Israel’s War in Gaza Could Be a Curse for Vladimir Putin

Israel’s war in Gaza has been portrayed as a gift for Moscow, helping it rally the Global South against the West. But Kremlin policy in the region has long relied on a tacit deal with Israel — and its unraveling is causing splits within Russia’s elite.

Vladimir Putin in Moscow on October 25, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov / AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, the Financial Times quoted a “senior European Union official” calling the escalating war in the Middle East “a gift from heaven” for Vladimir Putin. He suggested that Western governments’ support for Israel is turning Global South countries into Moscow’s allies. As an unnamed Arab official quoted in the same FT piece put it, “If you describe cutting off water, food and electricity in Ukraine as a war crime, then you should say the same thing about Gaza.”

The tragedy in the Middle East certainly has caused an explosion of enthusiasm in the Kremlin and in Russian state media. They see this conflict as a “second front” that will divert Western attention from the war in Ukraine — and give Russia a chance to end it on its chosen terms. The short-term benefits for Moscow are clear enough, but in the longer run it may face unforeseen challenges. What seems like a gift from heaven today could become a curse.

Putin called the escalation of the conflict “a clear example of the failure of the United States’ policy” and offered Russian mediation for a peaceful settlement. This is a traditional step for a Russian president. Once upon a time, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Putin was the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush to express condolences and offer assistance. For several years thereafter, US aircraft used the Russian air base in Ulyanovsk for their missions in Afghanistan. A successful military campaign for Moscow in Syria in 2015–2017 allowed Russia to partially overcome its isolation and resume dialogue with the West, interrupted after the annexation of Crimea. Today, Putin is trying to repeat this experience again.

Moscow is all but directly offering the West a quid pro quo in which it exchanges its political capital — its sway over Arab leaders — for a deal on Ukraine. But to do this, the Kremlin needs to maintain or increase this influence. Putin has surely not shied from colorful rhetoric about this conflict: he compares the Israeli blockade of Gaza to the siege of Leningrad during World War II. At the United Nations, Russian representatives propose a resolution demanding the creation of a Palestinian state and an immediate cease-fire. In response, the Hamas leadership sent official gratitude to the Russian president. And predictably, Russia’s relations with Israel are currently cooling.

Yet the Putin administration may find itself hostage to the polarization that it is trying to exploit. No one will believe in the sincerity of its peacekeeping efforts. “I am furious when I hear the Russian president warning everywhere that civilians are becoming victims of military clashes. It’s simply impossible to be more cynical,” German chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted.

Ruling-Class Split

The Russian ruling class has close ties with Israel, in which Putin’s good personal relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu is just the tip of the iceberg.

Many oligarchs and influential functionaries have Israeli citizenship. For those around the Russian president, Israel has served as a successful model of a right-wing leadership not hesitant to use force to protect the “national interest.” This was not hampered even by the traditional ties with Arab states maintained via the foreign ministry.

Such sympathies are backed up also by the Kremlin’s “pragmatic” considerations. The basis of the unspoken agreement between Moscow and Tel Aviv was the deal on Syria and Ukraine. It allowed the Netanyahu government to strike Iran’s allies — Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Shiite militias — without the risk of Russian air defense putting up opposition. In exchange, Israel refrained from bombing Russia’s own troops in Syria, and coordinated its actions with the Russian command, while also avoiding military supplies to Ukraine. A further important addition to this cooperation is the access that members of Russia’s ruling elite have had to high-quality Israeli medicine.

The war in Gaza undermines this cooperation. In the event of an escalation of the conflict, Russia will automatically find itself in the camp of the allies of Hamas and Iran. The consequences will immediately hit that part of the Russian ruling class that associates its life with Israel.

Sergei Pashkov, who is director of the Middle East bureau of state broadcaster Rossiya and correspondent for Vesti — a weekly analysis program that sets the tone for official propaganda — is married to Aliya Sudakova, the presenter of Israel’s Russian-speaking Channel Nine. This latter takes a pro-Ukrainian position and sharply criticizes Putin. A group of Israelis is already collecting signatures on a petition demanding that Pashkov be deprived of his residence permit and deported from the country.

The most famous and odious Russian propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, is known for his radically pro-Israeli position. In the past, he has publicly promised to go fight for Israel in the event of a war there. Now, he has to make excuses: “I’m 60 years old. But if Russia wasn’t participating in the Special Military Operation now, then I would go to Israel, because Jews from all over the world are going there to protect their people after this horrific tragedy that occurred.” In his shows, Solovyov tries to combine sympathies for Israel with narratives important to the Kremlin. He rejoices at the “second front” that has been opened: “Ukraine is in shock, it will be hard for them to beg now.” But this game of sitting on two chairs brings difficulties of its own.

Solovyov last week had to fire his long-time friend, the far-right political analyst Yevgeny Satanovsky. In an interview with an Israeli journalist, Satanovsky expressed his dissatisfaction with the overly “pro-Arab” position of the Russian foreign ministry and called its official speaker, Maria Zakharova, “heavy drinking scum” who “cannot stand Jews.” Solovyov had to apologize to diplomats. And Satanovsky, left without work, continued to criticize the Russian leadership. For example, he called former president Dmitry Medvedev “a weak little shit.” Such rhetoric is de facto banned in current conditions; many dissidents have been imprisoned for far less. But now it comes from influential circles at the top.

The escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undermining the unity of the ruling elite — perhaps even more than Putin’s Ukrainian adventure itself.

Geopolitical Risks

As war heats up in the Middle East, the risks for Russia are also mounting. The logic of military escalation is pushing Israel toward more aggressive actions in Syria and possibly in Iran. The first victim could be Assad, friendly to Moscow, and with it the Russian military base, which hangs on a thin thread of maritime logistics that can be easily blocked.

If the tacit agreement with Moscow ceases to operate, then Israel will be able to join Western supplies of precision weapons to Ukraine. Even while waging its own war, it has something to offer Kiev: “Spike” long-range anti-tank missile systems, “Harop” kamikaze drones, cruise missiles, and tactical air defense systems. In response, Russia may sell Iran the latest Su-35 aircraft. In Israel, already, there are voices demanding a break with Moscow. “Russia supports the Nazis who want to commit genocide against us, and Russia will pay for it. We will not forget this, we will help Ukraine to win, and we will make sure that Russians will pay for what they did,” wrote Amir Weitmann, a member of the ruling Likud party.

Moscow’s flirtation with the Palestinian sympathies of the Arab world could result in sensitive losses in the West as well. The Putin administration is dragging out the war in Ukraine in the hope that fatigue from the conflict will put wind in the sails of far-right parties in Western countries and that their electoral successes will change the geopolitical context in a manner that allows Russia to exit the war on its own terms.

The Kremlin has special hope for Donald Trump to take power in the United States after the 2024 elections. But if there is room for such a deal with the European and American right on Ukraine, the conflict in Israel can only complicate it. It is not for nothing that Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and now calls himself its “best friend and ally.”

Among US Republican voters, support for Israel is also much stronger than for Ukraine. This is also generally true of far-right parties in Europe. A regional war in the Middle East will deprive the Kremlin of friends in the West, too.

Fearing an Arab Spring 2.0

An Israeli invasion of Gaza could destabilize the existing political systems in the Arab states. Huge popular demonstrations against governments’ sluggish and indecisive response to Israel’s bombings are already shaking Jordan (which has a vast Palestinian population) and Egypt. The rulers of such countries rightly fear popular anger, for in these conditions, demonstrations against Israel’s actions could easily turn into anti-government protests. A serious regional crisis could lead to a repetition of the Arab Spring, endangering authoritarian governments that had hitherto seemed unshakable. This prospect could be a serious challenge not only for them, but also for Russia.

Putin has repeatedly criticized the Arab Spring, which he considers a “tragedy” and the fruit of the “technologies of the color revolutions.” New popular uprisings in the Muslim world are unlikely to win his sympathies. In 2011–2012, protesters in Moscow demonstrated under the slogan “Whether Cairo or Moscow, only struggle gives us rights.” The Russian president doesn’t want to see them again.

The “anti-imperialist” spectacle at the level of the public rhetoric and diplomacy is a long-established a part of Kremlin politics. But this has nothing to offer the peoples of the Third World. Moscow’s policy in Asian and African countries remains typically colonial. Created by military intelligence, the private military company Wagner sells its services to authoritarian leaders from Syria to the Central African Republic and Mali.

In the context of massive anti-American or anti-French sentiments, this is often perceived as a continuation of the anti-colonial policy once pursued by the Soviet Union. That is why demonstrators in Mali or on the West Bank sometimes use Russian tricolors and portraits of Putin’s. But the actual working conditions of Russian mercenaries are no different from the methods of their European and American competitors. Russian mercenaries receive a share of oil, gold, or profits from uranium mines in exchange for their services. Today’s Russia has no other economic model for the countries of the Global South.

On the other hand, many Islamic parties and movements have experience of fighting the Russian authorities in the recent past. It’s not just about Afghanistan and two wars in Chechnya. During the Syrian civil war, Islamist groups fought Russian expeditionary forces. According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), up to six thousand Russian-speaking Muslims fought in the ranks of Daesh (so-called Islamic State) and other radical groups. They were and remain closely connected with diasporas of emigrants from Chechnya and majority-Muslim regions of Russia itself, for whom Putin’s rule remains a major enemy. The destabilization of Arab dictatorships will put this threat back on the agenda.

More than twenty million Muslims live in Russia itself, not counting about nine million labor migrants from majority-Muslim countries of the Central Asia. Many of them have social and cultural reasons for disliking the Kremlin. A typical incident occurred on October 22, when police raided worshippers at the mosque in the Moscow suburb of Kotelniki. After this, the believers were taken to the military registration and enlistment office, where, under the threat of criminal charges, they were forced to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense to be sent to the front line in Ukraine. There is widespread coercion of labor migrants and populations of poor national-minority republics of Russia to participate in the Ukraine war. This causes protests and already leads to cases of mass desertion.

The war in Palestine creates conditions for the political mobilization of Muslim communities, which, like in Arab countries, has a great potential for protest. In Dagestan, police broke up several spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinians on October 17. “The protesters were dispersed, as if they were against Russia, and not against Israel!” writes the author of a local Telegram channel.

Speculating on anti-imperialist sentiments and people’s anger, Moscow’s rulers risk sowing a storm they can’t handle.