Interview'We still believe that Israel is a friendly state'

Year into war, Ukraine’s envoy looks for Israel to scrap fence-sitting policy

Yevhen Korniychuk urges Jerusalem to shift away from balancing ties with Russia in order to allow transfers of defensive arms, says early warning system must be set up urgently

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk, interviewed at his country's embassy in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2022 (Times of Israel)
Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk, interviewed at his country's embassy in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2022 (Times of Israel)

Looking back on a year of war in his home country, Ukraine’s envoy to Israel said that Kyiv sees Israel as an ally, despite publicly expressing disappointment at Israel’s relatively neutral position on the Russian invasion.

“We still believe that Israel is a friendly state,” said Yevhen Korniychuk, speaking to the Times of Israel on Friday, exactly one year after Russian troops began their push into Ukraine’s major cities.

While recent trips by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and two leading Ukraine-born Knesset members to Kyiv were appreciated, Ukraine expects more, said Korniychuk.

“The president made it clear to both delegations that we need to change the policy of the Israeli government and finally start to obtain at least defensive munitions from Israel,” he said.

Ukraine has been asking for Israel to provide its vaunted short- and medium-range missile defense systems, Iron Dome and David’s Sling.

Israel fears providing the defensive weapons will spoil constructive ties with the Kremlin, which could make life difficult for Israeli pilots over Syrian airspace controlled by Moscow and Jews inside Russia.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 16, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

But Israel also needs its limited supply of interceptor missiles in case of a war against Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel has to be on the right side of the history

“We do understand that Israel doesn’t have much in stock now, but the war will happen not to be over, unfortunately, tomorrow,” said Korniychuk. “It’s a long run, and if we will finally agree and start to receive some Israeli defensive equipment in three months, six months, nine months from now, this is okay.”

“But Israel has to be on the right side of history,” he added.

While in Kyiv earlier this month, Cohen announced that Israel would help install a system to warn civilians of incoming Russian missiles within four months.

Local residents inspect debris following a barrage of drone strikes from Russia in Stari Bezradychi village, Kyiv region, on December 19, 2022. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP)

But Korniychuk said the timeline for the system was simply not good enough.

“Listen, we are in a cruel war now,” he said. “We have been talking about this publicly for six months. This is not something that we are speaking about secretly. We’ve been promised to get it, and we’re still not there.”

The initial deployment will be a pilot that at best will cover a city like Kyiv.

Cohen also said Jerusalem would provide $200 million in loan guarantees to build healthcare and other civilian facilities. Korniychuk said Kyiv would “be happy to use this loan for Israeli defensive equipment.”

Korniychuk said he was surprised at Israel’s stance from the first day of the war, when it became clear that then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid would condemn Moscow, while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would maintain an open line with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, February 24, 2022. (Niv Musman/GPO)

Under the Bennett-Lapid government, Israel sought to maintain a largely balanced stance on the war, keeping channels of communication open with both Moscow and Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have not been shy about their frustration, publicly castigating Israel a number of times for not taking a firmer stance and for refusing to send air defense systems to the country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who praised his predecessors’ position as “prudent,” is expected to pursue a similar path. But the visit by his foreign minister, a Likud ally, is a sign that he wants to at least be perceived as moving the dial in Kyiv’s direction.

Korniychuk was also shocked to hear Bennett say in a recent interview that he had been coordinating aid to Ukraine with Putin.

Ukrainian workers construct tents for the Israeli field hospital being established in Mostyska, Ukraine. March 18, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Israel temporarily opened a field hospital on Ukrainian territory last year, and continues to send generators and other assistance.

“To a certain extent, your humanitarian aid was important for us because without this aid, we would not feel as strong as we do,” said Korniychuk. “But clearly you cannot win the war with just humanitarian aid.”

Looking ahead, Korniychuk stressed his country’s hope that the war won’t last another year. But that doesn’t depend only on Ukrainians, he said.

“Unfortunately, we are still in a position that without the support of our partners, we would not sustain for such a long time.”

If Ukraine receives the aid from Western allies that it has been requesting, it can win within months, Korniychuk argued.

A Ukrainian soldier walks past the body of a Russian soldier laying on the ground after the Ukranian troops retook the village of Mala Rogan, east of Kharkiv, on March 30, 2022. (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

“I can tell you that Russian propaganda is stronger than the Russian army,” he continued. “So we are succeeding on the battlefield and we are glad that we stay strong and we’ve been united as we never been before.”

His country is not looking to negotiate with Moscow, he said: “They want to kill us all. So in this case, you do understand that it’s no room for mediation at all.”

And they will not stop fighting until they liberate all their territory, he promised. That includes Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed in 2014.

“The more Russian atrocities we experience in our territory, the less people are willing to give up territories in exchange for peace,” he said.

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