Ukraine: A cautionary tale for Israel

While Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, may be 2,100 kilometers from Jerusalem, the vast distance does not detract from some of the key lessons that Israel can learn from the conflict raging to our north.

 A civilian trains to throw Molotov cocktails to defend the city, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine March 1, 2022 (photo credit: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters)
A civilian trains to throw Molotov cocktails to defend the city, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine March 1, 2022
(photo credit: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters)

There is, I am told, an old Ukrainian proverb, which, loosely translated, says, “The obliging fool is worse than an enemy.”

This saying has likely been on the minds of quite a few Ukrainians in recent days as they surely look back and wonder why their leadership agreed to strip themselves of the country’s nuclear arsenal in the early 1990s.

After all, it seems safe to say that had Ukraine chosen to hold on to its nuclear bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, a certain bully named Vladimir Putin would probably have shied away from sending tens of thousands of troops to storm his neighbor.

While Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, may be 2,100 kilometers from Jerusalem, the vast distance does not detract from some of the key lessons that Israel can learn from the conflict raging to our north.

Indeed, Russia’s assault on Ukraine is a cautionary tale for the Jewish state, one that we would do well to contemplate.

 Remains of a residential building destroyed by shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, are pictured in Zhytomyr, Ukraine March 2, 2022. (credit: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters) Remains of a residential building destroyed by shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, are pictured in Zhytomyr, Ukraine March 2, 2022. (credit: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters)

To begin with, there is the matter of “international security guarantees,” a subject that has been broached over the years as a possible component of any peace deal in which Israel would be expected to turn over tangible strategic assets such as territory to a hostile Palestinian entity.

In exchange, the thinking has gone, Jerusalem would receive various international assurances, promises and pledges to compensate for the inevitable loss of military advantage and deterrence.

But if anyone seriously still believes that “security guarantees” have any meaning, they would do well to speak to one of the countless Ukrainians currently spending nights in underground metro stations for fear of Russian aerial or artillery strikes.

It is important to recall that back in 1991, after the Soviet Union blessedly collapsed, Ukraine found itself in possession of one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, as it had served as home to approximately one-third of the Soviets’ atomic weapons inventory.

The country quickly came under heavy pressure to denuclearize and the Ukrainian leadership subsequently agreed to dismantle all its nuclear weapons and formally join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

On December 5, 1994, Ukraine signed a document known as the Budapest Memorandum, together with Russia, the United States and Great Britain, which in retrospect makes for satirical reading, especially in light of the events of the past week.

In the text of the agreement, Moscow, Washington and London all solemnly committed themselves, in writing no less, “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and reaffirmed “their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

While the memorandum did not explicitly state that the US, Britain or anyone else would come to Ukraine’s defense in case of an invasion, the implication is clear that in exchange for forgoing its nuclear arsenal, Ukraine was receiving assurances that its existence would not be threatened.

Sadly, as Russia’s current attempt to conquer Ukraine indicates, documents such as the Budapest Memorandum have a shelf life similar to that of a bowl of borscht left out on a dining room table.

For that reason alone, it behooves Israeli decision-makers to discard the notion of ever relying on similar external guarantees of our nation’s security.

If the world is willing to sit back and watch the largest ground war Europe has seen since World War II and leave Ukraine to its fate, we should be under no illusions as to whether even our closest friends and allies would come to Israel’s defense if need be.

The conflict in Ukraine also provides a telling example of how territory and strategic depth remain crucial in today’s world. The vastness of Ukraine, the total area of which is more than 600,000 sq. km., makes overrunning it far more challenging for the Russian occupiers, who must contend with everything from logistical nightmares to overstretched supply lines.

Israel, of course, is far smaller in size than Ukraine, but that does not take away from the point. If anything, it enhances its importance. Precisely because the Jewish state is so small, it can ill afford to give up any territory to its neighbors, for every square kilometer is that much more precious and inestimable in strategic, historic and military value.

In the face of the Russian onslaught, Ukrainians from all walks of life have been stepping forward and volunteering to defend their homeland, insisting with fierce determination that they will never countenance turning over any part of their territory to foreign control.

And that, perhaps, is the most important lesson of all that some Israelis would do well to learn.

Rather than viewing portions of our ancestral patrimony as chips to be used at a bargaining table, we should instead be guided by a deep and abiding faith, confident in the justness of our cause and cognizant of the fact that, simply put, we can rely only on Divine providence and on ourselves. 

The writer served as deputy communications director under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term of office.