Seeking neutrality, Kremlin stays on sidelines of Israel-Hamas war
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The Kremlin has cultivated warm ties with both Israelis and Palestinians, which it hopes to maintain by staying out of the current war. Public opinion seems to approve.
As the West, led by the United States, lined up unequivocally behind its ally Israel, Moscow may have been tempted to lean toward a different corner. Perhaps that is why it took Russian President Vladimir Putin more than a week to phone Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express condolences, condemn violence against civilians, and affirm Israel’s right to self-defense.
But Russian experts broadly say that Moscow is sticking to its nonpartisan stance, and beyond that does not want to get involved.
“The Russian position may change a bit as the situation changes, but the essence has been the same for many decades and will remain that way,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament.
“In the 1940s, the U.N. decided to create two states, Israel and Palestine, and we have supported that plan ever since,” he points out. “We’ve seen wars and attacks come and go many times, but Russia still believes that a political solution, resulting in two states, is the only way forward.”
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Warm ties with Israel
Russia is home to about 145,000 Jewish people, many of whom hold dual Russian/Israeli citizenship, while Israel has around a million Russian speakers in its population. The ties between the two countries are strong, underpinned by warm personal relations between Mr. Putin and Israeli leaders, particularly Mr. Netanyahu.
Trade remains fruitful, as do cultural relations. Israel has so far declined to impose Western-led sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine war. Russians enjoy visa-free travel to Israel, Mr. Putin has lauded Israel as a “Russian-speaking” country and joined Mr. Netanyahu a decade ago to unveil a monument to the Red Army’s WWII victory in Netanya, Israel.
Dasha Mikhelson, spokesperson for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, says that the Jewish community in Russia today is flourishing. She says there is a common view of WWII and the Holocaust, shared tastes in music and cuisine, and lots of two-way tourism, as well as many kinds of cultural exchanges between Russia and Israel.
“Today, the leaders of both countries set the task of strengthening our friendship; they visit each other, discuss important political events,” she says. “All this, as well as the flourishing of Jewish religious life in our country, correlates with good relations between Russia and Israel. Russians and Israelis understand each other well; we have a lot of similarities in our way of thinking and preferences.”
Still, over the past couple of years, Russia’s war in Ukraine has tested Russian-Israeli ties, while military and political priorities have driven Moscow much closer to Israel’s main foe, Iran. The delicate, carefully negotiated arrangements that keep Russian and Israeli forces from clashing on the tense battleground of Syria have all but broken down, experts say.
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And Russia’s call for a cease-fire in Gaza failed in the United Nations Security Council on Oct. 16 in part because it declined to describe the actions of Hamas as “terrorism” – a baseline requirement for Israel.
While the basic relationship between the two countries is likely to survive present tensions, analysts say, political ties are definitely chilling.
“It’s a bit strange to me that the attack of Hamas was not condemned immediately by Russia,” says Lyudmila Samarskaya, a Middle East expert at IMEMO, an official foreign policy research institute in Moscow. “Perhaps this can be understood in the context of the general confrontation between Russia and the West, which overshadows everything else these days. But Russia’s basic policy remains unchanged.”
Russia has also maintained official relations with Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority over the years. About 20% of Russia’s population is Muslim, and some religious charities have been publicly raising money to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza, something the Russian government officially supports.
But outright backing for the violence committed by Hamas on Oct. 7 has been sparse. The main exception appears to be Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who issued a statement of support for the Palestinian territories after the massacres and offered to send Chechen “peacekeeping forces” to mediate between Israel and Hamas.
“Kadyrov’s reaction is a bit of an exception to the general Russian attitude,” says Ms. Samarskaya. “Such one-sidedness does not coincide with the official Russian position, nor with what most people think.”
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“Not our business”
Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, suggests that Russia hopes to take part in a peace settlement at some point and wants to maintain an appearance of impartiality.
“Russia didn’t condemn Hamas directly because both sides are using terrorist methods according to the Russian point of view, and there is no reason to single out one side,” he says. “Russia is ready to be a mediator when it might be necessary, and that means keeping a balance.”
Few analysts see that as a realistic possibility, as the defeat of Russia’s U.N. resolution would seem to confirm. Indeed, the only poll to appear after the Oct. 7 events, an unscientific survey done by the Moscow daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, found almost a quarter of respondents leery of any Russian involvement in the conflict.
“Russia has nothing to do with this conflict, and we do not need it,” one reader commented.
Denis Volkov, head of the independent Levada Center, says that the cumulative results of past polls suggest that most Russians don’t take a side. “About half the population is indifferent, with maybe a bit more supporting Israel. But when asked who is to blame, the majority of people answer that it’s the USA,” he says.
Mr. Klimov, the senator, says that despite its involvement in Syria and growing ties with Iran, Russia would probably prefer to sit this conflict out.
“For much of Russian society, this conflict is perceived as happening far from us,” he says. “We really have enough concerns close to home, without looking for distant problems to get involved with. I don’t mean to say that we are indifferent to what’s happening, just that there’s not much we can do about it.”