With the first anniversary of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine approaching, it is an appropriate time for Israel to examine the important lessons that can be learned, or relearned, from the ongoing bloodshed. Undeniably, much of what has occurred in Eastern Europe testifies to uncomfortable truths about enduring global realities.
Hard power matters
Since the turn of the century, it has been argued that national security is increasingly a function of soft power – the ability to co-opt, rather than to coerce. Soft power advocates focus on a country’s culture, reputation, values and international friendships.
Ukraine has an unmistakable soft power advantage over Russia. Kyiv’s valiant President Volodymyr Zelensky, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” for 2022, has come to epitomize the struggle of all democracies against authoritarian aggression – the fighting symbol of the “rules-based international order.”
Yet, if the Russian military had defeated Ukraine in a matter of days – as many experts initially predicted – Kyiv’s soft power would not have counted for much. Without the requisite soldiers, guns and battlefield bravery, Ukraine’s moral high ground would have been immaterial in fending off the Russian invasion, as happened in the cases of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).
There are similarities with Israel’s War of Independence (1948-49). The organized international community strongly identified with the long-persecuted Jews’ struggle for statehood. But had the attack launched by the surrounding Arab states succeeded in destroying Israel at birth, and the Jews not been able to physically defend their newfound sovereignty, Jewish soft power would have been meaningless.
Support goes to winners
Although underdogs elicit sympathy, it is the winners who receive backing. During the past year, Kyiv has garnered impressive international assistance because it has effectively stood up to Russia’s aggression, with more and better weapons arriving from the West following Ukraine’s battlefield victories.
There is an Israeli parallel. Israel’s most important strategic partner is unquestionably the US. The narrative surrounding US-Israel ties portrays a relationship that goes back to president Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel immediately following the May 14, 1948 Declaration of Independence.
However, history is more complicated. Truman might have extended diplomatic recognition, but he did not offer much else. In fact, his administration imposed an arms embargo upon Israel and the Arab states that only reinforced the Arabs’ preexisting quantitative advantage (largely provided by the British). And throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s, US policymakers kept Israel at arm’s length, fearing that being too close would push the Arabs into the Soviet side of the Cold War.
It was Israel’s dramatic victory in the June 1967 Six Day War – facilitated by French-supplied Mirage, Mystère, and Ouragan fighter aircraft – that changed Washington’s calculation. America has no need for a small and weak ally, so when Israel showed itself to be the preeminent regional military power, the US-Israel relationship could take off.
Treaties don’t guarantee peace
In 1994, the newly independent Ukraine voluntarily relinquished its nuclear weapons – a residual capacity from Soviet times. For this, Kyiv received signed commitments from Washington and Moscow that guaranteed Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity, as well as a pledge that military force would never be used against it.
President Vladimir Putin’s blatant disregard for that commitment is not an aberration. History is full of examples of wars breaking out in violation of existing treaties: Hitler’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s 1980 attack on Iran being just two particularly egregious cases.
Israel is often told that peace treaties with its neighbors will create genuine and lasting security. But refusing to embrace this ahistorical thesis, successive Israeli governments have insisted that given the turbulent geopolitical realities of the Middle East, any such agreements leave it with defendable borders and security arrangements that protect the peace – and safeguard Israel if the peace is violated. Kyiv’s recent experience with dishonored treaties should only reinforce Jerusalem’s longstanding skepticism.
Entrenched positions are not easily forsaken
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the independence granted to former Soviet republics like Ukraine, created a wave of global optimism, with many seeing it as the ultimate victory of the liberal world order.
But irrespective of whether its rulers were reactionary tsars or revolutionary Bolsheviks, Russia has long perceived Ukraine as part of its national birthright. And having been twice invaded from the West – by Napoleon (1812) and Hitler (1941) – this entrenched nationalist viewpoint was reinforced by geostrategic considerations: Ukraine became viewed as Russia’s indispensable security barrier.
Putin is not the first Russian leader who has sought to curtail Ukrainian sovereignty. Presumably, he won’t be the last.
If Russians have had a historic problem with an independent Ukraine, the Palestinians have had one with the Jewish state. The Palestinian national movement crystallized around total opposition to Zionism and Jewish sovereignty.
Changing such an approach necessitates the current Palestinian leadership repudiating its predecessors, who could have established their own state alongside the Jews as far back as 1937 and 1947, but instead rejected consecutive partition compromises.
More recently – in the Camp David negotiations (2000), in response to Ehud Olmert’s peace plan (2008), and in the talks over John Kerry’s framework agreement (2014) – Palestinian maximalism was again on display.
Is this deeply rooted Palestinian stance really going to be jettisoned for the sort of mini-state that could have been founded decades ago? And if so, for how long?
No military solution
While military prowess has successfully defended Ukrainian independence – an achievement of enormous importance – it still does not bring about peace. On the contrary, many analysts currently maintain that Ukraine’s war with Russia could continue indefinitely without either side being able to impose its will on the other.
A ceasefire agreement with its large neighbor might require some difficult – and, for Kyiv, repugnant – political concessions. It could necessitate flexibility on issues where Ukraine is convinced that it has justice on its side, like acquiescing to Russian control of Crimea and renouncing future NATO membership.
When a serious Middle East peace opportunity arises, Israel can face an analogous dilemma. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly argued that the Jewish claim to the West Bank is both authentic and legitimate. Nonetheless, in 2020, for normalization with the United Arab Emirates, he shelved plans for a partial annexation.
There was once a road-safety campaign telling Israeli drivers: “Don’t be right, be smart” – a disagreeable truth that doesn’t just apply to motorists.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.