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Lessons for Israel from Ukraine

May 11, 2022

by: Kate Norman, BFP Staff Writer

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As 150,000 Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s borders at the start of the year, Western countries warned of an impending invasion. On February 24, the troops invaded, attacking from strategic points in Ukraine’s north, east and south.

After failing to capture any major Ukrainian cities weeks into the “operation,” Russia began scaling back its onslaught against Kyiv in early April. But the backtracking Russian forces left behind a grisly scene. In a suburb northwest of Kyiv, a mass grave was discovered, said to contain hundreds of corpses. Graphic photos show dead bodies scattered around the village, most with their hands tied behind their back. And the body count continues growing at the time of writing, as more Russian war crimes are reported every day. The Kremlin denies these reports and photos, however, insisting that no civilians are being targeted. Only when the last Russian tank has rolled back out of Ukraine and all the smoke has cleared will the world fully understand the atrocities that happened.

The globe watches on in horror at what is happening. Israel watches as well, learning valuable lessons of what happens when a nation is left largely alone to fend for itself—an all-too-familiar scenario for the Jewish state. In fact, the Israeli military reportedly set up teams to watch as the war in Ukraine unfolds, study the methods and learn how to apply lessons of Ukraine’s outgunned and outmanned military warding off the Russians.

Budapest and Nukes

Current media commentary resembles the Cold War era, voicing fears of a potential nuclear war. Russia has vaguely warned of using nuclear weapons if its sovereignty is threatened. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited a stash of nuclear weapons—at the time, the world’s third-largest arsenal.

In 1994, Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine surrendered its hand-me-down nuclear arsenal—and transferred it to Russia to be dismantled. Ukraine was then admitted to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a nonnuclear member. Under the memorandum, Kyiv sought assurance that Washington would intervene if Ukraine were invaded. Though the exact means of intervention were not clearly spelled out, a US diplomat who took part in the negotiations said it was understood that the US and UK would respond in a way that “would include lethal military assistance” if the treaty was violated.

  • NPT nuclear members: China, France, Russia, UK, US
  • Nuclear states not party to the NPT: India, Pakistan, North Korea—and Israel. The Jewish state reportedly possesses an estimated 90 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material to produce another 200, although Jerusalem does not comment on its nuclear stockpile.

Russia violated the agreement in 2014 when it invaded Crimean Peninsula, and again in 2022 when it stormed into mainland Ukraine. Are the US and UK in violation for failing to provide “lethal” military assistance? Washington and London have both levied sanctions against the Kremlin and Russia’s top brass, and both have sent Ukraine weapons and funds to restock its dwindling self-defense arsenal. But both have offered little else besides “Good luck and best wishes” speeches.

No doubt Israel and other nations are taking note of this response—just as Israel watched the American exit from Afghanistan last year and out of Kurdish Syria a few years before that. When US forces exited northern Syria in 2019 under then-President Donald Trump, the local skies, which had been previously closed by the US and its allies, opened up for Turkish shelling of Kurds in the region. Thousands were slaughtered then, and the world is currently watching as a still-unknown number of Ukrainians are being slaughtered while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy implores the Western world to close the skies over Ukraine.

So what’s the answer when all your friends, who said they would stand by you, leave you alone to fend off a bully?

Never Back Down

You can try to reason with the bully—but if all else fails, convince the bully that it’s not worth messing with you. In a neighborhood where the strong preys on the weak, Israel has to prove to its neighbors that it’s not weak.

One way of doing that is preemptive strikes, or anticipatory self-defense, which is defined as “the entitlement to strike first when the danger posed is instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation,” Peter Scott Ford, a major in the US Air Force, wrote in 2004.

Scott described Israel’s decision to strike Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, slashing Saddam Hussein’s nuclear arsenal, which the dictator had threatened to launch at the Jewish state. After years of attempting to sway other countries to join Israel in pursuing diplomatic solutions, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to switch gears to the military solution, taking the matter into Israel’s own hands. Ford argues, however, that deterrence is only a short-term, immediate solution that does not always pan out in the long run. Iraq, for example, moved quickly to rebuild its nuclear stash after the strike, simply moving its operations further down the table, until the Gulf War.

“Deterrence can only be truly effective when used in concert with other strategies, such as reassurance,” Ford wrote. “It is an effective component but not a substitute for security policy. It does not solve the root causes of hostility and is good only as a measure to prevent attack.”

There are some cases where the aggressor has simply decided to attack, come what may. Putin, for example, set his sights on Kyiv, come sanctions, hell or high water. Israel again has similar experience with its terrorist neighbors in the Gaza Strip.

Last May in Operation Guardian of the Walls, terrorists in the enclave fired over 4,300 rockets toward Israel. Yes, Israeli top brass met with Egyptian mediators to negotiate a cease-fire. Nonetheless, while pursuing a diplomatic solution, Israel did not ignore the rockets exploding over its head. Israeli jets responded to each barrage, striking military and terror targets in Gaza with surgical precision, crippling the aggressors until they were more amenable at the negotiating table. It has happened time after time throughout Israel’s history, and it will no doubt happen again.

So what does a nation do in the face of an invasion and an attack on its sovereignty? Yes, try diplomacy. Try everything. But when all else fails, there is only one thing left to do: fight back. Just as Russia expected a swift operation in Ukraine but was surprised by the big resistance from the relatively small Ukrainian fighting force, so Israel’s enemies have learned to think twice about attacking the small but mighty Jewish state.

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