will be a station on the way to an attempt to reach the Sea of Azov, and thus cut off the Russian “land bridge” to Crimea, the main strategic achievement of Moscow in the war so far. But while the Ukrainians need dry ground to advance, they also cannot wait too long. The rains begin again in September. 

The offensive, even if successful, is unlikely to bring a rapid end to the war. But successes over the summer will ensure continued Western support for the further prosecution of the Ukrainian war effort, preventing a scenario in which Western will begins to fray. 

The Russian game plan, clearly, is to hold on and outlast Ukraine and its backers in a contest of wills, securing the gains made since February 2022. The strategic picture that Moscow adheres to, and wishes to establish in fact in its Ukraine war, is one in which the West is rudderless, incapable of sustained effort, and therefore vulnerable to attack and to the slow erosion of its areas of influence. 

Ukraine success in the upcoming offensive will serve to stave off the possible realization of this picture. 

THIS MATTERS to Israel because the maintenance of Western prestige and power is also Israeli strategic interest. But, more concretely, it matters because Israel’s main regional enemy is a key element of the Russian war effort. New information released by the Biden administration in early June shows the extent of Iranian assistance to the Russian war effort in Ukraine. The administration has referred to Tehran in recent weeks as Russia’s “top military backer.” 

This assistance is not limited to the kamikaze drones with which Russia is terrorizing Ukrainian cities. Tank rounds, artillery shells and ammunition are all being transported overland and then across the Caspian Sea from the Amirabad Seaport on Iran’s northern coast to Russia. This landlocked lake is beyond the reach of US and NATO naval power. 

In an indication of the West’s declining prestige, the other three countries that border the Caspian – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – are reluctant to join in implementing sanctions against Russia and would be of course very far from any attempt to physically interfere with Iran’s transfers of arms and materiel. 

The administration further revealed that Tehran is set to assist Russia to produce the needed drones domestically. A manufacturing plant could be operating at a site east of Moscow by early next year, according to a statement by John Kirby, spokesman for the US National Security Council. 

All this is not a one-way street, of course. In return, Russia is set to supply Iran with Su-35 fighter jets, attack helicopters and possibly, and most significantly, with the S-400 air defense system. All these systems, once integrated, would enormously assist the Iranian capacity for defending its airspace. 

This emergent partnership has non-military aspects too. In an agreement signed last month, Russia and Iran pledged to build a north-south transportation corridor, buttressing the maritime links across the Caspian through the construction of railway lines adjacent to it. Such a system would serve to strengthen the capacity to bypass Western sanctions. 

In short, as the NSC spokesman put it: “The support is flowing both ways: from Iran to Russia and from Russia to Iran. Russia has been offering Iran unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles, electronics and air defense. This is a full-scale defense partnership that is harmful to Ukraine, to Iran’s neighbors and the international community.”

On the other side, meanwhile, Israel has in recent months, according to local media reports, approved sending both missile early-warning systems and anti-drone systems to Ukraine. 

 The tectonic plates move slowly. But they move. An anti-Israel alliance will in the near future receive a hammer blow from Ukrainian fighters using Western weapons systems. It is in Israel’s interest that the hammer strikes home. We will know soon.