Moscow had struck a balanced position on the Israeli war on Gaza at the outset.
However, as the bombardments intensified and the death toll and destruction mounted, Moscow shifted to a more pro-Palestinian stance and its tone about Tel Aviv grew sharper. It condemned Israeli practices and harshly criticised the West and the US, above all, for aiding and abetting them.
Speaking at the Ninth Saint Petersburg International Cultural Festival (16-18 November), Putin called out the US for its double standards towards the Ukrainian crisis and the war in Gaza.
This was not Putin’s first criticism of Washington since 7 October. In late October, in a meeting with members of the Russian National Security Council, government officials and heads of law enforcement agencies, he said the ruling elites in the US and “those in its orbit” are to blame for the escalation in hostilities in Ukraine and for the killing of Palestinians in Gaza.
“The key to resolving this conflict lies in the establishment of an independent sovereign Palestinian state,” he stressed, intimating that this was not Washington’s real aim.
The recent shift in the Russian position on this crisis has manifested in other ways. Russian media has intensified its coverage of events, with a heavy focus on the suffering the Israeli war machine has inflicted on Palestinian civilians.
Considerable attention is being paid to the reactions among ordinary Russians who are watching the events closely and expressing their alarm and their sympathy with the Palestinians on social media. It is unusual for so much public attention to be focused on events outside Russia.
At the diplomatic level, on 16 November, the Russian Foreign Ministry observed that the conflict in Gaza has demonstrated the harm that can come from US attempts to monopolise mediating efforts in the Middle East.
Prior to this, on 28 October, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the Israeli bombardment of Gaza violated international law and threatened to cause a catastrophe that could last for decades. It is impossible for Israel to eliminate Hamas without destroying Gaza along with most of its civilian inhabitants, he stressed.
Moreover, on 28 October, Moscow hosted a Hamas delegation headed by Mousa Abu Marzouq. Unlike the US and the EU, Moscow has not designated Hamas a terrorist organisation and it has kept communication channels open with it during all phases of the crisis. Tel Aviv bristled at Hamas’ visit and told Moscow to expel the delegation, adding that the visit was another sign that Moscow sided with the camp of “Hamas terrorists.”
Moscow has also defended the Palestinians in international forums. For example, on 11 November, Russia and China urged the Security Council to call for a ceasefire and to promote a lasting solution to the crisis.
Describing conditions in Gaza as “shocking,” Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s permanent representative at the UN, spoke of a real humanitarian catastrophe in the Palestinian region exposing a tragedy of global proportions and Israeli airstrikes completely destroying or damaging nearly half of the residential and civilian buildings vital to civilian infrastructure.
The Russian pivot to a distinctly pro-Palestinian stance is informed by a various motives and considerations. Firstly, Moscow is clearly moved by the horrifying scenes of the brutal Israeli aggression against civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and houses of worship.
But, secondly, Moscow is also keen to distance itself from the Western discourse and to present the policies it advocates as a realistic alternative to the US-led Western approach which, according to Moscow, was the original cause of the destruction of Ukraine and which not only failed to manage the conflicts of the Middle East but also aggravated them.
Russia has frequently criticised the US and Western pro-Israeli bias and, since the current crisis began, Putin has accused Washington of negligence because of its failure to promote a just and lasting settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that takes the root causes into account. According to Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, Putin wants to set himself apart from the political stances of the West which he now regards as evil incarnate because of its unconditional support for Kyiv and Tel Aviv.
Thirdly, Moscow wants to utilise world sympathy for the Palestinians to rally the international community behind it in opposing Western policies, whether towards the Gaza crisis and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or towards the Ukraine crisis and the ongoing sanctions against Russia. In general, Russia sees an opening to build a global front that could generate momentum towards the development of a new world order that would end US mono-polar hegemony and usher in a multipolar system.
Fourthly, Russia’s strong opposition to Israeli actions in Gaza is intrinsically connected to its determination to ensure, at the very least, the neutrality of Arab and Islamic states, as well as Latin American states, on the war in Ukraine.
According to some Russian sources, Putin sees an opportunity to turn the situation in Ukraine in his favour. He believes he can take advantage of the universal unpopularity of US-led Western support for the Israeli war against Hamas, the most recent demonstration of which was the vote in the US Congress on 15 November, approving a $14 billion emergency support package for Israel.
It would not escape Moscow that the Western financial support going to Israel equals less Western support for Kyiv, which would improve Russian chances of making a breakthrough on the Ukrainian front. In general, Russia stands to benefit from the diversion of attention away from Ukraine and from the Western confusion over how to distribute its military, intelligence and financial resources between Kyiv and Tel Aviv.
Clearly, Putin’s shift to wholehearted support for the Palestinians in the face of the Israeli aggression is consistent with his long-standing desire to strengthen his country’s relations with the Arab and Islamic world. He sees a strong possibility of gaining inroads at the grassroots level where the US and the West, in general, are seen as aiders and abettors of Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza.
At the governmental level, he is taking advantage of the opportunity to market a concept of Russian policy different from the stereotypical one disseminated by Western propaganda, one that he hopes might convince Arab and Islamic powers to view him as a more reliable partner than Western powers which have just revealed their pro-Israeli bias in full force.
The sixth consideration is linked to Moscow’s revitalised diplomatic drive to rally international support behind a settlement to the Ukraine crisis and the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia. A large part of this entails countering attempts to isolate Russia internationally.
At the same time, as Russia coordinates with Arab and Islamic partners to stop the Israeli aggression and set into motion a new peace process, it will be able to increase Russian influence in the region too.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly