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Opinion Putin is helping Hamas to hurt the West

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin finally called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, he said Russia was trying “to help normalize the situation” in the Gaza Strip, according to the Kremlin. But Moscow has little interest in helping Israel. Russia is on the side of Hamas and its patron, Iran — in part to undermine the United States and its allies.

The timing of the attack could not have been better for Putin, who coincidentally was celebrating his birthday on Oct. 7, when hundreds of Hamas terrorists entered Israel and slaughtered more the 1,300 civilians. Russia’s main foreign policy goal right now is to distract the world from its ongoing invasion and atrocities in Ukraine. Specifically, Moscow is pushing for an end to U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, which is hanging by a thin thread in Congress. The crisis in Israel aids these efforts. Moscow’s interest is in stoking it, not solving it.

While there is no clear evidence that Russian leaders knew about the Hamas attacks in advance, the Kremlin is working hard to take advantage. Russia has stepped up its support for Hamas diplomatically and in the propaganda war; it’s also seizing the opportunity to ramp up its violence in Ukraine while the world is distracted. On Oct. 8, senior Hamas official Ali Baraka praised Russia’s assistance in an interview with Russia Today, a state-controlled media outlet.

“There are countries that support us politically. Even Russia sympathizes with us,” he said. “Russia is happy that America is getting embroiled in the Palestinian war. It eases the pressure on the Russians in Ukraine. One war eases the pressure in another war. So, we’re not alone on the battlefield.”

Follow this authorJosh Rogin‘s opinions

Russia’s true level of actual military support to Hamas is hard to pin down, but there are several telltale signs. Baraka said Hamas possessed Russian licenses to produce the Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition its terrorists used in the assault. Ukrainian officials have claimed that Russia’s mercenary firm Wagner helped train Hamas soldiers. Meanwhile, Palestinian terrorist groups reportedly launder illicit funds through a Moscow-based crypto exchange.

Reports of direct Russian military support for Hamas remain unconfirmed, U.S. officials told me. But the military collaboration between Russia and Iran in Ukraine also seems to have benefited Hamas. Iranian and Russian cooperation on armed drones has flourished during the Ukraine war. Now, Hamas is using similar drones against Israeli targets in new ways.

More overtly, Moscow has turned its massive propaganda and foreign influence operation into a pro-Hamas, anti-Western disinformation machine. Even before the war, Russian media was pushing the notion that U.S. arms for Ukraine have somehow ended up in the hands of terrorists plotting against Israel. After the attack, Pro-Russia videos of murky origins circulated that accused Ukraine of arming Hamas, disguised as fake BBC reports.

Russian officials and propaganda outlets have unanimously blamed the United States for the current violence in Israel, and pointed to Washington’s attention on Ukraine to explain the U.S. government’s supposed neglect of rising Middle East tensions.

“These Kremlin narratives target Western audiences to drive a wedge in military support for Ukraine, seek to demoralize Ukrainian society by claiming Ukraine will lose international support, and intend to reassure Russian domestic audiences that the international society will ignore Ukraine’s war effort,” stated a report by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

Of course, the relationship between Russia and Hamas is not new. Putin first invited Hamas leaders to Moscow in 2006, and Hamas delegations have been visiting Moscow ever since. Russia has never declared Hamas to be a terrorist organization, and has long taken a pro-Palestinian stance diplomatically.

But the new war breaks the recent trend of cordial, even businesslike relations between Russia and Israel. Israel had shied away from overtly helping Ukraine because it needed Russia’s acquiescence to strike targets inside Syria. Now, Russia seems fully committed to helping Hamas and Iran, especially in the diplomatic arena.

On Oct. 13, Russia put forth a draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council that calls for an immediate cease-fire and condemns all acts of terrorism — but does not mention Hamas. Russia’s U.N. ambassador gave a speech Saturday blaming the United States for the “looming war” in the Middle East and condemning Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians.

“I think that many people will agree with me that this is a vivid example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East,” Putin said.

Putin’s focus of blame on the United States, rather than the terrorists, shows his hand. His priority is not solving the crisis, but rather tying it to his greater war against the West. It is crucial to recognize that Russia, Iran and Hamas are all working together against the United States, Europe, Ukraine and Israel.

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech to NATO last week, “the only difference is that there is a terrorist organization that attacked Israel, and here is a terrorist state that attacked Ukraine.”

President Biden will soon request new emergency funding for both Israel and Ukraine. Congress must approve both parts of the package — and quickly. If the United States abandons Ukraine by cutting off aid, Putin’s strategy will have succeeded.

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