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What are Russia's stakes in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza?

What are Russia's stakes in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza?
8 min read
17 October, 2023
Analysis: Mindful of Ukraine and any potential regional conflict between Israel and Iran, Russia is watching how the Gaza war unfolds with caution.

Since 7 October, fighting between Israel and Hamas has left thousands of civilians dead. Condemned by Human Rights Watch as “collective punishment” and a “war crime”, Israel’s “complete siege” of Gaza threatens the lives of 2.3 million Palestinians trapped in the besieged enclave.

Russia, which maintains close ties to Israel but also diplomatically engages Hamas while refusing to designate it a terrorist organisation, has cautiously responded to this unprecedented crisis in a relatively guarded manner.

A pillar of Moscow’s approach to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is to maintain balance and retain positive relations with all involved parties. So far, President Vladimir Putin’s government has condemned violence by both Hamas and Israel while unsurprisingly placing most of the blame for the bloodshed on Washington’s doorstep.

Three days after Hamas' attack, Putin was meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in Moscow when he raised concerns about the “catastrophic increase” in both Israeli and Palestinian deaths.

The Russian president took the opportunity to reiterate his government’s position that the formation of a Palestinian state is “necessary” while also blasting US policies. “I think that many people will agree with me that this is a vivid example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East,” said Putin.

Moscow's diplomatic energy

On 13 October, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, made calls for a “humanitarian ceasefire” and presented his country’s draft resolution to the UN Security Council, which “strongly condemns all violence and hostilities directed against civilians and all acts of terrorism”.

Nebenzia also blasted the West, accusing Washington of bearing “responsibility for the looming war in the Middle East” while blaming Brussels for “turning a blind eye to the Israeli air force attacks on civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip”.

Late on Monday, the Russian-led draft resolution was rejected by the UN Security Council, with France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States all voting against it. Nebenzia blamed the “selfish intention of the western bloc” for its failure to pass.

Since 7 October, Russian officials have also been busy speaking with their Egyptian, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Turkish counterparts about various dimensions of this crisis, such as risks of spillover, efforts to negotiate a ceasefire, and the plight of Palestinian refugees.

Such outreach to regional players vis-à-vis the Hamas-Israel crisis has enabled Moscow to deepen and diversify its economic relationships in the Middle East.

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“The Russians have also tied their engagement with Arab countries on the Israel-Palestine issue to other theatres as well,” Dr Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told The New Arab.

“For example, with Iraq, they were able to link their support for the Palestinian cause to economic agreements with Iraq, especially with regards to compliance with OPEC Plus.”

After Hamas launched Operation al-Aqsa Flood, which killed an estimated 1,400 Israelis, there was no call from Putin to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer condolences.

This was notable, especially given Putin and Netanyahu’s very close relationship over the years. Considering how Israel did not closely align with the West against the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine since February 2022, some observers were surprised that Moscow did not reciprocate goodwill to the Israelis in the aftermath of this unprecedented attack by Hamas inside Israel’s UN-recognised borders.

Ultimately, Russia seeks to stabilise the situation in Israel-Palestine and prevent further bloodshed. Moscow wants to see a ceasefire implemented and is pushing for a UN Security Council resolution that would demand that of the parties involved in the fighting. In trying to leverage its ties with Israel and Hamas, Russia has also offered to mediate between the two sides.

What this violence in Israel-Palestine means on balance for Russia’s national interests is difficult to assess. As Moscow sees it, Russia stands to both gain and lose from this crisis, but much will depend on its outcome, which is extremely unpredictable.

Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 3,000 Palestinians in 10 days. [Getty]

How the Kremlin could capitalise

Moscow can gain from the Hamas-Israel war distracting the world, especially the US and Western Europe, from the Ukraine war. The bloodshed in Israel-Palestine means that “there will be less scrutiny on Russian war crimes and how the Russian military fights. In general, the less attention there is on the Kremlin, the better it is for Putin,” explained Dr Colin P. Clarke, the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, in an interview with TNA.

“Moscow is probably overjoyed that the world’s attention has shifted away from the Russia-Ukraine conflict to focus on what’s happening in Gaza. Moreover, if you look at the nature of the debate in some corners of the US Congress, Putin has to be pleased. Lawmakers are calling to divert funding and weapons from Ukraine to Israel and Putin believes that, if that does indeed happen, it will provide the Russian military with an advantage,” added Dr Clarke.

Some observers predict that increased US arms deliveries to Israel will come at the expense of Washington’s military support for Ukraine. However, other experts believe that officials in Kyiv might not have so much to worry about in terms of this possibility.

“I personally don’t think that there will be much diversion of American weapons from Ukraine to Israel,” Dr Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, told TNA. “Israel will probably need much less time and fewer additional weapons [than] what it now possesses to gravely damage Hamas.”

The situation is intensifying anger in the Arab-Islamic world. As anti-American sentiments grow in Muslim-majority countries, Russia stands to benefit. With many Arabs and Muslims pointing their fingers at the US, Russia will capitalise on opportunities to benefit from Washington’s isolation on the international stage when it comes to this issue.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s message that a two-state solution is necessary for resolving the crisis in Israel-Palestine fits both the Arab and international consensus.

“Russia wants to show that it’s not isolated globally and that it maintains a substantial amount of influence and clout diplomatically in the Middle East,” commented Dr Ramani. “Russia is trying to appeal to the Global South by presenting itself as the opposite of the US and…trying to bolster its soft power in the Middle East and the Global South by presenting itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause.”

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Russia's main concerns

By the same token, certain aspects of this Hamas-Israel crisis trouble Russia’s leadership. The potential for this crisis to spill into other countries in the Middle East such as Lebanon and Syria concerns Moscow.

If Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel enter an all-out war, many Hezbollah forces would probably need to leave Syria to return to Lebanon. Under such circumstances, the Assad government’s hold on power could weaken given all the economic problems and unrest plaguing Syria. This suggests that Russia would take on a greater burden in terms of propping up the Damascus regime. Within the context of the Ukraine war, that is not a burden desired by Moscow.

“As the recent Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict showed, Russia's involvement in Ukraine may render it both less able and less willing to influence the outcome of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in particular,” Dr Katz told TNA.

There is also something to say about Russia’s proven capability of maintaining close relations with both Israel and Iran over the years. It is legitimate to question how a direct Israeli-Iranian war would impact Moscow’s ability to continue staying on positive terms with both Tel Aviv and Tehran.

More direct Iranian involvement in the conflict might concern Moscow. [Getty]

“The Russians don’t want a situation in which they have to choose between their relationships with Israel and Iran. Even though the ultra-nationalists inside Russia have been promoting [many] pro-Iranian narratives and many anti-Israeli narratives, the government itself wants to maintain something of a balance between the two,” explained Dr Ramani.

Additionally, more direct Iranian involvement in the conflict might concern Moscow if the Islamic Republic’s ability to support the Russian war machine in Ukraine would weaken. As Dr Clarke commented, “Since Tehran has been providing Russia with drones and other support, this would present a dilemma for Moscow, which would have one of its few allies tied up and distracted, thus, less able to help the Russians in their quest to subdue Kyiv”.

At the same time, if a broader conflict between Israel and Iran erupts, Moscow would need to keep a close eye on how such a scenario might impact the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Given how much Russia’s oil policies depend on Moscow’s partnership with Riyadh via OPEC Plus and the extent to which the UAE - specifically Dubai -is extremely important to Russia’s ability to weather the West’s economic warfare, peace and stability in the Gulf are important to the Kremlin. There is no telling how much harm an overt Israeli-Iranian war could do to the security of GCC states. Moscow can’t ignore such risks.

In the wider context, there is reason for Russian policymakers to fear how this ongoing crisis in Israel-Palestine threatens to make Moscow a weaker player in the Middle East. As Putin’s government calls for a ceasefire, the two sides not agreeing to implement one any time soon will raise questions about how much clout Russia actually has in the region.

“Moscow's calls for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas are serious since the longer the fighting goes on, the more ineffectual a player in the Middle East will Russia appear,” explained Dr Katz.

Ultimately, it is difficult to forecast whether the horrific violence in Israel-Palestine will, on balance, benefit or harm Russia’s interests. Any questions about how the Hamas-Israel crisis will impact Moscow and its foreign policy agendas are complicated, and will require more time to assess as the situation continuously evolves.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero