Summary of the Jerusalem Center Fellow Izabella Tabarovsky’s JCPA War Room Zoom briefing on October 30, 2023.
For Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, the Hamas-Israel conflict is an opportunity to distract public attention from his war in Ukraine, which has been ongoing for close to two years. Putin’s hypocritical condemnation of Gaza’s destruction, while he has purposely targeted civilians, leveled Ukrainian towns, and kidnapped Ukrainian children, shows that consistency is unimportant for his brand of propaganda and foreign policy. In Russia and the USSR before it, today’s statement can easily supersede yesterday’s for political convenience. In the wake of the October 7 Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians, Putin promptly connected with Arab states while waiting over one week to call Netanyahu. Putin did not condemn Hamas and realized the advantages of the Arab states’ lack of concern with his war in Ukraine.
After October 7, Hamas representatives visited with senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, as they have in the past. Hamas has expressed gratitude for Russia’s support. According to them, Russia provides the bullets for its Kalashnikov rifles. Putin has also allowed a small pro-Hamas demonstration in Moscow while jailing those Russian citizens who dare protest the Ukraine war. Russia and Putin have longstanding, decades-long relationships with Arab states and with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas, who completed a doctorate in the Soviet Union.
Putin’s Gaza rhetoric appeared to be calibrated to make him a moderator or negotiator between the sides, especially regarding hostages taken by Hamas (there are Russian citizens among them). Putin has in the past generated events to force Americans and Israelis to talk to him, such as arresting foreign citizens on spurious claims and keeping them in Russian jails as “hostages” for negotiation goals. Putin has attributed the Gaza crisis to American policy in “monopolizing” negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Russian-American relationship deteriorated after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and have to come to a standstill in the wake of Russia’s 2022 reinvasion.
Putin and his Kremlin, masters of propaganda, also know how to diversify their messages to appeal to different audiences in the United States. For example, calls for a ceasefire in Gaza would have appealed to those on the American left who have assumed an anti-Ukrainian stance in the Russian-Ukrainian war and a pro-Hamas one in the Israel-Hamas war. At the same time, American conservatives have objected to aid to Ukraine because of the costs and their isolationist foreign policy goals. They may find the diminished attention on Ukraine appealing and therefore play into Putin’s interests.
Simultaneously, Iran has been supplying Russia with drones for the Ukraine war, strengthening the two countries’ anti-Western partnership. Nevertheless, Russia has still been cautious in balancing its relationships with Iran and Israel: although Russian media have assumed an obvious anti-Israel stance, Putin hasn’t condemned Israel outright, downgrading the relationship as his political calculations have shifted but not breaking it off completely.
A factor in all of this is Russia’s significant Muslim population, which it has to take into consideration regarding its Israel and Palestinian relations. The antisemitic riot at the Makhachkala airport in the Muslim-majority republic of Dagestan, was likely provoked by conspiracy theories spread by local media, encouraging some 1,500 rioters to show up and leading to scores of injuries and arrests. Dagestan borders Muslim-majority Chechnya, run by Putin strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and his militia known for its brutality. Kadyrov has vocally stood with Hamas, calling for a ceasefire and prayers for Hamas. Kadyrov said that his troops would fight for the Palestinians, and he has made frequent statements calling Israel “fascist” and claiming a “genocide in Gaza.”
Since Russia’s reinvasion of Ukraine in 2022, old Russian antisemitic conspiracy theories and Soviet-style anti-Zionist propaganda have made a comeback. Nurtured professionally in the deeply antisemitic Soviet political establishment, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Putin have used antisemitic rhetoric against Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, and have labeled Ukraine “Nazi.” These underscore Russian and Soviet historical antisemitism that has often taken the form of “anti-Zionism”—the precursor to the rhetoric that has become ingrained on American college campuses. The equation between Zionism and fascism and racism, and Israel and apartheid South Africa, as well as Holocaust inversion, were developed in the Soviet Union and became part of its Soviet foreign policy in the 1970s and 1980s.
Moscow’s demonization of Israel and Zionism ceased with the fall of the USSR and the re-establishment of Israel-Russian relations, which led to one million former Soviet Jewish citizens immigrating to Israel. Putin saw Israel as an ally for some of his propaganda narratives, such as underscoring the Red Army’s role in defeating the Nazis (a deeply simplified portrayal that obfuscates the fact that millions of non-Russians fought in it and that for Eastern and Central Europe, the Red Army’s advance signaled the beginning of Soviet occupation). But in the Russian “patriotic” circles that support the war in Ukraine, xenophobic rhetoric has been ramped up once again, opening the door to antisemitism and endangering Russian Jews.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Israel has been criticized in the West for not taking a stronger stance against Russia. Israel offered non-military aid to Ukraine but declined to help militarily and assumed a an outwardly neutral stance toward the conflict in light of Russia’s military presence in Syria and the presence of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Russia. The thinking went that keeping the channel to Moscow open may assist in the evacuation of Jews from Russia if the situation, hinted at in the Dagestan incident, gets worse.