No More Walking the Tightrope: The Ukraine War Puts Israel at a Crossroads
As Russia’s invasion destabilizes international security, Israel’s ability to maneuver between the superpowers is shrinking. Jerusalem must publicly stand by the United States while also working to reduce dependence on it. Concurrently, Israel needs to strengthen cooperation with key actors in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, to prepare for a new era in international security
A Norwegian soldier guarding a U.S. Marine helicopter during a joint NATO exercise in Norway, March 2022 | Photo: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. William Chockey (public domain)
The war between Russia and Ukraine heralds the rise of a new era in superpower competition, one which has profound implications for Israeli policy. While it is too early for a thorough analysis of an event of such magnitude, the dramatic developments that have unfolded already allow us to draw preliminary insights about the global implications of the conflict and their potential impact on Israel. Among them are the West's de facto sacrifice of Ukraine and the possible implications it may have on dealing with Iran; Israel's diminishing ability to maneuver cautiously between the rival superpowers; the paradox stemming from the perception of eroding American power, and Israel's need to nevertheless stand by the U.S.'s side; leveraging the potential of the Abraham Accords to acquire new strategic depth; and, more broadly, taking a more proactive approach to maintain Israel's relative edge at the outset of a new era in international security and world order.
For many, the war in Ukraine has evoked disturbing historical memories. Putin's statements about bringing Russia's strategic nuclear forces into high alert immediately remind us of the brinksmanship and nightmare scenarios of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Images of the destruction and death in European cities, the flight of more than four million refugees from Ukraine, and millions more suffering directly inside the country  also raise comparisons with World War II.
Is there indeed a relevant historical analogy for the world's current strategic situation? The Cuban missile crisis, which threatened the world at the height of the Cold War, is a good example. Another is Russia's perceived humiliation following the collapse of the USSR, which draws certain parallels with the Weimar Republic’s experience following the Versailles agreements, and may (partially) explain contemporary Russian aggression.
The Ukraine war raises the curtain on two key aspects of Western power: NATO’s intent and its capabilities
But perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement and its sacrifice of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland as part of Britain's attempt to appease Nazi Germany. However, while none of these three analogies can accurately explain the present predicament, the similarities to today’s geopolitical situation do not bode well for the future of international security.
The key insight offered in this article is that Israel is rapidly reaching the point where it will have no choice but to assume its natural position alongside its allies – the United States and its partners. Yet, such a step will almost necessarily undermine another Israeli strategic requirement – to continue walking the tightrope between the U.S. and Russia.
Rather than let developments force its hand, Israel should formally announce its allegiance with the West at the time of its own choosing. In parallel, Israel should identify the contours of the emerging new world order and put significant effort into forming new coalitions and collaborations to weather the instability of the new era, and primarily – to better contend with Iran.
Unwilling and Unable
The war in Ukraine – the worst military conflict on European soil since WWII – has exposed NATO members states’ calculus regarding Europe’s available military capabilities, as well as their political agendas. To summarize: in the face of Russia's violent challenge to values such as freedom, democracy, sovereignty, as well as to the world order, the U.S. and its allies have demonstrated both a lack of will to wield military force, for fear of triggering World War III, and a lack of military might. This sends a troubling message to America's partners in the European Union, the Far East, and the Middle East.
The outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine caught the U.S. and European states in the midst of strategic planning processes regarding their security strategy – updating force development planning in the era of superpower competition, mainly to counter the potential threat from China. However, Russia's invasion of Ukraine upset the applecart.
The European Union did eventually manage to insert initial lessons from the war into its most recent document, titled “A Strategic Compass for Security and Defence.” In it, Russian aggression is described as a “tectonic shift in European history,” from which stems the need for a “quantum leap” in developing the EU nations’ military abilities in order to become an “assertive” security provider. This section may be perceived as a tacit acknowledgement of the gap between the level of threat that Europe is facing and its ability to counter it.
In contrast, the White House has yet to announce the publication of its most recent National Security Strategy, and the Pentagon has yet to release its National Defense Strategy – two documents in which China was set to dominate the agenda. However, instead of updating its China strategy, the White House has now been forced to prepare for a potential spillover of the Ukraine war into NATO territory, and for the possibility that Putin will order the use of chemical weapons. Thus, like his predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, U.S. President Joe Biden’s efforts to focus the American system on Asia and to prepare for potential armed conflict in the Indo-Pacific, have once again been hampered by the need to address all-too-familiar problems in other theaters of operation.
Continuously slashing their defense budgets has left European NATO members heavily reliant on nuclear deterrence provided by the U.S., Britain, and France
At a deeper level, though, the Ukraine war raises the curtain on two key aspects of Western power: NATO’s intent and its capabilities. Both aspects, which I shall elaborate upon briefly, relate to the strategic calculus of key protagonists in the current crisis. Exposing this calculus ostensibly lays bare the limits of American deterrence, and informs Russia and China as to how far they can lead a potential offensive military campaign while remaining under the threshold of direct conflict with the United States. This lesson will be studied meticulously by all actors in the international system, and will affect international security and the emergence of a new world order, from Western to Eastern Europe, and through the Middle East to the Far East.
Regarding the intentions of the NATO leadership, the public messages accompanying the operational deployment of NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force (for the first time), and the military buildup in allied countries that border Ukraine, has left little doubt in Russian President Vladimir Putin's mind. Indeed, statements made by President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson dispelled any notion of Western strategic ambiguity. The two leaders made it clear that aside from weapons, humanitarian aid, and strong verbal support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, they have no intention of trying to actively stop Russian aggression, and will not impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Johnson even offered a halfhearted apology during a debate in Parliament in London: “The tragic reality is that Vladimir Putin is going to continue to grind his war machine forwards if he possibly can.”
Biden, in his State of the Union address, highlighted the limits of Western intervention in the conflict: “Our forces are not engaged and will not engage in the conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine but to defend our NATO allies in the event that Putin decides to keep moving west.” Putin could easily deduce from Biden’s words what the U.S. would not be willing to defend, and that in fact he could continue to “grind his war machine forward,” in the words of the British prime minister. Biden underlined the gravity of the risk if the conflict spilled over: “Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War Three.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who is currently also President of the European Union’s Council, similarly sought to distance himself from the conflict. “As Europeans, we are not at war in Ukraine” he said, following a special summit of European leaders held, ironically, at the Versailles Palace. In other words, Europe and the U.S. have knowingly sacrificed Ukraine – a country with a population of more than 41 million people, and one of the few democracies to rise from the ashes of the former Soviet Union.
In regard to NATO's available military capabilities in Europe, the Ukraine war exposed how much investment in the military capabilities of the NATO member states had truly fallen. Few of them have met the agreed-upon bar of spending 2% of GDP on defense. Furthermore, while some NATO members did increase their defense spending after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, when factoring in inflation and the economic damage caused by the coronavirus, some suspect the European nations’ real average rate of defense expenditure is 1.5% of their GDP. This, too, is mainly attributed to significant increases in military procurement made by Britain and Finland (the latter is formally a NATO partner, but not an ally). The resolution made at the European leaders’ special summit in early March 2022 to change course and significantly step up collaborative investment in military force development and in protecting critical assets in the cyber domain and in outer space, is damning evidence to their decades-long neglect.
As the result of European countries’ continuous slashing of defense budgets, NATO members were left heavily reliant on nuclear deterrence provided by the U.S., Britain, and France. British General Sir Richard Shirreff, NATO’s former deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, argued several years ago that this state of affairs could allow Russia to act with impunity against the Baltic states. According to Shirreff, Putin assumed the West would never be the first to fire a nuclear weapon; for that reason, and absent significant NATO conventional forces to deter him, Putin could essentially do as he pleases.
Thus, as Russian armored columns advanced into a pro-western, East European country, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – founded in 1949 to deter the USSR, later the Russian Federation, from invading Western Europe – could not seriously consider extending its “conventional deterrence umbrella” to cover Ukraine. It is important to note that although not a NATO member, in 1994, Ukraine received written guarantees from Russia (together with the U.S., Britain, and Ireland) that Moscow would respect its independence and sovereignty along its borders in exchange for Kiev joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Twenty-eight years later, Ukraine has discovered the true value of these guarantees, and Europe’s nations have discovered that their combined military strength falls short of deterring Putin from acting, and cannot stop him after he does.
American and European diplomacy takes significant pride in the mobilization of a coalition of countries and mega-corporations to impose biting economic sanctions on Russia. While indeed unprecedented in scope, these economic measures nevertheless have not stopped the Russian army’s advance or dampened its relentless attacks on Ukrainian civilian population centers. The inevitable conclusion is that in planning his military campaign to invade Ukraine, Putin assumed there was little to no risk of a military confrontation between his army and NATO forces.
A destroyed Russian tank in Ukraine, in March. Putin knew the risk for a military confrontation with the West was low | Photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine (МВС України - CC Attribution 4.0 International license)
The perceived erosion of American power
Constraints on NATO mobilization, talks about a potential Third World War, and the West's willingness to de facto sacrifice Ukraine, are further signs of the eroding image and prestige of American power – a harmful trend that nevertheless began well before Russia invaded Ukraine. Washington is acutely aware that leaders and countries in the Far East, the Middle East, and beyond, are watching its statements and actions regarding Ukraine and calculating their moves accordingly. The world also remembers the chaotic U.S. retreat from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover in August 2021, especially the images of Afghan citizens desperately clinging to American military airplanes and ultimately falling to their deaths.
Waning American power, as such is the perception, has significant implications for stability in other theaters of operation – first and foremost in the Indo-Pacific. Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s declaration of an official Sino-Russian axis, hailed as a “Partnership with No Limits,” is understood – certainly in Washington – as a joint challenge to the world order, to American hegemony, and to its values. The personal understandings between Putin and Xi, and the fear that China might lend military support to Russia as it flounders in Ukraine, prodded Biden to personally warn the Chinese president of the implications of such a move.
China later softened its position and sought to present a relatively reconciliatory line, stressing the spirit of collaboration and humanitarian aid. Later, Beijing even tasked its ambassador to Washington with clarifying that a Sino-Russian partnership does indeed have limits. Yet, this remains a potential powder keg, raising concerns in Washington that the U.S. could face military challenges on two major fronts simultaneously: against Russia in Europe, and against China and/or North Korea in the Indo-Pacific.
It's safe to assume that Beijing is watching how Washington leads the West during the Ukraine crisis closely, and will draw its own conclusions about the feasibility of forcibly imposing “unification” with Taiwan. In a similar vein, Beijing is studying the range of reactions by Western nations and the harsh economic sanctions they slapped on Russia, perhaps to prepare for the possibility that the West pursues similar steps against China in the future.
But even if Beijing – which the U.S. defines as its biggest strategic threat – understands the Russian invasion of Ukraine more as a warning than an opportunity, Taiwan itself can already learn several important lessons about the need to bolster its defense. Mainly, though, it can see the true value of Western declarations of support and security guarantees. And if all this was not enough, North Korea resumed its missile tests in 2022 (including after the Ukraine war broke out). The premise of additional ballistic launches in the near future is understandably undermining South Korea and Japan’s sense of security.
U.S. allies in the Middle East are already scrambling to compensate for recent American decisions and the erosion of confidence in its regional leadership
In the Middle East, the same is happening at an even faster clip. The region is watching events unfold in Ukraine and extrapolating about Iran and the new nuclear deal that may be signed soon. The convergence of the two processes, which are not directly connected, sends worrying messages about the U.S. to the various factions in the Middle East.
The first regards American conduct vis-à-vis Russia and what is perceived as the sacrifice of Ukraine; the second is about the American approach towards Iran in the nuclear negotiations, and Washington's plan to remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list as part of the negotiations (The U.S. already removed the Houthis in Yemen, Iran's proxies, from the list). Even if the U.S. eventually changes its mind on this matter, its actions have already damaged the confidence of the region’s nations, including Israel, in America’s geopolitical discretion.
This is the backdrop for the flurry of diplomatic activity in the Middle East and the series of unprecedented summit meetings that were hastily convened as the Ukraine war raged on. The first was the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in late March. Apparently, this is also the reason behind the visit to the UAE by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – who, until recently, was a pariah even in Arab countries. This visit may have been a symbolic signal towards Washington or an attempt to distance Assad from the radical axis headed by Iran.
Either way, the series of high-profile meetings in and of itself attests to how the region’s governments are rapidly updating their geopolitical calculus. It also highlights the consolidation of new, extraordinary frameworks to compensate for recent U.S. decisions and the declining confidence in its regional leadership. Even the reassuring messages U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered in Jerusalem could not mitigate the damage already done.
Israel’s ability to maneuver between the superpowers is diminishing
The conflict in Ukraine increasingly restricts Israel’s ability to maneuver between the superpowers. Indeed, Jerusalem is fast approaching a moment when it will have to openly assume its natural place at Washington’s side. Continued ambiguity on this crucial matter will only cause more damage in the long run.
The persisting challenges on the Syrian front and Iran's efforts to establish itself there militarily, while simultaneously advancing its nuclear program, explain the Israeli need for continued political coordination with Russia and for military coordination with Russian army forces present in Syria. This drives Israel's overriding need to conduct relations with the Kremlin wisely, especially during a time of such acute international tensions, and to try to defend this strategic asset, which took much labor to achieve. One may assume that Israel's prudent conduct, its conveying of messages between Putin and Zelenskyy, and PM Bennett's shuttle diplomacy, have all helped preserve – at least so far – strategic coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow, and the freedom of operation the Israeli military requires. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this feat.
Taking the U.S.’ side more clearly in the Ukraine crisis could deprive Israel, against its interests, of its understandings with Moscow, mainly in securing its operational room for maneuver. So far, these have enabled Israel to benefit from Russia's presence in Syria since 2015, where it serves as a stabilizing factor and partner for strategic and military coordination. This was especially true against the backdrop of what appeared at the time to be the collapse of the Syrian regime because of the civil war, the spread of ISIS, and Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people.
Despite the many difficulties it mounted, at least initially, Moscow helped create a diplomatic framework that facilitated the destruction of Assad's chemical weapons. It also coordinated with Jerusalem to prevent friction between Israeli forces and the Russian army operating in Syria – a necessity for securing Israel's security interests in this volatile theater of operations.
Despite various difficulties and differences, Israel is nevertheless a Western state, and its most important partner is the United States of America.
In addition, Russia – and President Putin himself – has assisted in the sensitive humanitarian mission of locating and repatriating the bodies of Israeli soldiers who went missing during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in 1982, a matter of great importance to the Israeli public. Despite obvious tensions, Israel has managed to secure its interests under arduous conditions.
Yet, despite the enduring need to coordinate with Russia to ensure freedom of operation in Israel's north-eastern front, the mutual respect, and the personal relationships between senior Israeli leaders and Putin, Jerusalem cannot continue to vacillate between the sides. The U.S. has already signaled publicly that it expects Israel to act more in sync with American interests and less with Moscow’s. Israel’s ability to continue “walking the tightrope” will further diminish the longer the Ukraine war lasts and the greater the destruction and killing of civilians – let alone if Russia does attack Ukraine with unconventional weapons (of any type), as U.S. and British leaders, as well as NATO’s Secretary General, have warned.
Even in a pragmatic sense, it is clear who Israel must side with. American strategic, diplomatic, and military support has become a fundamental pillar of Israeli national security. The numerous collaborations on security and R&D, the close intelligence cooperation, generous foreign aid programs to maintain the Israel Defense Forces' qualitative military advantage, and the diplomatic shield that the U.S. continues to provide Israel in U.N. institutions – first and foremost the Security Council – are all essential components of Israel's strategic depth in the profound, multi-dimensional, meaning of the term.
Above all, however, are shared values upon which America’s strategic support of Israel rests, and the deep sense of commitment demonstrated time and again by Congress and by American presidents. Despite myriad difficulties and differences, Israel is nevertheless a Western state, and its most important partner is the United States of America. Israel shares democratic values with Western nations, not with the authoritarian regimes led by Beijing and Moscow. Therefore, even though maintaining dialogue with all the powers and superpowers is an advantage that Israel should preserve, it is even more important to cultivate its relationship with the U.S.
In view of this, the actions Israel takes should reflect that it is standing by the U.S. in the Ukraine conflict, all while preserving, as much as possible, its relations and connections with Russia and its leadership. In any case, Israel should step up and expand activities which enjoy broad public support, such as providing humanitarian aid to refugees and medical assistance to those in need, and helping with the reconstruction of civilian infrastructure and other damages caused by the war. These should be done in high profile to demonstrate to the international community and to the Ukrainian people that Israel is reaching out to them. Such an approach will ensure Israel remains beside its natural allies.
The way forward
This analysis so far highlights how the war in Ukraine not only constrains Israel's ability to walk the tightrope, but also presents decision-makers in Jerusalem with an acute paradox. On the one hand, American power appears to be on the decline – as does Washington’s attention to, and interest in, the Middle East. On the other hand, Israel cannot truly rely on any other superpower – not militarily, not politically, and certainly not from the perspective of shared values.
How can this paradox be resolved? Israel must prepare, without delay, to face the nascent new world order and the recent changes in international and regional security. Its working assumption should be that the U.S. remains its main strategic partner – but one that is constantly challenged, and which may not be able to fulfill all its promises. American support is the keystone, but the entire house cannot stand on it alone.
It follows that alongside maintaining its unique relationship with the U.S., Israel must simultaneously strengthen its collaborations with key actors in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Economically speaking, growing trade and security relations with the Gulf states also present new opportunities for forging partnerships in Asia. Increasing exports, imports, and technological collaborations with sizeable markets such as Japan and India would enable Israel to better prepare for a new era of intensifying superpower competition.
Economics, though, are secondary to the primary strategic issue: Iran. It is reasonable to assume that the Sunni nations signatory to the Abraham Accords, which officially and publicly boosted their strategic cooperation with Israel, will expect Jerusalem to lead the efforts in dealing with the common Iranian threat. The accelerating formation of an axis including Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, combined with other geopolitical trends briefly discussed in this article, bring into sharp focus the need for an honest discussion on Israel’s strategic posture. This is the result of recent geopolitical shifts and the interim lessons from the war in Ukraine for the political and military spheres, and on the role of conventional military forces in deterrence between countries (an issue beyond the scope of this article).
More broadly, the war in Ukraine requires an urgent reorganization of the Israeli system. The upheaval in global affairs and disruption of world order put Israel in the eye of the storm, with new political, economic and security interests in new geographical spheres, both near and far. While today’s inherent instability renders planning more difficult, this is nevertheless the time to take a proactive stance in expanding and strengthening new policy frameworks and coalitions, and to build up Israel’s power in all relevant areas. Israel needs to ensure its relative edge and, its agility and secure its operational room for maneuver – politically, economically, and militarily – at the dawn of a new era in of superpower competition.
Goor Tsalalyachin is the Executive Director of the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy, Reichman University. Before joining the AEI, he served as Senior Researcher and Head of Strategic Wargaming in the IDF General Staff – Operations Directorate (J3). In this capacity, he was responsible for the design and facilitation of innovative experiential war-games for the Chief of Staff and the High Command, focusing on the core challenges of national security at the nexus of operations and strategy. In previous official capacities he served as Media Adviser to the Minister of Defense, and as a spokesman (security affairs) at the Prime Minister’s Office. Before joining government, he was a radio and television journalist covering military and diplomatic affairs for leading Israeli broadcast networks. He has held research fellowships on the Middle East and International Security at the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) and at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London. Goor graduated from the School of Government at the IDC Herzliya (nowadays Reichman University), specializing in Counterterrorism & Homeland Security. As a Chevening Scholar, awarded by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, he earned his MA (with Merit) in Intelligence & International Security from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.
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 Tal, National Security, pp. 223-24.
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 Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, Friends in Deed: Inside the US-Israel Alliance (Jerusalem: Ma’ariv Book Guild, 1994).
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