The war in Gaza is aligning Russia against Israel

The war serves Russia’s interests by weakening US support for Ukraine. But Moscow’s need for closer relations with the Global South has badly damaged relations with Israel.

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Nikolay Kozhanov

Research Associate Professor, Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University; Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Since the 1960s, America has endeavoured to ensure that its armed forces can fight two major conflicts in geographically distinct regions simultaneously. While the US is not doing much of the actual fighting, the wars between Russia and Ukraine, and between Hamas and Israel suggest that its ‘two-theatre provision’ has been prophetic.

The wars are scarcely analogous in origin or form. But Ukraine and Israel are both fighting in the knowledge that an end to US support would have severe consequences for their ability to fight. In Ukraine’s case, it would surely lead to defeat within months, if not weeks.

The Biden administration has attempted to ‘future-proof’ its support for Ukraine by ring-fencing it within a combined $105 billion aid package, $61.4 billion of which is earmarked for Ukraine. But this has yet to be approved by Congress, and the new war inevitably draws the attention of US politicians, media and the public away from Ukraine.

The new war in the Middle East serves the Kremlin’s interests, weakening US support for its opponent and obscuring its malignant activities.

In this respect the new war in the Middle East serves the Kremlin’s interests, weakening US support for its opponent and obscuring its malignant activities. (Russia’s withdrawal of ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty, and the sabotage of the Baltic-connector pipeline, received far less scrutiny than they might have done during the last month).

But the war has also put an end to Moscow’s long-standing policy to balance its relations in the Middle East between Israel and its neighbours. As its war in Ukraine has driven Russia further into the arms of Iran, so Tel Aviv now views the Kremlin as at best a dubious mediator, at worst an ally of Hamas.

Russian opportunism

The Kremlin’s broader narrative – of acting as a bulwark against US aggressive expansionism – is well served by the Hamas–Israel war.

Russia does not have same loyalties as the US does with Israel, which allows it to express sympathy for both Israel and Palestine in ways many Western countries, not least America, struggle to.

The Kremlin even claims, with some justification, that the US has consistently undermined international efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue.

But inevitably Russia overplayed its hand, claiming the US is responsible for both the 7 October Hamas attack and the subsequent Israeli response. It has even accused Kyiv of selling weapons to Hamas, hoping to create a rift between Israel and Ukraine.

Russian mediation?

Russia has never been exactly trusted by Israelis or Palestinians (who are well aware of the atrocities Russia has committed in Syria), but it has managed the contradictions and cultivated working relations with both sides over the years and been thought of by some as a possible mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

Until recently, Russia tried to develop good ties with Tel Aviv, positioning it as a silent partner in the region and ignoring Israeli attacks against Iran’s proxies in Syria.

Until recently, Russia tried to develop good ties with Tel Aviv, positioning it as a silent partner in the region and ignoring Israeli attacks against Iran’s proxies in Syria.

Meanwhile, Moscow has consistently supported a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state. From 2002, it was a member of the so-called ‘quartet’, a group of four (UN, US, EU and Russia) intended to support the Israeli–Palestinian negotiation process.

Russia was more interested in the format as a cheap way to project its own power, but that mattered little. Along with sporadic humanitarian aid it was enough to have a street in Jericho named after then-president Dmitry Medvedev. With its UN Security Council seat, its size, history, relative economic power and nuclear weapons, Russia has had diplomatic weight in the region.

Russian-led mediation, even if it failed, would have far more benefit for the Kremlin than ‘merely’ brokering peace between the warring parties in Gaza. It would be looked upon favourably by much of the Global South, boost the Kremlin narrative and push the Arab states further away from Ukraine.

End of an era

However, it is more likely that the Hamas–Israel war means the end of Russia’s decades-long policy of balancing between different players in the Middle East.

Given Russia’s… refusal to condemn the initial Hamas attack and its close alliance with Iran, Tel Aviv no longer considers Russia an ally

Given Russia’s welcome of a Hamas delegation in Moscow in October, its refusal to condemn the initial Hamas attack, and its close alliance with Iran, Tel Aviv no longer considers Russia an ally and would probably reject it as a mediator.

Instead, Israeli experts speak openly of Russia’s possible advance knowledge of Hamas’s attack and even indirect involvement in its preparation.

That leaves Russia gradually winning hearts and minds in the Arab part of the Middle East, where its strong ties with Hamas have not gone unnoticed.

In turn the Global South, and particularly the Middle East, is helping Russia ease the economic fallout from its conflict with the West and drawing Moscow to stand closer to Hamas than Israel.

This also means a useful alignment with China, whose position is also widely regarded as pro-Palestinian and a counterbalance to the ‘pro-Zionist stance’ of the West.

Al Jazeera has highlighted Russia’s statements on the conflict and its initiatives on Gaza at the UN Security Council, cautiously steering their readers and viewers to a conclusion that Russia’s proposals are more compassionate and detailed than those of the US.

In any case the so-called Arab street is comfortable with Moscow exploiting the situation for its own needs, as long as it also makes life more difficult for Israeli supporters and creates alternatives in the international arena.

Ukrainian strategy

Ukraine, with the considerable advantage of ‘right’ on its side, has handled its strategic communications skilfully over the past 18 months.

The Hamas–Israel war is a ‘wicked’ problem for Ukraine because of where its allies stand

But the Hamas–Israel war is a ‘wicked’ problem for Ukraine because of where its allies stand. Doing the right thing is no longer obvious and the moral high ground is shrouded in fog.

Article 2nd half

America’s support for Ukraine is effectively only as old as Russia’s full-scale invasion. It could easily be argued that before that, the US was still in thrall to Moscow.

But US support for Israel is over 60 years old. Neither the EU nor the majority of NATO members have such a strong bond with Israel, but their material support for Ukraine is still dwarfed by America’s, which provides around 70 per cent.

Ukraine still has a long war to fight. Its rhetorical support for and self-declared comparison with Israel masks its clear competition with it for resources. But it also endangers the support Kyiv has been given by the West.

It’s an unwelcome new element for Ukraine and Volodymyr Zelenskyy will need to tread carefully.