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Russia’s approach to Israel reveals problems in the Kremlin

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The writer is senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, Berlin and visiting fellow at the European University Institute, Florence

On October 29, several thousand angry men stormed the airport at Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan in Russia’s mainly Muslim north Caucasus. They were looking for Jews believed to have arrived from Israel. The police seemed inactive, much like during Yevgeny Prigozhin’s abortive mutiny in June. In a second Dagestani city, Khasavyurt, a mob searched for Jewish refugees allegedly placed in local hotels. In Karachay-Cherkessia, protesters demanded the eviction of all Jews from the republic. In Nalchik, also in the north Caucasus, a Jewish cultural centre under construction was set on fire and antisemitic graffiti scrawled on its walls.

As happened after the Prigozhin mutiny, Vladimir Putin appeared to have temporarily lost control. This time, it occurred in the Caucasus, where Putin’s rise to power began with ruthless military campaigns. In both cases the explanation is the same: enthusiasts attempt to help the government carry out its policy more decisively, as they interpret it. With the Wagner group, this meant fighting Ukraine with full force. With the Dagestani mob, it meant openly supporting Palestinians in defiance of the west and Israel. The current war in the Middle East is not the first during Putin’s long rule, but the consequences are different. The reason lies in Russia’s fundamentally changed foreign and domestic policy.

After 9/11, Putin was the first foreign leader to phone his US counterpart, George W Bush, to express his condolences. Twenty-two years later, after Hamas’s attack on Israel, Putin was careful, even ambiguous, in his words, even though Israel has not joined western sanctions against Russia and has limited its aid to Ukraine. One reason is that the war against Ukraine has changed Russia so much that it has a different approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict and domestic antisemitism.

By disputing Ukraine’s right to exist, Russia is acting as the arbiter of and successor to the Soviet and tsarist empires. Their legacy includes friendships with Arab states, directed against Israel and the west, and unofficial antisemitism in Soviet institutions that marked out domestic opponents in ethnic and cultural terms. This is not to mention the pogroms of the late tsarist era. 

In foreign policy, this legacy manifests itself in the Kremlin’s attempts to rally countries against the world order under the banner of anti-westernism and anti-imperialism. Inside Russia, it labels critics of the war, many of whom went abroad, including to Israel, as insufficiently patriotic. The Kremlin sees ordinary people in and outside Russia as having a natural hostility towards liberals, gay people, intellectuals and political, cultural and financial elites, as well as imbued with a certain antisemitism.

After the failure of Russia’s blitzkrieg attack on Ukraine in early 2022, the Kremlin became consumed with the idea of opening a second front. It tried a gas front against Europe last winter, and a grain front stoking fears of world food shortages and migration crises. It hoped for a flare-up over Taiwan, or domestic political problems in the US. Now that a second front has opened in the Israel-Hamas war, Moscow may hope to propose a bargain to the west: “We’ll help you get out of the mess in Palestine, you help us do the same in Ukraine.” This accounts for a Hamas delegation’s visit to Moscow on October 26.

However, Russia’s decision-making is too degraded for its leaders to use such opportunities. They are in the grip of destructive emotions, obsessed with grievances and fixated on revenge. This reduces their ability to play a constructive role in the Middle East. While conducting its aggressive geopolitical game, the Kremlin has overlooked the consequences at home. Its intense anti-western sentiment has generated violence in the north Caucasus which contradicts the image of domestic harmony that Putin aims to project.

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