Balancing act: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0 DEED
As the war in Gaza distracts the West from its support for Ukraine, Russia is seeking to exploit the situation by positioning itself as a reasonable broker that has the ear of both Israel and Hamas.
The two wars currently dominating the agenda – the Ukraine war and the Israel–Gaza conflict – have one common denominator: Russia. While the causes and aims of the two conflicts are incomparable, Russia has nevertheless sought to ensure that it remains at the heart of the action. But its intentions and management of its different relationships in the Middle East are rather more complex.
While Russia’s ties with Israel have fluctuated over the years, they have strengthened since the Soviet Union’s collapse. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s ambiguous response has strained their relationship. These difficulties were brought to the fore recently on 29 October: in a series of unsettling events, a flight from Tel Aviv landing in the southern Russian city of Makhachkala (Dagestan) was forced to evacuate its passengers due to a rioting mob expressing support for the Palestinian cause and seeking to attack Israelis and Jews.
The Kremlin’s response varied from initial prevarication by the security services (who did not regain control over the airport for several hours), blaming the West for the demonstrations and accusing Ukrainian forces of fomenting the civil unrest (with no evidential links between them), to holding a major meeting to discuss the antisemitic event and promising to detain those responsible. None of this filled either the Jewish community across Russia or Israel with much confidence, and Russia’s attempts to involve itself in Israel’s war are unlikely to be well-received in Jerusalem.
While Russia and Israel’s relationship over Syria and deconfliction in the country’s airspace is part of the bilateral picture, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has moved further to the right, Israel has sought to forge alliances with countries that have not been traditional Western allies, including India and Hungary as well as Russia.
However, upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Israel took an unclear position, raising hackles in both Kyiv and Moscow. Israel did not fall behind the Western consensus and has not sanctioned Russia, but nor has it offered military assistance to Ukraine. Israel did accept several thousand Ukrainian refugees, but there was intense debate within Israel about whether to cap their entry, alongside accusations that the refugees’ social and medical benefits had expired and not been renewed. Israel did offer humanitarian aid to Kyiv, and has nominally professed support for Ukrainian independence. But the Canadian parliament’s lauding in September of a Ukrainian Second World War veteran who served in a Nazi unit prompted criticism from Israel, reinvigorating the debate about Ukraine’s contentious role and attitude towards Jews during the war.
Russia itself has a long history of institutionalised antisemitism, pogroms and demonisation of the Jewish community. Although antisemitism and racially aggravated assaults have never been eradicated from Russian society, President Vladimir Putin has made his position on Russian Jewry clear, and has long lent support to the large Jewish community in Moscow, including the commemoration of Jews killed during the Holocaust. He has been lauded for this by representatives of the Jewish community – particularly Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of two claimants to the title of Chief Rabbi of Moscow.
Putin considers the leaders of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths in Russia to be important allies and a broader part of Russia’s identity as a multicultural nation, and meets with them frequently – although his relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church runs much deeper. Lazar has also walked a careful line between advocating for his community and ensuring that Putin remains onside, which has included a degree of neutrality on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ambiguity around his views of the Russian government’s actions.
The message of Russia-as-peacemaker serves a useful role in the Kremlin’s quest for legitimacy and power projection in the Middle East
The events in Dagestan have particular resonance for Russia’s Jewish communities, which have an historical connection to the North Caucasus. While only a few hundred families may remain in Dagestan, the local Jewish population – known as the Mountain Jews – used to be spread across trade routes over the entire Caucasus region, including Chechnya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. With their own distinct language, culture and traditions, thousands of the Mountain Jewish community were killed during the Holocaust, and while some remained, most relocated to Moscow or larger cities after the war, with others emigrating to Israel or the US after 1991.
Since the Israel–Gaza war began, there has been a surge in violent antisemitic demonstrations across Russia’s North Caucasus, demanding the expulsion of local Jews and attacking a Jewish cultural centre. Given the region’s history, the Dagestan riots have been likened to the pogroms of the past, which sought to uproot well-established Jewish communities.
But the messaging from the Kremlin has been unclear. Rabbi Lazar met with Putin to discuss the demonstrations, alongside Patriarch Kirill and the Grand Mufti Tadzhuddin. But the Kremlin’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, has criticised as Israel’s warning against its citizens travelling to the North Caucasus as ‘anti-Russian’, in part to downplay the extent of the riots. It appears that Russia is still trying to play both sides of this conflict.
Israel’s War, Russia’s Gain
Despite its attempts to involve itself in this war and to present an image of a mediator with the ear of both Israel and Hamas, in truth, Moscow has neither. The narrative, however, is useful for Russia in several key ways.
First, Russia is attempting to position itself as a reasonable broker appealing for calm, which Hamas has lauded. Although few in the West are willing to buy this line, Russia will use its positioning as a future bargaining chip in its war against Ukraine, to demonstrate that it is capable of debate, mediation and politicking. There is also the added bonus for Russia that another war dominating the news cycle has pushed the Russia–Ukraine conflict further down the West’s political agenda.
Second, the message of Russia-as-peacemaker serves a useful role in the Kremlin’s quest for legitimacy and power projection in the Middle East. In its bid for allies, and to fulfil its foreign policy directives of deepening engagement in the MENA region (what it refers to as the ‘Islamic world’), Russia is contrasting itself with the ‘colonial West’ and its troubled history of intervention in the region. By wading into Israel’s long-standing conflict with the Palestinians, which Russia has never before successfully mediated, Putin is seeking to carve out a role as an alternative to the US-dominated negotiations between the warring parties. The message is: where the US has tried and failed, Russia will succeed. Putin’s first public statement on the war ascribed blame to the US, maintaining that this was an example of the failure of its Middle East policies.
Russia is not particularly able to influence Hamas, nor is there any credible proof that it has provided funding or arms to it
Third, Russia has much to gain from the US’s financial distraction by the Israel–Gaza war. The recent US House of Representatives’ agreement to pass $14.3 billion worth of military aid to Israel was dominated by the Republicans, including an increasingly noisy faction that has long argued for the cessation or at least capping of US military aid to Ukraine. In its current format, the bill is likely to be vetoed – President Joe Biden has made clear that he would like to see broader spending on aid packages that include Ukraine, and the Democrats control the Senate – but it points to a broader bipartisan split within the US political system that Russia is keen to take advantage of in order to limit military aid to Ukraine. While Putin is likely anticipating that the US presidential elections in November 2024 will be a watershed moment for the provision of aid to Ukraine, the Israel–Gaza war has offered another unexpected opportunity to vicariously weaken Ukraine.
Whose Ear Does Russia Have?
In reality, Russia’s ability to impact on the Israel–Gaza conflict is limited. Much has been made of Russia’s hosting of Hamas delegations before and during the war, prompting Israel to summon the Russian ambassador for an explanation.
But Russia is not particularly able to influence Hamas, nor is there any credible proof that it has provided funding or arms to it. Russia during the Soviet period paid lip service to the Palestinian cause and aligned itself nominally with their right to self-determination, but following the collapse of the USSR, it prioritised ties with Israel. It did condemn Hamas’s terrorist attacks throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but has not designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and the group’s victory in Gaza’s 2006 parliamentary elections prompted Russia to recognise it as a political entity. Since 2007, Russia’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs has held meetings with the Hamas leadership, including hosting the former leader of Hamas’s Politburo, Khaled Meshal, in Moscow.
Russia has now claimed that its hosting of Hamas delegations is an opportunity to discuss the hostages – at least eight Russian citizens are thought to be held in Gaza. But this is unlikely to be the focus of the talks, and Hamas’s comments after the meeting suggest that the discussion included broader topics, such as Russia’s political views on Israel. Although there is evidence that at least 16 Russian nationals were killed in the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, those Russians who have taken up Israeli citizenship (and in Moscow’s thinking effectively left the motherland) are not likely to be viewed as a precious commodity by Moscow. Russia’s disregard for human life (including civilian), as seen from its actions thus far in the Ukraine war and in many of its other campaigns, means the return of a handful of its citizens is unlikely to be the true driving force behind these well-staged meetings.
But Putin has also been deliberate with the choreography. He has not met Hamas leaders in person and has allowed Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and presidential representative on the Middle East, to take the lead, which at least in Moscow’s eyes puts some creative distance between the Russian and Hamas leaderships. Putin himself has chosen his words carefully, maintaining that while Russia does not proscribe Hamas as a terrorist organisation, that does not mean Russia agrees with its actions. This is unlikely to be because of Moscow’s considered application of terminology – the Russian government readily brands other groups that it considers to be true enemies, such as its domestic opposition, Ukrainian nationalists and the Islamic State, as terrorists. It is more likely that Moscow believes this distinction leaves the door open for it to engage more freely with both Israel and Hamas.
However, Moscow is also aware that terrorism presents a real threat. It has experienced domestic terrorism multiple times before, from insurgency in Chechnya to links in the North Caucasus to the Islamic State, which sought to build its own caliphate in the south of Russia following Russia’s involvement in Syria in 2015. Putin is aware that overly stoking the Israel–Gaza war in favour of either side risks widening the conflict – as has already partly occurred – into a regional war whose spillover could ultimately impact on Russia itself. In Russian, the Middle East is referred to as the blizhny vostok – the Near East – and so Russia will not forget that its geographical proximity to the region makes it vulnerable to any seismic changes.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security