Why Zelensky Is Betting Everything On Ukraine's Support Of Israel
Equating the Hamas attack on Israel with the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a way to keep attention, and aid, coming for his nation's war. But the situations are quite different, and Zelensky's clear stance on the side of Israel risks losing both attention and support.
The surprise Hamas attack on Israel has sparked a major war in the Middle East, and shifted global attention away from Ukraine for the first time since February 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has not hidden his fear that the developments in the Middle East could threaten military support for Ukraine, making a surprise visit to Brussels on Wednesday where NATO defense ministers were meeting. “I want to be honest with you: Of course it is a dangerous situation for people in Ukraine,” he told reporters at his first visit to NATO headquarters since Russia’s full-scale invasion.
The sudden focus on the Middle East comes as doubts were already rising about so-called "war fatigue" among Western allies, including political instability in Poland and Republicans in the U.S. Congress threatening to cut off aid for Kyiv. “If there are other tragedies in the world, there is only a certain amount of military support to share," Zelensky said. "And Russia hopes that support will be divided.”
Aware that there is little prospect of a quick war in Gaza, and the world's attention swinging fully back to Ukraine, Zelensky has apparently made a clear choice to pick a side in the Middle East. He has compared the Israeli victims of the Hamas terror attack with Ukrainians targeted by the Russian invaders.
While there are innocent lives lost in both cases, and the Western coalition is currently being united in Israel's favor as it's done for Ukraine, it's unclear if the comparison will work to Zelensky's favor in the long run.
Russia's shift toward Palestinians
Zelensky made a point this week of encouraging world leaders to visit Israel, as they did in the early weeks of Russia’s invasion. “It was very important not to be alone, very important,” Zelensky said of the support Ukraine received in the initial days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, adding that visits from world leaders were an important symbol of solidarity.
Putin is aligning with the Global South.
The Russian government has taken a very different approach to the outbreak of violence in the Middle East. President Vladimir Putin deplored the loss of innocence lives, but did not denounce Hamas by name. And though he has had a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past, Putin has focused more recently on aligning his view on the region with the Global South.
Responding to questions Friday, Putin said Israel was using "quite cruel methods” in Gaza in response to last weekend's attack.
“In my view it is unacceptable,” Putin said. “More than two million people live there. Far from all of them support Hamas by the way, far from all. But all of them have to suffer, including women and children. Of course it’s hard for anyone to agree with this.”.
Meanwhile, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council and former President, Dmitry Medvedev, took the opportunity to blame the U.S.: “The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for decades. And the U.S. is a key player there,” Medvedev wrote on Telegram. "Instead of actively working on a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, these idiots have crept into our country and are helping neo-Nazis with all their might, pitting two close peoples against each other."
Zelensky, who is himself Jewish, made explicit comparisons between Putin and Hamas, and said Western military aid was crucial to destroy global terrorism once and for all. He said he also feared Russia would move to exploit the conflict in Israel because its interest was “permanent destabilization” and “decreasing assistance to Ukraine.”
“If you don’t help Ukraine, Russia will gain power and the war will not end, Russia will move forward in EU countries," he said. "The cheapest option for everyone is stop warfare in our country and to get them out of our territory.”
ODESSA - Main marine terminal in Odessa in Southern Ukraine, damaged by shelling.
TASS / ZUMA
In its support for Israel and articulating the threat posed by Hamas, Ukraine has the potential to strengthen its alliance with this critical partner and possibly garner stronger backing in the U.S.. Furthermore, by drawing parallels between the experiences of Ukraine and Israel, Zelensky hopes to reinforce Ukraine's place within the U.S.-Europe alliance and "stay in the conversation" even when the focus is on the Middle East.
While it may be valid to draw certain parallels between the two conflicts, it's important to acknowledge that there are significant differences. In the more immediate terms, Israel’s sustained air raids on Gaza and “total siege” of the civilian population present a stark contrast to Ukraine that is almost exclusively defending itself from invaders on its own territory. Indeed, in broader terms, international community does not recognize the current Israeli government's claims to territory in the same way it views Kyiv's defense of its territories.
Will linking U.S. aid to Israel and aid to Ukraine could overcome the persistent Republican opposition to the latter?
Since Russia's aggression in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022, most Israelis have stood with Ukraine, supporting resolutions in the UN General Assembly aimed at protecting Ukraine's sovereignty. Ukraine, in turn, has unequivocally supported Israel in its right to self-defense.
Oleksandr Demchenko of Kyiv-based Livy Bereg wrote this week that one concrete measure the Ukrainian government should do right away is to join most Western nations in officially designating Hamas a terrorist organization.
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. Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, who traveled Friday to Israel announced a new $200 million military aid package to Ukraine, adding “We can do both [manage the war in Ukraine and Middle East] and we will do both… The United States will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
For the West — and in some way for Ukraine as well — the widening global conflict now has two fronts.
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