Israel will feel repercussions from Ukraine - analysis

When it comes to Russia, the drill of having to balance heart and mind is one Israel knows all too well.

 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Moscow in September. (photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Moscow in September.
(photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

Maybe it’s the curse of the Beijing Olympics.

For the second time in 14 years, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is either going to war or posed to go to war against one of the states that made up the former Soviet Union, just as athletes are racing and competing and flying through the air at an Olympics in Beijing.

The first time was in August 2008, when Russia fought Georgia for five days over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Russo-Georgian War as the summer Olympics were being held in China. The second time is now, with Russia poised to invade Ukraine as Beijing is hosting the Winter Games. In both cases, the war/tension had to do with moves of both countries to join NATO.

As the world waits to see whether Putin will invade Ukraine, triggering a war with Kyiv that could involve the United States and engulf much of Europe, Israel – while watching the developments carefully – has maintained a decidedly low profile, issuing no public statements and refraining from taking sides. Just like in 2008.

When it comes to Russia, this drill of having to balance heart and mind is one Israel knows all too well.

Ukrainian Jews return to Israel. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Ukrainian Jews return to Israel. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Back in 2008, Israel’s heart – led by some 80,000 Georgian Jews living in Israel – was with the pro-Western, pro-American Georgians. But its mind dictated that it take a neutral stance, and stop selling offensive weapons to the Georgians, as it had done in the past.

This was some seven years before Russia came to the aid of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria and camped in full force on Israel’s back doorstep. However, even then Israel had a strong interest in not wanting to do anything perceived as gratuitously poking the Russian bear in the eye. So it didn’t. It stayed out of the fray, even though the Americans were strongly behind the Georgians. Israel’s policy earned the appreciation of the Kremlin.

As a senior Russian diplomat told The Jerusalem Post at the time, Moscow very much appreciated Israel’s “balanced” handling of the situation and of “not selling offensive weapons” to the Georgians. That Israeli decision was not lost on the Russians, who were at the time in negotiations to sell sophisticated, game-changing weapons to Syria and Iran.

Fast forward 14 years, and only the name of the country the Russians may invade, as the Olympics are ongoing in Beijing, has changed. Now it is Ukraine – as it was eight years ago when Israel also took a neutral stance as Putin moved into Crimea – not Georgia.

Today, as was the case in 2008, there is a strong emotional sentiment here toward the possible victim of Russia’s military action because of a large community of Ukrainian Jews in Israel, because of Israel’s close ties with Ukraine, and because it is so heavily backed by the US and shares Israel’s Western values. Israel’s relationship with Ukraine – in terms of trade and mutual interests – is much greater than it ever was with Georgia.

By the same token, Israel’s interest in not wanting to rankle the Russians is even greater now than it was in 2008, because of their presence in Syria and because of the complications Moscow could cause for Israel in the region if it chose to do so.

AS MUCH AS Israel will try to stay out of the crisis brewing in Eastern Europe, and even if it succeeds in doing so, the ramifications of what happens there will surely be felt here as well.

The first place where the fallout will be felt will be Iran. Regardless of whether Putin sends his tanks rolling into Ukraine, Iran stands poised to benefit from this crisis.

If Putin does trigger a war, then this will distract the world from the Iranian nuclear issue and prove a convenient time for the Iranians to move forward on their program, unimpeded by a West that will surely be preoccupied by the goings on in Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis has already eclipsed Iran as the top foreign policy issue for Washington, and the Biden Administration – whose foreign policy team at the top is widely viewed as thin as it is – will be hard-pressed to give the Iranian issue the full attention it needs while managing the crisis in Eastern Europe.

But if Putin does not trigger a war, then the tension generated by this standoff will not simply dissipate, rather it will be transferred to other areas. In this scenario, the Russians and the Chinese will increasingly view their relationship with the US as a zero-sum game, meaning a loss for America anywhere is a win for them. The Russians may see an Iranian victory over the US in the nuclear negotiations chess match as a victory for them, and help it happen.

That’s the downside.

The one possible upside of Russia and China backing Iran diplomatically is that it could, as it did with former US president Barack Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Iran, push Israel’s newfound Sunni Arab friends – the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, alongside with Egypt – closer to Israel as a bulwark against the Iranians. In this scenario, the Saudis could even conceivably join the mix.

A similar scenario could emerge if Putin does move into Ukraine and US President Joe Biden does not respond forcefully. This would only reinforce a feeling among many in the Mideast – a feeling that gained traction following America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan – that the US is not a reliable ally. This, too, could serve as a catalyst to even closer relations between Israel and its new regional friends. 

Beyond Iran, what is happening in Ukraine also stands to have a strong impact on developments in Syria. In fact, many believe they already have. A Russian announcement of joint patrols with the Syrian Air Force, as well as Russian reconnaissance flights last month near the Golan, are signals that if America makes things difficult for Russia, then Russia can make things very difficult for America’s chief Mideast ally. Such joint patrols will make it much more difficult for Israel to hit Iranian assets inside Syria.

Russia’s new moves in Syria took place even before Putin moved into Ukraine and faced any kind of stiff US and Western response. And that means that as much as Israel might want and strive to stay out of this conflict, the reverberations of what is happening thousands of kilometers away will surely be felt here.