‘Not pro-Israeli’: Decoding Putin’s muted response to Hamas attacks

Russia, which has hosted the Palestinian armed group, has a complicated history with Israel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow in January 2020
In 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow [File: Maxim Shemetov/Pool via Reuters]

Kyiv, Ukraine – “I want to thank you, my friend, for what you have done,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin about four years ago.

His words followed Moscow’s transfer to Tel Aviv of the remains of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli serviceman who had been missing in action since 1982, the time of the first Israeli-Lebanese war.

Netanyahu expressed nothing but gratitude to Putin, even though the Russian soldiers who discovered Baumel’s remains were fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, one of Iran’s closest allies.

But now, as war rages in the Middle East again, Netanyahu may be feeling backstabbed by his “dear friend” Putin.

Putin remained silent about the conflict for three days, offering no condolences to Tel Aviv and refraining from calling Netanyahu – even though at least four Russian nationals were reported killed and six more went missing.

Meanwhile, Russia’s stance this week did not allow the United Nations Security Council to achieve the unanimity needed to condemn Hamas.

Finally, on Tuesday, Putin broke his silence – only to decry the “catastrophic” civilian deaths and lambast Washington’s steps in the Middle East peace settlement.

“This is a vivid example of the failure of Middle East policies of the United States [as it] tried to monopolise the [peace] settlement,” he said during a televised meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani.

“But, unfortunately, [the US] was not concerned about the search for compromises for both sides and, vice versa, promoted their own conceptions about how it should be done, [and] pressured both sides,” he said.

Moscow also refused to list Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation following similar steps taken by France and the European Union earlier this week.

“We maintain contact with [both] sides of the conflict,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Wednesday. “Of course, Russia continues to analyse the situation and keeps its position as a nation that has the potential to participate in the settlement process.”

Analysts say the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Hamas – as well as a bigger war in the region – could benefit Moscow and its allies.

“Russia’s response to the terrorist attack speaks volumes about Putin’s real sympathies, and they’re not pro-Israeli,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s University of Bremen told Al Jazeera.

Russia is a key player in the informal anti-Western coalition that includes Iran, North Korea and China – and has long tried to “rock the Western boat”, he said.

“It’s very beneficial for Putin to distract attention and international aid, mostly American, from Ukraine, something [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy frankly fears,” Mitrokhin said.

On Monday, Zelenskyy said Russia was “interested in triggering a war in the Middle East so that a new source of pain and suffering could undermine world unity, increase discord and contradictions, and thus help Russia destroy freedom in Europe”.

“We see Russian propagandists gloating,” he said in a video address. “We see Moscow’s Iranian friends openly supporting those who attacked Israel. And all of this is a much greater threat than the world currently perceives. The world wars of the past started with local aggressions.”

The Middle East conflict could stall a settlement in Ukraine – and freeze pivotal economic ties within Eurasia, a Kyiv-based expert said.

“The attention and resources of Western allies would be dispersed,” Vyacheslav Likhachev told Al Jazeera. “But, most importantly, the perspective of stabilisation in the macro-region would be strategically thwarted.”

A now-delayed peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel could have helped the establishment of a transport hub between India, the Middle East and Europe, he said.

The hub could have ushered a closer macroeconomic integration in Eurasia – something that contradicts the interests of Moscow and Beijing, he said.

“It’s not beneficial for China, it’s not beneficial for Russia,” Likhachev said.

Russia and Hamas

Despite widespread speculation, no evidence of Moscow’s direct involvement in Hamas’s attack on Israel has surfaced.

But it is in Putin’s interests for the new conflict to spread all over the Middle East, distracting the West and undermining aid to Ukraine, a London-based expert on Eurasia said.

“Putin’s calculation is to cause the escalation of the conflict, to widen it geographically and to involve the entire Arab population of the Middle East,” Alisher Ilkhamov, director of Central Asia Due Diligence, a civil society organisation, told Al Jazeera.

And there is no love lost between Putin and Hamas either.

“Hamas for him is just part of the game, a tool, just like for other regional players,” Sergey Bizyukin, a fugitive Russian opposition activist, told Al Jazeera. “The most important thing for him is not to make a mistake by touching Chinese investments in Israel.”

Apart from distracting the world from Ukraine, such a war may cause oil and gas prices to skyrocket – providing Moscow with billions of dollars of extra income.

On Tuesday, Putin reiterated Moscow’s decades-long call for Palestine’s independence – saying it was the only way to settle the conflict.

“Even though calls for Palestine’s independence are legitimate, by pointing at this agenda in today’s context, Putin actually justifies the war crimes committed by Hamas,” Ilkhamov said.

And some Israelis are adamant that Putin’s friendship with Netanyahu was cynical and hypocritical.

“Anti-Semitism was a way of life in the KGB when Putin joined it” in the 1980s’ Leningrad, now St Petersburg, Eduard Kauffmann, a 31-year-old Haifa resident with Russian roots, told Al Jazeera. “He threw Bibi [Netanyahu] under the bus and never looked back.”

The history of Russia’s relationship with Israel is complicated.

Moscow’s ties to Syria, a close ally of Israel’s archenemy, Iran, as well as Russia’s support to the Palestinian cause date back to the Soviet era, when the Kremlin called Israel a “Zionist warmonger” and severed diplomatic ties in 1967 over the Arab-Israeli war.

Communist Moscow backed left-wing, socialist fractions within Palestinian political circles, trained hundreds of Palestinian fighters and armed Egypt before the 1973 October War.

It also developed close ties with Hamas and welcomed its leaders in Moscow since the armed movement came to power in the Gaza Strip in 2007.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands as they meet in Moscow February 27, 2007. Meshaal praised Russia's efforts to end a Western aid embargo on the Palestinian administration during a visit to Moscow intended to win support for a new unity government. REUTERS/Pool (RUSSIA)
Then-Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (L) and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands as they meet in Moscow on February 27, 2007. Meshaal praised Russia’s efforts to end a Western aid embargo on the Palestinian administration during the visit, intended to win support for a new unity government [File: Pool via Reuters]

But since more than a million ex-Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel after the 1991 Soviet collapse, changing the nation’s demographics and electoral preferences, every major Israeli politician tried to cultivate ties with Moscow.

No one succeeded in this cultivation more than Netanyahu, whose personal relationship with Putin was more than once called a “strange love affair”.

He travelled to Moscow a dozen times, and during one visit accompanied Putin to a ballet performance in the Bolshoi Theatre.

He defended his relationship, saying that it prevented a war between Moscow and Tel Aviv over the nations’ collision of interests and fighter jets over Syria.

“I wouldn’t call it a love affair. I would call it a question of interest,” the Israeli leader told CNN in October 2022.

“Starting a war between Russia and Israel, I didn’t think was a good idea.”

The ties were not shattered even by Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine and a string of anti-Israeli steps Moscow has taken.

Moscow has in recent years threatened to close down the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency, an NGO that facilitated emigration to Israel, and accused the Israeli ambassador in Ukraine of “whitewashing Nazism”.

And the Kremlin has continued to repeat its old and unevidenced mantra about the “neonazi junta” in Kyiv led by Zelenskyy, even though he is an ethnic Jew whose grandfather lost his family in the Holocaust.

For Zelenskyy and several other Ukrainian officials, the picture is clear.

“We are certain that Russia is supporting, in one way or another, Hamas operations,” he told France 2 television channel this week without providing evidence. “Russia is really trying to carry out destabilising actions all over the world.”

Source: Al Jazeera