Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the creation of an “independent, sovereign Palestinian state” and accused Israel of having taken by force “native Palestinian” lands.”
Putin’s statement, made in Moscow, during an international forum “Russian Energy Week,” marks the reversal of the Kremlin’s almost two-decades long policy that aimed to play both sides – Israel and the Palestinians – while clearly favoring the Jewish state. Here’s why Putin has chosen to side with the murderous Hamas terrorist organization, which orchestrated the largest mass terror attack on Jews since the Holocaust.
Since becoming president in 2000, Putin drastically improved the Russian-Israeli relationship. After decades of hostile relations between the USSR and Israel, Putin became the first Kremlin leader to visit Israel in 2005. He subsequently endorsed the building of a massive $60 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, to which he donated a month’s worth of his salary. Having opened in Moscow in 2012, the museum acknowledged Russia’s and the USSR’s history of antisemitism, and recognized the contributions of Jews to Soviet life.
Putin’s amicable attitude toward Jewish people was likely in response to the affection he received as a child from an old, religious Jewish couple with whom his family shared a communal apartment in St. Petersburg. As a practical matter, Putin probably calculated that the 1.2 million Russian and former Soviet émigrés living in Israel represented a good pool of expatriates who could return to their own or their parents’ motherland, adding some educated human capital to demographically struggling Russia.
Moreover, Putin saw an opportunity to shape the politics of the Jewish state as Israel has become home to the world’s largest population of Jews from the former Soviet Union, with 15-17% of the Israeli population being Russian-speaking.
Indeed, Jewish immigrants and their descendants have become a sizable secular nationalist political block, which has secured the right-wing rule to this day. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views the Russian émigré population as key to his political success and survival. During his 2019 electoral campaign, Netanyahu placed ads and billboards in Russian, highlighting his ties with Putin and increased the number of Russian-language media interviews, in hopes of getting Russian-Israelis’ votes.
The personal rapport between Putin and Netanyahu, both realpolitik-minded and pragmatic, strengthened the Russian-Israeli relationship. The two leaders share the belief that Islamic extremism is a common enemy, with which there cannot be a compromise. Notably, Israel did not criticize Moscow for its wars in Muslim Chechnya, nor did it express any negative reaction to Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
Throughout the initial stages of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Israel studiously maintained a neutral posture, having refrained from condemning Putin for the invasion, refused to join the U.S. and EU sanctions against Moscow, and opted to provide only humanitarian aid to Ukraine, rather than military hardware.
This was a strategic decision by Israel, which viewed Russia as a new power broker in the region, critical to its ability to manage the threat from Iran. Risking Washington’s ire, Israel prioritized the critically needed security coordination between the Russian military and Israeli Defense Forces in Syria, where Russia controls the skies and has tacitly allowed Israeli fighter jets to conduct strikes on Iranian proxies.
Putin’s calculus recently has changed, however, in the aftermath of his rift with Tel Aviv, created by the Biden administration. In March, under relentless pressure from Washington, Israel authorized the supplying of military hardware to Ukraine, despite the Kremlin’s threats to target its weapons and warnings that the move would lead to “escalation of this crisis.”
Putin likely has decided that Russia’s break with the West is permanent and that his best bet now is to orient Russia firmly with China and also with the Arab nations, most of which are aligned with the Palestinians and have blamed Israel for the violence that took place in Gaza.
The Office of the Iraqi Prime Minister issued a statement asserting that the attacks on Gaza were a “natural result of the systematic oppression they [Palestinians] have been subjected to for many years at the hands of the Zionist occupation authority, which has never adhered to international and U.N. resolutions.” Qatar stated that “Israel alone bears the responsibility for the current escalation…”
Putin almost certainly aims to position Russia as a top power broker not only in the Middle East but also globally. Two days prior to the horrific attacks on Israel, Putin proclaimed, at the annual Valdai conference that Russia’s mission is to “build a new world,” having blamed the Western “military and financial pyramid scheme” for his invasion of Ukraine. And on Thursday, the Russian strongman accused the U.S. of creating conditions leading to the Israel-Hamas war.
The Arab nations, which are culturally closer to Russia than the West and govern their nations with authoritarian style similar to Moscow’s, appear to be aligning with Putin. The day after the attacks, Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit headed to Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Sudani, who attended the Energy Forum in Moscow, called on Putin to help reach a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas terrorists.
That same day Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov told Russia state-run RIA news agency that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will visit Moscow, “in the fairly short term.” As stories began to appear in Western media suggesting that Russia played a role in the Hamas attack on Israel, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov specified that the Abbas visit had been planned in advance.
It is not the first time that Russia has aligned itself with the terrorists. The USSR, as a matter of statecraft, supported left-wing terror groups in order counter the perceived imbalance of power with the West.
In the 1970s, the USSR, which shared the terrorist movements’ goal of destroying the state of Israel – ran a wide-ranging clandestine anti-Israel campaign, involving direct funding and military assistance to terror groups that declared Israel as their enemy. The previously top secret Special National Intelligence Estimate titled “Soviet Support for International Terrorism and Revolutionary Violence,” has revealed that the KGB, the GRU (Russia’s miliary intelligence) and the 10th Directorate of the Soviet General Staff, provided military training to members of revolutionary groups, particularly Palestinians, Africans and Latin Americans, in various camps in the USSR and other parts of the world. They were acting under the broad direction of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party.
A number of Soviet embassies had special personnel on their staffs, performing liaison and advisory functions with foreign leftist movements, and distributing funds to these groups. Individual Soviet Politburo members met with the leaders of some terror groups, including Yasir Arafat of the PLO. Putin’s mentor, Yevgeniy Primakov, who in 1991 was appointed as head of Soviet Foreign Intelligence, had friendly relations with Arafat and supervised future Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in graduate school.
Putin is positioning himself as a real winner in what will probably become a broader multi-front regional conflict as Israel is fighting to eliminate an existential threat to its survival.
Unless the Biden administration puts its strategic thinking cap on, pronto, Putin will achieve his coveted goals – distract the West’s attention from Ukraine, reset the balance of power in the region in Russia’s favor, derail the Saudi-Israeli normalization of relations by bolstering Iran’s influence, and humiliate Washington in the process.