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Mordechai de Haas
Ger; Haredi; retired Lieutenant Colonel; Russian security academic

How Did the Israel-Hamas War Affect the Ties Between Russia and Israel?

The Kremlin, Moscow (courtesy author)
The Kremlin, Moscow (courtesy author)

Russia has close ties with Israel’s archenemies: Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Nevertheless, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After the devastating October 7, 2023 massacre by Hamas, the Kremlin has taken a firm position against Israel. How should the Jewish state respond?

Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, the Kremlin resurged as a superpower. It has aligned itself with other vile dictatorships and emerging nuclear powers, such as Iran, China and North Korea. Its objectives in the Middle East are to strengthen Moscow’s influence in the region at the US’s expense, fight the spread of Islamic extremism to Russia and support Iran and Syria. Thanks to them, Russian weapon systems end up with Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.

In September 2015, Russia’s armed forces intervened in the Syrian civil war. Russia’s involvement here forms a key element of its Middle East policy, and its military presence has served multiple objectives. First, it has kept Putin’s ally Bashar al-Assad in power as president of Syria.

Second, Syria is its foothold in the Middle East. It has allowed Russia to establish several bases across the nation. Russia has secured a naval port in Tartus. From this port, the Russian navy can project its power over the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, it has deployed air bases.

Third, it has made Syria a testing ground for Moscow’s military reforms. These include newly-developed force structures, operational concepts and weapon systems.

Russia and Iran cooperate in a number of fields. In the realm of nuclear energy, Moscow has built a nuclear plant in Bushehr, Iran. Both states possess considerable quantities of natural gas, which they can use to influence the international energy market. Iran is one of the biggest buyers of Russian weapons, and Russia returns the favor by purchasing Iranian drones for use in the Russia–Ukraine war. Both countries collaborate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a political, economic and security entity of the East. (This group comprises the nuclear powers of China, India and Pakistan as well.) Moscow and Tehran combine forces in military exercises. For example, in January 2022, Russia, Iran and China conducted joint naval drills.

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Russia’s bond with the Palestinians

Russia has a lasting relationship with Hamas in Gaza. Hamas was invited to Moscow after it won the 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories. Since then, its delegations have frequently visited the Kremlin. Russia does not label Hamas as a terrorist organization but rather an Islamic resistance movement. Given its policy change to an explicitly pro-Palestinian stance, Moscow has increased its contacts with Hamas since the October 7, 2023 attack on Israel.

On October 26, less than three weeks after that massacre, Russia received a Hamas delegation. During the visit, at Moscow’s request, Hamas promised to locate and release eight Russian Israeli dual citizens who were taken hostage. Hamas made the offer because it “consider[s] Russia to be a closest friend.” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, Hamas’s chief sponsor, also attended the talks in Moscow. The Israeli Foreign Ministry condemned Russia for hosting a Hamas delegation, saying that Moscow “gives support to terrorism and legitimizes the atrocities of Hamas terrorists.” On January 19, 2024, the Kremlin again received a Hamas delegation for consultations in Moscow.

In the aftermath of October 7, Russia has also strengthened its relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) of President Mahmoud Abbas. In their phone conversation on December 22, 2023, Putin asserted that Moscow would continue sending humanitarian aid to Gaza and urged Abbas to end the war quickly. He called for the peace process with Israel to resume, leading toward a two-state solution: the formation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Russia gave Abbas an open invitation to visit when it is convenient for both sides. Additionally, Russia invited all Palestinian factions to meet in Moscow. This is further evidence that Russia is strengthening its bonds with Hamas and the PA. These two groups sought unity and hoped to establish that in the Kremlin-facilitated meeting. PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh stated, “One should not continue focusing on Oct. 7.”

On Monday, February 26, Shtayyeh and his Fatah party government resigned, most likely due to Western pressure to do something about the rampant PA’s corruption and thus make it more suitable to govern Gaza. Russia will probably attempt to exploit this opportunity to create greater unity — perhaps a national unity government — between Fatah and Hamas.

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Russian–Israeli relations: before and after October 7

Russia’s military contingent in Syria is a potential threat to Israel. To this end, Israel created the so-called deconfliction mechanism as a safeguard. When the nation intended to conduct air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) informed the nearby Russian military — that way, the air defense systems would not shoot down their jets.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews live in Russia. For their safety, it is best for Israel to maintain good relations with Moscow. There is, however, a difference between having calm, stable relations and friendly, accommodating ones. These nations previously had the latter, which is why Israel initially avoided rebuking Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine in February 2022, while the rest of the Western world condemned Moscow. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made frequent visits to Moscow and had phone calls with Putin.

Israel’s attitude changed after October 7. The nation distanced itself from Russia when it invited Hamas leaders to Moscow. Israel canceled its deconfliction mechanism and admonished Russia diplomatically for cordially receiving the Hamas killers. On December 10, 2023, Netanyahu criticized Putin for supporting Hamas. Netanyahu also voiced his discontentment with Russia’s positions against Israel in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and other international forums. He warned against the dangerous cooperation between Russia and Iran.

Putin responded by saying that Moscow rejects terrorism, but it cannot support the dire situation of Gazan civilians. After the call, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov countered by stating: “It is unacceptable that Israel uses Hamas’ October 7th attack as a justification for collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” However, Lavrov’s comment acknowledged Hamas’s infamous terrorist attack, which Russia allegedly condemned immediately. Lavrov distinguished between its cooperation with Hamas’s political branch, operating from Qatar, whilst condemning the October 7 massacre by Hamas’s military wing.

The Kremlin also argues that since Hamas is not on the UN list of terrorist organizations, there is no reason for Russia to label it as such. This line of thought apparently is how Moscow tries to justify its ties with Hamas. Israel does not recognize any differentiation between political and military branches of terrorist organizations, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah.

In the week before his talk with Netanyahu, Putin met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, praising Tehran’s support for Moscow’s war effort and holding talks on the Israel–Hamas war. Putin stated that it was crucial for Russia and Iran to exchange views on the region’s situation, especially regarding Palestine. Thus, the Kremlin discarded Israel’s disapproval of Russia’s global standpoint in the Israel–Hamas war, as well as Israel’s reproach of Moscow’s camaraderie with Tehran.

“Friendship” gone cold

Russia’s objective is to disrupt the US-led world order. From Moscow’s perspective, any escalation of the Israel–Hamas war would further this goal. Russia presumes that continued US support for Israel will diminish Washington’s influence in the Middle East. However, Putin fails to understand that key regional powers, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, resent Hamas and would welcome its annihilation. The Kremlin considers Israel part of the Western coalition united against Russia, and therefore condemns its war in Gaza.

Moscow has canceled its friendly ties with Jerusalem and has replaced them with an explicitly pro-Palestinian stance. Putin has accused those denouncing the Russia–Ukraine war of ignoring Israel’s “extermination of civilians in Palestine and the Gaza Strip.” Furthermore, Russia is actively collaborating with Iran and China to wage a massive disinformation campaign to support Hamas and attack Israel for defending itself. In particular, they use social media to turn public opinion against the nation.

Russia’s unambiguous support for the Palestinians is also reflected in its actions as a permanent member of the UNSC. Shortly after October 7, Russia drafted a controversial UNSC resolution that referred to Israel and the Palestinian Arabs without mentioning the perpetrator of the war: Hamas. Russia and China then vetoed a US-drafted UNSC resolution, which condemned the October 7 attack, supported Israel’s right to defend itself and called for the unconditional release of hostages from Gaza. In November 2023, Russia even stated in the UNSC that Israel has no right to defend itself against Hamas, as it is an occupying power. According to Moscow, Israel’s security could only be fully guaranteed if the Palestine issue were resolved on the basis of relevant UNSC resolutions, like by creating a Palestinian state.

In January 2024, Lavrov called on Israel to stop the war with Hamas and told Israel not to extrude Palestinians from their land. He underlined Russia’s previous stance: Only the creation of a Palestinian state could prevent more violence. He then stated that the October 7 terrorist attack was no excuse for Israel to retaliate with equally barbaric carnage. Lavrov slammed Israel for attacking Syria, including the airports of Damascus and Aleppo, which would interrupt the delivery of humanitarian assistance. He also panned Israel for its alleged strikes in Lebanon and Syria, which targeted military sites and personnel of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

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What should Israel think now?

The government of Israel was convinced that Hamas wanted to maintain the status quo. As a consequence, before October 7, Israeli leaders ignored warnings of a looming massive attack by Hamas. The consecutive governments of Bennett and Netanyahu were equally confident that they had a solid, even friendly relationship with Putin. As such, they disregarded Moscow’s firm relations with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria — Israel’s archenemies.

Putin is not against Jews. In fact, when he was young, a Jewish family supported him. However, Putin ambivalently views the State of Israel as just a piece on the global chessboard. In its campaign to counter US influence, Russia’s Middle Eastern partners are Syria, Iran and the related proxies of Hamas, the PA and Hezbollah. October 7 saw the Kremlin replace its steady relationship with Israel by increasing its ties with Hamas and the PA.

This rude awakening flipped Israel’s attitude toward the suddenly antagonistic Russia. Israel has now embraced the US and the rest of the Western world. Russia is now treating it accordingly, burning past bridges. The fierce rejection of Israel’s military campaign demonstrates that Moscow and Jerusalem’s relationship may be cold for a while, if not indefinitely.

How should Israel view Russia? From a military perspective, the cancellation of the deconfliction system is a boon for the nation. The Russian air defense was only deployed in Syria to counter US or Israeli aircraft. Russian–Iranian ties have been reinforced by Moscow’s isolation in its war against Ukraine and its dependence on Iranian drones. Likewise, Tehran is eager to replace its outdated jets with modern Russian aircraft.

The Russian–Israeli deconfliction system had always been a superficial one. At any time, Moscow could have informed the Iranian targets in Syria about impending IDF attacks. The air defense systems in Syria likely will not shoot down Israeli jets now, as the IDF can easily destroy them in retaliation. Israel benefits from the freedom of movement that is now afforded to the IDF as a result of the deconfliction system’s cancellation.

From a political perspective, Russia’s tough stance toward Israel provides clarity. Just like the deconfliction system, the allegedly friendly relationship between the two nations had an artificial characteristic: Putin’s warm reception of Israeli prime ministers always had Russia’s strong ties with Israel’s foes in the background. Israel now has nothing to expect from Moscow. Jerusalem should act accordingly after this wake-up call, keeping its relations with Russia at a low and pragmatic level.

This article was originally published on Fair Observer.

About the Author
Lieutenant Colonel Royal Netherlands Army (retired) Dr Mordechai de Haas holds a PhD on Russian security policy. He was an Affiliated Professor and Research Fellow on Russian security policy towards the Middle East at the National Security Studies Centre of Haifa University. Previously, he was a Full Professor of Public Policy in Kazakhstan. In 1980 he served with UNIFIL in Lebanon, as a conscript of the Dutch army. As an officer he held positions at Army Staff, the Royal Netherlands Military Academy, NATO School and the Netherlands Institute of International Relations 'Clingendael'. At Defence Staff he was the editor of the first Netherlands Defence Doctrine.
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