Israel Learns Lessons About Iranian Threat From Battlefields of Ukraine
Deepening relations between Tehran and Moscow are a major concern
Israel has been meticulously monitoring developments since the beginning of the Russian offensive on Ukraine while trying to maintain a delicate balancing act between preserving good relations with Russia and quietly voicing support for Ukrainian sovereignty.
When Iranian-made Russian drones pounded the Ukrainian capital Kyiv earlier this week, it served as a preview for Israel as it prepares itself for future regional conflicts.
Increased cooperation between Russia and Iran is also a cause of concern for Israel.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Israel’s government led by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett decided to adopt a neutral position. The risk of harming relations with Russia was deemed too great since Israel and Russia both operate in Syria. Russian forces are present there to strengthen the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Israel is believed to be behind thousands of airstrikes targeting Iranian weapons deliveries in the country.
Russia also is home to a large Jewish community that Israel is eager to keep safe.
Current Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has adopted a different policy, rejecting Russian annexation of Ukrainian territories and denouncing Russian attacks. Russian officials have responded harshly, but it is still too early to tell how bilateral relations will be affected.
Israel continues to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine but has refused requests to supply much-needed air-defense systems.
Israel already has been the target of drone attacks on its northern borders. Earlier this year, the Israel Defense Forces downed a drone launched from Lebanon. In July, three unmanned aircraft launched by Hizbullah were shot down over the Mediterranean Sea. Their target was reported to be an Israeli gas rig located in disputed maritime territory. The attacks were thwarted without casualties or damage.
“The threat of Iranian drones is one that Israel is aware of,” according to Dr. Eyal Pinko, an expert on military strategy and intelligence and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s Political Studies Department.
For Israel, Pinko explained, the threat of drones is not one of its greatest challenges. Israel’s currently operational air defense systems are fully capable of dealing with the threat, he told The Media Line.
“Drones are relatively slow targets flying at medium altitudes, and are a big, visible, and noisy target that radars can detect at long ranges,” he explained.
The Iranians will conduct post-operational research and will improve the performance of these drones
In other areas of the world, similar drones have been successful at destroying targets and avoiding radars.
“It is definitely a problem that needs to be taken seriously, especially when facing a barrage of drones,” Pinko said, referring to the recent drone attack on Kyiv. Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system has a high success rate against rockets fired from Hamas in Gaza but is increasingly being challenged by massive salvos.
Israel also has drones with offensive capabilities; some of the models have been exported to other countries.
Attack drones are increasingly becoming a part of modern warfare. Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia, which also have been subject to drone attacks by Russia, are not as well equipped to deal with massive drone attacks.
“The Iranians have been using these vessels in Iraq and other countries in the region, but the use in Ukraine by Russia is much more extensive,” said Maj. (ret.) Alex Grinberg, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and an expert on Iran at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
According to Grinberg, the Iranians are using the war between Russia and Ukraine as a training ground for future reference.
“The Iranians will conduct post-operational research and will improve the performance of these drones,” said Grinberg, who added that the drones used against Kyiv contained cheap components that allow for quick production.
Israel is being very attentive to events in Ukraine, also eyeing Iranian supply routes and its latest innovations. There reportedly is intelligence cooperation between Israelis and Ukrainians.
But for Israel, the main lesson to be learned from the Russian drone offensive is that of the growing closeness between Tehran and Moscow. This has led to growing concern in Jerusalem, which considers Iran its archrival and sees it as its gravest, nearly existential threat.
“Israel needs to be close to Russia,” said Pinko. “It is clear that in the Middle East the Russians are the ruling power with a lack of American presence. The importance of Russian presence is by creating some sort of balance in the region that maintains the quiet.”
While before the current war in Europe broke out there was a feeling that the world powers were close to signing a revived agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program, events have pushed that further away.
Iran is reportedly sending significant military support to Russia, and not only by supplying drones. Missiles of varying ranges, air defense systems, and even boots on the ground are believed to be some of the aid being provided by Iran to Russian President Vladimir Putin. For the operation of sophisticated drones, which have yet to have been used by the Russians but might in the future, there likely will be a need for the presence of Iranian experts on Russian soil. For Iran, cozying up with Moscow shores up Russian support for its position in future nuclear negotiations.
“For Israel, this is a dangerous development,” said Pinko. “As long as the war continues, the agreement is more distant. All the while, Iran is continuing to develop its nuclear abilities.”
Israel, which has voiced its opposition to the nuclear agreement, could be satisfied by this development.
This also helps Israel train for a future conflict with Iran, either in direct conflict or through one of Iran’s proxies on Israel’s borders.
The Russians could try and hamper Israeli activities in Syria, but Israel can also make life difficult for Russia
One of the main reasons that Israel has chosen to remain largely on the sidelines of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is its operations in Syria. Israel and Russia have a coordination mechanism in Syria, where Israel is believed to be behind many airstrikes against Iranian targets. Israel needs Russian cooperation in order to continue such attacks. The mechanism is aimed at guaranteeing the safety of Russian and Israeli air forces operating in Syrian airspace. An accident caused by a communications hitch could lead to further strain between the two countries.
“The Russians could try and hamper Israeli activities in Syria, but Israel can also make life difficult for Russia,” said Grinberg, “Russia is a failed, bruised country with a corrupt, unprofessional military. Israel should not aspire to enter a conflict with Russia but, in terms of air force capability, it has the upper hand.”
Iran, Russia, and Israel are each using the war in Ukraine as a training ground while complicating matters for all. As Israel has struggled to position itself between Russia and the West during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, deepening relations between Tehran and Moscow could put an end to its balancing act.