Oct 30, 2023
The Russians have long understood that to win a war, you must utilise an enemy’s forces as skilfully as you use your own. As the Gaza conflict demonstrates, these forces can be far afield of the war one is trying to win. The joint attack by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Israel on 7 October has shifted global attention away from Russia’s war against Ukraine. But it has not altered Russia’s determination to dismantle that country and cripple its so-called sponsors in the ‘collective West’.
On 13 October in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, Putin claimed that ‘no one suspects [Russia] wishes to play around’ with the Gaza conflict because of its strong and good relations with each of the protagonists. But the historical record belies this assurance. Even in Soviet times, when Moscow took the ideological offensive against ‘US imperialism’ and ‘Israeli aggression’, it sought to create synergies between the region’s endemic contradictions and hostilities. Under Putin’s watch, it has cooperated ‘pragmatically’ with every country and its worst enemy. It has ‘played around’ with pre-meditation and purpose, deepening relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hamas and Israel simultaneously.
In itself, the Putin-Netanyahu relationship emerged from a balance of fears no less than a balance of forces, to which one must add the respect of each party for the tenacity and calculated ruthlessness of the other. But it also was a product of permissive circumstances: President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ and the diminution of America’s presence and influence in the Middle East.
Over a good fifteen years, the relationship brought tangible benefits to both sides. On the one hand, Russia looked the other way whilst Israel struck targets inside Lebanon and Syria. In turn, Israel refused to join the Western sanctions regimes of 2014 and 2022 against Russia, and despite US entreaties, has not supplied air defence systems or other lethal weapons to Ukraine either, at least overtly. In 2011, Putin went so far as to describe Israel as ‘a special state to us…practically a Russian-speaking country’, and only seven years ago, he called it an ‘unconditional ally against international terrorism’. Yet Putin offered no condolences to Netanyahu after Hamas’s attack.
To understand why, one needs to appreciate just how radically the Ukraine war has restructured Russia’s priorities. Prior to February 2022, the 50-year special relationship with Germany was at least as important as the Russia-Israel relationship, but it was sacrificed on the altar of Russia’s ‘special military operation’. Russia has now made the same calculation with respect to Israel.
Five interests now take precedence: the rupturing of the West, the war in Ukraine, ties with Iran (which the war has made an indispensable ally of Russia), sabotaging the US-sponsored Saudi-Israel entente, and driving as many wedges as possible between the ‘collective West’ and the ‘global South’. In short, the specific conditions that spawned the Russia-Israel relationship fifteen years ago have given way to new ones.
These new conditions are at least as advantageous to Russia as the old. Today, we need to face four unpalatable truths.
First, Russia views Israel as the Achilles heel of the United States. Washington might claim that it will support Ukraine ‘as long as it takes’, but it knows that Israel cannot be allowed to fail. If Congress is forced to debate the relative priority of Ukraine and Israel, there is no debate. Israel wins.
Second, Israel’s greatest weakness is that it is predictable. History has taught its people that turning the other cheek is a recipe for extinction. The attack of 7 October was not merely, in the words of Israel’s ambassador to Germany, ‘the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust’, it was a stunning exercise in ‘reflexive control’: the defeat of an adversary by its own actions. Israel’s survival is more at risk today than at any time since 1948.
Third, the fates of Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan are intertwined. What links them is the commitment and credibility of the United States. The Kremlin believes that their removal from the political map would mean the end of the West as such. Possibly, it is right.
Fourth, whether or not Russia was complicit in Hamas’s attack, it had every reason to be. Its 17-year relationship with Hamas goes well beyond courtesy calls. The visits of the Hamas leadership and the head of its Politburo to Moscow in March and September this year were almost certainly about consultation rather than courtesy. If, as ‘informed sources’ claim, Hamas and Iran began planning the operation one year ago, it is most unlikely that Russia was kept in the dark.
Françoise Thom recently wrote: ‘Putin understands nothing about Western civilization. On the other hand, he has an unerring instinct for what can destroy it’. Maybe.
Over the years, Putin has proved himself to be less a master strategist than an engineer of lose-lose outcomes. He might come to regret some of these. US military power is now returning to the Middle East in earnest. It takes little effort to grasp that an Israel-Iran, not to say US-Iran war could bring a swift halt to Iran’s lifeline of military supplies to Russia. Moreover, it would swiftly expose Russia’s limitations. In such a war, Russia would have no spare military power to offer. Instead of making Russia indispensable, it might show the world that it has no clothes. In the end, Russia might pay a horrendous price for the harm it has wrought. But the end could be far away. Meanwhile, Russia’s capacity to confound, subvert and damage is likely to remain unrivalled.