Exclusive: Israel Dismissed Ukrainian Warnings About Iranian Drones and Declined Offers of Assistance

No army in the world has more experience combatting Iranian drones than that of Ukraine, which has been dealing with them for over two years. Long before October 7, just after the Netanyahu government was sworn in, the then Ukrainian defense minister offered to send a delegation to Israel to teach the IDF everything it knows about Iranian drones. ‘Unfortunately, there was no genuine response,’ he tells Shomrim. Those same drones, which are now wreaking havoc in the north, are the greatest challenge facing the IDF. A Shomrim investigation. Published also in N12

No army in the world has more experience combatting Iranian drones than that of Ukraine, which has been dealing with them for over two years. Long before October 7, just after the Netanyahu government was sworn in, the then Ukrainian defense minister offered to send a delegation to Israel to teach the IDF everything it knows about Iranian drones. ‘Unfortunately, there was no genuine response,’ he tells Shomrim. Those same drones, which are now wreaking havoc in the north, are the greatest challenge facing the IDF. A Shomrim investigation. Published also in N12

No army in the world has more experience combatting Iranian drones than that of Ukraine, which has been dealing with them for over two years. Long before October 7, just after the Netanyahu government was sworn in, the then Ukrainian defense minister offered to send a delegation to Israel to teach the IDF everything it knows about Iranian drones. ‘Unfortunately, there was no genuine response,’ he tells Shomrim. Those same drones, which are now wreaking havoc in the north, are the greatest challenge facing the IDF. A Shomrim investigation. Published also in N12

Haifa Bay as seen in a video from a drone distributed by Hezbollah. Screenshot

Milan Czerny

in collaboration with

June 20, 2024

Summary

“Early last year, shortly after the Netanyahu government was sworn in, I brought with me from Kyiv a large section of an Iranian-made Shahed drone as a kind of souvenir from President Zelenskyy to the prime minister of Israel. I said at the time that unless cooperation between the two countries was deepened, Israel would also be on the receiving end of these drones – and that’s exactly what is happening now. Don’t get me wrong: I find it very dismaying that it is happening – but this is the reality.”

This is what Yevgen Korniychuk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, told Shomrim after the reality he warned of came to full and frightening fruition: Hundreds of kamikaze UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and intelligence-gather drones have been launched toward Israel since October 7. Over the past few weeks, the intensity of these attacks has only increased and drone infiltrations from Lebanon are an almost daily occurrence, claiming a heavy price in northern Israel – including attacks on strategic installations such as IDF bases and large observation balloon Tal Shamayim (Sky Dew) on May 15. And if that were not enough, Hezbollah has also managed to upgrade its capabilities: the day after the observation balloon was targeted, Hezbollah launched an attack on Metula in which, for the first time, it used drones carrying Soviet-made S5 missiles, which launched at vehicles before crashing and causing extensive damage. On Tuesday, Hezbollah published nine minutes of extraordinary aerial footage of the Haifa Bay area and northern Israel, which it took using a drone that infiltrated Israel and successfully returned to Lebanon without being intercepted.

Ukraine faced and is still facing a similar widespread threat. The Shahed drone – which produces a buzz that sounds like a motorcycle engine – is familiar to nearly every Ukrainian, from Kyiv and Kharkiv to Odessa. Since September 2022 – the earliest report of Russian forces using aerial systems – Ukraine had been faced with wave after wave of drone attacks. According to figures issued by the Ukrainian army, Russia has attacked infrastructure and buildings in the country using more than 4,500 of these drones. In March 2024 alone, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reported that Russia launched more than 600 Shahed drones along with more than 3,000 guided missiles and 400 other projectiles. “Shaheds in the skies above Ukraine sound identical to those over the Middle East,” Zelenskyy said in an address to his people the day after the massive Iranian attack on Israel in mid-April, during which 170 Shahed-136 and Shahed-131 kamikaze drones were launches at Israel. Hezbollah, which is financed and operated by Iran, uses various models of the Iranian drone, as well as the HESA Ababil drone.

The Shahed-136 (left) and Shahed-131 in a UAV exhibition in Tehran. Photo: Reuters

Almost as soon as Russia started using drones in its war against Ukraine, Kyiv offered to share the know-how it gathered with Israel. “Late in 2022, we started to send messages to Israel,” Oleksii Reznikov, the former Ukrainian defense minister, reveals in a conversation with Shomrim. “Dear colleagues, we told the Israelis. We’re inviting your experts, your engineers, to visit us and to study these drones up close. To take photographs, to record, to talk to our engineers about the details, so that you can come up with a way to effectively and successfully deal with them, to work out how you can take them down or use electronic jamming to disrupt them.”

According to Reznikov, however, Israel did not take the threat seriously. “It could have been a win-win situation,” he says. “Ukraine would get upgraded defensive technology and Israel would be able to test its systems. We tried to reach out to the Israelis to discuss this with them, but unfortunately our approaches were not taken seriously. There was no genuine response.”

So, how is Ukraine addressing the threat? There are various techniques, some of which are fairly rudimentary, such as shooting down the drown with a machine gun, and others rely on electronic warfare. The Ukrainians are unwilling to reveal all of their secrets in the media. “One method that we found pretty quickly,” Reznikov says, “is to deploy groups of people armed with dual machine guns equipped with thermal cameras or laser-guided systems […] We are familiar with the drones’ flightpath: We know approximately from where and how they are launched and, accordingly, our groups try to intercept them there. So, we have had a decent success rate when it comes to shooting down the Iranian drones.”

Former Ukrainian Defense Minister Reznikov with US Defense Secretary Austin. Photo: Reuters
“Late in 2022, we started to send messages to Israel,” Oleksii Reznikov, the former Ukrainian defense minister, reveals in a conversation with Shomrim. “Dear colleagues, we told the Israelis. We’re inviting your experts, your engineers, to visit us and to study these drones up close."

‘The Ukrainians had help us prepare’

IDF officers were doubtless aware that Israel could learn valuable lessons from the war in Ukraine, just as it was clear to other security officials. “The fighting in Ukraine is an opportunity for many countries, any one of which could face similar challenges in the future, to study and prepare properly,” Dr. Liran Antebi wrote on the website of the Institute for National Security Studies in February, in a strategic assessment she co authored with former Air Force commander Amikam Norkin. “For Israel, this is an especially valuable opportunity since Iranian involvement in a conflict in Europe allows it to study in depth the capabilities and weaknesses of the Iranian threat, which is considered to be directly primarily at Israel.”

In a conversation with Shomrim, Antebi says that she did indeed meet some Israeli defense officials to discuss the United States drones in the Ukraine war. Having said that, she says that, in the end, “such initiatives are not enough in themselves. Maybe the IDF has understood this and wants to change the situation, but it isn’t happening quickly enough.” According to Antebi, not only does Hezbollah have the capability to launch drone attacks inside Israel with ever-increasing accuracy – the attack on the Tal Shamayim observation balloon last month is proof of this – but it has also managed to down a number of Israeli drones in Lebanese airspace. This testifies to the fact that the terrorist organization has upgraded its capabilities, which Antebi says obligates Israel to obtain as much information as possible as quickly as possible.

Fires in the north after Hezbollah attacks this month. Photo: Reuters

The realization that Israel must learn lessons from Ukraine was not limited to the INSS, however. There were also initiatives by private individuals who understood how important the matter was. “Ukraine has so much experience,” says A., a reservist in the IDF who fought in Gaza and is also very familiar with the conflict in Ukraine, having traveled to the country after the Russian invasion in 2022 to help get Jewish refugees to safety. He has maintained close connections with Ukrainians ever since. “It was the first country to have to deal with a massive drone attack and it has its own extensive fleet of drones which it uses in a variety of ways.”

Another person who knows both conflicts well is R., who, at the outbreak of the war in Ukraine decided to pitch in by providing small drones to frontline soldiers. His activities in the country exposed him to much information about how drones can be used in combat. “We all saw on October 7 how a drone flew in and simply dropped a grenade down the barrel of a tank. We saw the same thing months ago in videos from Ukraine and we saw how they dealt with it. Now, that kind of thing just cannot happen there. Drones can no longer fly so close to their targets in Ukrainian airspace.”

R. went on to tell Shomrim that he translated military instruction documents on the use of drones and how to defend against them from Russian and Ukrainian into Hebrew and sent copies to various bodies within the defense establishment. He also contacted Ukrainian organizations who agreed to send instructors to Israel and to have online seminars on the same issue. He says, however, that although some Israeli officials were initially interested, the initiative never really got off the ground.

“In the Russia-Ukraine war, we saw the use of every kind of drone and every kind of electronic jamming was used to defend against them – and it happened under very different conditions: at sea, in forests, in open territory, during the winter and in the summer. At the very least, Ukraine can offer us some useful advice,” he says. According to R., this know-how can be relayed by Ukrainian instructors who “travel the length and breadth of the front teaching thousands of soldiers. They can help us prepare, teach us what damage drones can do, what kind of problems can arise when using them and so on.”

K., another Israeli soldier who fought in Ukraine, pointed out on his social media account that he had started offering lessons from there to Israeli soldiers, including on how the Ukrainian army combatted drone attacks with mobile squads (as described above by the former defense minister). At the same time, he adds, “there is still a long way to go.”

Remnants of an attack in Kiev, March 2024. Photo: Reuters
“With all due respect to Israel’s efforts not to upset the Russians, from a strategic perspective it’s pointless,” says Ze’ev Elkin, Ukrainian-born Knesset member. “Strategically speaking, Russia has opted for cooperation with Iran."

‘Strategically speaking, Russia chose Iran’

The extent of the ever-closer alliance between Russia and Iran when it comes to drones was exposed recently thanks to leaked documents published by a hacker group known as the Prana Network. According to the leaked documents, Moscow paid Iran $1.7 billion, some of it in gold bullion, to build a drone factory in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan. The plan is for the manufacture of 6,000 kamikaze drones on Russian soil every year, in addition to drones used for intelligence gathering. The Russians, according to the leaked documents, planned to speed up the process in part by sending workers from Central Asia who speak a language similar to Farsi to Iran, where they would undergo training at an Iranian drone factory and would return to form the core of the workers at the Russian plant. Another report, from February, revealed that, according to Ukraine’s military intelligence, Hezbollah and members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps traveled to Syria where they trained Russian soldiers in the use of Shahed and Ababil drones.

Russian President Putin at the UAV exhibition in Moscow last year. Photo: Reuters

This close cooperation between Moscow and Tehran raises many questions about Israeli policy vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine – which can be summed as trying not to pick a side so as not to damage relations with Russia. Ze’ev Elkin – the Ukrainian-born Knesset member who was, until two months ago, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and who has strongly advocated for closer ties between Jerusalem and Kyiv – is very clear where he stands on the matter. “With all due respect to Israel’s efforts not to upset the Russians, from a strategic perspective it’s pointless,” he says. “Strategically speaking, Russia has opted for cooperation with Iran. It is taking an increasingly anti-Israel stance and is helping Iran by cooperating on security matters.”

Elkin (left) with former Prime Minister Bennett and Russian President Putin, in March 2022, shortly after the Russian attack on Ukraine. Photo: Reuters

Elkin believes that the position of the current Israeli government toward Ukraine and Russia is based on stereotypes that long ago ceased to be relevant and outdated paradigms. According to him, the prevalent approach among Israeli officials is that our relations with Russia will remain close as long as we do not get too close to Ukraine. “As we can all see, however, it isn’t working,” he adds.

Elkin tried to do something about the situation by increasing cooperation between Israel and Ukraine. So, too, did the chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein. Around a year ago, the two Israeli officials met in Kyiv with then-defense minister Reznikov and even visited the Ukrainian facility that specializes in combating drone attacks, with broad access to Iranian UAVs, where they discussed cooperation between the two countries with their hosts.

According to Elkin, that meeting did open up the door for dialogue, “but the cooperation must be more profound (…) We did some serious things, but I believe we should have done more.”

Reznikov was pleased by the visit of the two Israeli parliamentarians but reiterates that Israel’s official policy has not budged one iota. “Our proposal was that, when they got back to Israel, they would be able to drum up a serious Israeli response,” he says. “But there was no continuation of dialogue on the part of officials from the Israeli Defense Ministry.”

The next threat: Faster, cheap and much more lethal

Has the increased threat posed by drones done anything to change the situation within the Israeli defense establishment? In recent months, Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel has gone on record several times to express his satisfaction with the ongoing progress in defense relations between the two countries. He makes it clear, however, that he “cannot go into details' 'when it comes to issues that relate to military issues and strategic cooperation. At the same time, he still rules the fact that the Israeli embassy in Kyiv does not have a military attaché, since that would allow for steadier cooperation on defense matters. “I have raised that question time and time again with the Israeli Defense Ministry,” he tells Shomrim. “It would allow us to cooperate more effectively on security matters. Unfortunately, this problem has yet to be resolved. It’s the simplest thing in the world to do.”

Ambassador of Ukraine in Israel Korniychuk. Photo: Reuters

At the same time – and despite the fact that Zelenskyy has made at least two attempts to organize a visit to Israel – the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet extended an official invitation to the Ukraine president. A source with close knowledge of the matter even points out that since October 7, Israel has canceled planned visits by Ukrainian parliamentary delegations on at least two occasions.

Ukrainian President Zelensky in conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu after the October 7 attack. Photo: Reuters

Where, then, does that leave Israel’s current level of readiness? The answer is far from optimistic. According to Antebi, it is even feasible that the worst is yet to come in the field of drone attacks, referring to the possible arrival on the field of battle of FPV (first-person view) drones, which can travel at higher speeds, have better maneuverability and can carry explosives and cameras that can be operated remotely by soldiers on the ground. Just two years ago, FPV drones were viewed as nothing more than toys for young people, but now experts are coming to see them as a cheap and lethal weapon. FPV drones cost anywhere between $150 and $500 and experienced operators can use them to destroy tanks or armored vehicles worth millions of dollars.

“I am extremely worried that we will soon witness the use of FPV drones,” Antebi says, once again referencing the Russia-Ukraine war – where that has already happened. “It’s something that we have been seeing in Ukraine for more than a year, and it’s very extensive, because they understand that it is the most relevant and cheapest weapon. And that it’s something Israel is not prepared to deal with.”

Asked about the issue, Reznikov chooses to highlight Ukraine’s experiences with FPV drones from an offensive perspective. “We are now manufacturing FPV drones in various locations, even in garages across Ukraine. This technology was adopted very quickly by the army and in the field of combat today, on the front lines, they use it every day. Sometimes, when it comes to FPV drones, we have an advantage in terms of mass production and experience using them in our army.”

The former Ukrainian defense minister concludes by saying that it is not too late for Israel to change course. “I believe that the most important thing right now is for Israel’s military and political leadership to understand at long last that we share common enemies – and that interaction will only help both countries and will save countless Israeli and Ukrainian lives. And that’s the most important thing.”

The Defense Ministry declined to comment.

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.