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Putin hijacks Israel-Gaza war to fuel tensions in the West

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The Israeli-Hamas war has given Russia a golden opportunity to sow division among its Western enemies. It’s a chance Vladimir Putin’s disinformation machine was never going to miss.

Since the outbreak of hostilities on October 7, Kremlin-linked Facebook accounts have ramped up their output by almost 400 percent, with the Middle East crisis now dominating posts from Russian diplomats, state-backed outlets and Putin supporters in the West. 

The lies spread by Moscow’s digital propagandists now include claims that Hamas terrorists are using NATO weapons to attack Israel and that British instructors trained Hamas attackers.

The entrenched — and bloody — conflict represents a double opportunity for Putin.

It allows Russia to foment division in the West via targeted social media activity aimed at splitting those in support of Israel from those who back Palestine. Real-world violence, particularly against Jews, has spiked over the last seven weeks and anti-war protests by hundreds of thousands of people have sprouted up from London to Washington.

Russia’s Middle East social media onslaught also pulls public attention away from its war in Ukraine, which has become bogged down after a succession of military missteps, a mutiny by Wagner mercenaries, and a long-running counteroffensive from Kyiv.

“Taking attention off Ukraine is only a good thing for Russia,” said Bret Schafer, head of the information manipulation team and the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington-based think tank. “The more the Western public is focused on Israel and Hamas, the less they’re paying attention to the fact that Congress is about to not fund Ukraine’s war effort,” he added. “Shining a light on other places pulls attention away from Ukraine.”

The Kremlin’s online assault mirrors Putin’s geopolitical game-playing since the Hamas attacks of October 7.

His government hosted Hamas leaders in Moscow at the end of October — apparently as he sought to play a mediation role on the release of Israeli hostages. Russia and Hamas have a common ally in Iran and Putin himself has warned that Israeli military action in Gaza could escalate beyond the region.

The Kremlin was quick to weaponize the Israel-Hamas war for its own propaganda purposes.

In the seven weeks since Hamas fighters attacked Israel, Russian Facebook accounts have posted 44,000 times compared to a mere 14,000 posts in the seven weeks before the conflict began, according to data compiled by the Alliance for Securing Democracy. In total, Russian-backed social media activity on Facebook was shared almost 400,000 times collectively, a four-fold increase compared to posts published before the conflict.

The most-shared keywords now include many phrases associated with the conflict like “Hamas” and the “Middle East,” while before the war, Russia’s state media and diplomatic accounts had focused almost exclusively on either Ukraine or Putin’s role in the world.

The near-400 percent increase in posts from Russian government-linked accounts represents a drop in the ocean compared to the millions of Facebook posts about the Middle East conflict from regular social media users over the same time period. But many of the Kremlin-backed accounts — especially those from sanctioned media outlets like RT and Sputnik — have an oversized digital reach. Collectively, these companies boast millions of followers in Europe, Latin America and Africa, even though the EU has imposed sanctions on their broadcast and social media operations.

“They use whatever they can to spread anti-West messaging,” said Jakub Kalenský, a deputy director at the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, a joint NATO-EU organization tracking state-backed influence campaigns. “They surf on the wave of the news cycle because they are competing for the same audience that is consuming solid media sources.”

Such digital propaganda can have real-world effects. Some in the West now openly question how long governments can support Ukraine in its costly war against Russia in a time of economic uncertainty.

In France, for instance, the foreign affairs ministry accused a Russian-affiliated network of social media bots of amplifying anti-semitic images of Stars of David graffiti on buildings across Paris. French officials blamed Russia for “creating tensions” between supporters of Israel and those who favored Palestine. The Russian embassy in Paris said Moscow had no ties to the covert digital activity. 

The goal of the clandestine campaign was to heighten real-world tensions — both in France and across Western Europe — over which side governments are backing, according to two senior European officials speaking on condition of anonymity.

“What happens online never just stays online anymore,” one of the officials said.

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