Russia and Hamas: a strategic alliance of convenience

Mohamad Hasan Sweidan, The Cradle, February 13, 2024 —

Hamas has asked Moscow to act as guarantor to a Gaza ceasefire. Growing Russian ties with West Asia’s resistance actors should be no surprise; within the context of the global power standoff, they share common enemies.

In the past few years, Russia’s expanding ties with the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas have contributed to the growing list of issues that muddy relations between Moscow and Tel Aviv. After Hamas’ 27 October visit to Moscow following the Al-Aqsa Flood operation, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared the trip “sends a message of legitimizing terrorism against the Israelis.” Yet Hamas officials have continued to flock to the Russian capital, most recently in late January. 

The Russian position on the war in Gaza

Since the onset of Israel’s brutal military assault on Gaza, Russia’s official stance has been closer to the Palestinian position, evident by Moscow’s various UN Security Council activities: calling for a ceasefire, statements by Russian officials criticizing Israeli criminality, repeat meetings with Hamas in Moscow, and the country’s official media’s focus on human rights violation in the Gaza Strip.  

Despite the long-term collaborative nature of Russo-Israeli relations, the Ukraine war has rejigged Moscow’s geopolitical calculations significantly. Today, Russia views the Gaza war and its regional implications from the perspective of its competition with the US and, therefore, considers Israel a critical tool of American influence in West Asia. The Russian leadership considers the current conflict to be as much Washington’s battle as Tel Aviv’s – a weakened Israel would mean the further disintegration of US power projection from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, a strategic Russian objective.

Although Tel Aviv and Moscow still retain common interests of value to both, it is the US–Russian strategic competition that currently holds the most sway over the Kremlin’s decision-making. 

This can be seen in a flurry of harshly worded Russian statements criticizing Washington’s role in prolonging and exacerbating the Gaza war. Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced the sentiments of most West Asians when he declared: “Many people would agree that this is a vivid example of the failure of US policy in the Middle East.” His Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov went the extra mile: 

The United States bears primary responsibility for this dramatic and dangerous crisis, since it has sought for many years to monopolize the settlement process and ignore relevant Security Council resolutions, and has now obstructed efforts to reach an appropriate solution.

There is no doubt that the events of the past two years in Ukraine played a major role in calibrating the Russian response to Gaza. During his recent interview with American journalist Tucker Carlson, Putin spent an inordinate amount of time unraveling the historical context behind Ukraine’s existence as a state, before boldly declaring: “Ukraine is an artificial state created at Stalin’s will and did not exist before 1922.”

Of course, the Russian president understands that his invocation of Ukraine’s weak historical justification for statehood allows him to adopt the same context-rich approach when discussing protracted conflicts in other regions. His history-based formula for tackling the root of conflict applies equally to the establishment of the Israeli state against the objections of Palestinians and their neighboring nations, which likely will play a role in Putin’s position on how to move forward with the Palestine–Israel problem. 

In addition, as an extension of the Western axis, Israel has adopted official stances that are consistent with the interests of the US and NATO alliance in Ukraine. Since the 2022 onset of that war, Tel Aviv has issued statements that belied its professed attempts at neutrality. As then-Israel foreign minister Yair Lapid made clear: “The Russian attack on Ukraine is a serious violation of the international order, and Israel condemns the attack and is ready to provide humanitarian aid to the citizens of Ukraine.”

Within West Asia, it was mainly Iran that voiced support for the Russian dilemma over Ukraine and its decision to launch a Special Military Operation. During Putin’s July 2022 visit to Tehran, Iranian Leader Sayyed Ali Khamenei railed against western duplicity in international affairs, and charged Moscow’s foes with opposing the existence of an “independent and strong” Russia. Khamenei further added if Russia had not sent forces to Ukraine, it would have faced a NATO attack later.

Russian relations with Hamas

Regarding events in Gaza today, it can be argued that the Kremlin finds itself edging closer to the positions of those states and actors who supported its Ukraine stance. When US officials attacked Iran for its support of Gaza, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped into the fray: 

We note attempts to blame everything on Iran and consider them completely provocative. I believe that the Iranian leadership takes a fairly responsible and balanced position and calls for preventing this conflict from spreading to the entire region and neighboring countries.

While Washington worked overtime to bolster the many false Israeli narratives of the 7 October events – even likening the Palestinian resistance to the terror group ISIS – Russia was instead busy receiving a stream of Hamas delegations to Moscow. 

Last week, when Hamas delivered its studied response to truce negotiators, it tellingly requested that Russia be included as one of the guarantors of a final agreement to stop the Gaza war – a clear reflection that Palestinians believe Moscow can play a positive role in the resolution of this conflict.

It should be noted that Hamas’ visits to Russia and meetings with various Russian officials are nothing new. The Palestinian movement’s relations with Russian leaders go back to 2006, when a Hamas political delegation arrived in Moscow weeks after its victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The current visits, however, differ considerably in that they come at a time when Washington and Tel Aviv have announced a common objective to destroy Hamas. It is notable that Russia is today avidly engaging Palestinian resistance groups who shattered the image of Israel’s military invincibility on 7 October.

Since that eventful day, Putin’s West Asia Envoy Mikhail Bogdanov has twice received the Hamas delegation headed by Musa Abu Marzouk, a member of the movement’s political bureau – on 26 October and 19 January. Israeli officials were outraged, calling the Russian invitation “a reprehensible step that provides support for terrorism and legitimacy for the horrific actions carried out by Hamas terrorists.” The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs also called on Moscow to expel Hamas officials immediately.

The harsh messaging from Tel Aviv is unlikely to make a difference. 

Russia’s West Asian thrust

Most recently, Moscow invited the Palestinian factions to attend a Palestinian national meeting at the end of February.

Deputy Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Jamil Mezher, told Sputnik on 13 February that the group received an invitation from Moscow to attend a Palestinian national meeting that includes all factions at the end of the month. 

The Kremlin has already made its calculations and decided, for strategic reasons, to insert itself into the contentious Palestinian–Israeli arena. And the region’s Axis of Resistance offers that opportunity: 

First, Russia knows that it will not be able to impose itself onto an international resolution of the conflict other than through its relations with Hamas. Tel Aviv will not accept Moscow as a mediating party between it and Hamas – at least for now. 

Second, Russia’s reception of Hamas delegations carries a message aimed at Washington. In short, the Kremlin is prepared to edge closer to those who stand against US interests. Part of the division over the Gaza war is a reflection of the international division between the great powers. 

Third, a key part of Russia’s relationship with Hamas is the result of Moscow’s growing conviction that non-state actors in Gaza have a significant influence on the political reality in the region. From here, it can be said that Russia has a growing interest in forging and expanding relations with the forces of the regional Axis of Resistance, led by Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and the Ansarallah movement in Yemen. The Russians were, after all, a decisive factor in securing a Syrian victory in the NATO–GCC war against its ally, and were instrumental in catapulting Iran into its seats at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the newly expanded BRICS.

It must be noted here that all five regional parties share Russia’s global approach aimed at competing with US influence around the world.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the timing of Israel’s war on Gaza is the “international clock.” Tel Aviv’s assault on the besieged Strip came more than a year-and-a-half after the onset of the Ukraine war, when Kiev was foundering, and at a moment of transformation in the international system. This factor may be fundamental to understanding the Kremlin’s stepped-up approach to events in West Asia. While Moscow knows that its current positions may adversely affect its relations with Tel Aviv, within the context of great power competition, the Russians are content to sacrifice part of their interests to achieve much larger strategic objectives. 

And so long as this Russian thinking holds, Hamas and other West Asian resistance movements see an opportunity to take advantage of global transformations to attract a superpower to their sides.

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