For Ukraine, there is a real risk that a conflict in the Middle East diverts Western attention — and with that, the military and economic support needed to continue its fight against Russia. And while Russia may welcome that diversion, a broader conflict in the Middle East could sever its already frosty relations with Israel, a former economic partner and a potential high-tech military supplier for Ukraine.
Already, the two nations are picking sides. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was one of the first world leaders to reach out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Saturday’s attack. In public statements, he has directly compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Hamas. “The terrorists will not change. They just must lose — and that means we must win,” Zelensky said Wednesday during a surprise visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Meanwhile, Putin stayed quiet about the attack until Tuesday and, even then, described the situation primarily as a failure of Washington. “I think many will agree with me that this is a clear example of the failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East,” Putin said at a Kremlin meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, adding that it had never taken into account “the fundamental interests of the Palestinian people.”
Putin, who formerly had a close relationship with Netanyahu, has not reached out to the Israeli leader to offer his condolences after Hamas killed over 1,200 Israelis. The war in Ukraine has drawn Russia closer to Iran, Israel’s most powerful regional rival and a key backer of Hamas, according to Western intelligence.
In Brussels, there was no ignoring that the war in Gaza came at a crucial moment. For Ukraine, its allies’ patience is being tested as the conflict drags on into another winter and domestic political concerns shift.
My colleagues at the NATO headquarters there reported that Zelensky read the room and sought to portray himself “less as a competitor for attention and resources than as an empathetic ally of Israel.” However, later at a news conference with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, he admitted that the situation in the Middle East worried him. “Of course, everybody’s afraid,” Zelensky said.
In Washington, there are hopes that linking U.S. aid to Israel and aid to Ukraine could overcome the persistent Republican opposition to the latter. U.S. officials have said that there is no contradiction between supplying both Ukraine and Israel. “We can do both and we will do both,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters in Brussels.
“Israel’s most urgent needs are air-launched precision-guided munitions and interceptor replenishments for its Iron Dome system — and there is no competition between Israel and Ukraine worth mentioning for those capabilities,” Bradley Bowman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote in a statement this week.
There could be knock-on implications, however. Ukraine would clearly like more Patriot systems, for example, as these have proven effective against even Russia’s most advanced missiles. If the war in Gaza spirals into a regional conflict, however, those systems will be in high demand. Many of the Biden administration’s strategies for getting around the logjam on Ukraine funding in Washington have reportedly revolved around Israeli weapons transfers, which would also be in doubt.
At least one Republican candidate for president has already claimed that the transfer of U.S. artillery shells to Ukraine had harmed Israel, which could use the artillery to defend its northern border. Russian officials have attempted to stir the debate, with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev publicly claiming, without evidence, that Western weapons given to Ukraine were used by Hamas in the attacks on Israel.
But for Moscow too, Gaza complicates things. For years, Putin and Netanyahu were close, with the Israeli prime minister touting his friendship with the Russian strongman in giant election billboards in 2019. Israel has a large population of relocated Russian Jews, some have significant links to the Kremlin — including influential interlocutors like oligarch Roman Abramovich.
Perhaps because of this relationship, Israel had taken a cautiously neutral stance on the war in Ukraine. Mostly, that has benefited Russia, with Netanyahu’s government steadfast in its refusal to supply Ukraine with weapons or to join the international sanctions on Russia. The position angered both Washington and Kyiv, with Zelensky last year suggesting the “personal relationship” between Netanyahu and Putin was harming Ukraine.
But the war in Ukraine has also seen Russia become reliant on Israel’s most serious rival in the Middle East. Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles have become vital to Moscow’s war efforts due to their effectiveness and relatively humble costs. U.S. officials have said that Tehran was seeking “billions” of dollars of Russian military goods in exchange for its support, which includes allowing Moscow to create its own versions of Iranian self-detonating attack drones.
Complicating matters further have been accusations of antisemitism made against senior Russian officials for their remarks about Zelensky, who is Jewish. Last month, Putin himself said “Western masters” had “put a person at the head of modern Ukraine an ethnic Jew, with Jewish roots, with Jewish origins” to help glorify “Nazism.”
Russia’s relations with Israel are a relatively recent concept. During the Cold War, Moscow armed the Arab states that antagonized Israel, leading the Soviet Union to break off diplomatic relations after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Ukraine may well hope they can be fully broken again: Axios reported Wednesday that Zelensky had officially requested a visit to Israel, a potential show of solidarity that could cement a closer relationship.