Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Support for Israel should not come at the expense of Ukraine

October 27, 2023

Both are fronts in an intensifying fight against global lawlessness

We live in an era when the resolve of democratic states is being tested in the most extreme ways. The fighting in Ukraine continues unabated after that democratic country was invaded by Vladimir Putin’s terrorist state. Now Israel has been forced into war following the barbaric massacre on October 7th of Israeli civilians by Hamas, a non-state terrorist actor backed by the terrorist state of Iran.

People with any concept of morality were horrified by Hamas’s cold-blooded murder of babies, women, young people at a music festival and the elderly, and by the group’s kidnapping of over 200 people, mostly civilians. But for Mr Putin, not exactly renowned for his moral integrity, Hamas’s attack and Israel’s retaliation have been a welcome distraction from his own campaign of terror against Ukraine. With the world’s media focused on the Middle East, spare a thought for the civilians in Zaporizhia and Kharkiv killed this week by indiscriminate Russian missiles.

There is of course nothing that implicates the Russian leader in the Hamas attack, even if it serves his interests. It is, though, worth noting that his regime has in the past year held several meetings with Hamas leaders, including a delegation that visited Moscow to discuss Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Mr Putin has compared Israel’s blockade of Gaza to the Axis powers’ siege of Leningrad in the second world war. And it is true that Mr Putin shares with Hamas a weapons supplier, dependent as he is on Iranian drones and missiles with which to menace the people of Ukraine.

It was also notable that his first comments about the attack in Israel were given as he sat alongside the prime minister of Iraq, himself dependent on Iranian support. It was, Mr Putin said, “a clear example of the failure of us policy in the Middle East”. His global interests are served by a perception of Western weakness that generates instability and emboldens autocrats and terrorists. Israel’s war against Hamas is now the latest test of Western resolve, which was already straining following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, and in fact long before that.

The rise of rogue states, terror and lawlessness is something an expert might call the breakdown of the rules-based international order. I think of it as a situation in which criminals stop being afraid of the police in a multinational, multifaith city. The world is such a city, the criminals have been let loose and order has broken down.

Not long before the Hamas attack I bluntly told American politicians and experts that, outside the developed countries of the West, there was a widespread perception that their country was “not winning” yet another war. Observers had witnessed America leaving Afghanistan after the Taliban’s reconquest, more than ten years of non-stop brutality in Syria, the Iraq debacle, Ukraine in 2014—and Ukraine since 2022, after a dictator rolled tanks into a democratic European country, fired missiles at homes and hospitals and sent death squads to slaughter civilians.

Such criminality and barbarism demands a robust response. America, however, has shown restraint, backing Ukraine enough for it not to lose but not enough for it to win decisively. In the eyes of many people outside the democratic world, America appears weak. “They want to win but can’t pull it off,” they think.

Many in America might no longer wish to be the world’s policeman. But if the policeman is seen as weak, every lowlife out there will think they can get away with anything, and the number of challenges to the global order will only increase. Where next? Will China, having trampled the rights of Hong Kong, increase its aggression against Taiwan? There are plenty of other potential flashpoints around the world, from Kosovo to Iran.

President Joe Biden, to his credit, appears to recognise the need for reinvigorated American leadership. “Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common,” he told his public last week. “They both want to completely annihilate a neighbouring democracy.” He added: “We cannot and will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin win.”

Americans often ask why they should foot the bill for maintaining global peace. Yet retreating from the world and permitting the bad guys to run riot has consequences. “It’s a smart investment that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations,” Mr Biden said as he sought congressional backing for a new security package for two American allies under attack. Those who would stand in his way, or seek to play one democratic ally off against the other, risk going down in history as appeasers, however tough they might talk.

The European Union and its member states should welcome a revival of American engagement, and play their part. Whether through Mr Putin on their borders or other rogue states and bad actors beyond, malign forces are seeking to destabilise European societies. The sooner Ukraine can be helped to victory, the less serious the damage will be.

In the face of a crisis, now is not the time for despair. But to ensure a brighter, more stable future, it is vital that America and Europe give Ukraine the tools it needs to secure victory. That goal does not contradict support for Israel against Hamas. It is part of the same struggle, because a win for terror anywhere would be a win for terror everywhere.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former political prisoner and head of Yukos, an oil company, is the author of “How to Slay a Dragon: Building a New Russia After Putin”.

The article was first published in The Economist