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Israel fears a clash with Russia if it were to arm Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet in Sochi, Russia on October 22, 2021 [Israeli Government Press Office/Anadolu Agency]
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet in Sochi, Russia on October 22, 2021 [Israeli Government Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

The Ukrainian war continues to have negative effects on Russian-Israeli relations where, recently, there was a warning by former Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, to Israel that if it offered military assistance to Ukraine, it would seriously harm relations with Moscow. This warning came in light of continued Western pressure on Tel Aviv to provide Kyiv with air defence systems, and a call by Israeli ministers to provide military assistance to it, after allegations that Tehran provided Moscow with surface-to-surface ballistic missiles.

Medvedev's threats come as more and more pressure is exerted by Europe and the US on Israel to join in military support to Ukraine, at least in the form of defence systems. Israel has, so far, refrained from providing such assistance as it does not want to harm strategic relations with Moscow, which may, in turn, negatively affect Israeli army attacks in Syria.

Medvedev's warning came in response to statements by Israeli Diaspora Minister, Nachman Shai, who called for military assistance to Ukraine

following reports that Iran is preparing to transfer surface-to-surface ballistic missiles to Russia, while it is currently providing it with drones. Minister Shai claimed that it is time for Israel to provide Ukraine with military assistance, like the United States and NATO are doing. Reports have revealed that Israel is already providing Ukraine with basic information about the Iranian drones used by Moscow.

Israelis worry about crossing a Russian red line when it comes to arming Ukraine. The main dilemma facing Israel, however, is that it is difficult to have a strategic discussion about the developments of the war amid a heated election campaign, especially since the recent Russian bombings over Ukraine, using Iranian drones, have caused concern in Tel Aviv.  Meanwhile, these bombings do not seem to significantly improve Moscow's achievements on the various battlefronts in Ukraine but, rather, only improve its capabilities to gather intelligence and, above all, help it locate Ukraine's artillery, anti-aircraft batteries and the routes of its large, armoured vehicles.

READ: Israel concerned over Russia's use of Iran suicide drones in Ukraine

The continued escalation of the war in Ukraine is causing a dilemma for Israel, especially after Iran became involved on the military level and provided Russia with its drones and, possibly, ballistic missiles. This has prompted military officials in Tel Aviv to hold serious discussions about their position on the situation, claiming it represents a sample of Tehran's growing power and surprising weakness of Russia, which is importing technology it should have possessed many years ago.

All of this would increase Israeli-Russian tension, which was probably topped by the recent public Israeli condemnation of the Russian bombing of Kyiv and that is why Israelis are expecting a serious confrontation with Putin. Although more than 80 per cent of the Israelis, according to polls by the Ukrainian embassy in Tel Aviv, support Kyiv, they fail to talk about military aid because of fear of Russian forces in Syria, which withdrew their entire army, including air defence systems, because of the Ukraine war, and only left a limited number of soldiers in some military bases.

Meanwhile, some Israeli leaders started demanding additional military assistance to Ukraine, especially after the Russian missile attack on Kyiv and Lviv, and they asked for equipping Ukraine with the Iron Dome. Officially, Israel opposed this for fear of Russia's reaction in Syria, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a warning to the Israelis in Ukraine asking them to leave.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognised two breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognised two breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

As battles in Ukraine are getting fiercer with the Russian army, Israel is getting more involved. There are increasing internal Israeli calls to support Kyiv on the military level, even if secretly, and there is also increasing tension because of Iran's supplying Russia with drones and combat equipment. Ukraine has requested that Israel supply it with defence systems against Iranian missiles and drone attacks, while Israel has expressed its deep concern over the military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.

The Ukrainian message included a request to obtain specific systems, the most important of which were the Iron Beam, Barak 8, Patriot, Iron Dome, David's Sling and Arrow systems, as well as training Ukrainian operators, but Israel announced that it would continue to support Ukraine according to its limits.

What is remarkable about the secret Israeli calls to offer military assistance to Ukraine is that Israel has a long history of providing off the radar military assistance to countries, although it always gets found out.  This is undoubtedly causing Israel a real dilemma. If it supports Ukraine with requested weapons, it will be certain that Putin will respond by reducing – or at least disrupting – the freedom of action of the Israeli army in Syria and Lebanon, and the result will be an increase in the strategic threat to the Israeli home front.

Israelis worry that military assistance to Ukraine might draw it into a conflict with a world power. Israel also worries about the future of Russian Jews. Therefore, Israeli priorities can be arranged as follows: in the first place, the freedom of action of the Israeli army in Syria, then the desire to help Ukraine. This is a decision that was born out of in-depth discussions in the military establishment, and was accepted by the Prime Minister, the cabinet and even opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

OPINION: Are Russia-Israel relations facing a temporary challenge or definite deterioration?

There are great doubts about what the best Israeli decision should be, considering the very limited options it has as time passes. Israel is required to adopt a position that goes beyond verbal opposition to the Russian war against Ukraine, given that it has an interest in knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the Iranian drones and missiles currently flying over Ukraine. Israel estimates that their performance will be improved because of Russian scientific and technical assistance and that Ukraine will serve as a huge test ground for Iran.

Despite successive calls for Israel to offer military support to Ukraine, overtly or covertly, Israel is still afraid to provoke the Russian bear; because it remains dangerous, even when it is hurting. Russia can still harm Israel economically, politically and militarily. Yet, there is an Israeli interest in ensuring that Ukraine possesses air interception systems without getting involved in a direct conflict with Russia, especially since Israel has a long history of secretly transferring military support, including weapons and training systems, to states and organisations that it has an interest in strengthening.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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ArticleEurope & RussiaIsraelMiddle EastOpinionRussiaUkraine
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