JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – JANUARY 23: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) attend their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on January 23, 2020 in Jerusalem, Israel. President Vladimir Putin is on a day trip to Israel. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
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When the war between Israel and Hamas began a month ago, Russia was noticeably measured in its immediate response to the conflict, issuing cautious statements calling for composure and a ceasefire.
As the Israeli assault on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip intensifies, with more than 10,000 Palestinians believed to have died in the heavily bombed enclave, Russia is increasingly abandoning its more neutral stance and becoming openly critical and hostile towards Israel.
Russia’s initially restrained response to the eruption of violence was seen as the result of a careful assessment by the Kremlin of its competing and conflicting interests in the Middle East.
Russia has always maintained constructive relations with Israel, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintaining close relations and pledging to deepen Israeli-Russian ties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji (second from left) looks on during the welcome ceremony at the airport July 19, 2022, in Tehran, Iran. Putin and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan arrived in Iran for the summit.
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In recent years, however, Russia has become extremely close to Iran, Israel’s archenemy, and has become even more dependent on Tehran since its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, relying on that country ( among other rogue states) for its weapons, mainly drones, for its military activities. use during the war.
In this context, when the Iranian-backed militant group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, capturing more than 200 Israeli hostages, Russia found itself in an awkward position, wanting neither to openly criticize Hamas nor defend Israel.
However, over time, Russia has become more critical of Israel’s military action, especially as it begins to step on its own feet – namely its interests and alliances – in the region, such as launching strikes on Russia’s ally Syria. , a country in which Moscow has military bases and whose leadership it has supported.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 19, 2022. Putin likely wanted to show that Moscow is still important in the Middle East by visiting Iran, said John Drennan of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
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Russia “now finds itself in a situation where it is increasingly difficult to maintain that kind of balance,” according to political analyst, author and academic Mark Galeotti, noting that Russia had calculated that its relations with countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, another oil producer, had more strategic and economic value than its ties with Israel.
“Ultimately, when you consider who Russia really needs, it needs Iran, particularly as a continued source of military hardware, but it also needs Saudi Arabia. [Arabia] because the two together can dominate oil prices globally to a large extent. In this context, Israel must be sacrificed. »
Russia’s position has changed gradually but dramatically in recent weeks, as it has become clear that the conflict is impacting its military and geopolitical interests.
While Israel launched airstrikes on several military bases in Syria in October in response to a series of rocket attacks aimed at Israel, The Russian Foreign Ministry said the strike violated Syria’s “sovereignty and international law.” Later that month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the strikes were “unacceptable.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Sochi on November 20, 2017.
Around the same time as Lavrov’s comments, Russia further tightened the screws on Israel. by receiving a Hamas delegation in Moscow at the end of October to discuss the hostages held by the group.
In some of the most critical comments yet, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said October 28 that Israel’s bombing of Gaza was contrary to international law and risked creating a catastrophe “for decades, if not centuries.” These comments were widely echoed by Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, who declared on November 2 that Israel, as an “occupying state”, had no right to defend himself under international law.
In a televised speech, Putin said on October 30 that “nothing justifies the terrible events currently unfolding in Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of innocent people are being killed indiscriminately, with nowhere to flee or hide from the bombings.” . “
“When you see bloodstained children, dead children, the suffering of women and the elderly, when you see doctors killed, of course it makes you clench your fists and bring tears to your eyes. There is no no other way to say it,” he added. Putin has also sought to link the Gaza conflict to the West, saying it would benefit from greater instability in the Middle East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to greet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting January 23, 2020 in Jerusalem.
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“Russia’s position towards Israel has already become significantly more critical,” Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and founder of the analysis firm R.Politik, said in her report. Weekly summary analyze Russian news.
Although Putin has refrained from launching direct attacks on Israel in public, Stanovaya said, she noted that Putin “views the country as part of an American policy aimed at destabilizing and sowing chaos.”
“Moscow increasingly views Tel Aviv as aligning with Washington’s sphere of influence – an assessment that inherently marginalizes Israel’s importance to the Kremlin by linking it to Russia’s broader geopolitical struggle with America. and invest in a balanced policy towards Tel Aviv, as has been the case before,” she noted.
To be fair, relations with Israel were deteriorating before the current conflict, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine putting Western-backed Israel in an awkward position.
Israel has been under pressure to condemn the invasion and impose sanctions, alongside Western countries, on Russia. They resisted, refusing to impose sanctions and giving Ukraine humanitarian rather than military aid, unlike other allies. Yet his ambiguous position seems to annoy both Russia and the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with senior Saudi officials in 2014.
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Galeotti noted that Russia was likely calculating that, in any case, its relationship with Israel could change in the event of a change in leadership, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu increasingly unpopular.
“I think there is also the calculation that Netanyahu’s days in power may well be numbered and that a new government may well be much more skeptical of Russia,” he said.
“Russia would love to have it both ways, but ultimately, if it has to choose sides, it has to have Iran and Saudi Arabia in mind.”