Since February 24th, 2022, the world has witnessed Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, which has become a serious challenge to many countries but particularly to those in the Euro-Atlantic community. A year and a half of brutal aggression has compelled Western governments to elaborate and implement a range of complex decisions at unprecedented scales and on a very short timelines. Further, Russia’s invasion has tested West’s ability to predict and assess security threats and to generate and sustain adequate political attention to the crisis. The shocking massacre of Israelis by Hamas on October 7th, 2023, has forced Western policy makers to react quickly to another crisis in another part of the world. Understandably, the Ukrainian government’s anxiety has increased with the uncertainty as to how it might be possible for the West would cope with two crisis situations simultaneously, and what—if anything— Kyiv should do about the situation in Israel.
Israeli-Ukrainian relationships have never been easy throughout the last thirty-two years and have become increasingly complicated during Russia’s full-scale invasion. Kyiv expected resolute support from Tel Aviv and condemnation of Moscow’s behavior, yet Tel Aviv never performed in the way it was hoped they would. However, this didn’t prevent President Zelenskyy from expressing condolences and solidarity to Israel and its people in the wake of the October 7 attacks, stating that the State of Israel had an absolute right to self-protection. A similar message was published by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Andrii Yermak, the head of President’s Office. Some days later, in his speech at NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Zelenskyy made parallels between a terrorist group attacking Israel and a terrorist state attacking Ukraine. To assess the first reactions of Ukrainian officials, it must be noted that they were very emotional, even as Kyiv tried to play out the situation in a way to increase global attention to Ukraine, which has been decreasing for the last few months. President Zelenskyy also expressed a wish to visit Israel as a sign of support, but this idea was declined by the Israeli government. Kyiv also suggested that Russia was behind the attack, but this conclusion is not shared by Tel Aviv.
Kyiv thus appears to be stuck. It is clear that within the Ukrainian government there is very little knowledge about the complex multilateral relationships in the Middle East, especially in the security sphere, and straightforward diplomatic approaches appear not to work. Additionally, some Ukrainian statements have been assessed—though not at the official level—as potentially harming Ukraine’s own position in its fight against Russia and in its efforts to implement Zelenskyy’s Peace Plan, which badly needs support from the Global South. The terrorist attack in Israel and Israel’s subsequent military operation, “Swords of Iron”, has revealed to Kyiv how fragile its own position is and how much it depends on decisions that are taken not only in Western countries, but also in the Arab world.
Ukraine and the Middle East
In truth, Kyiv projects a very modest—if not to say poor—image in the Middle East. The region has been largely outside the scope of Ukraine’s foreign and security policy for the last thirty-two years of independence. Ukraine’s most significant interest in the Middle East was between 2005-2010, during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko. Due to its historical background (both nations have been close neighbors through centuries, mutually influencing each other; Ukraine is the spiritual motherland for religious Jews; Ukraine, being a part of the USSR, voted in the UN for the establishment of the State of Israel, and now a Ukrainian minority of Jewish origin in Israel numbers 500 thousand people), Ukraine definitely has a broader spectrum of relationships with Israel than with other Middle Eastern countries, but this potential hasn’t been fully utilised. Indeed, before the war the relationship between Kyiv and Tel Aviv could reasonably have been described as stagnating, with both countries growing increasingly distant from one another diplomatically. Concerning its strategy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kyiv has been holding to the position of the supremacy of international law, consequently voting against Israel in the UN, which definitely triggered at the very least a reserved stance towards Ukraine from the Israeli government. However, relationships with Arab countries are on a much lower level still, which is in large part due to Russia’s strong position in the region.
Nonetheless, since 2014, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have consistently used their votes in UN assemblies to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Since Moscow initiated its large-scale aggression against Ukraine the Arab world has been divided into several groups, each expressing a differing attitude towards the war. The group supporting Ukraine includes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, and Kuwait. Syria and Sudan are against Ukraine, as their governments have strong connections with Russia. Within the second group there is also a hybrid position occupied by Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, whose populations tend to be pro-Russian. During the last year Kyiv has tried different instruments to gain and secure support for Ukraine in the world. While Western support came relatively easily, it has recently become obvious to Ukraine that there were other influential players who couldn’t be told what to think about the war against Ukraine. Particular attention was given to the Arab world, whose leaders the Ukrainian diplomats and politicians have tried, without much success, to persuade to stand with Ukraine. To date, the most impressive achievement of Ukraine in the Arab world corresponds to participation of president Zelenskyy in the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19th, 2023. This was definitely a milestone in Ukraine’s Middle East policy and in the wider policy of the so-called Arab world towards Ukraine.
What to do and Should President Zelenskyy Visit Israel?
The question seems to be more complicated than anyone could wish for. Kyiv has found itself stuck between Israel, the Arab world, and the US and the EU, which are also divided on how to react to the current situation. Each country has to balance to find a reasonable reaction that would satisfy the sentiment of the population, but that will also not creating a risky precedent that might endanger the security of the state. The world is now so complex and contested that decisions that would have worked even ten years ago are not acceptable currently. The challenge Ukraine faces is more tense, as the country is at war and its government knows that the right to self-defense is indisputable. However, context matters. When it comes to the issue of the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza, all sides, together with Ukraine, stand for the protection of civilians and reduction of suffering. But elaboration of a proper reaction towards Israel’s military retaliation against HAMAS requires from Kyiv the talents of a tightrope walker.
Since the media in Ukraine learnt at the beginning of November that Zelenskyy was firm in his wish to visit Israel, Ukrainian expert and policy advisers society have been sharply divided into two camps. The larger group advised Zelenskyy to avoid such a visit, fearing that it might ruin everything that has been built in the relationships with the Arab world. There were voices that such a visit could have been acceptable before the Israeli military operation, when now it could be treated as a sign of support. Such a decision by the Ukrainian leader could seriously decrease the level of support Ukraine has in the world, especially against the background of numerous demonstrations for Palestine all over the world. However, there are voices arguing that none should dictate what the president ought to do, especially taking into account the types and amount of support provided by Israel to Ukraine. The visit to Israel will definitely improve relationships between Kyiv and Tel Aviv and may even lead to the tightening of the cooperation, as both parties share common understanding regarding the source of existential threats. Officially Ukraine keeps on adhering to its previous policy of two states in the region. At the same time, Ukraine refrains from sharp and straightforward criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza, as Tel Aviv is an important partner for Kyiv, even if it prefers a hidden manner of providing assistance.
What also speaks for Zelenskyy’s visit to Israel is understanding that rhetoric aimed at the population and real state’s interests differ significantly. Regardless of public condemnation of the Israeli operation, the Arab countries would be happy if Hamas is eliminated and Iran, who is supporting the terrorist group, is weakened. Such a result would definitely make the region safer. Being a partner to the US, Ukraine cannot ignore its position on the Israel-Hamas war. Simultaneously Kyiv realizes that it shouldn’t complicate the US position in the Middle East. Any risky and provocative actions may severely diminish the ability of Washington to maneuver, both at home, where they are just beginning an election period, and in the world, building the coalition of support for Ukraine. It is unlikely that Zelenskyy’s visit to Israel will not be discussed in consultation with Washington, and it is just as unlikely that it will change the positions of the leaders in the Arab world. They also think strategically and are not willing to disrupt their relationships with the US. Andrii Yermak, after a meeting in Malta on Ukraine’s Peace Formula at the end of October, stated that the war in Israel has influenced Ukraine’s relationships with the Arab world, but he didn’t describe this influence as negative.
So far, the question of Zelenskyy’s prospective visit to Israel has disappeared from media and public discourse in Ukraine. However, this doesn’t mean that the visit will not take place, especially as President Zelenskyy prefers unconventional diplomatic and political decisions. Luckily, the Israel-Hamas war hasn’t shadowed the war against Ukraine, however at the beginning serious concerns, also in Ukraine, were present. Yet the international community stands firmly in supporting Ukraine. For Kyiv the war in Israel creates a chance to seriously revise its Middle East policy and shape it according to Ukraine’s national interests and its declared vision as a state of a global significance.