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Putin’s Russia navigates Middle East conflict and war in Ukraine

Two experts discuss the broader impact of the Israel-Hamas war.

- November 6, 2023
Photo of Vladimir Putin courtesy of Presidential Executive Office of Russia (cc), map focused on Gaza and Israel © 200mm, Ukraine flag © Mohammad Azuddin Creative, via Canva.com.

The Israel-Hamas war also has the potential to impact geopolitics beyond the region. One particularly vexing question: Will what’s happening in the Middle East impact Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine? Unlike most Western democracies, Israel has pursued a more neutral role in that conflict. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has not hesitated to caution Israel against laying siege to Gaza – or condemn Israel’s bombing campaigns in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel. 

Commentators have also raised the question of whether the West can support both Ukraine and Israel effectively. With these thoughts in mind, I reached out to two experts on Russia and its role in the world, Kathryn Stoner of Stanford University and Samuel Greene of King’s College London and the Center for European Policy Analysis. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation. 

Joshua Tucker: Prior to the terrorist attack against Israel by Hamas, I would have described Putin’s Russia as having aspirations for a positive relationship with Israel. Since the attack, however, Russia has behaved in a manner that suggests it is less concerned about its relationship with Israel. Is Russia deprioritizing its relationship with Israel?

Samuel Greene: A quick caveat: For the past 19 months, I’ve struggled to understand the Kremlin’s cost-benefit analysis. Russia has done a large number of things that don’t compute, at least for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Kremlin is irrational. It’s just that I don’t fully understand what economists would call Russia’s utility function. 

Having said that, yes, I think you’re right that Russia hasn’t been in the business of making an enemy out of Israel, just as Israel hasn’t been in the business of making an enemy out of Russia. From the Israeli standpoint, the calculation is fairly clear: Israel’s primary national security concern, at least until the Hamas attack, was Iran. Because Russia’s presence in Syria gives Moscow control over the flight path from Israel to Iran, the Israeli government needs access to that airspace. That means not doing anything that would overly annoy Moscow. 

From Russia’s perspective, the calculation also appeared fairly simple: Moscow doesn’t have a surfeit of friends out there in the world. As long as there’s a country of middling importance willing to keep things on an even keel, why would you jeopardize that?

Of course, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov did just that in May 2022, when he tried to push the Israelis into taking an overtly anti-Ukrainian stance. Lavrov claimed that Hitler was Jewish (a move meant to demonstrate that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew, could also be a neo-Nazi). Putin had to walk that back, rather sheepishly. 

But Moscow now seems happy to throw Israel under the bus in the service of a greater victory. Russia is using Israel’s counter-attack on Hamas and on Gaza to turn opinion in the Global South – and among Muslim and some leftist communities in the West – against U.S. policy. In that respect, I see this as a purely opportunistic play from Moscow, and not one that is intrinsically linked to the underlying dynamics in Russia’s relationship with Israel. What’s more, Moscow probably feels fairly certain that Israel will still play nice, given Russia’s position in Syria.

Kathyn Stoner: I agree with some of what Sam is saying here, although we should emphasize that Putin was doing more with Israel than simply flirting over the last decade or so. On the contrary, he was actively building a relationship with Israel, far beyond the Syria and Iran issue. Putin’s 2005 trip to Israel was the first ever by a Russian leader, for instance. 

Here’s why this relationship is important to Russia. Israel has a huge Russian-speaking diaspora, following the emigration of about 1.5 million ethnic Jews from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union to Israel beginning in the 1990s. The Russian language is pervasive across Israel. And highly educated Russian emigres have built up successful businesses in Israel and return frequently to Russia to invest there or sell their products. 

Prior to the 2020 covid-19 pandemic and then the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, large numbers of air passengers moved in both directions. Russian emigres and their families have gained a significant political voice within Israel, which has helped make ties between Russia and the Israeli government closer. And this provides some leverage for Russian influence within Israeli politics. 

Israel also could have continued to interfere with Russia’s Syria strategy by bombing more Iranian forces in the north than it did in 2018 and 2019, yet refrained. Between 2015 and 2018, Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met face to face at least seven times. The Kremlin got some important benefits from the relationship – Israel abstained in the UN General Assembly vote in March 2014 to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea and did not join the European and U.S. sanctions against Russia thereafter. More recently, Israel did not issue its own independent sanctions against Russia after the 2022 invasion in Ukraine, although it has followed the requirements of U.S. and European sanctions regimes.

All of this makes Putin’s about-face in the last month or so surprising, unless we remember that Putin’s foreign policy choices tend to be made with expediency in mind, not necessarily long-term strategy. Russia needed Israel when Syria was a priority and when it was seeking investment from Israeli companies. Obviously, Russia’s economy could still use the investment, but as I just noted, Israel is following the Western sanctions regime, and so none will come at the moment. 

Iran, therefore, is a better bet for Putin’s immediate needs. And Iran has supplied drones for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine and is helping Russia build a drone factory based on Iranian technology. Iran supports Hamas, is under sanction by the United States, and supports Russia’s foreign policy in Ukraine. So, Putin has flipped on Israel in favor of Iran (and its clients), at least for now. 

Some have argued that the crisis in the Middle East will ultimately benefit Russia (and China for that matter) in the global context. Do you agree?

Greene: Crises are by their nature unpredictable – and I’m not a scholar of international crises – so I’ll be particularly careful with this one. But there are reasons to believe this might break in Moscow’s favor. One, as I’ve already mentioned, is the impact the U.S. and European staunch support of Israel is already having on opinion in the Global South. The West has argued opposing Russia in Ukraine was in the interests of the broader world, and not because of their own narrow interests. That claim, given Western behavior in the past, was always going to be a difficult argument to sustain. The West giving Israel an apparent carte blanche to attack Gaza, for many middle-ground states and societies, now makes that argument almost impossible to accept. 

The other reason this might look like good news for Russia is that aid for Ukraine will now have to compete (in the U.S., at least) with aid for Israel. And U.S. financial and military hardware resources are finite. But there are also reasons to believe this might not break in Moscow’s favor. 

For one, President Biden has made the case that Ukrainian and Israeli victories are very much in the U.S. national interest, and there is reason to believe that this argument sticks with Americans better than the moral and emotional one does. So, this sense of growing crisis – especially one that hits a country that Americans are used to defending – runs the risk of galvanizing Western support, rather than dissipating it. 

And second, one of the reasons that Ukraine and Israel have to compete for limited Western military resources is that Western military-industrial capacity is smaller than many believe it needs to be. U.S. and European policymakers have been trying to get arms makers to expand their production capacity, but arms makers want to know that they will have demand in the long term. The sense that the U.S. and the West more broadly are gearing up for deterrence and possibly conflict beyond Ukraine might help make the economic case clearer to Western defense producers. And that means Moscow could end up facing an opponent with much greater economies of scale.

Stoner: Yes, the Israel-Hamas war is dominating the headlines and Ukraine’s ongoing trauma is not. That may be of some benefit to Russia. Putin is betting on winning the long game in Ukraine and part of that is hoping to exhaust U.S. and European interest in supplying Ukraine’s military and providing other forms of aid. The situation in Gaza and Israel is dominating the news cycle for now, and perhaps sustained aid and interest among the American public and politicians will follow that lead. That could be bad for Ukraine, of course. Note that even prior to Hamas’ attacks a month ago, some Republicans in Congress were skeptical of the need for continued aid to Ukraine. If it comes down to a choice between providing U.S. support to Israel over Ukraine, Israel’s needs may trump Ukraine’s.

The other issue is that if you scan a major newspaper in the U.S. or Europe, stories on Ukraine have been few and far between in the last few weeks. One of Ukraine’s victories over Russia in the last 19 months has been public relations in the West and constant coverage. This has clearly changed.

So, I do worry that even if the conflict is not necessarily “good” for Russia, it has pulled attention away from Ukraine, and that is not especially helpful for Ukraine’s continued defense. It might not be good for Russia, though. Lavrov visiting Iran while Israel is in crisis was not a very good look for Russia.

Tucker: Turning the focus to the Russian domestic context, what can you tell us about where Russian public opinion – at the elite or mass level – stands in terms of the conflict? Are we likely to see more events like the storming of an airport in the Russian province of Dagestan by anti-Israel protesters last week?

Greene: Time for another caveat: In the present political environment in Russia, polls may not tell us much about how people really feel. On the whole, though, I think what we’re seeing is another example of just how malleable Russian public opinion is in the hands of the Kremlin, especially on issues of foreign policy. Surveys from the Levada Center (as good as it gets) show that the public is more or less where the Kremlin wants them to be: 66% of respondents say they support neither side in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and only 6% say they support Israel. The number who say they support the Palestinians is 21%, more than double what it was in 2007. That effectively upends what had been one of the biggest shifts in Russia’s post-Soviet foreign policy, moving away from the USSR’s staunch antagonism towards Israel to a much more supportive position – especially against the backdrop of Russia’s own war on terrorism. 

Not surprisingly, pro-Palestinian sentiment is much higher among Russia’s Muslim communities, although it is not as dominant as you might expect. Only 46% of Muslim respondents told the Levada Center that they support the Palestinians, versus 44% who said they didn’t take a side. Anti-Semitism, while broadly latent in many parts of Russian society (as it is, for that matter, in many parts of American society), does not strike me as a major motivating factor here, however. 

Much more problematic, as the events at the Dagestan airport showed, is the potential for the passions inflamed by Russia’s newfound geopolitical fervor – and by Putin’s own rhetoric – to spur grassroots action that the authorities may not be able to control. In that regard, the real problem wasn’t that a couple of hundred angry people stormed the airport in Makhachkala; it’s that the local authorities, absent an explicit order from Moscow and unsure of what the Kremlin’s policy is on this sort of thing, didn’t do much to stop them.

Stoner: Right, so Levada has published data that Sam references, and it is probably reflective of public opinion. But does public opinion on this issue matter at all to Putin’s administration? More likely than not, the average Russian does not care that much about the Gaza conflict, and is simply reflecting media coverage, which is moderated by Putin’s regime. 

On the elite side, there is likely a bit more support for Israel, however. Some of Russia’s oligarchs are themselves of Jewish descent, but the bigger issue is that many have business ties in Israel – either investors from the Russian-speaking diaspora in Israel, or partners or tech specialists based in Israel. This might have more influence on the regime’s position in Russia than public opinion per se, but even here, I wouldn’t expect it to influence Putin’s thinking that much. His regime has few friends these days and, as I mentioned earlier, Iran is proving indispensable for the Russian war effort in Ukraine at the moment. Since Iran funds Hamas, then I think Russia’s criticism of the Palestinian side is going to be muted. 

The other issue, as Sam mentions above, is that Russia has a big Muslim community. As the angry crowds in Dagestan demonstrated, Russia’s Muslims can be easily mobilized against Israeli (and Jewish) interests through electronic media like Telegram. So, probably safer from Putin’s perspective to look “neutral” or even slightly pro-Palestinian to avoid any spread of violence out of the North Caucasus region to other parts of Russia more generally. Putin has every interest in maintaining internal stability as the war in Ukraine drags on.