The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The difficulties of the Russian military on the battlefield increase the possibility that in the coming weeks, Moscow will expand the fighting as part of preparations for a  long-term military campaign.

After three weeks into the Russian renewed offensive in Donbas, the Kremlin has little result to present the Russian citizen on Victory Day (May 9th). In recent days, the Western military assessed that the storm of the last Ukrainian stronghold in Mariupol, the Azovstal steel mill, despite the promise by president Vladimir Putin to refrain from it, is meant to frame its takeover as a major Russian accomplishment.

Since the beginning of the war, the offensive capability of the Russian military has been severely eroded. The Russians hoped that reorganization of their forces, putting an experienced commander in charge, and focusing on the Donbas front (after withdrawal from Kyiv and northern Ukraine) would accelerate their advance into Ukrainian territory. Still, for the time being, the results on the ground indicate that the Ukrainians, who are more motivated and enjoy Western backing, can defend themselves effectively and wage occasional counterattacks. Western weapons were transferred to the Ukrainians, and the exchange of threats between Washington and Moscow is rising. The latter continues to issue veiled threats of a nuclear option.

On April 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the objectives of the war as “to guarantee peace and security for the residents of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, of Russian Crimea, and our entire country.” Nevertheless, the Russian propaganda machine is preparing public opinion for a protracted, total war to grab much wider territories. In recent weeks Russian state media has been increasingly calling for a general mobilization of all Russian national resources. The West is presented as fighting an all-out proxy war aimed at dismembering Russia.

Russian officials argued last week that Russia will not be satisfied with Donbas and aspires to conquer the entire southern and eastern parts of the country, including the provinces of Mykolayiv, Odesa, Zaporizhye, Dnipro, and Kharkiv. Ukraine accused Moscow on April 26 of instigating violence in the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniestria, Moldova. Russia could be signaling to NATO the possibility of destabilizing other countries besides Ukraine.

Moscow has managed to create legitimacy for the war in Ukraine among the public, which has rallied behind Putin, accepting the explanation that this is an inevitable war against a Ukrainian-Nazi regime that serves as a tool of the West against Russia. The internal Russian discourse presents historical parallels between the current situation and WWII, implying an intention to put additional national resources into the fighting in the spirit of the sacrifice back then. 

The Russians defined the fighting as a “special military operation” and forbid describing it as a “war.” Russian law does not allow compulsory recruitment of citizens as long as no war has been declared. Recently, however, the word “war” has been heard more often by the Russian establishment. If Russia declares war, it will be able to significantly increase its manpower in Ukraine and move the economy into a state of emergency. Although Russian officials deny a general mobilization, they are expected to promote at least a partial one to enable more manpower for the war.

There was an assessment that Putin expected his army to finish the seizure of Donbas by Victory Day (May 9), which marks the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. However, the military impasse and the calls for mobilization strengthen the possibility that Putin will use this occasion to expand the fighting and justify a broader mobilization instead of consolidating the gains and striving for a ceasefire. He is expected to declare the annexing of the Donbas and Kherson regions. He might claim that the seizure of Mariupol fulfills the goal of “denazification,” as its last defenders, the “Azov regiment,” are viewed in Moscow as the backbone of the  Ukrainian “nazis.”

In the coming months, the expansion of the fighting is expected to increase the scope of destruction and casualties for both sides and push Ukraine to launch more attacks on Russian territory. This could raise the risk of strategic miscalculation and lead to a direct clash between Russia and NATO, a scenario the two hitherto tried to avoid.

Failed Negotiations

Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine for a ceasefire have continued, but the parties accuse each other of lacking seriousness. A ceasefire demands a compromise from the Russians, Ukrainians, and the West, which is still a long way off.

For Putin, this war is the most critical move of his life. His determination to dismantle Ukraine and promote a world order not dominated by the United States should not be underestimated. Given the personal risk he has taken and the nationalist fervor in Moscow, Putin will refuse a ceasefire that will not grant him some clear achievement, which he currently lacks.

President Volodymyr Zelensky declared the objective of returning lost territories by force. The images of the victims and destruction and the Ukrainian achievements on the battlefield leave him almost no space for compromise as the Ukrainian public supports continued fighting.

Meanwhile, Western leaders see the war as an opportunity to weaken Russia. They also do not want to be appeasers that allow Russia to take sovereign Ukrainian territory. US President Joe Biden hopes to bolster his low popularity by demonstrating strength against Putin ahead of the November midterm elections.  The weapons supply to Ukraine, shaming Putin, and the increased likelihood of Finland and Sweden joining NATO, could push Putin to take more aggressive actions.

Challenges for Israel

The war in Ukraine accelerates global trends towards more profound polarization, increased economic self-sufficiency, and fierce technological competition between world powers. Consequently, Israel faces several dilemmas regarding its long-term relations with Russia:

  1. As the Western camp moves to contain Russia, it will run out of patience with Jerusalem’s sitting on the fence. For the West, Russia ceased being a legitimate partner after the invasion of Ukraine, and it expects Israel to limit its ties with Moscow – at least gradually – like Germany, which cut back on its acquisition of Russian energy, despite the high economic toll. While other countries are also straddling the line between Russia and the West, Israel considers itself part of the Western camp and is expected by the West to toe the line.
  • The war has dramatically reduced the potential for developing bilateral Israel-Russia relations. Israel’s usefulness for Russia as a gateway to Washington is diminishing. Israeli firms consider business ties with Russia risky because of Western sanctions. The rapid mobilization of Russian society in a nationalistic and authoritarian direction and calling Ukrainians Nazis will make it difficult for Israel to cooperate with Moscow regarding World War II and Holocaust historical projects, which Moscow highly values.
  • Russia will continue to be an important player in the international arena and the Middle East in a way that will affect Israeli interests, particularly in Syria and Iran. Despite the negative signals Russia has been sending Israel in recent weeks, it still values preserving Jerusalem as its partner in the Western camp and weakening Iran’s position in Syria through Israeli attacks.

The last week underscored these dilemmas. The antisemitic remark by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Adolf Hitler had Jewish origins triggered harsh condemnation in Israel. The Israeli criticism unleashed a wave of anti-Israeli propaganda throughout the Russian media. On Thursday, Putin called PM Naftali Bennett to calm the crisis, greet him on Israeli Independence Day, and reportedly apologized for Lavrov’s remark.

The profound differences between the readouts of the phone call in Jerusalem and Moscow underscore the persistence of the tensions. The Kremlin version didn’t mention the apology, said that Putin demanded the Azovstal defenders to surrender, and emphasized the common ground on WWII and the Holocaust. The Israeli version elaborated on Bennett’s request to evacuate the people of Azovstal, following the request by the Ukrainian president and the apology – without mentioning the Holocaust issue.

The setting of the call explains that Russia is eager to keep Israel friendly. It was a rare occasion when the initiative to call came from Putin. The Kremlin announcement was polite, and it was a reverse of course after three days of bashing Israel by the Russian media and foreign affairs ministry. On Friday, Lavrov himself was more restrained during a public appearance dedicated to Victory Day. The Chairwoman of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, Matvienko, had written a reconciliatory letter to the Chairman of the Knesset, Miki Levy.

Conclusions and recommendations

The current indecisive position on the war in Ukraine doesn’t help Israel to maximize its interests. It pays a high long-term reputational price in the eyes of its Western allies, and a question arises, what is the right point of equilibrium in Jerusalem’s relations with Moscow.

Putin’s call proves he deeply cherishes the relations with Israel and that he’s content with its neutral position. Israel is one of the few countries in the world that Moscow respects. It should leave open communication channels with the Kremlin to promote its interests and help de-escalate the Ukrainian crisis.

Yet, the call also shows that Israel has more maneuvering room in distancing itself from Russia and realigning its position with the West. Since Israel seeks to limit its actions against Russia and refrain from sending lethal weapons to Kyiv, it is worth giving the maximum humanitarian aid and accelerating the supply of non-lethal equipment. In recent days, closing the Israeli field hospital in Ukraine, particularly when Moscow could escalate the fighting, didn’t send the proper signal to the world.

We cannot know the details of the Israeli mediation between the parties, but the optics are that it had faded away, in comparison, for example, to pro-active efforts by the Turks. The leaders didn’t talk for more than six weeks until their Thursday call.

The Israeli position is not to condemn Russia but to be taken seriously. It must increase the visibility and scope of its go-between activities.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.