Russia’s chess game against Ukraine puts Israel in a tricky position

By Israel Kasnett, JNS

Russia has mustered around 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, raising international concerns about an imminent invasion. US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video call last week in which Biden warned of serious consequences, including “strong economic measures”.

The National Coalition in Support of Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ) hosted a webinar with Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, during which she discussed the current threat and expressed her hopes for a peaceful outcome.

Markarova noted that Russia not only poses a military threat, but also a hybrid threat from within Ukraine by spreading misinformation and carrying out surveillance and intelligence gathering.

As the days go by, the question remains whether Russia will indeed launch an attack and Markarova said she believes certain steps must be taken immediately to prevent such a scenario.

“We think the number one priority is to demotivate Russia. The international community must threaten serious consequences [if Russia attacks],” she said.

Markarova praised Biden for his long discussion with Putin, saying “we are grateful to the United States for all the efforts made to deter Russia. … We appreciate that our friends are united with us.

She said there was also a need for three layers of deterrence.

First, there is a need for political deterrence, including diplomatic messages, discussions and warnings; economic deterrence such as sanctions; and security/defense deterrence.

“All deterrent instruments will make us stronger and we hope to find a diplomatic solution,” she said, adding that “we are doing everything we can to deter and demotivate Russia.”

Markarova noted that it might be too late to sanction Russia after an invasion and that it would be more prudent and logical to impose sanctions now as a deterrent and then remove them as the Russia achieves its de-escalation goals.

“We ask our friends to impose sanctions,” she said.

Russia has already been sanctioned by the international community for its belligerent actions in Crimea and Donbass, which includes the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“But Russia hasn’t changed its behavior yet,” Markarova lamented, adding that she hopes the international community will impose additional sanctions against Russia.

Regarding the commitments made by NATO, the European Union and the United States to protect Ukraine, Markarova acknowledged that Ukraine is not a member of NATO, “and we understand that it is not obliged by its charter to defend us”.

She said Ukraine’s goal was to become a NATO country.

“For us, what is important is to increase our capacities and our preparation. We are only asking NATO to help us. We have much to offer NATO countries and NATO as an organization. We have a very competent army and we are ready to help our partners.

Markarova highlighted Israel, which for her “has been an inspiration” because it is a “small country capable of defending itself”. She noted that much of its population is nationalistic and that many Israelis are ready to defend their country.

Israel maintains diplomatic relations with Russia and Ukraine, and if the two countries end up engaging in a war, Israel could face a diplomatic maze that it will have to maneuver expertly through to avoid damaging its relationship. with either country.

“The situation will remain as it is”

Boris Morozov, of the Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that even though Russia is “playing chess on different desks”, its relationship with Israel is still “achievable”, as is Israel’s relationship with Ukraine, pointing out that Israel’s ambassadors in both countries are “very good and very experienced”.

Even if Russia invades Ukraine, Israel “will remain neutral and try to preserve normal and viable relations with the two countries, as we do now when the two countries act as enemies, but without war”, he said. declared. “Israel can toe the line without sabotaging the relationship with either.”

Morozov explained that the reason Putin is threatening Ukraine is because he is showing his dissatisfaction with a number of issues, including NATO’s encroachment on Russia’s borders.

However, Morozov said he believed Russia was actually taking advantage of the current circumstances because it was in control of the Ukrainian and European situations.

He pointed to Nord Stream 2, the undersea gas pipeline that would transport natural gas from Russia directly to Germany, as the leverage Putin is using against Europe.

According to Morozov, everyone is trying to exploit this situation, including Ukraine because it wants – and receives – financial, military and political help.

“I hope everyone calms down,” he said. “Russia will probably have its gas supplied to Europe, and both sides will be happy. The deal will include Ukraine, so it will be happy too. Russia will probably get guarantees from the United States that it will not accept Ukraine or Georgia into NATO, and basically the situation will remain the status quo.

Morozov noted that Putin does not need or want to control the eastern part of Ukraine. “He already has enough problems with Crimea, not just with political sanctions, but with the actual management of the country.”

“Putin is also happy because now everyone is running after him and talking with him. It shows him and the Russian people that he is important and Russia is strong without any wars,” he said. he said, adding that Putin massaging troops on the border “is more about muscle flexing, but with a slight possibility of escalation.”

“Israel must remain neutral”

Vera Michlin-Shapir, a visiting scholar at King’s College London, told JNS: “While we cannot be sure that Russia will invade Ukraine, there are serious signs of a deterioration in the security situation on the border. . Media reports in reputable US outlets and the recent visit of the CIA chief to Moscow clearly indicate that US officials view this as an immediate and present danger.

“As for Israel,” she said, “it depends on the development of the situation and the pressure exerted by the United States for an Israeli response. Even though Israel would not want to take sides for fear of a Russian response, ultimately Israel cannot (and should not) challenge the United States when it comes to a United Nations vote on a subject that the United States considers essential. strategic issue”.

Dima Course, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Ariel University, told JNS he thought Putin was bluffing. “There are few purposes for such behavior,” he said.

Course pointed to Putin’s efforts to increase pressure on the West. Washington is busy with China, Iran and other crises abroad, and it’s fragmented at home. Plus, he’s battling a global pandemic. According to Course, Putin is trying to offer a reduction in tensions in exchange for lifting some sanctions, or at least preventing further sanctions.

“Russia is going through a deep, multi-faceted crisis: the economy is in bad shape; they struggle to slow the epidemic; the personal popularity of the ruling party and even of Putin is declining,” he said, adding that Putin “is not getting any younger” and it seems that the elites in Russia have already started jostling for shares of power. “In such a situation, a full-scale war with Ukraine can be disastrous,” Course said.

Putin’s bluff “is extremely dangerous”, he warned. “Every provocation from any side, every mistake on the pitch, can cause a major clash with unpredictable consequences.”

“Israel must remain neutral,” he asserted, arguing that Israel must maintain cooperation with Russia in Syria because they do not interfere with IDF attacks on Iranian targets there.

Course also noted that Israel is “unable” to help Ukraine in any way. He suggested that Israel “cross its fingers that there is no serious conflict”.

“In this scenario,” he said, “our relations with Russia could be damaged even if Israel remains neutral, simply because of our strategic ties with the United States and the EU.

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