The West vs. Russia
Which Policy Will Win and the Implications for Israel

 

By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi​​ | March, 2022

Ukraine under Attack
Photos: Mvs.gov.ua | CC BY 4.0

 

The Russian invasion into Ukraine and the western sanctions are manifestations of two opposing perceptions. While one focuses on using military force to achieve strategic goals, the other prefers to employ political and economic levers to change adversaries' action logics.

 

 

Russia's action logics – crushing and taking over

 

Throughout his years in power, President Putin has proven his willingness to use force to fortify his rule domestically, as well as to advance his vision on Russia's superpower status both internationally and in the former Soviet Union sphere. In his view, this modus operandi has proven itself time after time. Internally, he has managed to crush the opposition, and even the smallest threat to his regime was cast aside (an example of which is Navalny's poisoning and arrest). Externally, he has managed to take over parts of Georgia and Crimea, salvage Assad's regime, and establish himself in Kazakhstan.

 

In effect, once Putin's hopes of a quick military operation that would lead to a change in regime within days had been shattered, his mode of operation has changed entirely, and is now based on waging a broad bloody military campaign in order to take over strategic Ukrainian cities (especially Mariupol) and strongholds that would force President Zelensky to succumb to his demands. Thus, the Russian Army has resorted to gradually crushing the Ukrainian Army and local population, while significantly increasing the level of fire used against civilian targets, as demonstrated by using hypersonic missiles (the first time ever such missiles have been used operationally).

 

 

The West's action logics – punishment, attrition, and avoidance of direct military confrontation

 

By contrast, the western perception prefers to avoid direct military confrontation at all cost, and believes that Putin may be defeated using punitive measures while bolstering the Ukrainian Army's ability to resist and exhaust the Russian Army, which is suffering from tremendous logistic difficulties. The most meaningful decision President Biden reached prior to the Russian invasion was to refrain from sending U.S. forces to Ukraine. Even now, four weeks into the campaign, as the horrors of the humanitarian disaster are unveiled (more than 3 million refugees), Biden remains true to his position, and repeatedly turns down Zelensky's requests to declare Ukraine a no-fly zone.

 

In fact, Biden has adopted the view whereby the military campaign between the Russian and Ukrainian armies should be kept within their territories alone, preventing it from spilling over into other areas – a development that, in his opinion, would have the potential to ignite a direct military confrontation between Russia and the United States that could deteriorate into a large-scale third world war.

 

Instead, Biden and other western leaders have their chips on promoting punitive measures of unprecedented scope against a country the size of Russia, based on isolating it politically, economically and culturally, while personally targeting Russian power factors. First and foremost, severe economic sanctions have been imposed by countries and international financial institutions, while the Russian market has been abandoned by multiple corporations. These steps are, in effect, taking the Russian economy back in time dozens of years to the Soviet era's time of shortage and austerity. At the same time, officials in the government's top echelon, including Putin himself, have been personally sanctioned, and special emphasis placed on a long list of oligarchs so as to compromise their wealth, as well as limit their freedom of action and movement. Culturally, Russian sports teams have been suspended from international tournaments, and numerous artists have cancelled their scheduled participation in shows and concerts across Russia. Many countries have also announced that their airspace will be closed to Russian aircraft, leading to considerable constraints on the passage of both passengers and goods from and to Russia. In fact, Russia has become the most sanctioned country, with over 5000 imposed sanctions – more than Iran, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela.

 

At the same time, the West and Eastern Europe countries have joined forces on a project that is unique in its scope to provide Ukraine with weapons. As part of this operation, the United States and twenty European countries have thus far sent weapons worth hundreds of millions of U.S. Dollars to Ukraine, among them antitank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, shells, and small arms. In recent days, the U.S. Congress has even approved emergency aid to Ukraine amounting to 13.6 billion U.S. Dollars, 6.5 billion of which are earmarked for financing the United States' security expenses during the campaign. It is no wonder, therefore, that Russia has threatened to view these weapon transferring convoys as legitimate targets to be attacked, for the arms provided have tremendous impact on the battlefield, as well as on the Ukrainian Army's ability to retaliate against the Russians. In practice, the Russian military has in recent days attacked targets in western Ukraine to disrupt the transfer of arms shipments

 

Underlying these actions are western leaders' assessment and hope that the difficulty encountered by the Russian Army as it attempts to defeat its neighbor, knee-deep in Ukrainian mud, alongside Russia being turned into an isolated leper state, will demonstrate to President Putin the price of losing, and the ineffectiveness of prolonged fighting, or, under a less likely scenario, even lead to internal rioting and his ousting, which is why the oligarchs are being targeted in particular.

 

 

Implications and recommendations for Israel

 

As the fighting continues, the two parties seem more determined to exacerbate the steps taken by them in an attempt to defeat the other. In effect, it is a vicious circle whereby each side intensifies the steps it takes in response to the other side's actions. The risk embedded in this conduct is an underestimation of either party's anticipated reaction, in the event that it would feel that it was being cornered into taking extreme measures in order to extricate itself. The fact that President Biden have raised the possibility that Putin would use chemical warfare attests to the explosiveness of the current situation.

 

For now, Putin's strategic objectives seem to have remained unchanged, and, therefore, it seems likely that, for the next few days, at least, he will continue to crush and exhaust, while displaying the willingness to increase the intensity of the fire directed at highly populated areas, as well as systematically expand his target bank to western Ukraine, in order to aggravate fear in the West of the campaign's expansion, and demonstrate the economic and human price tag in a way that could, in his view, help him reach the negotiating table in future with the upper hand.

 

The ongoing battle and growing humanitarian disaster will further add to the pressure exerted on Israel by the international community to form clearer policies and join the effort to counter Russia. To date, Israel has wisely conducted itself with caution, navigating between its strategic alliance with the United States, value-based ethical considerations, and heavyweight security interests vis-à-vis Russia, including maintaining security coordination with it. The talks held by Prime Minister Bennett with Putin and Zelensky are a manifestation of the success of the Israeli approach, and every effort should be made to continue with this policy.

 

Israel's ability to continue juggling between Russia and the West without paying any significant prices will also be affected by its conduct with regard to the issue of the refugees. To date, the Israeli policy on this matter has led to tremendous rage, causing damage to Israel's image in the international community as well as among the Ukrainian government. Not only does Israel have a moral duty as the nation state of the Jewish People to give refugees all the humanitarian aid they require, it should also, for strategic and image-related considerations, immediately embrace a broader policy on the entry of refugees and appropriate treatment thereof within its borders without imposing any limitations on quotas, certainly while war continues to wage within Ukraine.

 

The return of the Cold War, and its projections on the great powers' conduct in the Middle East, present Israel with opportunities to demonstrate its valuableness to the United States in a way that would help upgrade its security collaboration, and contribute to ensuring its qualitative military edge (QME), particularly in case of a regional arms race. At the same time, Israel must realize that, in the current state of affairs, the United States will be less and less tolerant of Israeli action that might undermine regional stability, and may demand that it divert attention and resources away from the conflict in Ukraine.

 

 

 

 

Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.

 

 

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