Russia’s chess game against Ukraine places Israel in awkward position

President Vladimir Putin’s bluffing “is extremely dangerous,” warns Dima Course, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Ariel University. 

By Israel Kasnett, JNS

Russia has built up roughly 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, sparking international concerns of an imminent invasion. U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video call last week during which Biden warned of severe consequences including “strong economic measures.”

The National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ) hosted a webinar featuring Ukrainian 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 poses not just a military threat, but also a hybrid threat from within Ukraine by spreading misinformation and conducting surveillance and intelligence gathering.

As each day passes, the question remains as to whether Russia will indeed launch an attack and Markarova said she believes certain steps need to be taken immediately to prevent such a scenario.

“We believe priority number one 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 U.S. for all the efforts to deter Russia. … We appreciate that our friends stand united with us.”

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

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

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

Markarova noted that sanctioning Russia after an invasion might be too late and it would be more prudent and logical to level sanctions now as a deterrent and then remove them as Russia meets de-escalation goals.

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

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Russia has already been sanctioned by the international community over its belligerent actions in Crimea and Donbas, which includes the areas of Donetsk and Lugansk.

“But Russia has yet to change its behavior,” lamented Markarova, adding that she hopes the international community will level additional sanctions against Russia.

With regard to 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 obligated by its charter to defend us.”

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

“For us, what is important is to increase our capabilities and preparation. We only ask NATO to help us. We have a lot to offer NATO countries and NATO as an organization. We have a very capable military, and we are ready to help our partners.”

Markarova pointed to Israel, which to her “has been an inspiration” since it is a “small country able to defend itself.” She noted that a large portion of its population is nationalistic, and many Israelis are prepared to defend their country.

Israel has diplomatic relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and if both countries end up engaged in war, Israel may be faced with a diplomatic maze through which it will need to expertly maneuver to avoid damaging its relationship with either country.

‘The situation will remain status quo’

Boris Morozov, of Tel Aviv University’s Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies, told JNS that while Russia is “playing chess on different desks,” its relationship with Israel is still “workable,” 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 will try to preserve normal, workable relations with both countries like we are doing now when both countries are acting as enemies, but without war,” he said. “Israel can toe the line without sabotaging the relationship with either one.”

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

However, Morozov said he believes that Russia is actually enjoying the current circumstances because it controls the Ukrainian and European situations.

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

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

“Hopefully, everyone will calm 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 as well. Russia will probably get some guarantees from the U.S. that it will not accept Ukraine or Georgia into NATO, and basically, the situation will remain 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 the political sanctions but with actually managing the country.”

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

‘Israel should stay neutral’

Vera Michlin-Shapir, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, told JNS “while we cannot be sure if Russia will invade Ukraine, there are serious signals for the deterioration in the security situation on the border. Media reports in reputable U.S. outlets and the recent visit by the head of the CIA to Moscow send a strong indication that U.S. officials view this as an immediate and present danger.”

“As for Israel,” she said, “it depends on how the situation unfolds and how much the U.S. would press for an Israeli response. Even if Israel would not want to take sides due to a fear from a Russian response, ultimately Israel cannot (and should not) defy the United States when it comes to a vote in the United Nations on a subject that the U.S. views as a core strategic issue.”

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Dima Course, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Ariel University, told JNS he believes that Putin is 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 is fragmented at home. In addition, it is fighting a global pandemic. According to Course, Putin is trying to offer a reduction in tensions in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions, or at least a prevention of new sanctions.

“Russia is in a deep multifaceted crisis—the economy is in disrepair; they struggle to slow down the epidemic; the ruling party’s and even Putin’s personal popularity is shrinking,” he said, adding that Putin “isn’t getting younger,” and it seems that the elites in Russia have already begun competing for shares of power. “In such a situation, full-scale war with Ukraine can be disastrous,” said Course.

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

“Israel should stay neutral,” he asserted, saying Israel must maintain cooperation with Russia in Syria, as they do not interfere with the IDF’s attacks on Iranian targets there.

Course also noted that Israel is “unable” to help Ukraine anyway. He suggested that Israel hold its “fingers crossed that there will not be any serious conflict.”

“In this scenario,” he said, “our relations with Russia could be damaged even if Israel stays neutral, just because of our strategic ties with the U.S. and the EU.