Realpolitik, Morality and the Ukrainian Tragedy

AS THE WAR in Ukraine enters its second month, it is clear that Russian forces have been unable to secure a quick victory. The Ukrainian population, including its 30% Russian speakers, have fiercely opposed the invaders and united most of the international community behind it.

Five Russian major-generals have been killed, together with thousands of their men. “Putin the Conqueror” has become “Putin the War Criminal”. The Russian armed forces are now seen as the destroyers of European civilisation. Mariupol is the Guernica of our time.

Diaspora Jewry has recalled the tragedies of the Jewish past and rushed to embrace Ukrainian refugees. The Europeans, too, have remembered the rise and fall of genocidal dictatorships over the entire course of the twentieth century — and the very high price paid to bring them down.

The Ukrainians remember the Holomodor of the early 1930s — Stalin’s imposed famine on Ukraine, the breadbasket of the world — which took the lives of millions of innocents and is now recognised as an act of Soviet genocide. The Americans have finally understood that for Putin and his faction of the KGB, the Cold War never ended.

Even so, many Russians abroad have enthusiastically endorsed Putin’s nationalist narrative of neo-Nazis ruling the Ukrainian roost. The vast majority of former Soviet Jews in Israel, including the Russian language media, did not. They remembered the fate of their grandparents in Stalin’s Gulag. They remembered the struggle of their parents as refuseniks to secure the right to leave the USSR.

Such moral clarity, however, did not persuade the leaderships in Israel, the Palestinian and  Arab worlds to take a different path. The thin line to be walked between Moscow and Washington was defined by more complex considerations.

For Israel, the choice was not between good and bad, but between bad and worse. National interests proved to be more important than being on the right side of history. Israel significantly adhered to the particularist within Jewish teachings, while the Diaspora espoused the universalist. Religious Jews such as Naftali Bennett forsook the moral lesson within Judaism while secular Jews such as Yair Lapid were prepared to name Russia as the aggressor.

Perhaps Lapid remembered that his father, Tommy Lapid, as a boy had been saved in the Budapest ghetto at the end of the war through the efforts of the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg.

Israel, of course, continually watches the Iranian presence on its northern border. It fears that an aggrieved Russia would turn its missiles, stationed in Syria, towards them and provide the Syrians with advanced defence systems. Yet Israel confronted Soviet ‘personnel’ on the ground and engaged with Soviet pilots in the air during the war of attrition with Nasser’s Egypt after the Six Day War — and proved to be far superior militarily. The difference this time is that unlike the Soviet Union in 1970, Russia has good diplomatic relations with Israel.

A reticent Israel has therefore been reduced to a photo opportunity of its UN ambassador hugging his Ukrainian colleague or reluctantly agreeing to providing a field hospital just over the Polish border.

The Israeli Ministry of Defence has publicly refused to supply Kyiv with technology to conduct its “cyber-resistance” against Russian military intelligence and its cohort of hackers. Ukraine has asked to buy the infamous mobile eavesdropping Pegasus spyware ever since the Russian annexation of the Crimea, but with no success.

Estonia has been quietly warned by Israel not to use Pegasus against Russia. Yet there are signs that individual Israelis with the know-how are working privately with the Ukrainians and bypassing the official approach.

At the same time, Israel has balanced this hands-off approach to Russia by taking part in a NATO naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean.

Similarly, countries such as Lithuania which border Ukraine, have been refused permission to pass on Israeli arms. In contrast, Israeli hi-tech companies that are strongly connected to the US and internationally, such as Fiverr, Wix and Playtika, have suspended their operations in Russia.

Putin’s modus operandi has always been to have relations with each side in a conflict and thereby to be in a position to exert leverage when necessary. Thus Putin expressed his condolences to Bennett about the killing of four Israelis in Beer Sheva last week despite threats from the Russian ambassador in Damascus that patience was wearing thin.

In Syria, Russia worked with both Iran and Israel — and therefore could potentially set one on the other.

The same official mindset applied to the Russian Jewish oligarchs. They could continue to do business in the West and benefit many a Jewish cause as long as they were beholden to the whims of the Kremlin. The alternative was emigration to Israel, as Leonid Nevzlin chose in 2003, escaping the fate of his former colleague, Mikhail Khordorkovsky, who spent a decade in prison.

This ability to slide into the interstices only functioned until February 24, when the first Russian soldier stepped onto Ukrainian soil. Yet with rare exceptions such as Nevzlin, most of the Jewish oligarchs convinced themselves not to see it coming despite the warnings of conflict in Georgia (2008), the annexation of the Crimea (2014), the poisonings of Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Skripals and Alexei Navalny and the killing of politicians such as Boris Nemtsov and journalists as Anna Politkovskaya.

Chabad in Russia also played the same hand as the oligarchs. Their leader, Berel Lazar, cultivated Putin in order to gain a hechsher of approval for rebuilding Jewish institutions in Russia — albeit in Chabad clothing. Rabbi Lazar-like Roman Abramovich prayed for “peace” rather than have the temerity to criticise Putin.

Yet Lazar has had to cope with the unpublicised non-renewal of visas and the expulsion of Chabad rabbis over several years. In 2009, Chabad rabbis were expelled from Vladivostok and Stavropol. In 2015, the FSB (successor to the KGB) raided a Chabad school in Yekaterinburg, confiscated books and questioned students. In 2017, at least ten Chabad rabbis were targeted by the FSB. In 2018, Rabbi Asher Krichevsky was deported from Omsk in Siberia.

The Israeli press reported a few days ago that Jewish leaders have been quietly pressured by the Kremlin to issue positive statements about the Russian rationale for the war — accompanied by the threat of closing down Jewish institutions if they did not do so. It is, therefore, not surprising that there is a public spat between the Ukrainian Chabadniks and their Russian colleagues over the war.

Yet the post of intermediary — however precarious in normal times — has been used by Naftali Bennett in a search for a compromise to the war. Jerusalem has even been mooted as a possible location for peace talks. Significantly, Volodomyr Zelensky has appealed to President Biden to absolve Abramovich from sanctions because of his use as an interlocutor with the Kremlin.

The Palestinians, both nationalists and Islamists, have also declared their neutrality in the conflict and like the Israelis, have been prepared to walk a shrinking tightrope.

Mahmoud Abbas has been careful not to follow the example of Yasser Arafat 30 years ago, who aligned the PLO with Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War. This resulted in the disastrous expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait.

Even so, the Palestinians have looked to Moscow since Soviet times. Arafat famously supported the attempted KGB failed coup against Gorbachev in 1991.

The Palestinian Authority further relies on $US300 million in annual aid from the European Union and wishes to reopen the PLO offices in Washington, as well as situating an American consulate in East Jerusalem.

Hamas, too, wants to preserve its good relations with Moscow, which has often acted as a mediator between the organisation and the Palestinian Authority.

In contrast, the Samaria Regional Council has not maintained a low profile. It has invited Ukrainian Jews to settle in the West Bank — a repetition of Prime Minister Shamir’s offer to Soviet Jews in the early 1990s, who were then arriving in Israel in great numbers. Then, as probably now, the Jewish emigrants indicated that they preferred a life of stability and calm in Israel itself.

The UAE also declared neutrality, but also “understanding” Russia, in order to place pressure on President Biden regarding a revamping of the JCPOA agreement with Iran. On March 1, the UAE crown prince commented that “Russia has a right to ensure national security”. A few weeks later, Syria’s Bashir Assad visited the UAE — his first visit to an Arab state for 11 years.

The UAE refused to condemn the Russian invasion at a UN Security Council session. The Saudis, in turn, have refused an American request to increase oil production to decrease European dependency on Russia.

The fear of an agreement with Iran has pushed Israel and the Gulf States even closer together. Last week, Bennett met President al-Sissi of Egypt and the UAE Crown Prince to discuss common issues. This cooperation was further accentuated when a second meeting of these concerned states took place with US Secretary of State Blinken in Israel just a few days ago.

Israel’s stand is therefore rooted in this labyrinthine complexity of national interests and the interconnectedness of problems and issues. Its fear is that the Ukrainian tragedy may simply provide a template of the shape of things to come. After all, Mikhail Mizintsev, the Russian military veteran responsible for reducing Aleppo to rubble in 2016, is now, six years on, orchestrating the levelling of Mariupol. A sad recognition of the world of realpolitik.

Plus61j 29 March 2022

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