The first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an appropriate time to assess Israel’s policies toward it, chiefly its refusal to sell weapons to Ukraine. The need for this assessment is particularly acute given the close strategic relationship that has emerged between Russia and Iran and the ramifications for U.S.-Israeli relations.
Israel’s sympathies lie squarely with Ukraine. Nevertheless, its response to date has been limited to significant, but not overwhelming, humanitarian aid, including a field hospital, ambulances, protective vests, helmets, food, water purification equipment, and more. Israel has reportedly also provided Ukraine with intelligence information and voted with it in the United Nations. Conversely, Israel has steadfastly rebuffed Ukrainian requests to provide weapons, including defensive ones, such as Iron Dome.
A wounded bear is particularly dangerous and Russia can cause Israel severe harm. We thus believe that Israel’s refusal to sell Ukraine weapons remains appropriate, but that this may change depending on Russia’s actions. For now, we propose a number of semi-military measures that would be of great utility for Ukraine and position Israel firmly within the Western camp but mitigate Russia’s response.
There are seven primary reasons for our caution.
First, Iran has supplied Russia with 1,700 drones, is apparently building a factory in Russia to produce as many as 6,000 more, and may provide it with ballistic missiles. In return, Russia has reportedly agreed to supply Iran with SU-35s fighters, helicopters, and possibly the S-400 air-defense system, warships, submarines, and satellites. Russia and Iran already cooperate in the cyber realm. They also recently signed two agreements designed to promote bilateral economic ties and circumvent international sanctions: a “transportation corridor” from Russia to Iran and out to the Far East; and an alternative mechanism to the global SWIFT system. Israel must avoid measures that may lead to an even closer Russian-Iranian strategic alliance.
Second, Russia and Iran are the two primary players in Syria. At times, Russia has sought to counterbalance Iran’s efforts to expand its influence there, including the build-up of a significant military presence and use of Syria to transfer weapons to Hezbollah. Wartime needs forced Russia to withdraw some forces from Syria, but not the S-400s. If used against Israeli aircraft, Israel’s ability to counter Iran’s buildup would be greatly constrained. So far, Russia has refrained from doing so, but that could change at any time. No less than NATO countries, Israel is on the front lines with Russia today and can find itself at war at any moment with Iran, Hezbollah, and Iranian-supported Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israel cannot allow this to happen.
Third, Russia is a party to the nuclear agreement with Iran and ongoing international negotiations. At times, Russia has played a constructive role in this regard, but it has been supportive of Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency recently and can be highly disruptive. A desperate Russia might even provide Iran with concrete assistance for its nuclear program. Israel cannot afford to alienate Russia too much.
Fourth, Israel is not a global power with major weapons stockpiles, does not have the spare capability, and cannot transfer critical systems to Ukraine without endangering its own security. Indeed, it has the minimum number of Iron Dome batteries necessary and a shortage of interceptor missiles. Moreover, as Ukraine’s defense minister indicated, other systems are better suited to its needs, including American ones, which the United States has abjured from supplying so far. What Ukraine really wants is to drag Israel into the conflict on its side. That is understandable, but Israel must weigh its overall interests, not just sentiments.
Fifth, some 15 percent of Israel’s population has roots in the former USSR and 600,000 Jews still live in Russia. Russia has already taken measures designed to demonstrate its ability to stop emigration. The ingathering of the exiles is Israel’s raison d’être.
Sixth, unless the United States changes the policy of partial disengagement from the Middle East pursued by four consecutive presidents, Russia will remain a critical player in the region. In addition to support for Iran, Russia is providing Turkey and Egypt with advanced weapons and nuclear power reactors that could morph into military nuclear programs, has proposed similar deals with the Saudis and others, is an important player in OPEC+ and Libya, and more.
Seventh, France, Germany, Japan, and other leading states have provided only limited aid to Ukraine, belatedly and hesitantly. South Korea has refused to provide any weapons. Even the United States has imposed strict limits on the kinds of weapons it provides, for example, aircraft, missiles, air-defense systems, and until now, tanks. Israel does not have to be at the forefront of this issue. Some question Israel’s commitment to the Western camp because they have high expectations of it; others because they wish to use this issue as part of a broader delegitimization campaign. Most understand that Israel’s strategic circumstances require painful compromises between moral and strategic considerations.
Changes to Israel’s refusal to supply weapons to Ukraine might be warranted if, for example, Russia decided to limit its freedom of aerial maneuver in Syria; supplied certain weapons systems to Iran, e.g. the S-400s; adopted a clearly obstructionist position in the nuclear talks; or provided direct assistance to Iran’s nuclear program. In each case, the details would determine the nature of Israel’s response. Russia must be made to understand that Israel has the ability to significantly harm its interests, if pushed too far.
What Israel should be doing, were it not engulfed in its domestic convulsions, is providing Ukraine with outsized humanitarian assistance. It should send the field hospital back to Ukraine, if necessary, by turning it into an Israel Defense Force (IDF) operation; dispatch IDF search and rescue teams; expand rehabilitation programs for wounded Ukrainians; and complete the transfer of the rocket alert technology promised to Ukraine, all areas in which Israel is a global frontrunner. It should again provide emergency supplies for Ukrainian civilians.
Expanded assistance such as this would be of significant benefit for Ukraine, but likely not lead to an excessive Russian response. All sides understand that there are certain rules to the game.
Both authors are co-hosts of the Miryam Institute’s biweekly podcast, the Israel Defense and Diplomacy Forum (IDDF).