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Russia Tilts Toward Hamas
Whatever its connection to the attack, Vladimir Putin’s regime sees benefits in the war
TO MANY OBSERVERS watching the Israel-Gaza war and the war in Ukraine, the two conflicts are closely related—as wars of survival against exterminationist aggression, and more broadly as part of a clash between liberal democracy and totalitarian barbarism. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was well aware of the symbolism when he asked to visit Israel in a show of solidarity.
There are other, complicated connections between the two conflicts. In recent years, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has tried to stay friendly with Israel even while allying with Iran, the patron of Hamas, and for that matter maintaining amicable relations with Hamas itself. (In March, a Hamas delegation flew to Moscow for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov; there were also two high-level Hamas visits to Moscow last year.) Israel, meanwhile, has moderated its support for Ukraine—much to Zelensky’s frustration—out of deference to its cordial relations with Russia, based partly on Benjamin Netanyahu’s chummy relationship with Putin.
Today, however, Russia seems to be swinging hard to the Iran/Hamas side, though not quite to the Soviet-era position of implacable hostility to Israel. Ukraine not only stands firmly with Israel but accuses Russia of helping orchestrate the Hamas attacks as part of its push to “carry out destabilizing actions all over the world”; many Russian dissident commentators made the same connection. And to millions of observers—in Ukraine, in expatriate and dissident Russian communities, and around the world—the parallels between Russia’s assault on Ukraine and Hamas’s assault on Israel were clear. Last week, a program on TV-RAIN, the independent Russian TV station that now broadcasts from exile, referred to the horrific massacre in the Kfar Aza kibbutz, where babies and toddlers were slaughtered and gunmen went house to house killing people, as “Israel’s Bucha.”
The presence of a large number of Russian and Ukrainian Jews in Israel creates further points of contact between the two wars, as does the extensive Russian- and Ukrainian-language media ecosystem in Israel, in Ukraine, and in Russian exile. “I feel like we’ve traded places,” the editor-in-chief of Israel’s Russian-language Best Radio station told Ukrainian politician, pundit, and ex-presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych when Arestovych came on the program to talk about the war in Israel after previous appearances talking about the war in his own country. For many Ukrainians and antiwar Russians, the images of slaughter in the Israeli kibbutzim and of destroyed cars lining the road near the music festival targeted by Hamas attackers evoked a chilling sense of déjà vu.
IS THERE EVIDENCE of Russian involvement in the Hamas invasion? For many Ukrainians and dissident Russians, the “Russian trail” was obvious, and even the fact that the attack began on Putin’s birthday—he turned 71 on 10/7—was seen as evidence of a deliberate “gift” from Hamas to a valued ally. “Putin likes such bloody gifts,” Russian opposition activist Olga Kurnosova told Ukraine’s Channel 24 (presumably referring to the murder of journalist and vocal Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006).
While some commentators indulged in bizarre speculation,1 the majority were more restrained. Journalist Yulia Latynina (who has lived in Israel since 2017) and political strategist Stanislav Belkovsky, for example, agreed that, while Putin undoubtedly benefits from the war, there is, so far, no evidence that the Kremlin was involved in instigating or coordinating the attack. Latynina dismissed claims that Wagner Group fighters may have been involved in planning the attack and training Hamas commandos as propaganda-driven fake news, along the same lines as Russian claims of arms smuggling from Ukraine to Hamas. When claims arose that a video made during the Hamas attack captured the sound of Russian speech, supposedly indicating the presence of Russian instructors, Russian human rights activist and blogger Mark Feygin urged caution, noting that Arabic speakers watching the video heard only Arabic in it and that “additional verification is needed.”
A possibly more solid lead pointing to some Russian involvement came from an October 8 RT (formerly Russia Today) interview by senior Hamas official Ali Baraka, who asserted not only that Russia sympathized with Hamas but that Hamas had “a Russian license to produce Kalashnikov bullets in Gaza” and that the Russians “were updated about the situation and about the goals of the war” after the attack had started. (However, he seemed to be talking about updates given to anyone who contacted Hamas leadership to inquire about the attack, not about actual coordination.)
ONE POINT ON WHICH virtually all Ukrainian and Russian dissident commentators agree is that the war in Israel plays into Putin’s hands, if only by shifting the focus away from Ukraine. For instance, the Hamas attack on October 7 quickly overshadowed the October 5 Russian missile strike on the Ukrainian village of Hroza during a wake for a fallen soldier, where the death toll now stands at 55. There is also little doubt that Putin hopes the crisis in Israel will divert the United States’, and more broadly the Western coalition’s, resources and attention from Ukraine to the Middle East, accelerating the “Ukraine fatigue” that the Kremlin has long hoped will eventually cause Western support to dry up. More broadly, the dramatic escalation of hostilities in Israel serves the Kremlin agenda of destabilization and chaos in what Putin views as the United States’ sphere of influence.
There is also little doubt that Putin sees this conflagration as an opportunity to undercut American power: When he finally commented on it during a meeting with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al-Sudani, it was to say that the crisis was “a vivid example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East.” Lastly, he may be hoping to play peacemaker or mediator, even if such a role for Russia seems extremely unlikely given the war in Ukraine. Belkovsky, who worked with Putin as a political strategist in the early 2000s, believes that he genuinely hopes to move on from Ukraine and reinvent himself as the midwife of Palestinian statehood. In the meantime, the butcher of Mariupol is making high-minded statements about how unacceptable urban sieges and mass civilians casualties are.
The Kremlin may not have fully adopted the position of ultranationalist guru Alexander Dugin, who wrote in his blog the other day that Russia should side with Iran as an “absolute” ally and ditch Israel as a fair-weather friend that is ultimately “a vassal of the USA” and a refuge for “traitors and accomplices of our mortal enemy, the West.” But there is no doubt that its official position is now tilted strongly toward the anti-Israel side—prompting veteran Israeli diplomat Arkady Milman, who served as the Israeli ambassador to Russia from 2003 to 2006, to tell Radio Liberty that Putin’s Russia was simply showing its true colors. “I always explained that Russia is no friend to Israel,” Milman said.
The tilt of Russian propaganda confirms the same. Top Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, who frequently touts his Jewish background when convenient, now demands that the United Nations sanction Israel for its supposed intent to destroy two million Palestinians in Gaza—and bellows that the West needs to “shut up with its phrases about the cruelty of the Russian army”: “You want cruelty, look at how the Israeli army wages war.”
Pro-war Russian bloggers have been especially strident in their pro-Hamas position, describing the murders of Jewish children as “vengeance for years of torture and abuse perpetrated on poor Arab children,” flaunting “not a drop of pity or compassion,” and gleefully pointing out that the conflict could be “of some usefulness to Russia.” Both in the pro-war social media and in more mainstream Kremlin media outlets, gloating about the supposed woes of Russian Jews who had left Russia for Israel after the invasion of Ukraine only to find themselves in the middle of another war was a particularly popular theme.
A lot of this sniping was directed at still-popular Soviet-era pop idol Alla Pugacheva and her husband, Russian Jewish comedian Maxim Galkin, who left Russia and settled in Israel in 2022 after getting “canceled” for their outspoken antiwar position. Some spread rumors that the couple had been spotted in Ben Gurion Airport trying to leave. RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan sent sarcastic greetings to those who “deserted and slandered our country” and “finally got the chance to live in a country which isn’t at war.” She also zinged Galkin with a verse from a poem by the great twentieth-century Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva in which the speaker excoriates a man for leaving her for an unworthy woman: “How’s your health? How’s your contentedness? / Are you coping? Do you sing? / And the festering wound of penitence— / How d’you cope with it, poor thing?” (My translation.)
On Monday, Galkin responded with a remarkable (and entirely impenitent) Instagram video revealing that he and Pugacheva have European Union passports and could easily live in any European country but were choosing to stay in Israel and help the war effort in any way they can:
We have chosen Israel, and don’t regret it for a moment. . . . We are proud to be a part of such a united nation—a nation where patriotism is not phony but real, something that comes from the hearts of millions of Israelis. . . . You cannot imagine how proud I feel right now of this small country whose people have stood up as one to defend their home. Here, people want to go to the frontlines. Here, there are no distinctions between rank-and-file citizens and the children of high-level officials. . . . That’s patriotism. I am proud to be Israeli—and I’m sure the time will come when I will be just as proud to be Russian. Of course, at present, Russia is very mixed up about its moral standards and its ethics. But that’s all right; we’ll live long enough to see times change. [My translation.]
Many other Russian exiles, such as satirist Viktor Shenderovich, echoed Galkin’s wistful contrast between Russia’s hypocritical and dishonest war of aggression and Israel’s righteous war of self-defense in which the goals are clear, human life is valued, and mobilized soldiers fight willingly.
Galkin’s optimistic faith in Russia’s future may or may not be warranted. For now, Russia’s de facto choice of solidarity with Iran and Hamas solidifies its membership in the global totalitarian alliance in conflict with liberal civilization—a conflict that manifests itself in Ukraine and Israel alike.
For example, expatriate Russian TV journalist Alexander Nevzorov speculated, apparently in earnest, that the attack may have been timed to distract the media around the world from mocking the Kremlin birthday boy too ruthlessly. And one Channel 24 host went so far as to ask Russian opposition leader Gennady Gudkov about the possibility of Mossad taking out Putin in his bunker if Putin’s role in the Hamas attack was confirmed—an idea on which Gudkov promptly and deservedly threw some cold water.