Want to understand Putin’s invasion? Look at Israel’s occupation

The way Putin frames Russian state violence in Ukraine is similar to the rhetoric Israel has been using in its wars against Palestinians for decades.

“Today is the day when the just operation for de-Nazification began in Ukraine.” This is how Vladimir Soloviev, a popular Russian television presenter on Russia’s state-owned channel, described the war being waged by his country on Ukraine and its 42 million inhabitants.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion is openly supported by the Israeli right. This support comes first and foremost from a political position: the war is meant to prove the supposed American “weakness” under Democratic President Joe Biden, who committed the unforgivable sin of defeating Donald Trump, the Israeli right’s darling.

It is also meant to show us the importance of having an Israeli prime minister that the world respects — that is, Benjamin Netanyahu. There is, of course, nothing to prove that the war could have been avoided had Trump and Netanyahu continued to serve as leaders, but the counterfactual claim serves the right’s position nonetheless.

Beyond political conjecture, however, there is something deeper at play here. The way Putin frames Russian state violence is very similar to the rhetoric and word play Israel has been using in its wars against the Palestinians and Arab states for decades.

Occupation? It’s only an ‘operation’

First and foremost is the use of the word “operation” to describe what is in fact a full-fledged war, in which tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are invading an independent neighboring state. Former Israeli soldiers will remember “Operation Peace for Galilee,” the name Israel gave to the war it started in 1982, which led to the conquest of almost half of Lebanon, including its capital of Beirut, and the subsequent occupation of the country’s south.

Although the Lebanon war lasted for 18 years until Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, and claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, and more than a thousand Israelis, it continues to be described in official IDF documents to this day by its official military name. The Sinai War, in which Israel occupied almost the entire desert peninsula from Egypt in 1956, is still described in some documents as “Operation Sinai” or “Operation Kadesh.”

Since then the IDF’s name generator, particularly for Israel’s wars on the Gaza Strip, has only grown more sophisticated. From “Summer Rains” to “Hot Winter” to “Cast Lead” to “Protective Edge” to “Guardian of the Walls,” Israel will use every word possible to avoid telling the Israeli public what is so obvious: we are going to war. Putin is proving to be an excellent student of this, settling for the term “operation” and connoting something with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

The Nazis around the corner

Another favorite trick that Putin has happily adopted is casting himself in the role of victim, preferably while mentioning the Holocaust. By using the term “de-Nazification” to describe his plans for Ukraine, Putin not only demonizes the enemy and takes his war from the political-military realm to an almost mythical one, he is conveying that this is a war of the weak against the powerful — of those acting in self-defense against belligerents.

Russia — or rather the former Soviet Union, to which Putin sees himself as its successor in the territorial and imperial sense — was a victim of the Nazis. By reviving this haunting past, Russia’s aggression and its advantage in nearly every aspect over Ukraine is reversed. The Russian is transformed into the weak party, while the Ukrainian becomes the aggressor.

Israel’s use of the memory of the Holocaust to justify its state violence is endless. It is, of course, even more ironic considering that Ukrainian “national” forces cooperated with the Nazis, and even today there are neo-Nazi militias in the country, while the Palestinians had nothing to do with the extermination of European Jewry. But none of this matters for Israeli propaganda. Netanyahu’s claim that it was Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini who persuaded Hitler to adopt the Final Solution is only one of many examples used to defend the further subjugation of the Palestinians.

But when it comes to falsely portraying the reality of power relations, Israel is even more radical than Russia. While Ukraine is far weaker than Russia, the former still has its own planes, tanks, missiles, and hundreds of thousands of trained soldiers. Israel carries out “operations” in Gaza against an enemy that has no comparison in military might or capability — yet Israel is somehow always the weaker party coming under attack.

Putin’s choice of language is reminiscent of Israel’s when it comes to laying out the purpose of Russia’s war. In his speech on the first day of the war, Putin said that the purpose of the “operation” was the “demilitarization” of Ukraine. “All Ukrainian soldiers who lay down their weapons will be able to leave the fighting zone safely,” he said. Putin then said that military aid to Ukraine leads to “instability,” making Russian aggression synonymous with restoring stability and a natural state of affairs.

This narrative echoes the Israeli playbook. Israel has been occupying the West Bank for more than 54 years and has been imposing a suffocating siege on the Gaza Strip for 15 years. It is the occupying side, it is the invading side, it is the aggressor. Yet the occupied Palestinians are the ones required to “lay down their arms” and not resist. All resistance is deemed an act of terrorism; any support for the Palestinian struggle against the occupation “encourages instability.”

The so-called security reasons for the invasion are also remarkably similar. Ukraine is under invasion not because it attacked Russia or because there was any credible intelligence that it was planning to harm its neighbor. The reason is that it may join NATO, which Putin considers an “immediate threat,” and which has prompted Russia to preemptively attack. These claims are reminiscent of Israeli arguments for regularly carrying out air strikes in Syria, Which is not because Israel itself was attacked, but because it thinks it will be attacked in the future.

‘There is no such thing as the Ukrainian nation’

And of course, there is the historical justification for Russia’s invasion. In a speech leading up to the war, Putin said that Ukraine never had a “tradition of genuine statehood,” and that the country today is a fiction created by the Bolsheviks when they established the Soviet Union. In an essay published last year, the Russian president claimed that Ukraine is an “anti-Russian project.”

This, too, sounds like a replica of Israel’s claims about Palestinian nationalism. Israeli leaders have repeatedly claimed that the sole purpose of the Palestinian national project is to harm Israel, while denying the existence of the Palestinian people or collective identity.

The Israeli right is particularly connected to these kinds of arguments. It is no coincidence that Gershon HaCohen — a reserve general in the Israeli army turned right-wing commentator — has suggested that Israel ought to directly support Putin. “Kyiv is the birthplace of Russia. Kyiv for Putin is like Bethlehem and Hebron,” he said in a recent interview. The logical conclusion is clear: Russia is liberating Kyiv, Israel is liberating Hebron.

Putin is “the well-known leader of the global far right, who is increasingly seen as a global fascist movement,” wrote Jason Stanley, author of “How Fascism Works.” One should not be surprised, then, that he is gaining sympathy in Israel, and that his behavior, and particularly his rhetoric, are copied and pasted straight out of the Israeli arsenal. All we need to do is listen.