Russia’s pro-Palestinian stance has inflamed tensions and underscored shift in relations since invasion of Ukraine
30 December 2023
When Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone this month to Benjamin Netanyahu, their first conversation in weeks, the two leaders found themselves in an unusual dynamic, engaging not as partners but against the backdrop of historic tensions.
Once touting their friendly relationship – Netanyahu has used billboards showing himself next to Putin during election campaigning in Israel, even last year – the events of 7 October and Russia’s pro-Palestinian stance in the aftermath have brought a decisive schism in their ties. “The two countries’ ties are absolutely at the lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Nikolay Kozhanov, a former Russian diplomat in Tehran and now an associate professor at Qatar University.
The contrasting accounts released by Israel and Russia after the call on 10 December gave insight on the strained relationship, said Dr Vera Michlin-Shapir, of King’s College London and a former official at Israel’s national security council, who specialises in Russian foreign policy.
Netanyahu said in a statement he had spoken to Putin and voiced displeasure with “anti-Israel positions” taken by Moscow’s envoys at the UN, while voicing “robust disapproval” of Russia’s “dangerous” cooperation with its ally Iran.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, highlighted “the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip”, with Putin saying Israel’s military response to the Hamas terror onslaught should not lead “to such dire consequences for the civilian population”. “This was not a dialogue. This time around the two leaders just put forward their positions,” said Michlin-Shapir.
A day before their conversation, Moscow backed a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and said the US was “complicit in Israel’s brutal massacre”, a not-so-subtle reference to the 21,000 people who Gaza health authorities say have been killed since the war began.
The ending of the complex entente between Russia and Israel underscored a larger global shift that had been under way in the Kremlin’s position on the Middle East since Putin launched his war in Ukraine, said Kozhanov. “Russia quickly realised that the ties with the west have been damaged for a long time,” he said.
After the start of the war, Kozhanov argued, Moscow started looking into ways to strengthen its economic and military ties with Arab states while also growing closer to Iran, which has been providing artillery shells, drones and missiles for Russia’s war efforts.
In a rare, one-day trip that underlined his warming relationship with key players in the Middle East, Putin earlier in December visited the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where he received a grand welcome, despite his status in the west as a wanted man sought by the international criminal court for war crimes. “Putin’s visit to the Middle East confirmed the empty noise in the words about the isolation of the Russian Federation,” Izvestia, a pro-Kremlin daily, triumphantly wrote after Putin’s trip.
Kozhanov said the Israel-Hamas war also provided Moscow with a rare opportunity to court the broader global south, which has accused the west’s rules-based order of hypocrisy over Palestinian deaths. In the process, the Kremlin was eager to claim the moral high ground, despite its own devastating record of human rights abuses during wars in Chechnya, Syria and, most recently, Ukraine. “Putin’s Russia is very pragmatic,” said Kozhanov. “Moscow sensed that the events in Gaza are driving the global south away from the west and could make its attitudes more sympathetic to Moscow.”
For two decades under Putin, Russia and Israel pursued a delicate balance.
While the two countries often found themselves on opposite sides of the geopolitical spectrum, Israel sought contact with Russia in Syria and was careful not to antagonise Moscow, given its ties to Israel’s arch-rival, Iran.
Putin also courted the large Jewish population in Moscow and saw in Israel an ally in keeping the memory of the second world war alive, the monumental historical event around which the Russian leader has sought to build his presidency. “It was never an alliance, but there was always a strategic understanding. Both countries needed each other,” said Michlin-Shapir.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which made Putin a pariah in much of the west, placed Israel in a bind. Many in Israel were left deeply uncomfortable with Russia’s framing of its invasion, with Moscow falsely comparing Ukraine’s government to Nazi Germany to justify its war, said Pinchas Goldschmidt, the former chief rabbi in Moscow.
In spring 2022, these tensions first spilled over into the public when Russian officials accused Israel of supporting the “neo-Nazi regime” in Kyiv. The spat was ignited after Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recycled an antisemitic conspiracy theory claiming that Adolf Hitler “had Jewish blood” – comments that Israel described as “unforgivable and outrageous”. “On 7 October, Israel woke up and found Russia on the opposite side of the war. But the foundations for the split were already laid when Putin invaded Ukraine,” said Michlin-Shapir.
Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said it was only logical that Moscow opted to support the Iran-sponsored Hamas, as it was the option most beneficial for its war efforts in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has become “the raison d’être for the entire machinery of Putinism”, Gabuev wrote in a recent op-ed, pointing to Iran’s indispensable military support. “This is why the Kremlin’s muted reaction to the 7 October terrorist attacks by
Hamas and ensuing full-throated criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza would once have been unimaginable but is hardly surprising in 2023,” he said.
As the Hamas attack unfolded, Russian officials and state-controlled media quickly took up a pro-Palestinian position, cheering Israeli military and intelligence blunders, which were presented as a testament to western weakness.
The state rhetoric, which often had nods toward antisemitism, has partly been attributed to the anti-Jewish storming of an airport in the Russian region of Dagestan, during which a violent mob looked for Jewish passengers arriving from Israel.
The Israel-Hamas war has already proved to be a win for Putin by helping take the west’s focus off the war in Ukraine, with the US and the EU struggling to push through two critical aid packages that are deemed vital for Kyiv’s long-term survival. “Russia now has an interest in prolonging this conflict in the Middle East,” said a senior European diplomat in Moscow, speaking on conditions of anonymity. He said he feared an all-out Israel-Hezbollah war would further derail any help for Ukraine.
The hard pro-Israeli position of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on the Gaza conflict, in which he sought to compare Hamas to Russia, has in the meantime alienated some of the countries in the global south. This, insiders say, could undo months of diplomatic efforts by the west and Ukraine to paint Moscow as a global pariah in the global south for breaching international law. “It seemed a bit too easy and too fast for Zelenskiy to go full pro-Israel,” said a senior European official in Kyiv in November. Pointing to countries such as South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey, the official said it could now be harder for Ukraine to make inroads after sustained diplomatic progress.
In an interview in Kyiv, Zelenskiy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak admitted there would be a “chill in relations” with non-western countries, but said once Ukraine would “be able to explain why this is happening and the role of Russia in it, we will be able to revive all our dialogues”.
For now, Ukraine appears to have little to show in return for supporting Israel. Before 7 October, Netanyahu had announced a nonaligned approach to the war in Ukraine, refusing to provide lethal weapons or much-desired air defence systems to Kyiv, an approach that is unlikely to change with the fighting in Gaza. Netanyahu has also reportedly rejected repeated requests by Zelenskiy to make a solidarity visit to Israel after the Hamas attack.
In contrast, Michlin-Shapir said the Hamas-Israeli war provided Putin with a new opportunity to impose himself on the global order.
The former Israeli official compared the current diplomatic efforts to Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, which brought Moscow back to the international table after it annexed Crimea a year before. “They managed to get out of isolation then. The Middle East always provides new opportunities for Russia,” she said.
Shaun Walker contributed from Kyiv. Shaun Walker is a British publicist and journalist based in Budapest, Hungary. He is an expert on political history of Eastern and Middle Europe. He has lived in Russia for more than ten years and was working as a correspondent for The Guardian. Before that, he was a correspondent for The Independent from Russia. Walker studied Russian and Soviet history at Oxford University. Some of his famous books are The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, Odessa Dreams: The Dark Heart of Ukraine’s Online Marriage Industry, Our Cosmic Family: We are all brothers and sisters, Un-Making a Murderer: The Framing of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. Readers, especially ones in the West were particularly interested in The Long Hangover, mostly because of the author’s new and critical view of the Russian reality, as well as the history of the Soviet Union.
Pjotr Sauer is a Russian affairs reporter for the Guardian. Previously, he was a reporter covering Russian politics and society at The Moscow Times. Sauer is a Moscow native with a Dutch background. Education: In 2015, he graduated Cum Laude from the University College Utrecht with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History. Subsequently, in 2017 he completed his studies in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics at UCL (University College London). Pjotr is the son of Derk Sauer. Derk is a Dutch media magnate and the founder of The Moscow Times, the first English language paper in Russia. In 2005 Derk sold The Moscow Times to the Finnish Sanoma. Subsequently, in 2017 Derk repurchased The Moscow Times. He claimed that the paper could serve as a great medium for educating people abroad about underreported domestic subjects. In March 2022, Pjotr and his father decided to leave Russia.