A fire truck was destroyed in Kharkiv by Shahad 136 drones in an April 6, 2024, attack.

A fire truck was destroyed in Kharkiv by Shahad 136 drones in an April 6, 2024, attack. Pavlo Pakhomenko / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Why we can shoot down Iranian drones over Israel but not Ukraine

The different outcomes of the weekend’s attacks on Tel Aviv and Kharkiv reflect factors practical and political.

It was a tale of two cities this weekend. On Sunday morning, people in Tel Aviv went about their lives largely as usual despite the 300 drones and missiles that Iran had fired at Israel just hours before. U.S., UK, and Israeli forces destroyed nearly all of the projectiles. But more than a thousand miles due north, Ukrainians in Kharkiv mourned seven people killed over the weekend, the latest to die in a Russian bombardment campaign that has taken the lives of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure. Both attackers used Iranian-made Shahed 136 drones. The different outcomes reflect factors practical and political.

“​’Shaheds in the skies above Ukraine sound identical to those over the Middle East. The impact of ballistic missiles, if they are not intercepted, is the same everywhere,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted Monday. “European skies could have received the same level of protection long ago if Ukraine had received similar full support from its partners in intercepting drones and missiles. Terror must be defeated completely and everywhere, not more in some places and less in others.”

Olena Halushka, co-founder of the International Centre for Ukrainian Victory, blamed the Biden administration’s strategy of under-arming Kyiv to avoid provoking Moscow. “Russia and Iran were given two years to test out Shahed drones in action against us, Ukrainians, and improve technologies accordingly. Two years. That was supposed to manage escalation.”

On Monday, reporters asked White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby why the United States and allies had shot down Iranian drones over Israel but not Ukraine.

“Two different conflicts, different airspace, different threat picture. And the President has been clear since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine that the United States is not going to be involved in that, that conflict in a combat role,” Kirby said. 

He noted that the U.S. had provided air-defense systems to Ukraine until Congress halted aid.

“Unfortunately, we can't do that right now. Because we don't have that national security supplemental funding that, that they so desperately need,” he said.

The Senate passed a bill more than two months ago to provide more aid to Ukraine. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has long blocked a vote on the bill, though he may soon allow something to come to the floor. On Monday, he promised separate bills for funding for Ukraine, Israel, and other “crises.” But House members of both parties seem far more receptive to the plight of Israel than Ukraine, which is in a far weaker military position. Over the weekend, representatives rallied to provide Tel Aviv with new military aid, working to get a bill to the White House within hours. 

That doesn’t just reveal favoritism, it also underscores a failure on the part of the Biden administration, said Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe. Hodges said Biden needs to make the case for Ukraine and outline a strategy for victory. 

“This reflects the continued failure of the administration to clearly specify the strategic endstate for the war by Russia against Ukraine. The guiding principles seem to be limiting the possibility of escalation and keeping Ukraine barely in the fight. This is strategic illiteracy and only serves to achieve the opposite of escalation management,” he said. “The MAGA-faction of Congress obviously is hugely responsible for the blockage of further aid...but the administration has left the door open for this because of its strategic leadership failure.”

Several practical considerations make it easier to defend Israel from air attack, said Dara Massicot, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Israel is much smaller than Ukraine, allowing them to create consolidated and layered air defense systems. Secondly, Israel is able to use aircraft in a permissive airspace to shoot down inbound missiles and drones. Israel’s allies have the ability to launch ballistic missile defenses from ships in the Mediterranean, and fighters capable of cruise missile defense from air bases in the region if required,” Massicot said. In other words, U.S. warships were able to help Israeli forces shoot down the incoming threats as they patrolled the waters off Israel’s Mediterranean coast. 

But Ukraine’s Black Sea coast is all but cut off to the United States right now, thanks to Turkey. 

“The United States has not had any [ballistic missile defense]-capable ships in the Black Sea for the past two years once Turkey closed the Bosphorus Straits to most warships,” she said. 

The United States does have aircraft in Europe that can shoot down Russian cruise missiles and Shahed drones over parts of Ukraine—but only if Washington were to impose a no-fly zone over the country. 

Ukraine is also facing a more capable enemy, Hodges said: “I don’t know or believe that Iranian attacks can match the quality or capability of Russian attacks against Ukraine.” 

And Ukraine lacks the kind of direct military support that Israel enjoys.. 

“Jordan and even Saudi Arabia are actively helping to defend Israel, with aircraft/pilots and with munitions. Ukraine has zero active help and gets only a smattering of what it needs to defend itself,” he said.

Ukraine could, for example, use Israel’s Iron Dome system to defend key cities, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out providing the technology to Kyiv.  

Still, Hodges said, Israel’s defense has lessons for Ukraine’s defenders.

“It’s clear that Iran, like Russia, is willing to use hundreds of drones, rockets and missiles against civilian targets and so protection of civilian populations, power grids, and critical infrastructure requires extensive air/missile defense capabilities and practice and resilient power systems. We need to get the same sort of capability and active help to Ukraine. And we need to dramatically increase our own capabilities in NATO,” he said.