Dear Israel, time to step up on Ukraine


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Since experiencing a number of setbacks on the battlefield, Russian President Putin has changed his tactics in the war in Ukraine. The good news is that this has not involved following through on his threats to use nuclear weapons, although the unpredictable nature of the Russian regime in the face of further defeats means that these threats can never be discounted and the latest kerfuffle over an alleged Ukrainian dirty bomb is a case in point. The bad news is that Putin has instead embarked on a campaign involving another type of mass destruction, namely against Ukraine’s electricity generation and energy infrastructure.

In the past month, several hundred Russian cruise missiles and kamikaze drones, many of them of Iranian origin, have smashed into power stations, electricity generators, storage facilities and hydroelectric plants across Ukraine. Cities like Kyiv and Lviv have been attacked for the first time in months. Ukrainian President Zelensky has claimed that Russia has severely damaged 30% of Ukraine’s electricity generation capacity; experts put the figure as high as 40%. Moreover, contrary to some analyses, Russia shows no sign of running out of missiles and drones, even if the attrition rate is high. For instance, during an attack on Kyiv on Saturday 22 October, the Ukrainian air force claimed to have shot down 18 of the 33 attacking Russian cruise missiles. It has also claimed a success rate as high as 70% against the Iranian-manufactured drones, saying that 330 have been intercepted thus far. But, as Moscow has ordered 1,700 of the Shahed 136 drones from Tehran and has just placed a supplementary order, no doubt Russia is counting on enough supply for these drones to reach their targets and have an effect. 

We can speculate on the reasons behind Putin’s decision to refocus the war on Ukraine’s civilians rather than its military forces. Destructive spite and a desire for revenge are no doubt part of it, following the success of the Ukrainian offensives around Kherson and south of Kharkiv. The sabotage of the Kerch Bridge linking Crimea to Russia was also a humiliation that put Putin under strong pressure from the nationalist media to respond forcefully. A punitive missile attack against Ukraine’s civilian and urban infrastructure to drive the Ukrainians into a winter of electricity blackouts, unheated homes, and food and water shortages probably strikes the Russian leader as the best way to break Ukraine’s will to resist and exacerbate the EU’s migration crisis by sending millions more cold and hungry Ukrainians westward. Missile attacks from the safety of distance are also less likely to lead to the deaths of thousands more Russian troops, buying more time to train the new contingent of 300,000 recently mobilised conscripts and avoiding too many body bags from coming back to Russia quickly.

Some EU member states from central and eastern Europe were calling for a special tribunal to be set up

So, beyond pure spite and the need to avoid being outflanked on the right by his super-charged nationalist critics, there may also be a strategic rationale to Putin’s scorched-earth strategy. He may hope that it will drive Zelensky and his government back to the negotiating table, while encouraging those Western countries that have been supporting Kyiv to have second thoughts as they see the increasing costs of keeping Ukraine going through the winter and paying for its reconstruction afterwards. This said, it was clearly too early for those second thoughts to be expressed when German Chancellor Scholz and European Commission President von der Leyen hosted an international conference on the reconstruction of Ukraine in Berlin last Tuesday.

No doubt the Russian strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure with little or no military use will certainly increase the charge sheet for Putin and his regime when it comes to war crimes indictments. At the EU Summit in Brussels last week, some EU member states from central and eastern Europe were calling for a special tribunal to be set up, similar to what we saw in the past for the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda. But international condemnation, punitive sanctions or Russia’s growing isolation, let alone the spectre of war crimes indictments, have never restrained Putin and his acolytes in the past. Having already committed so many war crimes in Ukraine, they probably think they have nothing more to lose.

The past few days have brought a further litany of Ukrainian towns and cities into darkness: the western city of Khmelnytskyi on the Bug River, with a pre-war population of 275,000; the city of Lutsk in the far west, with a pre-war population of 215,000; and the town of Uman in central Ukraine, with a pre-war population of 100,000 and which before the war was a centre of pilgrimage for Hasidic Jews. In Mykolaiv, people have had to queue for water and food for weeks. Less protected by air defences than the capital, these provincial cities have all appealed to Kyiv for help with diesel backup generators, spare parts and emergency repair teams to restore power to homes, schools, hospitals and factories. The Zelensky government has also introduced stringent electricity curfews during off-peak times of the day in an attempt to reduce consumption, while EU member states are beginning to help too. Spain, for instance, has just sent a batch of diesel generators.

NATO has little room for manoeuvre

Yet Ukraine’s most pressing need is for a countrywide air and missile defence system, not just one that protects Ukraine’s army in the field, key military facilities and larger cities. So far, Ukraine has done well with its own Soviet-era SA 8s and 10s, and the S300s given by Slovakia, but these supplies are limited, and it now urgently needs the most advanced NATO systems. This was the message that Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov took to the NATO defence ministers in Brussels the week before last. His pleas did not fall on stony ground. Germany has just sent four batteries of its most up-to-date air defence system, the IRIS-T, to Kyiv and the Biden administration has decided to transfer its long-range NASAMS interceptors, something that Kyiv has been seeking for months already. In the meantime, the Pentagon is sending some of its older-generation HAWK ground-to-air missiles. Allies also discussed how they can help Ukraine integrate all these various pieces of equipment into a comprehensive nationwide tracking and command and control system. For this to function, Ukraine will need help upgrading its tracking and fire control radars and early warning sensors. A day after the NATO meeting, the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at the Korber Foundation’s Foreign Policy Forum in Berlin, announced that NATO would give Ukraine anti-drone technologies, such as trackers, jammers and lasers.

The problem here is that NATO has little room for manoeuvre. Its own integrated air and missile defence architecture badly needs upgrading as well. Since they joined NATO 20 years ago, countries such as the Baltic states or Slovenia have only had a system of surveillance called air policing, with six-month missions rotating among the allies, rather than a fully-fledged air defence system. On the margins of the NATO defence ministers’ meeting, a consortium of 15 EU countries, led by Germany, signed a memorandum of understanding to set up a European Sky Shield. The project will examine how they can better pool and share their anti-air and anti-missile capabilities and establish a common integrated network as part and parcel of the future alliance Air Command and Control system. Although parts of this are already in place – for instance, NATO has an operational missile defence site in Romania, a tracking radar in Turkey and a missile defence and space commands at Ramstein in Germany – these were originally conceived to deal with threats from the south, notably from Iran, with its less sophisticated rocket force compared to Russia. Despite promises to give Kyiv everything it needs made at the last NATO meeting, and the announcement of a new $600mn defence package by the United States, NATO’s generosity will inevitably be constrained by its own, urgent requirements.

This has led Kyiv to turn to another potential supplier: Israel. The air and missile defence capabilities of Israel are legendary. The Iron Dome system has a near-perfect record in shooting down the Katyusha and Grad rockets that Hamas, the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip, periodically fires at Israel towns just over the border. With ample financial and technological support from the US, Israel has invested in a number of different missile defence systems. In addition to the Iron Dome, it has David’s Sling, Iron Beam, Barak 8 and the higher altitude Arrow interceptors. This broad panoply of capabilities corresponds to the diverse threats that Israel faces: from Hamas in Gaza; Hezbollah in Lebanon, which reportedly has an arsenal of 40,000 rockets and missiles; Syria, although its capabilities have been severely degraded during its internal conflict; and Iran, which has significantly upgraded its long-range ballistic missile and drone capabilities over the past decade. In addition to the Shahed 136 drones, Iran has developed a shorter-range Arash 2 drone, and Fateh 112 and Zolfaghar medium-range missiles. Israel’s full spectrum of air and missile defence shield is exactly what Ukraine needs, so unsurprisingly, its government has approached the authorities in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to see if they will offer some of their capabilities and know-how to Kyiv.

Israel recently offered to share with Kyiv its methods of civil preparedness and early warning of missile attacks

So far, the response has been disappointing. Israel has given some limited humanitarian aid to Ukraine but, up to now, has refused to impose sanctions against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine despite condemning it. Its unwillingness to break with Russia is easily understood. There are over one million Israelis of Russian descent and several Russian oligarchs have made Israel their home, running media organisations and football teams. More significantly for Israeli security, the country relies on Russia’s silent complicity when the Israeli air force or its special forces intervene in Syria to strike Iranian arms convoys traversing Syria to supply Tehran’s client, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Russia’s willingness to look away helps Israel keep Iranian-backed militias or the Syrian army away from the Israeli defensive positions on the Golan Heights, seized from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967.

At a time when Russia has greatly increased its strategic position in the Middle East and US relations with some of its major allies and partners in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, have been tense, Israel clearly sees the interest of keeping Russia on its side. Israel is a democracy and in many ways close to the Western world. Yet it has always put its immediate national security interests ahead of notions of alliance solidarity and preserved its freedom of action at all times. It has also been reluctant to sell its missile defence systems or share its technology with others. For instance, it recently turned down an offer from the UAE to buy the Iron Dome despite the recent normalisation of relations between the two countries under the US-sponsored Abraham Accords.

Facing international criticism for not doing more to help Ukraine, Israel recently offered to share with Kyiv its methods of civil preparedness and early warning of missile attacks. The country has a dense network of sirens, underground shelters and SMS messaging to its 8mn population. Yet, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk has responded negatively to this offer saying that it is not what his country needs. All the same, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz has ruled out the transfer of Israel’s anti-missile systems to Ukraine despite inviting Kyiv to send him a list of its needs at a recent meeting with EU ambassadors.

Beyond the military arguments, there are political and moral ones

The question is whether the US and Europe should be satisfied with Israel’s current exercise of realpolitik or put greater pressure on politicians in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to change course. Is Israel’s deference to Moscow in its own security interest as well? Russia and Iran have drawn closer since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and as Russia runs out of missiles, it is becoming increasingly dependent on supplies from Tehran. The money that Iran is receiving from Moscow will help it to modernise its missile and drone force and acquire useful operational experience in Ukraine that will help it make even deadlier missiles and drones. This has to be of concern to Israel, given that these capabilities could one day be used to strike Tel Aviv or Haifa. Indeed, last week the spokesman for the Israeli defence ministry, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, acknowledged that Iranian drones used against Ukraine were causing concern in Israeli defence circles. Thus, by providing the Iron Dome or David’s Sling to Kyiv, Israel would not only help Ukraine defend itself, but also gain useful operational experience of its own in seeing how well its systems can cope against Iranian weapons. This would be even more relevant if Russia starts using Iranian missiles and drones in the future.

If Israel is worried about technology leaks or transfer, it could sign special ‘black box’ and intellectual property protection agreements with the Ukrainian government, as the US often does with allies and partners under its International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) export legislation before selling sensitive military equipment. Moreover, Israel could insist that its missile defence batteries be located away from the front lines so that there is no risk of them falling into the hands of the Russian forces or their separatist proxies. Israel could also insist that its missile defence systems be loaned to Kyiv temporarily for the duration of the conflict and will have to be returned to the Israeli defence forces the moment the fighting comes to an end. Additionally, Israel could require for its systems not to be integrated into the Ukrainian air and missile defence architecture, which the NATO countries are contributing to, but should operate as a standalone system instead. Again, this would prevent any compromise of sensitive technologies.

Beyond the military arguments, there are political and moral ones as well. Public support for Israel in the Western world is based largely on the notion that it is ‘one of us’ and shares our values. Israel’s fight against terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in hostile hands, and its right to live in peace faced with unpredictable neighbours who are constantly threatening to take away its territory or to use cyber-attacks and other forms of hybrid warfare against it is also our fight. When it comes to basic security, we have so much in common. It cannot be good news for Israel if Russia subdues Ukraine and establishes the principle that ‘Might is Right’ in international relations and that aggression goes unpunished. It would be even worse if Moscow breaks the nuclear taboo and makes nuclear weapons instruments of warfighting and not only deterrence. Israelis who face Iranian threats to eliminate their state, and thus their very existence as a nation, must be sensitive to Putin’s threats to end Ukraine’s existence as an independent country within its internationally recognised borders.

It is time for Israel to be part of the Western security community

Israel is drawing closer to Europe in the energy field as it exploits its gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean and agrees on its maritime border with Lebanon. It is also a close partner of NATO. It is time for Israel to be part of the Western security community, put its long-term interests ahead of its short-term and show the solidarity with its Western friends and partners that it rightly expects from them when it suffers provocations from Hamas or terrorist attacks at home. Countries that systematically violate international law, commit war crimes and brutally repress their own populations cannot be viable partners for Israel.

Israel just hosted new elections. This may not be the best time to hold a national debate on aid to Ukraine, but then again, the election campaign may provide an indication of whether there are differences on this issue between the major parties. One cabinet minister has already broken ranks: Minister for Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai has called for a change in policy on Ukraine. Will this lone voice in Israeli politics be enough to start that national debate and persuade Israel to get off the fence? For the defence of Ukraine and the cohesion of the liberal democracies, let us hope so.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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