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Russian Policies During the Israeli-Hamas War Since October the 7th

By May 13, 2024
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PSCRP-BESA Reports No 57 (May 13, 2024)

Prof. Robert Freedman

When the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October 2023, Russia had been involved in its “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine for a year and a half. Given the challenges Russia has faced during the war, Putin has sought allies in the so-called “Global South” and has sought to portray Russia’s war against Ukraine as a war against NATO and what Moscow described as Western neo-colonialism. This overall policy perspective has shifted Russia from its once close bilateral relationship with Israel which it sees as part of the Western camp to an increasingly pro-Hamas position. Interestingly enough however, despite Russia’s rising anti-Israeli (and Antisemitic) rhetoric, Israel’s two main goals in its dealing with Russia—the freedom of action for the Israeli air force in Syrian airspace and the continued emigration of Russian Jews to Israel continued to be achieved. Indeed, Israel expanded its activity in Syria, flying missions all over the country and even bombing the annex of the Iranian embassy in Damascus, an action that was to lead to a serious confrontation between Israel and Iran.

Putin was initially silent during the first few days of the Israel-Hamas war, as the Russian leader was probably assessing its costs and benefits for Russia. On the benefit side, the war diverted US and Western attention from the war in Ukraine and Putin may have hoped that it would divert US weapons that would have gone to Ukraine to Israel, although Republican Congressional opposition in the US to aid to Ukraine was to serve the same purpose. In addition, since the Palestinian issue was popular in the Global South, with the exception of the Modi regime in India which remained pro-Israeli, and since US President Joe Biden immediately came out in support of Israel and transferred weapons to the Jewish State, Putin may have hoped that the war would weaken the US position in the Global South. On the other hand, however, since Iran was an ally of Hamas there was a danger of a conflict between Israel and Iran because Hezbollah started firing rockets into northern Israel in support of Hamas. In any case, when Putin did publicly respond to the war a few days after the war started, he did not blame Hamas but called the war “a clear example of the failure of US policy in the Middle East which has never defended the interest of the Palestinians in peace talks”. While Putin did acknowledge Israel’s right to self-defense, saying it had suffered an “unprecedented attack”.  He then compared the Israeli invasion of Gaza to the Nazi siege of Leningrad. After Putin’s statement, Russia introduced a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire and the release of hostages (some of whom were Russian citizens). The US, however, vetoed the Russian UNSC resolution because it did not mention the Hamas attack. Several months later it was Russia that vetoed a similar US UNSC resolution because it did mention the Hamas attack.  Russia also provided humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza.

In another effort to demonstrate that Russia had a role to play in the conflict, Putin offered to host a meeting of foreign ministers to bring an end to the war, stating that “we have very stable and trade relations with Israel and we have (had) friendly relations with the Palestinians for decades”. The Russian leader, however, got no support for his planned meeting. Putin then had a belated condolence call with Netanyahu in mid-October, but followed it with a formal invitation to a Hamas delegation to visit Moscow – less than two weeks after the Hamas attack on Israel – thereby appearing to legitimize both the organization and the attack. Needless to say, the Israeli leadership was furious with the visit.

It is possible that the pro-Hamas tilt in Russian foreign policy together with the rising tide of Antisemitism in the official Russian press, which was often directed against Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, who was Jewish, may have encouraged near-pogroms in the North Caucasus soon after the visit of the Hamas delegation. Rioters stormed the airport at Makhachkala, Dagestan as a flight from Israel was arriving, a Jewish community center was set afire, and a hotel was put under siege as rioters sought to discover if there were any Jews among the guests. While Putin blamed the mob’s actions on Ukraine, the actions of the rioters had to be problematic for him as they served to undermine his description of the Russian Federation as a place of inter-faith and inter-ethnic harmony.

Meanwhile, Russia’s anti-Israeli rhetoric was growing, as the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, stated on November 2nd that Israel, being an “occupying state” did not have the right to self-defense, under international law. There appeared to be a slight improvement in Russian-Israeli relations in December as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at the Doha forum, stated that Hamas had carried out a “terrorist attack”, but followed up this statement by commenting “at the same time it is unacceptable to use this event for the collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people with indiscriminate shelling”. In looking at the reasons for the change in Moscow’s tone about Hamas, it is possible that Lavrov was appealing to the leadership of the Arab States in attendance who viewed Hamas negatively as a branch of the Moslem Brotherhood which they saw as a threat to their regimes. This was especially the case of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Putin also made another telephone call to Netanyahu, this time according to Russian sources to discuss the crisis caused by the Hamas attack. According to the Israeli version of the call, Netanyahu criticized Russia’s UN representatives for their “anti-Israeli positions” and the Israeli leader also voiced “robust disapproval” of Russia’s “dangerous cooperation” with Iran. According to the Russian version of the call, Putin highlighted “the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip”.

In January 2024 Russian-Israeli relations took another turn for the worse, as during a meeting on Syria at Astana, Kazakhstan the Russian special representative for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, stated, in reference to South Africa’s lawsuit at the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide, that Israel’s actions in Gaza represent a “real crime” which “can even be interpreted as genocide”. In addition, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized Germany for defending Israel at the International Court of Justice, given Germany’s actions in World War Two, and she went on to compare Germany’s defense of Israel with its support for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia was stepping up its efforts to woo the Global South. Taking a page from the old Soviet playbook, when the USSR was wooing the Third World with the Soviet Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Association, Putin created, through his United Russia Party, an organization called “The Forum of Supporters for the Fight Against Neocolonialism and the Freedom of Nations”. Meeting in Moscow in mid-February, the organization expressed solidarity with the Palestinians.

Putin also sought to exploit the growing crisis in Gaza to once again urge Palestinian unity between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. To do this he convened a Palestinian unity conference in Moscow at the end of February. Even though it did not appear that Hamas and Fatah were ready to agree to unify—so deep were their differences – neither group felt able to resist Moscow’s invitation. For Hamas, which was getting battered by Israeli attacks, Russia offered important diplomatic cover, especially in the UN, while the Palestinian Authority, which had been sidelined by the ongoing conflict in Gaza may have seen the Moscow meeting as a means of improving its diplomatic position. In any case, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas did not want to alienate Russia by refusing to participate in the meeting.

Despite the failure of many such “unity” conferences in the past, Putin may have hoped that the rapidly deteriorating situation in Gaza would propel the two major Palestinian groups toward unity. Indeed at the start of the conference, Lavrov offered to the Palestinian groups the services of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and special envoy to the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov as well as the head of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vitaly Naumkin to provide “advisory services” to help mediate the discussions. Unfortunately for Moscow, however, the meeting turned out to be a failure despite the final communique calling for unity. Еven the pretense of unity was shattered two weeks after the conference when Hamas attacked Abbas’s choice for the Palestinian Authority’s new Prime Minister, Mohamed Mustafa, a close confidant of Abbas, asserting that the choice was made without consulting it, despite the meeting in Moscow. For its part. The Palestinian Authority attacked Hamas for not consulting it, “when it made the decision to undertake the October 7 adventure which brought down upon the Palestinian people a disaster even more horrible than that of 1948”. Moscow sought to put the best possible light on the continuing Hamas-Fatah conflict by praising the appointment of Mustafa while also hoping that he would “enjoy the support of the entire Palestinian population.”

As Moscow was trying to forge Palestinian unity, its relations with Israel continued to deteriorate. The Russian deputy UN ambassador, Maria Zabolotskaya, cast doubt on the report of the UN Secretary General’s special representative for sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten’s report on rapes by Hamas fighters during their attack on Israel on October 7th. Zabolotskaya, who had questioned Patten’s report on rapes by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, attacked her report on Hamas calling it a “half-truth which in no way gives a universal picture of what is happening”.

In April, Russia was to face its most serious crisis of the war. Up until this time it had been protecting Hamas at the UN, denouncing Israeli activities in Gaza, and blaming the US for the war in Gaza, all the time trying to improve its position in the Global South at the expense of the United States. In April, however, Iran and Israel directly attacked each other raising the possibility of a wider war which could pull in the United States and cause a US-Iranian war which would pose very difficult problems of choice for Moscow, given its close tie to Iran on which it continued to depend for drones and missiles. Consequently, Russia sought to play down the conflict (as did the US) and seemed satisfied by April 19th that it did not escalate into the wider Middle East war which it may well have feared.

In looking at Moscow’s response to the escalation between Israel and Iran there are several things to note. First, as might be expected, Russia criticized Israel for its attack on the embassy annex while blaming the US as well. Then, when Iran retaliated with its major attack on Israel, Moscow urged Israel to stay calm. The Russian warnings did not succeed in preventing the  Israeli retaliatory attack on Iran which destroyed a SAM-300 complex that was guarding an Iranian nuclear installation at Natanz. However, Moscow must have been relieved that the Iranian leadership played down the Israeli attack and saw no need to escalate further. Still, the relative ease with which Israel had destroyed the Russian-built SAM-300 complex had to be of concern to both Russia and Iran because it underlined Iran’s vulnerability. Nonetheless, following the Israeli attack, tension eased, and it appeared—at least in the short run—that a more general Middle East war had been avoided, a situation that Moscow welcomed.

Despite the easing of tension, Russian-Israeli relations continued to deteriorate in April. In early April, Russia supported the Palestinian Authority’s request to obtain full membership in the UN – much to the displeasure of Israel – and even when the US vetoed the Palestinian request, Moscow promised to continue the effort to obtain full UN membership for the Palestinians. A new low in the Russia-Israel relationship was reached on April 19th when Russia urged the UN to sanction Israel for its failure to comply with a UNSC resolution (on which the US had abstained) that called on Israel for a cease-fire during the Moslem holy month of Ramadan. As might be expected, given Russian policy since the war broke out, Russia also condemned the US for its aid to Israel. The Russian call for sanctions against Israel is a useful point of departure to draw some preliminary conclusions about Russian policy toward the Israel-Hamas war from October 7,2023 to April 28,2024.

First, the deterioration of relations between Israel and Russia during the war has been significant. Not only did Moscow legitimize the Hamas attack on Israel by inviting a Hamas delegation to Moscow only two weeks after the Hamas attack, it also protected Hamas by introducing UN Security Council Resolutions to end the war that made no mention of the Hamas attack while vetoing a US UNSC resolution that mentioned Hamas. It also supported the South African effort to bring genocide charges against Israel at the International Court of Justice, downplayed Israeli claims that Hamas had sexually assaulted Israeli women during its October 7th attack, and called on the UN Security Council to sanction Israel for its actions in Gaza. Still while Russian invective against Israel, sprinkled with a large dose of Antisemitism increased, Russia continued to allow Israeli war planes to fly through Syrian air space to attack Iranian and Hezbollah positions in that country, and it also continued to permit Russian Jewish emigration to Israel. In trying to explain Russian behavior, one can point to Moscow’s desire to maintain high-tech trade relations with Israel, and also its possible concern that with Assad’s still shaky control over Syria, Israel might move to help Assad’s enemies.

Second, at least by default, Russia has benefitted in the Global South from the continued flow of US arms to Israel during the war, a policy that was unpopular in the Global South (except in India where the Modi regime is closely allied to Israel) where the Palestinian issue has resonated. By supplying humanitarian aid to Gaza and backing the Palestinian positions at the UN, Moscow could claim an improved position in the Global South even as it sought to conflate its war in Ukraine with the Palestinian struggle against Israel. Still, the Russian position was not without its problems. Hamas is unpopular with the leaderships of a number of Arab states which Moscow has been courting, such as Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and the clash between Israel and Iran in April 2024 had the potential of escalating into a full-scale war that would have threatened Russia’s ally Iran, especially if the US got directly involved in the conflict.

A third preliminary conclusion that could be drawn from this study is that Russia has had little influence over the events that transpired after the Hamas attack of October 7th. Thus its call for an international conference to settle the war proved unsuccessful; the key diplomatic efforts to achieve a cease-fire were undertaken by the US, Egypt and Qatar, not Russia; despite a major diplomatic effort, Moscow was unable to forge a reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and Russian was even unable to extract all the Russian citizens who were held hostage by Hamas despite all that Russia had done diplomatically for the Palestinian organization. Finally, despite Moscow’s warnings, Israel attacked Iran directly, an event that also showed the vulnerability of Russia’s SAM-300 system.

In sum, in the first six months of the war, it can be said that while Russia may have gained politically from the war – because of the close US-Israeli relationship—its influence in the conflict was quite limited and the deterioration of Russian-Israeli relations may yet change the Israeli position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Prof. Robert Freedman
is one of the leading U.S. authorities on Israel, the Middle East, and American foreign policy. He is a former President, the Hebrew University in Baltimore, and currently is a Visiting Professor at Johns Hopkins University.  His has advised policymakers in State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Israeli Defense Ministry and the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and has been a commentator on major American news outlets. 

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