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Russia faces tough choice over supporting Israel or Hamas-funder Iran

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020.

Maxim Shemetov | Afp | Getty Images

The outbreak of bloodshed, violence and outright war between Israel and Hamas has put Russia in an awkward position, with Moscow traditionally treading a fine diplomatic line between Israel and its allies in the Middle East.

Russia’s position on the current conflict in Israel is likely to be nuanced and a challenge for Moscow to navigate given its conflicting ties in the region, analysts say.

Russia has enjoyed warm and constructive relations with Israel in recent years. But since its invasion of Ukraine last year, Moscow has greatly increased its military ties to Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel and a state known to have provided financial and material support to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which launched an unprecedented attack on Israel last weekend.

“Russia’s stance on the conflict is complex,” Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and the founder of analysis firm R.Politik, said in an analysis note Monday.

“On the one hand, Moscow might draw on its history of intra-Palestinian mediation and its ties with Hamas to gain a foothold in any peace process. It also sees the importance of its growing relationships with Iran and Arab states,” she noted.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi hold a meeting in Tehran on July 19, 2022.

Sergei Savostyanov | AFP | Getty Images

“On the other hand, despite recent tensions, Russia’s relationship with Israel remains strong and pragmatic, hallmarked by open lines of communication, a degree of practical coordination in Syria and shared views on the historical significance of the Second World War.”

“The fact that Israel has not imposed Western anti-Russian sanctions is also notable,” Stanovaya said.

Self-interested neutrality?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center, visit the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

Alexei Nikolsky | Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Putin has also enjoyed cordial relations with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has leveraged Russia’s influence over Syria to secure Israel’s northern border.

But the war in Ukraine has put Israel in an uncomfortable position, with its Western allies, and particularly the U.S., reportedly pressuring Netanyahu to distance himself from Putin and to back Ukraine instead.

Despite calls for a “diplomatic solution” to end the conflict, Israel has so far resisted sending weapons to Ukraine, or to whole-heartedly endorse and impose sanctions on Russia for its invasion.

Putin is holding talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani in the Kremlin Tuesday and the turmoil in the Middle East is expected to be on the agenda.

Yet Russia’s initial response to the outbreak of violence in Israel at the weekend was muted, with its foreign ministry issuing a statement calling for a cease-fire. The ministry also used the opportunity to criticize the West’s poor record on brokering a peace deal between Israel and Palestinian territories and said it had blocked efforts by international mediators, namely Russia, to find a long-lasting peace deal between the two sides.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin on April 21, 2016.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

The Kremlin said Monday that it was “extremely concerned” by the situation but, tellingly, said Putin had no plans, as yet, to contact either Israeli or Palestinian officials to discuss the security crisis.

It didn’t go un-noticed that at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, its members did not reach a consensus on condemning Hamas’ attack. Russia and China condemned “all attacks against civilians” but did not openly condemn the violence meted out by the militant group. They also alluded to Israeli shortfalls and “unresolved issues” that they said had led to the current crisis. Both endorsed a two-state solution to the long-running, simmering conflict.

As a result of Russia’s apparently lukewarm support for Israel, Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group, believed the “Russia-Israel relationship, which had been reasonably balanced, will face a decisive break on the back of the Hamas attacks.”

For its part, Iran denied any involvement in Hamas’ surprise offensive against Israel that began on Saturday morning, although it did congratulate the militant group for what it described as its “anti-Zionist resistance” across the region.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the U.S. had “not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack, but there is certainly a long relationship.”

Russia and Iran

To what extent Russia can position itself as a neutral party when it comes to the latest Middle Eastern crisis is uncertain given that its invasion of Ukraine, and the weight of international sanctions imposed on it by the West, has undoubtedly pushed it closer to regional powers like Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as Iranian Minister of Petroleum Javad Owji (second from left) looks on during the welcoming ceremony at the airport on July 19, 2022, in Tehran, Iran. Putin and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan arrived in Iran for the summit.

Contributor | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, claimed on X that the U.S. and its allies should have been “busy with” working on a “Palestinian-Israeli settlement” rather than “interfering” with Russia and providing Ukraine with military aid.

Meanwhile, prominent Russian propagandist Sergei Mardan stated on Telegram that Russia would benefit from the conflict in Israel as the world “will take its mind off Ukraine for a while and get busy once again putting out the eternal fire in the Middle East.”

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