Around 70 days since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Israeli military is following events with growing curiosity, especially the resounding failure of the Russian army. Below are some of the Israel Defense Forces’ interim conclusions, relying mostly on media reports and exchanges of views with the U.S. military, as Israel doesn’t systematically collect intelligence on Russia.
Rumors of the end of the age of big wars were premature. Examples include Francis Fukuyama’s prediction of the “end of history” and Thomas Friedman’s claim that no two countries that have a McDonald’s would go to war.
A major war is being waged in Europe for the first time since the war that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia around 30 years ago. It can happen, and in our region too. The road from everyday life to horrors like the massacre of civilians in Bucha is remarkably short. Israel must take this into account.
Predictions included a transition to the use of “soft power,” the use of proxy forces, psychological warfare and threats. The Russians have employed all this, including when they boosted the Assad regime in Syria, but they also employed brutal military force there. What may look like a limited military operation soon slides into full conflict.
“There isn’t some super gadget that works with awareness ops and spares the bloody side of war,” a senior Israeli officer says. “Cyberwarfare, online propaganda – it’s all here, but it’s no substitute.”
The Russians’ planned opening surprise – landing special forces at an airport near Kyiv and kidnapping (and maybe assassinating) President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – completely failed thanks to intelligence provided by the Americans.
Wars will take place deep inside civilian areas. Not only will the weaker side use civilians as human shields (as Hezbollah and Hamas do), but some civilians may remain in combat zones by choice. The IDF’s past operations in Lebanon, including the 2006 Second Lebanon War, relied on the assumption that most civilians would flee north. In Ukraine, the flight from regions the Russians invaded was only partial. Many civilians stayed and helped provide a vigorous logistics effort in the rear.
The international community’s intervention is broader and stronger than expected. The Biden administration has taken a hard line, providing vital military aid and intelligence to the Ukrainians. The European Union and NATO have risen from the dead, and NATO looks poised to welcome two new members, Finland and Sweden.
Thus Vladimir Putin’s move achieved the opposite of what he had hoped, but the Russian president still has shown no signs of backtracking. He’s waging a murderous war of attrition that may take a very high toll on Ukraine, even if it costs Russia many dead and doesn’t achieve the victory Putin had envisioned. We may be looking at a war of months if not years, with no real resolution.
The Russian ground offensive has failed for now. While Russia sent large forces into Ukraine, they didn’t move in large and effective formations. Most movement was done in relatively small groups, while a long line of tanks and armored personnel carriers wended from the border to Kyiv, struggling to move in the winter weather and amid disgraceful logistics. So the Russians got stuck, exposing themselves to heavy airstrikes, especially from Turkish-made drones purchased by Ukraine.
The logistics columns didn’t receive proper protection and took hits from antitank fire. The Ukrainians effectively combined drones, artillery and antitank forces, buoyed by surveillance from the drones. Drones have proved to be cheap and easy to operate – and thus a serious threat.
One of the IDF’s conclusions is the need to accelerate its plans to protect armored vehicles from drones. Israel, like other Western armies, was also surprised by Russia’s inability to establish a bridgehead first in northeast Ukraine, and by its limited use of vertical flanking – the landing of forces deep behind enemy lines – following the failure of the airport operation.
Urban areas are a bloody trap. Over the past two decades, due to rapid urbanization in neighboring countries and territories, the IDF has greatly stressed urban warfare. The basing of terror and guerrilla groups in densely populated areas has led to the conclusion that campaigns can’t be won outside cities.
But the Russians’ retreat from the Kyiv area has shown how complex and costly such a mission is to the attacking forces. An attempt to seize control inside a large city can become a trap. As the cliché goes, you know how to get into a city like Kyiv (or Gaza City or Tyre in Lebanon), but you don’t know how to get out.
“Differential competency” among your forces. Due to budgetary and equipment shortages, as well as shortages of soldiers on reserve duty, the IDF has officially adopted a new approach over the past decade: “differential competency” among the ground forces. (This approach had been unofficially adopted before.)
The IDF realized it was impossible to train and equip all divisions the same way, so it prioritized between them and even within them, and between regular and reserve units. The vanguard divisions would receive priority and be trained for fighting in all theaters. The other forces would largely serve in defensive missions during wartime, and in ongoing security efforts.
But the war in Ukraine illustrates how many forces are required in ground maneuvers by the attacking side, certainly in urban areas. The IDF will have to reexamine the distribution and competency of each unit so that unprepared units aren’t caught over their heads, as we’ve seen in Russia.
A remarkably weak ability by air and naval forces. In Syria, with the rebels lacking antiaircraft guns, Russian aircraft bombed almost unimpeded. But in Ukraine, even surprising the experts, the Russians have yet to effectively coordinate intelligence and air power, let alone concerted action with the ground forces.
The Ukrainians, whose capacity was considered limited, have downed many planes and helicopters, limiting the Russian air force’s role. Add to this the sinking of the flagship the Moskva in the Black Sea, with hundreds on board. The Russian navy apparently operated with shocking carelessness there, exposing itself to lethal damage and the morale implications to boot.
Boots on the ground
Still, there’s one conclusion the IDF isn’t drawing from Russia’s failure in Ukraine. Most of the top generals still claim that a ground offensive is unavoidable in a war that includes massive rocket fire at the Israeli home front. In their view, it has been proved that airstrikes can’t take a sufficiently heavy toll on the enemy or stop the bombardment of the home front.
The generals also believe that heavy civilian casualties will put heavy pressure on the political and military leaders to send troops into the rocket-launching zones, even though the IDF will suffer significant casualties. All these conclusions have great relevance on the IDF’s deliberations.
Still, the most important conclusion isn’t for the military to make, but for the government. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with no real provocation, its systematic demolition of civilian areas and the massive evidence of war crimes, Israel has been long due to take a clear position against Russia in the conflict.
This is a clear moral question, but it also has vital practical importance. Israel’s arguments for refusing to join most of the international community against Moscow are unpersuasive. They may gravely harm its relations with its truly important ally, the United States.
It’s surprising that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, whose bipartisan and businesslike performance has impressed many observers this past tension-filled week, doesn’t understand this. It’s surprising his government doesn’t speed up a decision on the matter.