LONDON, Nov 17 (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin waited three days before commenting on Hamas’ massacre of Israelis, which happened to take place on his 71st birthday. When he did, he blamed the United States, not Hamas.
“I think that many will agree with me that this is a clear example of the failed policy in the Middle East of the United States, which tried to monopolise the settlement process,” Putin told Iraq’s prime minister.
It was a further six days before Putin spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer his condolences over the killing of around 1,200 Israelis. Ten days after that, Russia said a Hamas delegation was in Moscow for talks.
Putin, say Russian and Western policy experts, is trying to use Israel’s war against Hamas to escalate what he has cast as an existential battle with the West for a new world order that would end U.S. dominance in favour of a multilateral system he believes is already taking shape.
“Russia understands that the U.S. and the EU have fully supported Israel, but the U.S. and the EU are now the embodiment of evil and cannot be right in any way,” Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, wrote in his blog, explaining Putin’s need to differentiate himself.
“Therefore, Russia will not be in the same camp with the U.S. and the EU. Israel’s main ally is the United States, Russia’s main enemy right now. And Hamas’ ally is Iran, an ally of Russia.”
Moscow enjoys an increasingly close relationship with Tehran – which backs Hamas and whom Washington has accused of supplying Moscow with drones for Ukraine which is locked in a grinding war of attrition with Russia.
Hanna Notte, a Berlin-based Russian foreign policy expert, told the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center she thought Moscow had dropped its earlier, more balanced position on the Middle East and adopted “quite an overt pro-Palestinian position”.
“In doing all of this, Russia understands very well that it aligns itself with constituencies across the Middle East and even beyond – in the Global South, in their views on the Palestinian issue where the Palestinian cause continues to resonate,” she said.
It is precisely those constituencies which Putin is seeking to win over in his drive for a new world order that would dilute U.S. influence.
“The most important way in which Russia stands to benefit from this crisis in Gaza is by scoring points in the court of global public opinion,” said Notte.
Putin has said that “when you look at the suffering and bloodied children (in Gaza), you clench your fists and tears come to your eyes.”
Russian politicians have pointedly contrasted what they say is the carte blanche that Washington has given Israel to bomb Gaza to Washington’s punitive response to Russia’s own war in Ukraine, where Moscow says it does not deliberately target civilians even though thousands of civilians have been killed.
Israel’s U.N. ambassador has said Russia is in no position to lecture others given what it has been doing itself in Ukraine.
But Senator Alexei Pushkov said the West had fallen into a trap of its own making by exposing its own double standards over how it treated different countries depending on its self-interested political preferences.
“The unequivocal support of the United States and the West for Israel’s actions has dealt a powerful blow to Western foreign policy in the eyes of the Arab world and the entire Global South,” Pushkov wrote on Telegram.
Russia also sees the crisis as a chance for Moscow to try to grow its clout in the Middle East by casting itself as a potential peacemaker with links to all sides, said former Kremlin adviser Markov.
Moscow has offered to host a regional meeting of foreign ministers and Putin has said that Russia is well placed to help.
“We have very stable, businesslike relations with Israel, we have had friendly relations with Palestine for decades, our friends know this. And Russia, in my opinion, could also make its own contribution to the settlement process,” Putin told an Arab TV channel in October.
There are potential economic benefits too, said Markov, and the added bonus of drawing Western financial and military resources away from Ukraine.
“Russia benefits from an increase in the price of oil which will result from this war,” said Markov. “(And) Russia benefits from any conflict that the U.S. and EU have to devote resources to because it reduces resources for the anti-Russian regime in Ukraine.”
Alex Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said he believed Moscow had tilted its Middle East policy because of the war in Ukraine.
“My explanation is it’s because the war is becoming the organising principle of Russian foreign policy and (because of) ties with Iran, which brings military materiel to the table. The central Russian war effort is more important than, for example, the relationship with Israel.”
Russia’s ties with Israel, traditionally close and pragmatic, have suffered.
Moscow’s reception of a Hamas delegation less than two weeks after the Oct. 7 massacre angered Israel, prompting it to summon Russia’s ambassador, Anatoly Viktorov, for sending “a message legitimising terrorism”.
The discontent was mutual; Alexander Ben Zvi, Israel’s ambassador, has been summoned for talks with the Russian foreign ministry at least twice and the two countries’ U.N. envoys have traded harsh words after Moscow’s representative questioned the scope of Israel’s right to defend itself.
Mikhail Bogdanov, one of Russia’s deputy foreign ministers, has said that Israel has stopped routinely warning Moscow of air strikes against Russian ally Syria in advance.
When a since-suspended Israeli junior minister appeared to express openness to the idea of Israel carrying out a nuclear strike on Gaza, Russia said the remarks raised “a huge number of questions” and queried whether it amounted to an official admission from Israel that it had nuclear weapons.
Amir Weitmann, chairman of the libertarian caucus in Netanyahu’s Likud party, has said Israel will one day punish Moscow for its position.
“We’re going to finish this war (with Hamas) … After this, Russia will pay the price,” Weitmann said in a stormy October interview with Russian state broadcaster RT.
“Russia is supporting the enemies of Israel. Afterwards we’re not forgetting what you are doing. We will come, we will make sure that Ukraine wins,” he said.
Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Nick Macfie
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
As Russia Chief Political Correspondent, and former Moscow bureau chief, Andrew helps lead coverage of the world’s largest country, whose political, economic and social transformation under President Vladimir Putin he has reported on for much of the last two decades, along with its growing confrontation with the West and wars in Georgia and Ukraine. Andrew was part of a Wall Street Journal reporting team short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. He has also reported from Moscow for two British newspapers, The Telegraph and The Independent.