Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Ukraine War Lessons for Israel

No two wars are alike, nor are warring combatants. Nevertheless, everyone can learn and adapt (perhaps adopt as well) lessons from one war to their own situation. Certainly, Israel can and should, given that war has unfortunately been a given every several years. This is not to say that Israel = Ukraine in this regard. Quite the reverse: in the Middle East, Israel is by far the strongest military power so that some lessons have to be derived from the Russian experience so far.

First and foremost, fighting in enemy territory necessitates far more manpower than in a defensive war (everything else being equal militarily, about three times as many soldiers on the offense compared to those on the defense). Given that Israel’s unwavering strategy has always been to take the fight to enemy territory, the result is clear: unless the country is willing to dig into its reserve units, attacking enemy countries can be a chancy affair (Gaza doesn’t have much of a standing army, so that this point, specifically, does not apply to fighting Hamas).

Second, urban warfare is extremely treacherous, especially given that the locals are far more knowledgeable about the “environment” (alleys, buildings, hiding places etc.). One of the reasons that the Russians have not taken any major cities (yet?) is that they fear the massive casualties that would ensue due to Ukrainian snipers, Molotov Cocktail throwers etc. This is also a principle that the IDF is keenly aware of; it explains why despite its huge firepower advantage over Hamas, the IDF’s leadership has always been loath to invade Gaza in a door-to-door infantry attack.

Third, despite the growing sophistication of offensive weapons, defensive materiel seems to be advancing at even a faster pace. The Ukrainian use of Turkish drones and American anti-tank Javelin missiles (close to 100% accuracy and lethality!) have devastated the Russian tank corps and arguably is the main reason the Russians could not further advance on Kiev and conquer it. Israeli tanks are more sophisticated and better built than the Russian tanks, but these defensive weapons are hard to guard against and perhaps even more important, are far cheaper than the tanks themselves. Thus, Israel now has to ask itself whether its famous armored divisions can win land battles as they did in the past – and for what price in soldiers and economic damage. Certainly, there is still a place for tanks in modern warfare, but the tactics have to change to meet the new – and far more challenging – anti-tank weapons that enemy armies can deploy.

Fourth, if in the past “might makes right”, the Ukraine-Russia War has turned that around: Right Makes Might. The formidable economic sanctions imposed by the world’s economic powerhouses (sans China) on Russia are a direct outgrowth of the almost universal feeling (in the democratic world) that Russian aggression is completely egregious i.e., there is no acceptable “reason” for its invasion. Here too Israel has known for some time that while it claims to maintain a free hand regarding its national security, in reality it is somewhat hamstrung by the perception among several nations that Israel’s attacks on its neighbors must be a product of “clear and present danger” in order to garner support. Thus, “public diplomacy” (what used to be called “propaganda”) is critical in ensuring that Israel can fight without a hand tied behind its back when it feels the need to do so. Among the other “talents” that Israeli Prime Ministers must have to succeed, “talking to the world” is certainly up there as one of the more important skills – Ukraine’s President Zelensky has proven that!

Fifth, if Right Makes Might – and as I just noted, Israel needs all the moral support it can get if pushed to war – then it has to ask itself to what extent it pays to try and walk a tightrope between other national war combatants when clearly one is in the right, and the other wrong. Yes, Israel can’t completely disregard its relationship with Russia (given the Syrian situation), but for the long term, Israel has to be perceived as being solidly in the world’s democratic camp if it wishes to gather support when it needs such. Sending medical help to the Ukraine is “nice” and honorable, but Israel can’t plaster over its initial waffling on which side to be. Statesmanship entails making very hard choices – sometimes sacrificing some important short-term needs for absolutely critical, longer-term survival basics.

Sixth and finally, “right” is not merely a moral issue but a psychological advantage too. The Russian soldiers didn’t even know that they were going to invade the Ukraine and according to reports they are not very happy fighting their “cousins” (many Russians have close family living in the Ukraine). The Ukrainians’ morale, on the other hand, is very high – defending their homeland. This too explains in good part how they are able to hold off the Russian “juggernaut”. The lesson for Israel is clear: while Israeli soldier morale is usually quite high, the country’s leaders should not assume that just because the enemy’s leadership is unpopular (undemocratic, corrupt etc.), the population won’t fight hard against any perceived Israeli “invasion” or even attack. “Rally-round-the-flag” is a universal principle, as can be seen by Putin’s relatively high domestic polling with many Russians being told that the “campaign” is about the “homeland” (i.e., the “Ukraine” as historically part of Russia).

The Ukraine is thousands of kilometers away from the Middle East; Israel would do itself a disservice in not taking to heart some lessons of that “distant” war – geographically far, but lesson-wise quite close to home.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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