Almost eight years ago I watched a Ukrainian teenager lob a can of Mojito Royce Ice into a ditch and had the first stirrings of what the future might hold. It was May 2014, and I had travelled to the outskirts of Kyiv to report for Politico on a training camp teaching Ukrainians how to resist occupying forces in the event of a possible Russian invasion.
They weren’t very good. The poor kid had to pretend his can of Mojito was a hand grenade because they didn’t have any real ones. Tanya, a 38-year-old graphic designer who was also there “training”, told me they were there to learn “the basics” so they wouldn’t be killed in the first minute of a war. “Maybe with what we’ve learned we might last one or two days,” she speculated.
Frankly, I thought she was being optimistic. But what struck me most was what she said to me later: “We want to build something like the Swiss or Israeli army—a people’s army,” she concluded. “That’s the long-term goal.”
It was startling for me as a Brit to hear someone from a country battling a far larger enemy, which was, moreover, occupying it with military force, hold Israel up as a model. Back in London, New York and Brussels, ensconced within the uterine comforts of human rights dogma and the language of supranational institutions, Israel was something that almost all right-thinking people considered anathema.
But, as I discovered, it wasn’t just Tanya who felt differently. Friends in Kyiv and in the occupied East told me that the Russian invasion had made them understand who exactly they were: citizens of a state who, despite supportive talk from allies, would always have to fight alone against Russia, a far larger enemy perpetually menacing their border. Now when they looked at Israelis, they felt kinship with these people who would always have to fight alone against the Arab world.
Even then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko seemed to see Israel as the model. Later that year, he declared: “Just like Israel, Ukraine has the right to defend her territory — and it will do so, with all the courage of her heart and dedication of her soul.”
Once again, Ukraine is menaced by Russia, which recently stuck a decent chunk of its army on the border. And not just men and guns: all the supporting infrastructure for an invasion is being deployed. Recently, they even moved in blood supplies. As one analyst has observed, “if it’s a bluff, then hands [sic] off to the Russians for making sure they get every tiny detail right”.
Once again, the supportive talk flows. In fact, the UK and US have been almost unprecedentedly forceful. Earlier this month, the UK Foreign Office announced that it had “information that the Russian government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine”. It even named politicians inside the country that the Kremlin still had links with.
I don’t remember the British government saying anything as blunt as this in 2014-15, when there was an actual war going on. It’s also now flying arms to Ukraine. Last Thursday, US President Joe Biden had a call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky during which Biden told him that a Russian invasion could happen as soon as February, when the ground in the East freezes over and Russian track vehicles can move. Biden apparently got so worked up that Zelensky had to ask him to “calm down the messaging”.
But while Biden may get emotional down the phone, he won’t send Americans to fight Russians on behalf of Ukrainians. And it’s not like we’re going to send a substantial British force. Kyiv is not in Nato, and it has no allies it can call upon here. It’s on its own, which is, of course, nothing new. For years, Ukraine desperately needed javelin anti-tank guided missile systems to defend from Russian attack in the East; the Obama administration refused. Kyiv had to wait several years until Trump finally agreed to help. Who knows how many deaths could have been prevented had the systems been delivered earlier.
During 1948 War of Independence, the Israelis desperately needed arms; the world said no (and indeed doled out lectures on international law). So they went out and illegally bought a load of Czech arms. They refused to take lectures when facing the literal extinction of the nascent Jewish state. I’m not saying Ukraine should start scouting the black market, but the broader principle should be internalised.
And widely. These sentiments are not just confined to Ukraine. When I reported from Greece just before the pandemic, I noticed that Israel, for so long a bogeyman for a country steeped in leftist ideology of the most reductive kind — “Free, Free Palestine!” roar the protestors who march each November in remembrance of the 1973 student uprising against the Greek Junta — had become a friend to be courted. The culmination was an April 2021 defence deal worth around £1.2 billion between the two. And why not? After all, what is Greece if not a small country perpetually menaced by Turkey, a much larger enemy on its border?
As my friend Constantine Lerounis, once an adviser to the former President of Greece, Prokopios Pavlopoulos, told me recently: “Both Greece and Israel are facing states or potential coalitions of states with far greater resources and larger military forces. When Greece looks to Israel now, it sees not a colonial oppressor but a state that has little choice but to maintain a disproportionately large military and a high state of readiness. And it understands why. The Greek-Israeli rapprochement has been in the making for some time now. What was unfathomable a decade ago is now merely common sense.”
Over the years, I’ve listened to people in Moldova and Belarus and in the Baltic States tell me more or less the same thing: Israel is a model for small countries in an increasingly unforgiving world. And it’s not just about an accretion of individual beefs between neighbours, either. Something has changed.
In 1806 the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel saw Napoleon ride onto the German city of Jena on horseback and thought he had, loosely speaking, witnessed the final manifestation of progress. Almost two centuries later, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama picked up on this image to declare “the end of history” following the victory of liberal democracy in the Cold War.
Everyone now pretty much agrees that this idea is dead. Napoleon’s horse has bolted back out of the Jena gates. History has returned with ferocity and, as Damir Marusic Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, observes: “Ukraine learned a hard lesson in 2014 that many countries outside of the heart of the so-called liberal world order take for granted: you can only count on yourself.”
The problem is that Fukuyama-like triumphalism swept through governments and created a generation of what Marusic calls “activist policymakers steeped in a progressive vision of the world” whose best intentions and half-baked promises brought about so much pain. At the 2008 Nato summit in Bucharest, the United States’ desire to extend Membership Action Plans to Georgia and Ukraine was thwarted by the vetoes of France and Germany. To compromise, Nato offered “an explicit promise to join the bloc, but no specific timeline for membership.” Ukraine and Georgia were left to fend for themselves — with predictable results.
Meanwhile, the EU was delighted to “welcome” the “European choice” of Moldova and several other countries in Europe’s East without making any commitment to EU accession. The door was not open, but neither was it shut. The Kremlin, though, now knew the US and Nato would never fight for these countries. The results are painfully inevitable.
Here in the West, the world of Brussels and the UN dominated the post-war settlement. We could afford the luxury of finger-wagging at Israelis for having to use old-fashioned means to repel old-fashioned threats; we sneered at their atavism.
But out on the edges of Europe, and across the former USSR, geopolitics and history is returning; indeed, they probably never left. No one is coming to save Ukrainians or Georgians. Their only chance is self-reliance; and they have neither the time nor luxury to grandstand. Now the world of Moscow and Ankara and Beijing is rising — and the only way many countries can effectively respond is to adopt the principles and behaviour of a world that runs not through Brussels but Jerusalem.