Background to the Russia–Ukraine Conflict: Lessons for Israel and the nations of the World

May 7, 2022
Ukrainian Olim Making Aliyah
Jewish-Ukranian immigrants arrive at Tel Aviv International Airport On March 6 as tensions rise on the frontier between Ukraine and Russia. Photo: C4I International

Ukraine! There is nothing else on anyone’s minds today but the terrible situation that has developed in the Ukraine. An independent country in Eastern Europe, formerly part of the Soviet bloc, has been invaded by Russia. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has long desired the restoration of Russian imperial and Soviet powers, which included Russian influence or control over Eastern Europe.

Many around the world are expressing surprise at the development of current events from two different directions. On the one hand, there is widespread surprise that Putin dared to invade a country that did not pose a threat to Russia. On the other hand, there is real surprise at the determination of the Ukrainian people to fight off the Russian Bear. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, they have managed to stall the onslaught to some extent. Only time will tell how things will develop.

Here’s a recap of the history of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine in the 21st century. Vladimir Putin has headed up Russia variously as prime minister or president since 1999. He inherited the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the various Eastern European states. As an independent country since 1991, Ukraine moved closer to the west. In 2004, Russia attempted to assassinate Victor Yushchenko, a candidate for the Ukrainian presidency who was known for his pro-western views. He recovered from the attempt and served as president from 2005—2010.

The next Ukrainian president tried to move the country toward a greater alliance with Russia, until he was overthrown for those views in 2013. In 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, in southern Ukraine. The world stood by and watched. Since then, Russian separatists in two Ukrainian provinces have sided with Russia in their attempts to gain power over those two areas.

Like Hitler before him, who justified his initial European conquests in the udetenland and Austria, as a liberation and reunification with German people in those countries, Putin has justified his interest in Ukraine as defending the interests of the Russian separatists in that country. However, his real interests lie in expanding Russian territory and influence, and separating Eastern Europe from NATO and Western Europe.

Putin made his intentions very clear. American intelligence pinpointed the exact timing of the invasion and for weeks, warned people of the impending disaster. And yet, so few believed and so few listened. Like Europe in 1938, when people believed that Hitler would stop at Czechoslovakia and Austria, in 2022, the west believed Putin would stop at Crimea and the separatist areas.

Like Europe in 1938, when people believed that Hitler would stop at Czechoslovakia and Austria, in 2022, the west believed Putin would stop at Crimea…

Why is it so hard to believe that some leaders are evil? Why is it so hard for people to prepare for the worst and protect themselves? I guess there is a natural desire in all of us to believe that there are red lines that will not be crossed, that a country will not invade another country unprovoked. But some political leaders regularly cross red lines.

The history of the Jewish people is fraught with evil people trying to harm us. In order to survive, we had no choice but to develop a healthy dose of skepticism. We have always welcomed strangers as friends but continue to make sure they are truly our friends and not some enemy in disguise. We have been burned too many times.

Israel was born surrounded by evil. From the moment of its inception as a modern state in 1948, Israel was surrounded by enemies who wanted to drive us into the sea, to destroy the country and murder its people, before it even had a chance to exist. David Ben Gurion knew that Israel would have to fight to survive from the first minute of  statehood. We had no weapons, no air force and very few trained soldiers. But there was one thing we did have — a very real understanding of who our enemies were and what they wanted. And that understanding continues to this day.

Israel has never been naïve and has always been on guard. We have to be. And while we treasure our friends and allies around the world, we have never relied on them completely. We have invested heavily in our military, helped by American financial support, but we have never relied on the fighting forces of any other country. We cannot afford to. When the western countries negotiate with Iran in an attempt to renew the nuclear deal, we know this will spell disaster for Israel. We are doing everything we can to stop the deal, but at the same time, we are exploring alternatives if the deal does go through.

Israel is developing closer relationships with the Gulf States because we have a common enemy: Iran. And one thing has become clearer today than ever before. We cannot rely on other countries to come to our rescue. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan proved that. And Europe’s current refusal to fight alongside Ukraine has reinforced that. Only those countries directly threatened will be willing to fight the battle. These are the new rules of the 21st century.

My heart goes out to the Ukrainians as they struggle to fend off a brutal enemy. I hope and pray that a way will be found to stop this insanity and return Ukraine to its peaceful existence, protected from Russia. But the people of Ukraine have to find ways to protect themselves. They are deeply patriotic people and are overwhelmingly determined to defend their freedom. We can draw inspiration from the Ukrainians. I hope they draw inspiration from us. May G-d give them the strength to do what needs to be done.

And one more thing. For two weeks, Israel begged the Jews and Israeli citizens of Ukraine to leave. Israel was ready to send planes to evacuate any Jew to Israel that wanted Israeli protection. Only a handful took advantage of the offer. Most were convinced that nothing would happen. They were wrong.

Israel is the home of the Jewish people and my country has consistently opened its arms to welcome our people home. G-d has blessed us with a land that can be home to all Jews. But it seems that for those who are not pulled to Israel, G-d has a way of pushing them towards Israel. I pray that Jews the world over will be pulled to Israel. We have our problems, of course, but together, and with G-d’s help, we will overcome them. We are living in miraculous times indeed.

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Sondra Baras

Sondra Oster Baras was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio in an Orthodox Jewish home. She was educated at the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, a religious all-day school sponsored by the Cleveland Jewish community. Today, Sondra is the director of Christian Friends of Israeli Communities at the Israel office, coordinating much of CFOIC Heartland’s community support programs world-wide.

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