KABANOVSKY: Israel and Ukraine are two acts in one tragic opera

KABANOVSKY: Israel and Ukraine are two acts in one tragic opera
President Putin of Russia and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seek to cling on to power as long as possible. / Mehr News Agency
By bne IntelliNews October 13, 2023

"My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour.

I believe it is peace for our time...

Go home and get a nice quiet sleep." Neville Chamberlain, 30 September, 1938 after the Munich Conference

The war in Ukraine and Israel are two sides of the same coin minted by dictatorial, terrorist regimes in Russia and Iran that are increasingly isolated and under extreme pressure. The fighting in Israel may be carried out by Hamas and Hezbollah, but it is highly likely that it is being done at the behest of the Kremlin and Tehran. The wars in Ukraine and Israel present an existential threat to peace, freedom, democracy and stability the world has not known since 1945. Moreover, it is a relatively safe bet to assume that they are precursors to an ever greater number of political danger zones lying in wait in the Far East, Latin America and, potentially, the US and Europe as President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seek to hold on to power in a world grown tired of their presence.

Appeasement is not an option

As the war in Ukraine drags on, voices in the West, powerful, prominent voices such as David Sacks, Elon Musk, Vivek Ramaswany, Donald Trump, Robert Kennedy Jr. and others, have been calling for a halt to funding Ukraine and for giving Putin what he wants in an effort to avoid a nuclear war. As Israel ramps up its response to the atrocities committed by Hamas, we will hear other calls for de-escalation and appeasement.

It is time for the West to recognise that appeasement and de-escalation in Ukraine and Israel are misguided. Dictatorial regimes have proved throughout history that they cannot be appeased; they can only be slain. Appeasement does not work. No foreign policy has been more disastrous and brought more death and destruction in its wake than that of appeasing dictators. The expectation that, by sacrificing a small part of the world you do not particularly care about, you will be securing peace and tranquillity for yourself, has been proved wrong time and again. Dictatorships are fundamentally wired differently, they do not exist for the benefit of the many but rather for the enrichment of one.

The core motivation is the preservation of the regime, regardless of the detriment it causes to its domestic population and the international community. Dictatorships and democracies can co-exist, but with significant moral gymnastics on the part of the democracies. The wars in Ukraine and Israel are the result of two authoritarian regimes facing imminent extinction that have found common cause in wreaking havoc upon the world to prolong their grip on power.

A marriage of convenience amidst regional turmoil

This is in no way to suggest that both wars were pre-planned and co-ordinated. Like all marriages of convenience, Russia and Iran found common ground upon which their relationship blossomed and spawned an orgy of shocking brutality. Iran has experienced numerous popular uprisings during the last few years. While the regime succeeded in quelling the uprisings, the scope of latent opposition to the ruling elite could not be ignored.

Putin was shocked to the core by Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group’s half-hearted attempt at a coup. What was most unsettling to Putin is the lack of resistance to Wagner by the people and the power block on whom he had lavished with huge budgets and special privileges. The extent of his fear was made clear by the mass purges carried out within the military and across the ultra-nationalist patriots. For the first time in his reign, Putin realised that when the chips were down, he stood alone.

Complicating the situation further is the never-ending restlessness of the Caucasus. Azerbaijan has emerged as a military and economic force and is no friend of Iran, having established strong ties with Israel and now openly supporting Israel in the current war. What makes Azerbaijan so dangerous for Iran is that there are an estimated 13mn-23mn Azeris living in northwestern Iran, a population larger than the 10mn residing within Azerbaijan, providing an ever-present threat of secession.

Iran and Russia’s support for Armenia over the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh heightened tensions with Baku. Russia also has a long-standing interest in the region, as both Azerbaijan and Armenia are former Soviet republics that were vassals of the Russian Empire. Russia, while doing everything to meddle in Armenia’s internal affairs and supporting the regime in Nagorno-Karabakh, was unable to play a meaningful role when fighting broke out and had no choice but to pull out of the region, underscoring its inability to project power in the near abroad and losing all pretence as a political player in the region.

The Caucasus is of vital importance to Russia. It fought two bloody wars in Chechnya in the 90s and early 2000s. It is a region with the most restive national minorities, with a sharp axe to grind with Russia over hundreds of years of bloody conflict, deportations and oppression. Ramzan Kadyrov is paid handsomely for keeping a tight lid on Chechnya, but his loyalty is only as strong as the Kremlin’s pocketbook is thick. Russia and Iran’s vulnerabilities in the region present the most compelling case for tight co-operation and a co-ordinated effort to keep the respective regimes in power.

Islam has nothing to do with it

Hamas, Hezbollah, Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group or the Revolutionary Guards are indistinguishable for the cruelty, savagery and indiscriminate nature of the violence they mete out. Women, children and the elderly are not collateral damage but prime targets of military activity and a particular breed of depravity. The exploitation of Islam by Hamas, Hezbollah, Kadyrov and Iran as justification for the perpetration of unspeakable cruelty serves as the height of irony.

It would be easy and comforting to ascribe the beheading of infants to Islamic fundamentalism and be done with it. The only problem is that we have seen this film before, in Bucha, Irpen and all across Ukraine, where the boot of the “Christian” Russian soldier trod. Religion has nothing to do with what is happening in Israel and Ukraine. The barbarity of the regimes is displayed in the barbarity of their soldiers trying to cudgel the West into submission by instilling fear through acts of unspeakable horror.

Political miscalculation

While Putin may have started the war in Ukraine on a personal whim, his failure to deliver a swift victory, “Kyiv in three days,” placed him in a precarious domestic situation. As news from the front worsened, the vitriol of Kremlin propaganda reached boiling point. Talking heads on Russian state television channels have long called for nuclear strikes on London, Berlin and Washington. Recently, their rhetoric has switched from nuclear Armageddon to applying pressure on those supporting Ukraine at their most vulnerable pressure points, the Middle East, Latin America, the Korean Peninsula and, with help from China, Taiwan. Considering that nothing is said on Russian prime-time television without sanction from the Kremlin, these statements should be treated as a warning of imminent state policy.

Iran, despite its apparent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, faces an existential threat from Israel’s recent successes in normalising relations with much of the Arab world. Israel's imminent peace deal with Saudi Arabia seems to be the straw that broke the camel's back. As Russia’s ties with Iran have deepened through weapons purchases, economic trade and military co-operation, the relationship seems to have evolved into a more co-ordinated alliance bent on maintaining their hold on power by fomenting political and military upheaval globally.

United by anti-Semitism

"The greatest anti-Semites are often those who hide behind the false accusation of anti-Semitism."  Jonathan Henry Sacks, Baron Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

Both Russia and Iran are inherently anti-Semitic. Iran’s anti-Semitism spans forty-five years; Russia’s centuries. It was in Russia that the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in 1903, and where pogroms that killed thousands of Jews were used as weapons of state-sponsored terrorism. The KGB, which produced Putin, was an unabashedly notorious bastion of anti-Semitism. The Soviet Union’s support for extremist Islamic terrorist groups is well-documented. The irony of Russia accusing Ukraine of Nazism was quickly made apparent when state media and talking heads such as Solovyov, Skabeeva, Norkin and Kiselev were not bashful in their glee and support for Hamas. Russia has a centuries-old history of propagating anti-Semitism both at home and abroad. Iran’s reaction to Hamas’ action needs no comment.

Support of Hamas, Hezbollah and extremist terrorism

There is some evidence to suggest that Russia and the Wagner Group have been helping to train Hamas operatives and provided them with weapons. In 2021, a report by the Israeli think-tank Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center claimed that Russia had been training Hamas fighters in Syria on how to use advanced weapons systems, such as anti-aircraft missiles. The report also claimed that Russia was providing Hamas with financial assistance.

In 2022, the US government accused the Wagner Group of training Hamas operatives in Sudan. The US Treasury Department said that the Wagner Group was providing Hamas with training in urban warfare, guerrilla tactics and the use of explosives.

Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah has been long and well-documented. The fervour of the rhetoric and the readiness expressed by the Iranian regime to join the fight in support of Hamas and Hezbollah leaves little doubt as to Iran’s involvement in shaping Hamas and Hezbollah for the inevitable battle with Israel. Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, the West’s tepid reaction and Israel’s fervent assertion that it would not allow Iran to develop weapons-grade plutonium all contributed to the inevitability of a major conflict in the region. The question was who would be first to pull the trigger, and now we have our answer.

In conclusion, it would be easy to ascribe the war in Israel as simply a continuation of a decades-long regional conflict, a festering boil that has been too painful to ignore yet not painful enough to lance and let heal. But in truth it has never been regional nor just about Israel’s right to exist. The dispute between the Palestinians and Israel was the proxy centrepiece for the larger battle between the USSR and the West, Communism and Capitalism, Good vs. Evil. It was only with the fall of the Soviet Union that the conflict took on a more regional character and real progress in Israel’s normalisation of its relationship with the Arab world made significant headway. The regional part of the conflict Israel was more than capable of resolving. The same can be said for Ukraine which, with all of its faults and shortcomings, has been a democratic country for the entirety of its thirty years of freedom.

We face an extremely dangerous period in our history, one that will test our commitment to our principles of basic morality, human dignity and freedom. This is a time for bravery and resolve and not for cowardice and appeasement. The people of Israel and Ukraine are not just fighting for their homes and their lives, but for the very principles that underpin our society. It is a sacrifice worthy of unequivocal support and as clear a battle of good versus evil as the struggle against Hitler and Nazi Germany. I pray that we have the stamina to do what is right.

Alexander Kabanovsky is formerly a Russia-based banker and entrepreneur. This article first appeared on his substack “Thinking Out Loud” here.