Russia’s Stance on Gaza in the Shadow of the Ukraine War
Dr Janko Šćepanović

March 28, 2024
The October 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas and the Israeli response triggered a chain of events that proved catastrophic for both Israelis and Palestinians and shook the Middle East. Besides renewed confrontation in Gaza, the past months have seen repeated skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah, rocket attacks by Yemeni Houthi rebels on shipping and strikes against American troops in Jordan – to name just a few. The Middle East is engulfed in the biggest crisis in years and hardly resembles the region that Jake Sullivan, the US national security advisor, described in early October as “quieter than it has been in decades.”

Amid this chaos and the flurry of (thus far) unsuccessful diplomatic attempts at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to secure a lasting ceasefire, including the most recent, 20 February veto by the US on an Arab Group proposal, another UNSC permanent member became vocal about the crisis. Russia, enmeshed in an illegal war with its neighbor Ukraine, has since October vociferously voiced its position on the renewed Israeli-Hamas confrontation. Moscow has tabled draft ceasefire resolutions, joined others – mainly the Arab Group – to support their proposals and has attempted to broker the release of some hostages taken by Hamas. In a rather cynical way, given its actions in Ukraine, Russia has even taken to preaching, criticizing Israel and accusing the US of giving Israel a "license” to kill Palestinians and “maintain their impunity for numerous crimes against Gazans.”

However, behind the smokescreen of sympathy for the fate of Palestinians lie Moscow’s true objectives. Rather than seeking a breakthrough in a complicated decades-long conflict, Russia’s efforts over the past five months have primarily sought to help it escape the diplomatic isolation in which it has found itself following the invasion of Ukraine.

Isolated and diminished great power

For a nominal great power, Russia has faced an unprecedented level of diplomatic isolation and marginalization since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022. As this author has written elsewhere, Russia’s influence at international forums like the United Nations decreased. The war was condemned in several major resolutions that were supported by over 140 UN General Assembly (UNGA) member states. Russia has also lost its place in prestigious bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council, and its diplomats, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, faced unusual snubs at international gatherings (viz. the G20) and inconveniences with planned trips. While some of these initiatives were launched by the Western powers who support Ukraine, there is a strong impression that Moscow’s status as a great power was diminished by developments following the outbreak of the war.

Having been cast out of Europe, Russia has intensified engagement with the non-West, especially the countries of the Global South. African nations – e.g., the Republic of the Congo, South Africa, Angola, Cameroon and Eritrea – were the recipients of increased diplomatic visits by Lavrov, who traveled to the continent in July 2022 and then in January-February 2023. In late July 2023, Russia hosted a second Russia-Africa Summit, with 49 African delegations, though only 17 heads of state decided to come to St Petersburg.

Russia has also increasingly looked to the Middle East. Although many Arab countries voted to support UNGA resolutions critical of Russia in 2022, they did not side with the West in imposing sanctions or diplomatic boycotts of Russian representatives. Shunned and sanctioned by the West, Lavrov was a welcome guest in Cairo, where he addressed the Arab League summit in July 2022. Egyptian and Algerian presidents Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Abdelmadjid Tebboune visited Moscow in 2023, and Putin, who had travelled minimally outside of Russia since launching the invasion of Ukraine – especially after he was placed on an International Criminal Court arrest warrant – made state visits to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in December 2023.

Concurrently, the Russia-Iran ties have further grown to encompass not only military cooperation in areas of drone sales and production, as well as transfers of ammunition – which Russia sorely needed in its war against Ukraine – but also political coordination in opposition to Western-led economic sanctions and other measures. Indeed, the two sides joined in ideological rejection and opposition to the US-led liberal international order, vocally and otherwise.

The Gaza war and Russia’s maneuvering

The renewed Israel-Hamas confrontation opened the door for Russia to further throw in its lot with the Middle Eastern powers. Some early reactions to the October 7 events included assessments that Russia was an immediate beneficiary given that they distracted the West from the conflict in Ukraine. Anna Borshchevskaya argued the Russian government, which is bogged down in Ukraine, pursued chaos and sought to impose costs on the West without taxing Russia too much. Pavel Baev writes how Russia hopes to be better off not only because the US prioritized arming Israel over Ukraine, but also due to possible tension in the Western camp over Washington’s steadfast support of Tel Aviv.

One very visible development was Moscow’s diplomatic activity and outspokenness about the conflict. Moscow looked for opportunities to restore the status it had lost by invading Ukraine – in particular, to remove itself from diplomatic marginalization. Since the October 7 attack on Israel, it has tabled initiatives or joined others (viz. the non-West) on Gaza ceasefire proposals at the UNSC. Moscow was primarily interested in being seen by its non-Western partners as an alleged “fair broker” leading “principled” diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its proposals were unlikely to generate results – some diplomats at the UNSC thought the Russians were “clearly not serious or aligned with most council members” – but what mattered to Russia is that these initiatives helped raise its profile and score points with Global South partners.

Moreover, since the onset of the conflict, Moscow has become much more supportive of the Palestinians, siding with the wider Arab and Middle Eastern position on the conflict and lashing out at the Israelis and especially the US. Russia’s one-sidedness was seen in consultations in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack and since then. Putin met with the Iraqi prime minister on October 10 and telephoned the Turkish president on the same day, but did not speak with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu until October 16. He then hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow in December and continued conversations with Turkish, Egyptian, Palestinian and other Middle Eastern leaders over the situation in Gaza. However, he did not have a call with Netanyahu again until December 10.

Israeli media reported that their prime minister complained to Putin about Russia’s growing ties with Israel’s archnemesis Iran and its stance on the war. Notably and to Israeli annoyance and official protestation, a Hamas delegation was received by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow (nominally to discuss the release of hostages) in October 2023 and again in January 2024.

The other and probably most visible manifestation of Russia’s decision to take sides was the harsh accusations and criticism directed at Israel. Russia’s diplomats, including the foreign minister, led the way. Speaking at the emergency UNSC meeting on the situation in the Middle East, Lavrov described as “concerning” and “unacceptable” the (Israeli) attempts at “forcible relocation of Palestinians from places of their permanent residence.” Other Russian representatives have repeatedly lashed out at Israel and accused it of engaging in “limitless and unrestrained indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza's civilian infrastructure and civilian population,” and seeking to “cleanse” and “mop up” the Strip. In a joint declaration with Arab states from December 2023, Moscow strongly condemned “Israel’s ongoing and escalating aggressive war against the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.”

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, this author argued that Israel and Russia – who have well-developed relations despite considerable differences on certain regional issues – would not seek to unravel the relationship over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Indeed, scholars like Robert Freedman noted that while Israel diplomatically joined the West and other nations to condemn Russia at the UNGA vote in March 2022, it did not side with its closest ally – the US – in cutting economic ties with Russia or sending military equipment to Ukraine (it aided Ukraine with humanitarian supplies). Despite the pressure from the outside and deliberations within the complex Israeli coalition government, Israel did not cancel flights to and from Russia or impose strict sanctions on Russian oligarchs, some of whom hold dual Russia/Israel citizenship.
Nevertheless, Israel’s restrained response was not met with appreciation by the Kremlin. Russia has done the opposite: not only harshly criticizing Israelis over Gaza in public forums but also expanding its ties with Israel’s biggest regional enemy – Iran – and even seeking to sell it some of its most advanced weaponry. Moreover, Russian government officials have made anti-Semitic remarks, while since the start of the latest confrontation over Gaza, there have been anti-Semitic riots and incidents in several towns across Russia.

The broader picture

Traditionally, the Middle East was not a priority for Russia’s foreign policy, but it was an important arena of geopolitical competition with rival great powers, especially during the Cold War. Indeed, some have even suggested that in the last decade, Russia has primarily focused on the Middle East to play spoiler to its main rival – the US.

In the post-Ukraine invasion world, Moscow has moved beyond just spoiling and rivalry in the Middle East. Its desperate drive to fast-track its pivot to the East and break through the diplomatic marginalization has led it to abandon a decades-long balanced approach to all Middle Eastern players. It prided itself on its ability to have constructive ties with regional actors who were at odds with each other and even suggested it could act as a mediator where the West could not.

However, Moscow is moving away from this. It has spoiled relations with Israel and expanded partnerships with Tel Aviv’s and Washington’s fiercest regional enemies like Iran and other members of the “Axis of Resistance” (viz. Hezbollah, Iraqi and Syrian militias, and Yemen’s Houthis). It has also engaged in widespread propaganda that places the blame for all regional conflicts on the West.

However, in this drive to make an impression and gain friends in the non-West, Russia’s extreme tactics will not work and might also backfire. Besides Iran, Syria and Yemen’s Houthis, few others are willing to engage in open hostilities against the West or have an appetite for the overthrow of the world order, notwithstanding their dissatisfaction with some of Washington’s policies. More importantly, Russia's crucial partners in the non-West – especially China – also do not share all of Moscow’s views on and approaches to the Middle East. Thus, Russia’s pursuit of all-out confrontation could likely end up being a lonely and costly endeavor.
  • Dr Janko Šćepanović

    Shanghai Academy of Global Governance and Area Studies
More articles
Subscribe to our newsletter
You will receive our biweekly newsletter with the most relevant Russia-related research news.