Jerusalem maintains delicate balancing act over Russia-Ukraine tensions

Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia, and currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said the Russian president’s main ambition is “to make Russia a global superpower.” That has implications for Israel.

A Ukrainian solider. Credit: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock.
A Ukrainian solider. Credit: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock.

The perceived Western European notion that a major war cannot again occur on the continent is quickly dissipating as Russia continues to threaten war with Ukraine. Even with the flurry of diplomatic activity on the part of the United States and Europe to reduce tensions, the threat is not going away and could materialize at any time.

“We are in the window. Any day now, Russia could take military action against Ukraine, or it could be a couple of weeks from now, or Russia could choose to take the diplomatic path instead,” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday.

Since then, the situation has only escalated as Russian troops, in addition to at least six ships that have entered the Black Sea to boost its combat power, have moved in around Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders. Its only reprieve remains NATO countries to its west.

Concerns abound that a full-scale invasion by Russia could result in as many as 50,000 civilian casualties and force some 5 million Ukrainians to become refugees. Israel, in particular, is engaged in preparations should the need arise to absorb Jewish Ukrainian refugees on short notice.

Ksenia Svetlova, a research fellow at Mitvim Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a former member of Knesset, told JNS that while Israel is carefully preparing for a possible evacuation of Jews and Israeli citizens residing in Ukraine, “it is also careful not to make statements that will be perceived as an attempt to take sides.”

“In the event of war, where there may be multiple casualties, it may be difficult for Israel to maintain this neutral profile,” she noted, adding there might be “consequences for Israel” where it may need to support the American position or “interfere for the sake of the Jewish communities there.”

‘No one knows where Putin is headed’

Israel currently maintains a delicate balancing act as it works to preserve its good relationship with both Russia and Ukraine.

Dima Course, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science at Ariel University, told JNS this situation “is specifically challenging from the Israeli perspective because of our alliance with the U.S.”

“However,” he said, “in most scenarios, the Israeli leadership will have enough space to maneuver between the sides.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Oct. 22, 2021. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.

Course suggested this maneuverability is important since both Russia and Ukraine are “significant partners” of Israel.

This delicate balance became the focus of attention on Feb. 3 when Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgeny Kornichuk criticized Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s remarks regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict in a statement posted on Facebook. The Foreign Ministry summoned Kornichuk for a reprimand.

As the world focuses on Ukraine, it remains clear to many experts that Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to use Ukraine as a pawn for the movement of larger ambitions in the region.

Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia, and currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told JNS that Putin’s main ambition is “to make Russia a global superpower.” Following that goal, Putin would like to keep ex-Soviet territories under Russian control. At a minimum, Putin wants to postpone Ukraine joining NATO for as long as possible and to end sanctions against Russia.

Addressing an INSS conference, Magen acknowledged that “no one knows where Putin is headed or how far he intends to go, including those in his immediate surroundings. The probability is low that Putin will go for an all-out war. Apparently, that’s also the assumption in the West. The question is what Putin will do instead.”

Magen said he thinks Russia is trying to prove it is a global power, in part by operating in Syria. And while Moscow has flexed its muscles on the Syria-Israel border recently, “there is no attempt to threaten Israel,” he stressed.

He emphasized that Putin would like to see a change in the world order, believing that there’s been enough of a unipolar world with one, single leading superpower.

“Western nations are willing to give Russia a ladder to climb down from the tree. Nobody knows what the next step is,” said Magen. “Putin is blatantly stepping on the table of the Western system hoping they will blink. There’s now another superpower called Russia that’s dictating the world order.”

‘Trying to restructure European security architecture’

Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, addressed an online conference held by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) on Feb. 7, during which she agreed with other experts that this crisis “is manufactured by Russia” and is not “a situation born out of real concerns.”

“This is about a lot more than just Ukraine,” she said. “At the heart of the issue is that Western and Russian worldviews are coming to a clash. For the Kremlin, this is about fundamentally changing the post-Cold War world order. The Kremlin’s problem is that it cannot live in a U.S.-led world order.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) greets Israel’s President Isaac Herzog upon his arrival to Ukraine, in part to address an international gathering marking 80 years since the Babi Yar massacre, Oct. 5, 2021. Source: Isaac Herzog/Twitter.

In addition, she said, “Russia is trying to restructure European security architecture, and that will have global implications.”

Borshchevskaya said what concerns her most is that the West will start to make concessions to Moscow. “That will be the worst thing possible because it will not end well for Ukraine,” she warned. “We need to move towards deterrence, which in this case, means hard power.”

Speaking at the same conference, Daniel Rakov, an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East and a fellow at the JISS, said that this crisis “is bad timing for Israel because it is concurrent with the negotiations with Iran in Vienna.”

“For Israel, this is an existential issue,” he said, adding that in Israel’s view, the Ukraine-Russia crisis is a distraction from a much more important issue.

Rakov noted that Russia is working to project power and influence. And in recent weeks, it has sent signals to Israel and Western powers that it can do so.

For instance, Russia was found to be using GPS jamming from Syrian soil, affecting large parts of northern and central Israel. It also conducted joint land and air patrols with Syrians near Israel’s border.

According to Rakov, “this signifies the tension in the air which Israel must consider.”

He also noted that Russia recently deployed ships to the eastern Mediterranean, the first major Russian military naval deployment there in years.

“More Russian deployment brings more Western deployment, so the eastern Mediterranean is quite a tense place currently,” he said. “These types of tensions have led Israel to keep a low profile on the Russian-Ukraine crisis.”

Rakov agreed with the other experts JNS spoke with that this is not a conflict between Moscow and Kyiv, but rather, a conflict about the world order. Offering advice to Israel’s leadership, he suggested that “as frustrating as it will be to our Ukrainian and Western partners, Israel’s obscure position best serves its interests.”

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