Cautious Calculus:

Russia’s response to the recent Israel-Palestine war has been cautious, initially focusing on maintaining relations with both sides. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Moscow has long-lasting ties with the Palestinians, including Hamas. Nonetheless, he also indicated that Russia has "a lot in common" with Israel, including the fact that many Israelis are former Russian citizens. Peskov said: "Therefore, we maintain relations with both sides of this conflict." Russia was also predictably quick to blame the West for events in Israel-Palestine. On Monday, after talks with Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Sergey Lavrov condemned the recent violence. Lavrov stressed that the West was being short-sighted if it thought that simply condemning attacks against Israel without solving the Palestinian issue would secure an Israeli victory.

During a meeting on Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammed al-Sudani, Vladimir Putin commented for the first time on the situation. His stance aligns with Moscow’s regional and international agendas. Putin essentially pointed out that the eruption of violence between Palestine and Israel demonstrated the failure of US policy in the Middle East. He said that the US had "monopolized" international attempts to forge peace and accused Washington of neglecting to look for compromises that would be acceptable to both sides. Putin further suggested that the US had ignored the interests of Palestinians, especially the need for an independent Palestinian state.

Russia’s official response to the events in Israel-Palestine is not surprising for several reasons. First, Russia’s main objective in the Middle East is to counter the West, especially the United States. Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war with the goal of "returning" to the Middle East, and restoring Russia’s status as a "great power." The Ukraine war and subsequent responses to the war from MENA regional actors has shown that in some ways Moscow has attained its objective. In other words, Russia is now seen as having regional or international clout on par with the West, especially the US. In the Ukraine war, Russia and the US clearly represent two opposing sides—adversaries, not merely competitors. The current outbreak of violence in Israel-Palestine has provided another platform for Russia to point out US "failures."

In this regard, the Ukraine factor again deserves attention, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has claimed that it was in Russia’s interests to stoke war in the Middle East to undermine global unity. These allegations were swiftly rebutted by Kremlin spokesman Peskov as having "absolutely no basis." Peskov rightly stated that "this is a long-standing conflict, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which has very deep roots, many deep contradictions." In any case, POLITICO also argued that "such a catastrophic security shock in the Middle East was probably a welcome surprise for a Russian president, whose strategic priority is to divert Western support and attention away from Ukraine." 

Recent analyses have drawn parallels between the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts. For example, Mark Katz, a prominent expert on Russia’s relations in the MENA, stated: "Of course, Israel is not going to be supplying weaponry to Ukraine so long as its conflict with Hamas in ongoing . . . Presumably, though, the hot phase of Israel’s conflict with Hamas will require far fewer weapons, and much less time, than Ukraine’s war with Russia." He concluded that "the diversionary potential of the Israel-Hamas conflict will not benefit Moscow for long, if at all." Whether this turn outs to be true remains to be seen, but it is clear that drawing attention away from Ukraine could have a direct impact on the course of that war. It could potentially affect US and Western support for Ukraine with regard to diplomatic efforts or other support that has previously been supplied. This is another reason why Russia wants to focus on US failures: it furthers Moscow’s objectives in the Middle East but could also bolster its position in other international conflicts.

Highlighting the failure of the US is also a convenient way for Russia to maintain its balancing act between Palestine and Israel. Russia has long-standing and complex relations with both Palestine and Israel, and sees both as important. As recently as March 2023, a high-level delegation of representatives of Hamas visited Moscow. This visit occurred while Israel had been stepping up raids in the West Bank to quash increasing resistance there. Meanwhile, relations between Israel and Russia have lately become strained because of Israel’s support for Ukraine. Nonetheless, Israel remains home to a vast Russian Jewish population of 900,000 to 1.2 million people. This diaspora is a significant factor in Russia’s diplomacy, beyond its attempts to thwart US objectives through critical rhetoric.

Mark Katz has also argued that Russia has much to lose if the conflict moves beyond Israeli borders into Lebanon with Hezbollah, or expands to Syria or Iran. The fact that Israel has already intercepted four missiles launched from Hezbollah-controlled areas of southern Lebanon underscores the potential for this scenario to happen. Israel’s adversaries have an anti-US agenda, but while a broader regional conflict would seem to align with Russia’s objectives, the practical realities could prove more complex. With Russia already overstretched in Ukraine, it is unlikely that it could provide material support in a conflict in the Middle East. Russia’s strategy of demonstrating military force in the way that it did during the Syrian war would be difficult for it to apply again.

To sum up, Russia has thus far taken a carefully calibrated and pragmatic approach. Its comments are largely critical of Washington rather than wading into substantial material, and Russia has hesitated to express strong support for either Israel or Palestine. Balancing relations with all sides has been key: It proclaims that the US has ignored Palestinian needs, especially the demand for an independent Palestinian state, without going as far as denouncing Israel. This is consistent with Russian foreign policy in the MENA, especially under Putin’s leadership. Broadly speaking, both this framing of the conflict and the international reaction to its comments suit Russia’s most urgent objectives in relation to the Ukraine war, namely, undermining support in the MENA for the Western stance on Ukraine and distracting the West from providing Ukraine with material and humanitarian support. It is hard to predict what will happen next, but in the meantime Moscow will enthusiastically continue to blame the US, which potentially serves its own interests across a range of spheres.