Israel has just been attacked by a weapons mix not entirely dissimilar to that which Ukraine is presented with on a regular basis. Iran used a range of Iranian UAVs (shaheds) cruise missiles and Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) to attack Israel from a number of different directions.

It seems that we are talking about a very large raid by Ukrainian standards—but not out all proportions. According to the excellent data being collected by John Ridge, the Iranian raid was the equivalent to two of the largest Russian raids on Ukraine. However, it also would be less than Ukraine could be attacked with over a week.

At the same time, last week we saw the Russians keep up a regular attack with the same weapons mix on Ukraine—with a much lower intercept rate. Indeed, the Ukrainian intercept rate seems to be going down, a worrying sign that Ukrainian anti-air defenses ammunition stocks are getting depleted. Certainly, more Russian missiles seem to be hitting their targets, and in particular the Ukrainian power grid is being damaged significantly.

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The results of this Iranian attack on Israel when compared to the Russian attacks on Ukraine are very useful to help us understand a few things. First is the severe handicaps under which the Ukrainians are having to fight, second that we are still over-estimating Russia’s capabilities as a great power (it’s not) and third that the US is reinforcing a policy that will lead to the world-wide spread of nuclear weapons.

ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 29, 2024
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ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 29, 2024

Latest from the Institute for the Study of War.

Overall, it shows that Ukraine is being made to suffer because it’s not a nuclear power.

First. The intercept rates of Iranian systems were very high—but actually not unexpected under the conditions. It seems that 99% of the Iranian UAVs (300 or so fired) and Cruise missiles (30+ fired) were intercepted—for almost total protection from these systems. Even the ballistic missiles seem to have been intercepted at a rate well over 90%. 110+ were launched and about 7 may have hit their targets (or at least hit something in Israel).

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Why is this—well because in this case Israel (with strong US aid) could start the intercept process, including with fixed wing aircraft, hundreds of miles before the Iranian systems reached Israel. They were able to proactively go and get the attacking systems with F-35s for instance (each of which might have the capability to shoot down 16 Shaheds). This meant that only a small percentage of the attacking systems, mostly the ballistic missiles, would have gotten anywhere close to the Israeli border.

Ukraine, in comparison, has to sit back and can only defend itself from much closer range and without all the options that Israel and the US have. It’s a completely different and much more disadvantageous war that Ukraine has to fight (and the US wants it to be even more disadvantageous as it gets all bent out of shape if the Ukrainians even consider attacks over Russian soil).

It also shows that great intellectual poverty of the US trying to delay the delivery of F-16s for so long. They could at least play a role strengthening Ukrainian defensive capabilities—even though they are far less sophisticated than what the Israelis and US used last night.

Second. The Iranian attack against a power that can actually defend itself efficiently should help put into perspective Russian power. Lately we have been hearing again about how powerful and adaptive Russia is—in a way that still over-rates what we are seeing.

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The issue determining the outcome of the Russian raids on Ukraine is more Ukrainian limitations than anything else. Ukraine has old and insufficient systems and is running out of ammunition. And Russia can launch attacks against Ukraine with almost no fear of disruption. It reinforces the message that Russia can be defeated if Ukraine is armed properly.

Third. One of the biggest differences is that Israel, which has far more capable air defenses than Ukraine, was supported by the USA, UK, and France in its efforts to shoot down Iranian systems. This is extraordinary and worthy of note. Why are they doing this? The US has been far more critical of Israel than Ukraine. The Ukrainians need the help more than Israel—and yet the US helps Israel more than Ukraine.

The answer seems to be that the US is desperate to, in its mind, limit the chance of Israeli escalation and is not really that bothered about Ukraine having the ability to escalate. Well, the big difference in escalation concerns is that Israel is a nuclear power and Ukraine is not.

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Conclusion

So, what the US is seeming to say is that if you are a nuclear power—we will help you to try and make sure you are safe. However, if you are not a nuclear power—tough luck and go deal with it. It’s the flip side of the coin about how the US is dealing with Russia. In this case—if our friends (Ukraine) want to fight a nuclear power, the US will restrain them as much as possible by limiting what they get and what they can do.

It might sound clever—but in a meta-sense it’s about as extreme a pro-escalation policy as the US could devise. The US is saying that if you are a nuclear power, you will be either protected actively (Israel) or by restraint (Russia) but if you are a non-nuclear power you will be expected to fight with one hand tied behind your back.

What should every country in the world take from this? Well, the logical answer is that the only way to really protect yourself is with nuclear weapons. When you add this to the clear unreliability of the US as a friend and ally these days, what the US is doing is setting the stage for a spread of nuclear weapons development. There seem to be no drawbacks and only benefits to having nuclear weapons—so why not develop them if you can?

Europe really needs to think about this and start acting soon. Europe is actually very poorly defended by nuclear weapons if the USA goes home—reliant on the very small UK and French deterrents. As a first order, Europe will have to have a serious discussion about how its nuclear capabilities are going to be strengthened. The alternative will be dictation by larger nuclear powers.

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Reprinted from the author’s blog Phillips’s Newsletter.  See the original here.

Phillips P. Obrien is Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrew, Scotland.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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