Natan Sharansky, a former prisoner of Zion, leader for the right of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel, and chairman of the Shlihut Institute, spoke to a June 19th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the effect Russia's alliance with Iran has on relations between Israel and Ukraine. The following is a summary of Sharansky's comments:
Vladimir Putin's priority is to remain the Russian president "forever." To that end, he has taken control of his country's media, financial systems, and courts and set in motion his "historic mission,"—to restore the Russian Empire to the glory days of the tsar when it included the Caucasus, Georgia, and Ukraine. Putin found his opportunity in 2014 when then-President Obama threatened U.S. military action against Syrian dictator, Hafez al-Assad, in the event he used chemical weapons against his own people in the civil war. Although Assad crossed Obama's "red line" when he killed thousands of Syrian civilians with sarin gas, the U.S. did nothing. Putin took full measure of the West's "moment of weakness" and knew it was the opportune time to set his ambitions in motion.
Initially, Russia established military bases in Syria to control its airspace. Subsequently, in 2014, Russia invaded, then annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. However, it was not until the Biden administration presented Putin with another display of weakness in Biden's chaotic and hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that Putin moved to the next stage. The U.S.'s surrender to the Taliban signaled to Putin that the West was risk-averse. He hence assumed that it would avoid challenging his campaign of "brutal aggression" against Ukraine and his claim that it should be part of Russia.
The U.S. made "awful mistakes" as the Ukraine war began. Shortly before Russia's invasion, Putin flexed his muscles to anyone who would "dare to stand in our way" when he monitored a practice launch of a nuclear weapon by Russia's strategic nuclear forces. As the invasion proceeded, the U.S. cancelled its annual drill of its Minuteman nuclear missile test—a move that only encouraged Russia's belligerence. "That's why, as long as the West makes it clear that . . . they will respond with their nuclear weapons" to Russia's nuclear sabre-rattling, "there is no chance" that Russia will use nuclear weapons.
However, Putin miscalculated in that he did not anticipate the extent of Ukrainian resistance. Moreover, he failed to comprehend the weakness and corruption in his own army, and he believed that threatening the nations of the free world with nuclear weapons would paralyze them. Initially, the U.S. and Europe feared Putin's nuclear threats and avoided any provocation that risked escalating the conflict into a global war. Compounding Europe's concern was how they would get through the winter if they lost access to Russian oil and gas. Nonetheless, as the war raged on, the West stepped up to support Ukraine because the Ukrainian people were "not only fighting for its own future, but for the future of the free world."
Sharansky lobbied Israel to fully support Ukraine from the start of the war. While the Israeli public expressed solidarity and lent humanitarian aid, there were "serious" reasons why no military aid was forthcoming. Israel's existential enemy, Iran, attempted to build its bases along the Syrian border to attack Israel more easily. In 2015, Israel and Russia reached a "strategic understanding" that, despite Russia's control of Syrian airspace, Moscow would not interfere with Jerusalem's air attacks on Iranian bases there.
Despite the serious dilemma Israel faces, however, Sharansky believes providing weapons for Ukraine is a moral imperative. If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, Moscow's increased power and influence would adversely affect the free world, "including Israel." The Jewish State's caution at a time when the rest of the free world is overcoming its fear of Putin challenges the perception in the eyes of its enemies that Israel is fearless and always punches above its weight. Israel's reluctance to provide weaponry to Ukraine also hobbled its attempt at the beginning of the conflict to negotiate between the warring parties. Ukraine instead turned to Turkey because Ankara was more forthcoming with its drones and weapons from the start. Recently, Israel changed its policy so that it is not only building an early warning system for Ukraine but is permitting the resale of its weaponry through third countries.
As the Iranian and Russian dictatorships draw closer and increase their cooperation in the field of drone technology, the U.S. is oddly working at cross purposes. At the same time the West is stepping up aid to Ukraine to repel Russia, the U.S. is pursuing an appeasement policy by entering into a partial agreement with the Iranian mullahs and releasing billions of dollars to them. The Biden administration chose to ignore the precedent set by the Obama administration when, after the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, it flooded the Iranian regime with billions, much of which was used to transform Hezbollah from a "partisan force" into a "real army" that Israel must fight. The absurdity of the situation is that while Iran is building a drone plant near Moscow, and Russia will be giving aircraft to Iran that the regime will use against Israel, Jerusalem wants to appease Putin and recently agreed to Russia's location of a consulate in Israel's capital. As Moscow reminds the U.S. to "take us seriously" by using its Syrian airbases and Iran as a "point of pressure" on the U.S., Putin's connection with Israel provides him with opportunities for diplomatic relations, even though the West essentially boycotts him.
"At this very time, America is fighting Russia and is trying to appease Iran. And Israel is fighting Iran and is trying to appease Russia. That's an absolutely impossible, idiotic situation. It has to be stopped, and it has to be stopped from both sides. Israel has to be much more involved in the military assistance to Ukraine, and America should stop trying to appease Iran."
To prevent "turning back the clock" to a time when countries weaker than their neighbors lived in fear of invasion, "the first line of battle is Ukraine." Ukraine is in the fight and does not ask the West for soldiers, but it urgently needs the West's weapons as Russia continues to destroy Ukraine and kill its people. Although the day will come when Ukraine faces the challenge of reconstruction and its integration with the West, the pressing question now is how to help it survive as it fights back. Today, Ukraine is the "beachhead [in] the struggle for the future of the free world."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.