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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


I've heard some pretty off-the-wall claims over the past week. The authors of this article think the fact that Hamas attacked Israelis on Vladimir Putin's birthday (7 October) can't be a coincidence. And the latest violence in the Palestine-Israeli conflict is the result, they assert, of Putin 'opening a new front in his war against the west.' They see Putin as the 'only real winner' of the latest outbreak of war in the Middle East.

Somehow I doubt that Russia stands behind recent events round Gaza -- but the view has been expressed in several places. A wiser line is taken by the BBC, which reported that Putin is ready 'to take advantage' of the situation. I do, however, wonder whether the Kremlin really has any good options here? I'm not sure it does, as I shall argue in this post.

Russian officials' response, when it came, focused on calls for a ceasefire. There were bromidic statements lacking any real sense of direction, which I suggest reflects the lack of obvious policy options. I don't see anything to suggest that Russia expected Hamas's attacks last weekend. It, as much as the US and European governments, looks to have been eyeless in Gaza.

Russia's connexions

Moscow has long sought a role in the Middle East. Its influence rose and fell during the cold war. Of that era, the Russian political analyst Dmitry Trenin could write in his short 2018 book What is Russia Up To In The Middle East : 'During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was fully on the side of the Arab states and Palestine; Israel was an adversary.' Certainly some Russian commentators persist in being strongly pro-Palestine and anti-Israel, but this does not appear to be the Kremlin's position today.

It is true that the Russian state maintains relations with Hamas, and also Hezbollah, but this doesn't reflect a strong signal of support. Rather, I think Trenin, who was once listened to in the west as a Russian liberal and has since fallen from grace for his support for the war in Ukraine, explains well how, in the Putin era, Russia has built a complex network of relationships in the Middle East. Russia -- unlike the United States, European Union and United Kingdom -- does not recognise Hamas as a terrorist organisation and has held meetings with them. (The issue of arms sales is questionable.) Such links have allowed the Kremlin to benefit from pragmatic engagement from all parties without taking sides in some of the region's key political disputes.

Russia has more consequential ties with Iran and Syria. The former has supplied the Russian military with drones for use in Ukraine, and Russia's involvement in Syria's civil war was a good way of complicating things for the United States, acting as a 'spoiler' if you like, while reasserting some role for itself with a cold-war era ally.

But the relations with Hamas and Hezbollah are of a different kind. The complex relations that Trenin described as 'straddling... the Middle East's treacherous divides' actually point to a bigger problem for Russia. As a strategy, it only works in peacetime.

The ramifications

In my opinion, Putin's Russia is quite constrained: it can't really take sides in the Israeli--Hamas war because it has healthy relations with both parties. Many prominent Russians foster good relations with Israel; the two states have visa-free travel, strong cultural links and about a million Russians live in Israel.

As well, Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu seem to be on relatively good terms: when Netanyahu visited Moscow in 2010, Putin said that Israel is 'practically a Russian-speaking country' (cited in Gvosdev and Marsh 2014, p.305). More recently, the Kremlin has been reasonably satisfied with Israel's position in the Russo-Ukrainian war because it has refrained from pressure from the United States to supply weaponry to Ukraine. While some Israelis have naturally taken issue with Russians' use of Nazi analogies about Ukrainians, and its tightening cooperation with Iran, there has not been a severe rupture in relations.

Lacking good options, Putin predictably blamed the United States: the outbreak of violence was a failure of US policy, he claimed. He might have gone further and blamed 'perfidious Albion' given Britain's centrality in the history of everything that happened in the last part of the first world war and after to the creation of an Israeli state.

That does not mean Russia won't benefit at all. Claims a new war will distract resources and attention from Ukraine might be a cheap shot but it rings true. Ukraine needs ammunition and weaponry and there were already concerns about stockpiles; if the situation develops into a wider war in the Middle East, then inventories could be depleted more quickly still.

It is notable that Putin has neither spoken to Netanyahu this past week nor expressed condolences publicly to Israel over the atrocities committed by Hamas last Saturday. But an Israel-Hamas war is a birthday present no one wants.

Image credit: : Photo from the Lebanese civil war by James Case from Philadelphia, Mississippi, U.S.A. - Checkpoint 4, Beirut, Lebanon 1982, CC BY 2.0,

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