On October 13, in Bishkek, Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced his thoughts about Hamas’s attack and the Israeli retaliation operation in the Gaza Strip. He recognized the right of Israel to self-defense but characterized Israeli methods as cruel, comparing them with the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II. He also warned that a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip could cause an unacceptable number of victims on both sides
Putin didn’t offer his condolences to the Israeli people nor did he condemn Hamas. Instead, he blamed the Global West and the United States for the brutal attack and called for the creation of a Palestinian state. Hamas leaders in their Telegram channel immediately praised his words.
A number of experts accused Russia of backing Hamas and Iran. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky added his voice to this chorus, blaming Moscow for supporting Hamas operations “in one way or another.” Shortly before the invasion of Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders obtained large monetary transfers using the cryptocurrency exchange Garantex, located in Moscow, the territory least transparent for Western control.
Relations between Moscow and Hamas have a long history. Putin’s lobbying for Palestinian interests stems from a rich Soviet legacy. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia toned down the previous anti-Zionist rhetoric of the Soviet leaders even as it strengthened its presence in the Middle East, for instance through the military defense of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, with carpet bombing of densely populated areas. Since the large-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Russia has noticeably expanded its military and economic cooperation with so-called pariah states in the Middle East, especially with Iran, Hamas’s main ally. Russia uses Iranian drones for massive attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and residential areas. In March 2023, Hamas leaders held official talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Putin regime also has warm relations with the Lebanese Hezbollah and also receives them in Moscow.
For Putin, the strategic benefits of the conflict include reestablishing Russia’s diplomatic standing as an effective Middle East conflict mediator. That is why, over the last two days, Putin has been repeating the mantra that the attack was made possible because of the U.S. attempt “to monopolize regulating” the conflict between Israel and Hamas and the exclusion of Russia from the Middle East normalization talks. Tactically, the large-scale war between Hamas and Israel and the possible escalation to the entire region will help Russia divert the attention of the world community from its aggression and war crimes in Ukraine.
Putin takes “subversive activities” seriously since he was trained to do so while serving in the Soviet KGB. As head of Russia, he developed these skills and applied them to geopolitics. Thus, Russia carefully prepared the ground for conflicts in the countries of the former USSR by influencing the political elites and expanding the networks of its agents (like in Georgia and Ukraine). The subsequent unwinding of a spiral of escalation was part of the plan. Thus, in 2013, after the overthrow of its proxy Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, the Putin regime effectively used the existing network of its agents in the government (Viktor Medvedchuk) and on-ground (GRU officers Ivan Strelkov and Igor Bezler) to create a long-lasting conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s Middle East approach is not particularly different, as seen by the long-term strategy that ended with Russia’s indirect engagement in the Syrian war with aerial bombing and the private paramilitary group Wagner on the ground. The preparation of Hamas’s attack on Israel, according to its leaders, lasted several years and involved human and financial resources outside the Gaza Strip, and this makes this operation similar to Putin’s in Ukraine and elsewhere. Putin also sometimes solves his “political” problems with the help of his proxies. Thus, the murders of opponents (journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov) were carried out by Chechen perpetrators.
If Putin’s Russia did have an underlying interest in the Hamas attack, then the logic of planning such an attack becomes intelligible. A convenient political moment was chosen: the split of society within Israel, the friction of the Biden administration with the right-wing radical policies of Netanyahu, and even the absence of the Speaker of the House in the United States.
The increasing number of Palestinian casualties in Gaza as a result of the retaliation operation will also give the Kremlin a chance to legitimize its air attacks on Ukraine, which kill civilians and damage civilian infrastructure. The siege of Gaza will make it possible to normalize the Russian blockade of Mariupol and its thousands of tortured residents.
Russia also expects, according to the Russian-world ideologist Alexander Dugin, that the conflict will not be limited to two sides and that its closest allies–Iran, Syria, and Lebanon with Hezbollah—will become involved. If this happens, Putin will have another opportunity to wreak revenge on the West, this time on the international stage.