Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Ukraine Crisis - Possible Implications for Israel

by Zaki Shalom

The evolving crisis around Ukraine, the entry of Russian troops into Crimea and its annexation by Russia, the response of western powers, in particular the US, may be of great significance to the Middle East, primarily to the State of Israel in a variety of ways. Let us review the main ones.

The continued crisis in the Ukraine, and certainly - its escalation, will distract, most likely, the attention of the Obama administration from Middle Eastern issues, especially the peace process, to other crises such as the ones in Iran and the Ukraine. Those crises entail much more dangers to the stability of the entire international system than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even today, criticism is heard, both within the United States and outside it, towards the Secretary of State and his intensive involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The meager results of the effort invested by the Secretary of State in promoting an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and the fact that so far he has not received full backing from President Obama in his efforts, enhance our assessment that in the foreseeable future the United States would tend to diminish its involvement in the efforts in the Israeli Palestinian peace process.

Diverting Obama administration's attention from the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to other crises, is quite convenient to the Netanyahu government. This government tends to estimate that the passage of time serves Israel's interests. In the first place, mainly due to the approaching elections in the United States, it would most probably reduce the options of the Obama administration to exert pressure on Israel to make further concessions to the Palestinians.

The Ukraine crisis would also tend to reinforce the prevailing assessments in Israel, the Gulf States, and especially in Saudi Arabia, regarding the ongoing erosion of the deterrent image of the United States. These estimates are based on: a. The flinching of the administration to fulfill its commitment to take military action against Syria if it turns out that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against his people. b. The administration's handling of the Iranian nuclear project and the agreement signed with Iran in this context, increased the suspicions, both of Israel and Arab states, that the Obama administration is gradually shifting from a policy of prevention, which it was committed to, towards Iran, to a policy of containment. If this trend continues, Israel will have to take into account that the status, prestige, and especially - the deterrent image of the United States, its main ally, may erode gradually.

Has the conduct of the Obama administration so far with regard to the  Ukraine crisis deepened the doubts about the credibility of the United States? It is difficult to determine this decisively at this stage. The United States, along with Britain, Russia and the Ukraine, signed on December 5th, 1994 a Memorandum of Understanding that has been dubbed "Budapest Memorandum". In this document Ukraine committed to get out of its territorial jurisdiction the nuclear weapons stationed on its territory when the Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. In exchange, the United States, Britain and Russia, among others, emphasized their obligation to: a. Respect the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of the Ukraine. b. Consult among them in case of a situation where there is a question mark around these commitments.

Obviously this memorandum is not a treaty of alliance, nor does it reflect unequivocal guarantee by the Western powers to the Ukraine in case of an attack. The legal validity of the document is questionable, especially as Russia claims that its military activities in Ukraine are carried out within the framework of self-defense and in response to demands from the large Russian population that is under threat. However, it is clear that beyond the narrow legal aspect the Budapest memorandum represents a political and moral commitment of the superpowers, primarily the United States, to the Ukraine in exchange for its willingness to disarm the nuclear weapons stationed in its territory.

At this point, as Russian forces are centered in Crimea, the West avoids taking drastic and dissuasive measures against Russia. It settled for insignificant sanctions, mainly directed against assets of wealthy Russians, reducing and suspending the strategic-military cooperation with Russia, mainly through NATO and threatening to exacerbate punishment if the Russian troops enter the Ukraine itself. In practice, these measures do not seem to deter President Putin from fortifying the status of Russia in Crimea and making preparations to take over more territory of the Ukraine, if the Kremlin will assess that the circumstances require such action.

This conduct of the Obama administration seems to reflect the United States fears from confrontation with Russia and its aggressive policy in the Ukraine. However, the real test of the Obama administration is still ahead of us. If President Putin will be satisfied with his takeover of Crimea, the West will probably come to terms with this fact de facto. Under these circumstances the west could credit itself the strategic achievement of deterring Russia from continuing the takeover of the Ukraine. However, if Russia would continue taking over parts of the Ukraine, as it seems to be doing in recent days, and there will not be a substantial and decisive response of the West, led by the United States, this would most likely seriously harm the credibility of the United States, and its deterrent image.

Anyhow, the way the United States has been handling the Ukraine crisis until now will most probably reinforce the political circles in Israel which also previously opposed the reliance on international forces and US guarantees in the event of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and especially from the Jordan Valley. These groups claim that Israel cannot establish its security on commitments or guarantees of superpowers, including the United States, but on its power alone. The Obama administration's conduct of the Ukraine crisis, the claim, clearly demonstrates the righteousness of their view.

Until now, Israel has maintained a position of "neutrality" with regard to the Ukraine crisis. The tendency of Israel is not to be seen as blatantly supporting any of the sides. One wonders if the "neutral" policy of Israel so far derived from the lack of American pressure on her to explicitly demonstrate its solidarity with the Western camp, or that Israel rejected US pressure to take a significant pro-Western stand regarding the Ukraine crisis.

Finally, Israel must take into account the possibility that the crisis in the Ukraine will harden Iran's positions in the negotiations taking place regarding its nuclear activities. Iran may come to the conclusion that the invasion of Russia into the Ukraine would not have been executed had the Ukraine reserved the nuclear weapons that were on its territory. In that case, we can assume that Iran will be less willing to make concessions regarding its nuclear project. Moreover, Iran may estimate that the current crisis around Ukraine will lead to cracks between the superpowers. This means that the P5 +1 group will find it difficult to reach agreement representing a common position against Iran. This situation will probably lead Iran to the assessment that its maneuvering freedom regarding its nuclear activity has expanded.

Under these circumstances, in the near future, Israel may realize that Iran continues, and even intensify, its nuclear activity, while the option of a US military action against Iran seems less and less likely. This will certainly require Israel to seriously re-examine the options for a unilateral action against Iran.

Professor Zaki Shalom is a senior researcher at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel, Ben-Gurion University, and at The Institute for National Security Studies


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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