Washington’s search for a security model aimed at ensuring Russia’s “strategic defeat” in Ukraine continues in fits and starts.
In a CNN interview timed to reinforce the deliberations of NATO’s recent summit in Vilnius, President Joe Biden explained that “the United States would be ready to provide, while [Ukraine’s accession to NATO] was going on, to provide security a la the security we provide for Israel: to providing the weaponry they need, the capacity to defend themselves … If there is an agreement, if there is a ceasefire, if there is a peace agreement.”
The relevance of the Israel model embraced by Biden to Ukraine’s security is deeply flawed conceptually and practically. Biden’s interest in the concept suggests that either he has been poorly briefed about the history of U.S.-Israel security ties—an unlikely conclusion given Biden’s extensive experience on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee—or the more likely explanation of continuing confusion in Washington about how to imagine a new security relationship with Kyiv during what is turning into a forever war against Russia.
In operational terms, the Israel model is barely relevant to the predicament that Ukraine finds itself in and hardly a good model upon which to build the desired security relationship between the United States, NATO, and Ukraine. In conceptual terms, there is little beyond a superficial comparison between Jerusalem and Kyiv to recommend the concept.
First a little history.
U.S.-Israel security ties were born out of three principal elements: (1) Cold War competition in the Middle East; (2) Israel’s overwhelming victory in June 1967; and (3) Israel’s surreptitious development of a nuclear weapons capability from the 1950s onward.
It is all but impossible that Ukraine will be able to exit its war with Russia with the kind of total territorial victory that provided the basis for U.S.-Israel ties after June 1967. Biden in his remarks appears to condition an enduring security relationship with Ukraine, let alone its invitation to NATO, upon a ceasefire and peace agreement with Moscow, a far cry from the unambiguous Israeli victory that provided the foundation for U.S.-Israel security ties.
The U.S. commitment to supply Israel with conventional weapons, principally aircraft, has always been at the heart of U.S.-Israel security ties, as it would be with Ukraine.
However, beginning with F-4 Phantoms in a deal brokered by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and U.S. diplomat Paul Warnke, and continuing more recently with F-35 stealth aircraft—the supply of such weapons remains an explicit and vital element of a bargain in which Israel pledged to maintain ambiguity about its nuclear weapons arsenal, and subsequently declare that Israel would not be the first to “introduce” nuclear weapons to the Middle East.
In this context, there may well be those in Ukraine (but one hopes not in Washington) who see the Israel model—creating an integrated nuclear weapons option while maintaining nuclear ambiguity as long as the conventional weapons pipeline from Washington is open—as instructive.
But here too reality intrudes. The U.S. bargain with Israel aims explicitly at assuring Israel’s superiority in conventional weapons against any combination of Arab/Iranian enemies. To that end, through FY2020, the United States has provided Israel with $146 billion in military, economic, and missile defense funding—$236 billion in 2018 dollars.
In just the first year of the war, Ukraine received $77 billion from Washington, about one-half of its total military, economic, and humanitarian assistance.
At best, the U.S. military support at current historic levels has won Kyiv a military stalemate. Ukraine, certainly out of NATO and arguably even as a member, will never enjoy an Israeli-style Quality Military Edge (QME) over Moscow, or be able to command the region’s strategic or security agenda as Israel has done in the Middle East.
Furthermore, unlike Ukraine, Israel has never aspired to win explicit and public alliance guarantees at the heart of Ukraine’s demand for formal participation in NATO. In contrast, Washington’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s QME is a key element of a policy designed to honor Israel’s (and Washington’s) preference to keep Israel out of NATO. Indeed, Israel has resolutely opposed any agreement with Washington that would constrain its “freedom of action” in a strategic perimeter once defined by Ariel Sharon to include any place between Morocco and Pakistan.
The Biden administration continues to search for a workable security assistance formula that promises Ukraine more than a tactical approach to incrementalism capable of achieving the strategic objective of imposing a “strategic defeat” on Russia. The Israel model is, at worst, a dangerous incentive for Kyiv to reinvigorate nuclear capabilities surrendered during the U.S.-Russia honeymoon a generation ago. At best, Biden’s interest is a reflection of the confusion that currently passes for strategic thinking on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Geoffrey Aronson is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former advisor to the EU and others on regional political and security issues.