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Putin, Israel and the War in Gaza

Putin, Israel and the War in Gaza

Jerusalem Center Fellow Izabella Tabarovsky told the JCPA War Room Zoom briefing on October 30, 2023:

For Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, the Hamas-Israel conflict is an opportunity to distract public attention from his war in Ukraine, ongoing for over a year and a half. Putin’s hypocritical condemnation of Gaza’s destruction, while he has purposely targeted civilians, levelled Ukrainian towns, and kidnapped Ukrainian children, shows that consistency is unimportant for his brand of propaganda and foreign policy. In Russia and in the USSR before it, today’s statement can easily supersede yesterday’s for political convenience. Since the October 7th Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians, Putin promptly connected with Arab states while waiting over one week to call Netanyahu. Putin did not condemn Hamas, and realizes the advantages of Arab states’ lack of concern with his war in Ukraine.

Hamas representatives frequently visit with senior officials in the Kremlin’s Foreign Policy ministry in Moscow. Hamas has claimed that Russia provides bullets for its Kalashnikov rifles. Putin has also allowed a small pro-Hamas demonstration in Moscow, while jailing those Russian citizens who dare protest the Ukraine war that may actually affect them. Russia and Putin have longstanding, decades-long relationships with Arab states and with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas, who completed a doctorate in the Soviet Union.

Putin’s tame Gaza rhetoric aims to make him a moderator or negotiator between the sides, especially regarding Israeli citizens taken by Hamas as hostages. Putin has also generated events to force Americans and Israelis to talk to him, such as arresting foreign citizens on spurious claims in Russian jails as “hostages” for negotiation goals. Russia sees the Gaza war as an opportunity to reopen relations with the U.S. after losing its regional strength. Moscow’s strategy is to keep options open.

Putin and his Kremlin, masters of propaganda, also know how to diversify their messages to appeal to different audiences in the U.S. For example, calls to a ceasefire in Gaza appeal to far left social democrats and progressives who take Hamas’ side, while Republicans object to aid to Ukraine and Israel because of the costs and their isolationist foreign policy goals. Russia has attributed the Gaza crisis to American policy, in monopolizing negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Russian-American relationship has been cold since the beginning of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.

Simultaneously, Iran has been supplying Russia with drones for the Ukraine war, strengthening their anti-West partnership. Nevertheless, Russia is still calculated in balancing its relationships between Iran and Israel: Russia hasn’t condemned Israel outright, but has downgraded the relationship, while still interested in Russian-Israeli security coordination.

A factor in all of this is Russia’s significant Muslim population, which it takes into consideration regarding its Israel and Palestinian relations. The recent antisemitic riot and attempted lynch by Muslim citizens looking for Jews and Israelis in Dagestan’s main airport were likely provoked by conspiracy theories, encouraging 1,500 rioters to show up, and leading to fifty rioters being arrested. Putin plans to consult with high-level security staff regarding the incident, which looked bad for Putin, who has emphasized Russia’s role in liberating concentration camps and its fair treatment of Jews.

Dagestan also borders Muslim-majority Chechnya, run by Putin strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and his cruel militia. Chechnya has vocally stood with Hamas, calling for a ceasefire and prayers for Hamas. Kadyrov said that his troops would fight for the Palestinians and he has made frequent statements calling Israel “fascist” and claiming “genocide in Gaza.”

Since the Ukraine war, old Russian antisemitic conspiracy theories and their associated Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda have made a comeback. Lavrov and Putin, nurtured in the Soviet establishment narrative, and the Kremlin have unhesitatingly used antisemitic propaganda against Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, and have labelled Ukraine “Nazi.” These tactics continue Russian and Soviet historical antisemitism, including anti-Zionist propaganda, which has become ingrained in left-dominated American college campuses. The language of fascism and racism applied to Israel, as well as Holocaust inversion, were popularized in the Soviet Union and became part of its Soviet foreign policy.

This trend abruptly ceased with the fall of the USSR and the reestablishment of Israel-Russian relations, influenced by the immigration of one million former Soviet Jews to Israel. Putin saw Israel as an ally for some of his narratives, such as the Red Army’s role in fighting the Nazis, which he later also used to justify his aim to reestablish “Greater Russia,” including Ukraine. But in Russian Orthodox majority spaces, especially since the Ukraine war, xenophobic rhetoric has been ramped up once again, encouraging antisemitism and endangering Russian Jews.

In the West, Israel was criticized for not taking a stance against Russia regarding Ukraine, with Washington taking a hawkish attitude toward Russia since 2014. Israel played neutral, considered Russia’s custodianship of Syria, and was careful not to endanger the status of Russian Jews. Israel’s Netanyahu partook of a Russian commemorative victory anniversary parade for the Red Army in Moscow.

The U.S. has the luxury of distance and its size to shun Russia, while Israel must keep the relationship alive. Keeping this channel open may assist in the evacuation of Jews from Russia if the situation, hinted at in the Dagestan incident, should get worse.

In any case, Russia’s involvement in the current crisis is dubious considering that its military is being stretched by the war in Ukraine. Russia’s political usefulness is also unsure, as it waits for events to unfold to see what opportunities present themselves.

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