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The Lessons of War – From Ukraine

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomes a group of orphans from the Alumim orphanage in the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr, on arrival to Israel at Ben Gurion Airport, Sunday, March 6, 2022.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomes a group of orphans from the Alumim orphanage in the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr, on arrival to Israel at Ben Gurion Airport, Sunday, March 6, 2022.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)

There are many lessons to learn from Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. And for Israel and Jews worldwide, these lessons are ones of life and death.

In 1994, just a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there had been a complete reordering of the Eastern European bloc. Countries that once fell under the sphere of the vast Soviet Empire, found themselves with newfound independence and freedom.

And also, instability.

For some of the newly independent former Soviet states still possessed nuclear weapons or capability, and the Ukraine, with around 1500 nuclear warheads, was one of the largest, possessing one third of the total Soviet nuclear arsenal.
There was some debate internally in the Ukraine of whether to keep these Russian made warheads, but ultimately it was decided by the Ukrainian political leadership not to keep these weapons as they realised they were unable to maintain the warheads and ensure long term nuclear safety.

Perhaps the cloud of Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster in history that took place on Ukrainian territory, weighed heavily upon them.

Ultimately, an agreement, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, was signed. The agreement, which included Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, stated that the signatories would provide “security assurances” in exchange for them adhering to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

According to the memorandum signed, Russia, the US and the UK, as well as China and France to a lesser extent, confirmed the recognition of the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan and agreed to the following points:

1. Respect Belarusian, Kazakh and Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in the existing borders.

2. Refrain from the threat or the use of force against Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine.

3. Refrain from using economic pressure on Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine to influence their politics.

4. Seek immediate Security Council action to provide assistance to Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine if they “should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used”.

5. Refrain from the use of nuclear arms against Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine.

However, as we can see from the last few days and weeks and years, that agreement has meant nothing.

Because this is politics – and more specifically geopolitics.

According to some analysis, neither the senior Bush administration nor the Clinton administration was prepared to give a military commitment to the Ukraine. It was assurances, not a legal obligation. From their point of view, it was merely a “political commitment” and not an international treaty, whereas the Ukrainian scholars saw it as an international treaty with obligations.

As we know when Russia annexed the Crimea, nothing substantially was done to defend Ukrainian sovereignty, certainly not militarily, and the actions that were done in terms of sanctions amounted to nothing more than a bee sting on an elephant.

So today, while Ukraine is fighting against an aggressive Russian invasion force, in absolute flagrant violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, the “security assurances” have proven to be meaningless.

Israel should learn from that.

Oftentimes in Israel’s dealings with the international community, there is relentless pressure and attempted coercion of the Jewish state, to give up its own territory to the Arabs in an effort to “achieve peace.” They want Israel to give up their security and their lands to people whose openly stated goal is to annihilate the Jewish State. But they hasten to ensure Israel that it won’t be in danger, as the so-called international community would “guarantee” Israel’s security.

Well, we know clearly how much the much-vaunted international community’s “guarantees” are worth. If Israel ever found itself under invasion from enemy countries, we know with a very sad confidence that that no one would come and help us. This is not a slight or dig at the countries with which Israel does have good relationships, including militarily. It’s just a realistic assessment – some might call it realpolitik.

And this is not theoretical either – but comes about from the lessons Jews have learnt throughout history – both from the State of Israel and before.

Because throughout time, Jews have been subject to the most vicious violence and barbarity and cruelness and genocide by those around them. Russian tsars forced Jews to live in certain areas only – and then subjected those areas to violent pogroms. Jews were often invited into countries, due to their reputation of bringing economic wealth. And their protection was guaranteed too, but when leaders changed and times changed, those protections evaporated as easily as the morning dew on a fresh spring day. They were then expelled from those countries, and all their possessions were confiscated. It happened everywhere so many times including countries that think of themselves as enlightened and progressive like France and Britain.

And during the Holocaust, lifelong neighbours of Jews often took part in their execution in places like the Ukraine and Russia and Poland. The local police forces, whose mission is to protect people, often did the killing themselves, while many locals were eager to take over their properties, their clothes, their money, and every last item they had worked for, even as the bodies of their Jewish neighbours were not yet cold.

In France the local Paris police rounded up over 13000 Jews, including over 4000 children, and detained them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports arena in inhumane conditions. From there they were sent to Nazi death camps where almost all of them were gassed to death.

The fate of the Jews in Europe was well known by the international bodies, but largely ignored.

Just as when the State of Israel was declared in 1948 and invaded by surrounding Arab armies hellbent on committing another Holocaust, no one came to the Jewish people’s aid then too. And to this day, it remains a modern marvel how the Jewish people defended themselves against the might of the Arab world.

For too long, the Jewish people were forced to rely on others for their protection, and because of that, the suffering they went through was unimaginable.

Today, we cannot rely on any “security assurances” given to us – even if they were made with the noblest intent, because the reality of the world tells us differently. For Jewish people, the only “security assurance” we have that matters is the State of Israel, because it is what has allowed the 850000 Jews expelled from Arab countries to find a new home. It’s what has allowed many of the surviving victims of the Holocaust to find their new home, when much of the world still refused to take them in. It is what allowed Jews suffering the massive increased antisemitism that has exploded worldwide to find safe refuge.

And it has allowed over a hundred Jewish orphans from the Ukraine, who had no one in this world, not just come to a new home but return to the one home they always had.

About the Author
Justin Amler is a South African born, Melbourne based writer who has lived in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
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