What was Russia’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before Oct. 7? What was its approach to Hamas?
The Russian approach has changed over time. During the Soviet period and the Cold War, there was a great deal of hostility toward Israel, which was tied to deeply rooted domestic antisemitism as well as the Kremlin’s suspicion of Soviet Jews having divided loyalties after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The USSR actively blocked Soviet Jews from leaving the country to settle in Israel, or anywhere else for that matter. There was quite a lot of attention paid inside the Soviet Union to building up relationships with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Arab countries opposed to the state of Israel. The USSR offered educational opportunities to Palestinian and other Arab students. I was a student in Moscow in 1987 and 1988, and, as a “Western” student, lived in a Moscow university long-stay hotel, which was next to several student dormitories. The largest contingent next to us was Arab students, some of whom were Palestinians who went on later to become prominent in organizations like the PLO and Fatah.
In the 1990s, beginning with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s co-hosting with U.S. President George H.W. Bush of the March 1991 Madrid conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Russian government played a role in international efforts to move toward a two-state solution, but the relationship with Israel was still very tense. In the 1990s and early 2000s, after the collapse of the USSR, restrictions on leaving the country were lifted. There was a wave of Jewish migration from Russia and other post-Soviet countries like Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, and from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Most went to Israel as well as to the United States, and to some extent to Europe. The sustained mass emigration to Israel eventually shifts Moscow’s perspective.
By the time Vladimir Putin comes along in 2000, over 1 million Israelis have some kind of heritage from the former Soviet Union. Many are predominantly Russian-speaking, and over time Putin starts to see this population as an opportunity for Russia because he also has personal ties to Jewish families he grew up with in Leningrad, later St. Petersburg, as a child in the 1950s and 1960s after World War II. He grew up in a communal apartment and talks frequently in his semi-autobiography about an elderly Jewish couple who in a way became his de facto parents, his guardians of sorts, because his parents were always out at work. They were the people who lived in the same space as him and looked after him. He also talks about his favorite teacher at school, who taught him German. He’s fascinated with the German language and wanted to study it, and later, that becomes an entry point for him into the KGB. His German teacher was also Jewish, and she emigrated to Israel; it’s documented that he visited her on official state visits and also bought her a flat for her retirement.
I say all this not just because it’s interesting, but more because Putin’s personal connections seemed to shape the Russian-Israeli relationship in the early 2000s. Putin talks frequently about “our Jews” (the term he uses is nashi Yevrei) to talk about the Russian-speaking Israeli population. He sees them as a repository of ties tightening the relationship between Israel and Russia, as well as a source of future economic investment, especially in high technology; he starts to encourage Israelis and other Jewish emigres in the United States and Europe, even people who were persecuted as dissidents in the past, to start coming back to Russia, investing, and becoming more active.
Putin builds a museum of Judaism in Moscow and becomes, as he says, the “patron of the Jews.” He regularly meets with one Moscow-based rabbi, Berel Lazar, and constantly repeats jokes that Lazar tells him. In fact, the rabbi reputedly becomes one of his close confidants during his first presidential term. So, Putin creates this picture of a vibrant relationship with both Israel and the remnants of Russia’s Jewish communities. Putin designates Judaism as one of the official indigenous religions of Russia alongside orthodox Christianity and Islam. He sees this as part of Russia’s greatness—as a culture housing these three great world religions, and also Buddhism to some extent. It’s not that there aren’t tensions, of course. Many of the emigre Jewish groups who have archives and materials housed in Moscow—such as the library of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, for example—and want them transferred to their communities in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere, end up clashing with the Kremlin. Putin refuses to relinquish the materials because he says they are part of Russian patrimony, Russian heritage. They were written or collected on the territory of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, so they belong to the Russian state, not a religious community.
Putin also uses the new relationship with Israel to enshrine Russia’s position in the Middle East. He sees Israel as a key pillar for Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, alongside Iran and Saudi Arabia, which makes for some strange bedfellows in Russian foreign policy. One of Putin’s foreign policy priorities is that Russia has good relations with everybody and can talk to everybody in the Middle East. And within that context, there come some pretty critical points. One is Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015. Israelis would disagree with this, but Putin claims that Moscow partly intervened to ensure Israel’s protection because Israel is threatened directly by Iran and by the activities of Iranian proxies like Hezbollah and the Islamic State inside Syria. He actually tells the Israelis that he’s there to secure Israel and make sure that there are no attacks on the Golan Heights. In this period immediately after the Russian intervention, Russia and Israel set up a deconfliction channel where Israel informs Russia of any strikes it will make against Iranian proxies in Syria, and Russia agrees to dissuade Iran and its proxies from counterattacks. The Russian presence in Syria becomes such an important factor that officials and commentators in Israel start to refer to Russia as “our neighbor to the north,” including in discussions with U.S. and other counterparts. I heard this reference directly from Israeli interlocutors while I was at the National Security Council. So, after 2015, Russia is now involved in Middle East politics in ways that it wasn’t before.
This is a dramatic shift from the Soviet period, and the Yeltsin period of the 1990s. Things move along to such an extent that in June 2019, when I was in the previous administration, there’s a tripartite meeting of national security advisors in Jerusalem, including Ambassador John Bolton, who’s the U.S. national security advisor at the time, National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat of Israel, and National Security Advisor Nikolai Patrushev of Russia. During that period, Putin makes it very clear that Russia sees itself as a major player in the region and that it puts a lot of stock in its relationship with Israel. Putin’s talking all the time about Israeli security, and many Israelis remark in our exchanges that Russia thinks it knows Israeli security better than Israel does, and that Moscow even sees itself as a kind of security guarantor in the Middle East in opposition to the United States.
Now all of that becomes completely and utterly ruptured or unglued—all the wheels fall off this bus, not just on October 7, but beforehand as a result of the war in Ukraine. In the last two years since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin started calling Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Jewish president of Ukraine, a Nazi and directly offended Israel on this issue. Israel was very careful in how it handled the whole issue with Ukraine from the start, because so many of the Russian speakers from the Soviet Union in Israel were in fact from Ukraine and Belarus, not just from Russia, and many people rediscovered an affinity with Ukraine after the war. Israel didn’t want tensions among the various Russian-speaking Jewish communities to further complicate its domestic affairs.
But the bigger issue for Israel was not Russia’s fight with Zelenskyy about being Jewish and the Kremlin trying to denigrate him as a result—it was, and still is, about Russia over time becoming dependent on Iran for drones and other military and political support. Russia suffered many early setbacks on the battlefield as Ukraine received drones and drone technology from Turkey and then started to develop them for itself. Russia had not previously paid a lot of attention to drones in its military development, and suddenly Moscow had to turn to Tehran and the Shahed drones to help the Russian military push Ukraine back on the battlefield. As Russia turns to Iran, you start to see Russia’s relations with Israel sour even more.
October 7, 2023, becomes a final point of rupture for Russia and Israel. Putin starts to make antisemitic comments—quite evidently antisemitic comments he hasn’t made before. He publicly backs away from the very close relationship with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu that he previously loved to tout at every opportunity. Netanyahu is Putin’s kind of guy; he falls into the same category as Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Chinese President Xi Jinping as a strongman leader. Russians were always praising Netanyahu’s boldness and decisiveness of leadership and how Israel dealt with its regional security issues in meetings we had with them, but after October 7 the Kremlin has heaped criticism on Netanyahu and Israel. And then Russia quickly and publicly rekindled its relationships with the representatives of Hamas and other Palestinian constituencies; these associations are longstanding in Russia but had been tamped down over the last decade out of deference to Netanyahu.
There are some internal Russian imperatives at work here too. The Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s massive retaliatory response have distinct echoes of Russia’s interventions in Chechnya, part of its own territory, between 1994 and 2009. Chechnya is one of Russia’s preeminent Muslim regions in the North Caucasus with a population of 1 million people. It attempted to secede and establish an independent state immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Roughly 250,000 people, including combatants and civilians, were estimated to have been killed over the span of a decade and two rounds of war in Chechnya. Prior to the war in Ukraine, this was Russia’s most significant and costly military action since World War II. In the battle for Grozny, the capital city was completely leveled, and thousands of people were killed in circumstances not dissimilar to what we’re seeing unfolding in Gaza. And Russia is now, of course, flipping that whole script, basically calling out Israel for the very same things it did in Grozny, in its own city, against non-Russian ethnic groups, Muslims, living in its own territory.
It’s not a direct parallel, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind, as the legacy of Chechnya does color Putin’s attitudes toward Gaza and rekindles fears of Russian domestic extremism. The Chechen cause became more radicalized over time, morphing from a national-liberation to more of a radical Wahhabi militant movement focused on suicide terrorist acts and spectacular, brutal assaults. Some of the religious and clan groups in Chechnya have representation in the Gulf and Jordan, as well as in Turkey, as the result of Muslims and Chechens fleeing to the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East when imperial Russia first expanded in the region. So, there is a direct link there; over the course of the Chechen wars, Jordanian and other Arab militants went to fight in Chechnya. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri even tried to relocate to Chechnya, and neighboring Dagestan, in the 1990s.
Putin ultimately relied on his relationships with people like Erdoğan in Turkey and leaders in Jordan and the Gulf to help him cut ties to regional militant groups and suppress the Chechens; then to help in the rebuilding of Grozny (which frankly looks like Dubai in the North Caucasus). Chechen fighters have been deployed to fight on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine since 2022, and the North Caucasus and other Muslim regions have been, or were, relatively quiescent until Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the Israeli military response. On October 29, 2023, there was a shocking incident in the Russian regional capital of Dagestan, Makhachkala, when a group of several hundred young Muslim men rioted and invaded the airport in search of an Israeli plane and Jewish passengers arriving from Tel Aviv. The scenes—reminiscent of those across the Arab world in reaction to the unfolding war in Gaza—rattled Moscow. Embracing Hamas and repudiating Israel is now tied to placating Russia’s own sizable Muslim population and heading off inter-ethnic and religious violence at home.
But beyond Russia rekindling old ties and worrying about domestic extremism, the big shift in the Russian relationship with Israel is rooted in Moscow’s increasingly close bilateral security relationship with Iran. I don’t think we can emphasize this enough. This development puts the rest of us—the United States and Europe—in quite a predicament. Russia is now engaged with Iran in two different conflicts, Ukraine and Israel/Gaza. Obviously, this is in quite different ways, but the Russia/Iran relationship greatly complicates the situation in the Middle East, Israel, and Gaza, and the battlefield in Ukraine. Russia’s relationship with Iran—not just Zelenskyy’s Jewish heritage, or all the Russian speakers of Jewish Ukrainian heritage in Israel—as well as the U.S. role in support of both Ukraine and Israel start to draw the two sets of conflicts into the same geopolitical frame.
Do you think Putin envisions himself as having a role in post-conflict diplomacy or reconstruction in Gaza?
I’m sure he does. Although it’s worth asking the question of whether Moscow has the bandwidth for a major effort given the war in Ukraine and all the domestic complexities. But Russia does have some significant stakes in what happens next in the Middle East and will want to make sure its equities are considered.
There’s another interesting element here in that Russia was very keen on seeing Israel conclude the original 2020 Abraham Accords with its Arab neighbors. In the run-up to the accords, I saw firsthand that there were connections forming between the Israelis and the head of the Russian sovereign wealth fund, Kirill Dmitriev, and all kinds of Russian investors; businesspeople and representatives from the Gulf and Arab countries; and U.S. negotiators like Jared Kushner in trying to push the agreements forward. Russians have become major investors in the Gulf since the 2000s, especially since the intervention in Syria and then the war in Ukraine. Places like Dubai have become one of the major repositories of Russian foreign investment and headquarters for prominent Russian companies and businesspeople who have relocated from Europe.
I think prior to October 7, the Russians were very interested in the idea of the Israelis having a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia that they could then capitalize on economically and politically. Putin may even think that he can still bounce back with Israel at some point when the dust settles in Gaza, although I doubt that. I heard a prominent Israeli at a recent event say that Russia has now moved itself into the enemy category with Israel after decades of relations improving. And Russia has also always had a somewhat complex and awkward relationship with Saudi Arabia, even though they’ve been recently touting that relationship—we saw Putin on a sort of semi-victory tour of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in early December last year.
In the context of energy relationships, where Saudi Arabia is so important, Russia has often not gone along with what OPEC+ and the Saudis have wanted in terms of committing to production cuts to bolster oil prices. Russia is always thinking about its own bottom line, and volume is often better for Moscow than just price. Putin is continually focused on trying to make sure that Russia’s energy revenues are not imperiled in any way—especially given Moscow’s loss of its dominant position in Europe’s energy markets after the invasion of Ukraine. And then there is Iran, and Saudi Arabia’s difficult relationship and regional rivalry with Tehran. This is one of the reasons why Putin went to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in December 2023, to cozy up to the Gulf Cooperation Council/leading Gulf states and Saudi Arabia to balance Russia’ closer security ties with Iran.
I don’t know how much the UAE, Saudi Arabia, or anyone else is taking Russia seriously, but Putin’s intention to court the Arab world is clear. And Putin will want to make sure that whatever happens next in Gaza, Russia is part of it.
I think it’s kind of a remarkable feat what Putin’s hoping to pull off in the Middle East in this regard, but Putin’s view is he’s done it many times before and he’ll be able to do it again.
Looking at Europe more broadly, do you expect the European Union (EU) to be able to play a significant part in the diplomatic efforts going forward, or is it limited by its internal divisions on this issue?
I think it would be important to include some European countries alongside Arab countries, Turkey, and other interlocutors to help find a solution. Both individual countries and the EU as an entity can play different roles. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has stepped forward on numerous occasions, but the problem is that it’s not a nimble instrument, and it has elections coming up in 2024. So right now, the current set of EU actors look like lame ducks.
But then there’s the question of what individual European countries can do in terms of playing a role in coordination with the EU. Sadly, it’s probably a very small group of countries that are able to step up and would have credibility.
I’ve thought for example about Ireland, which has a rather unique position in having close relations with the Palestinians and a strong, long-standing commitment to a two-state solution. Ireland also has had similar and very fraught experiences to Israel, and solutions have been found to its divisions and conflicts. It was recently the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, for example, and there are a lot of aspects to the process that preceded the agreement that could be helpful as well as instructive for the Middle East, let’s just say. On the other hand, Ireland has some distinctly uncomfortable overlap with Middle Eastern history, including active cooperation between the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Israel might not welcome an Irish mediation effort, but Irish perspectives and links to the Palestinians could be helpful in a European diplomatic context.
One would also want to see Germany step up, but Germany is being torn apart by this issue. The Germans have taken a very strong stance on Israel, given the history of the Holocaust, but also their commitments to supporting Israel, stamping out antisemitism, and protecting their Jewish population. Obviously, Germany has a large Muslim and Arab population as well, but the Arab population is relatively recent in Germany. The Muslim population has traditionally been more Turkish, when Turks, Kurds, and others came in from Turkey as guest workers dating back to after World War II and mostly the 1960s and 1970s. Germany likes to think of itself as a homogenous state, and Germans didn’t expect guest workers or foreign students to stay forever and become part of the state fabric. Germany’s demography has changed dramatically over the last 30 years since reunification. The Arab population really swelled after 2015 and the war in Syria, when more than 1 million refugees migrated into Germany. And Berlin has yet to come to grips with how it resolves the tensions among and between immigrant groups as well as with its distinct historic regions and the legacy of the Holocaust. So, it’s still working on how to redefine and present itself as a modern unified state amid an absolutely terrible crisis in the Middle East. You can see that the Germans are getting a lot of criticism for the way that they’re handling all of this.
Now there are other European countries as well, like France, with major Muslim and Arab populations, but a heck of a lot of baggage from Algeria. The United Kingdom also has an enormous amount of baggage from actually being the holder of the mandate of Palestine and has been blamed for how this has played out over time going back to 1917 and the Balfour Declaration. The way forward is to think about which countries have played a role in the past that’s been positive. So, Norway with the Oslo Accords, even if that didn’t quite turn out the way that people wanted. I’ve suggested Ireland and one might also consider Sweden, in terms of countries that didn’t have a colonial role in the region and have solid diplomatic capabilities and a good international reputation; Belgium, the host country for the EU and NATO, which also has a large and diverse Muslim population, is another option.
In the United States, President Joe Biden has sought to tie U.S. support for Israel against Hamas to U.S. support for Ukraine against Russia. Do you see concern in Europe that a U.S. foreign policy newly focused on the Middle East may place less of a priority on Ukraine’s fight against Russia?
There’s a lot of concern that right now that there will be less emphasis on Ukraine, and it won’t be just the United States that will be pulled in those directions. European countries themselves are being roiled by the conflict in Gaza. The war was described recently by the foreign minister of a very significant country as a “black hole that’s sucking everything else into it” and causing immense domestic turmoil in every country (as well as wider reverberations of conflict, as we are now seeing with the Houthis in Yemen and the attacks in the Red Sea). I think that’s accurate. Because if you look at what’s happening in Germany, what’s happening in the U.K., what’s happening in every country with a significant Muslim population—not just Palestinian populations, not just Arab populations—with Jewish populations, younger people, it’s had all sorts of real-time effects.
It’s also had effects on questions of whether we should be paying all this attention to Ukraine. I think there’s going to be mounting pressure now to say, “Look, we’ve already had Ukraine for two years here, the Middle East is a burning multi-alarm fire that everyone is going to get dragged into, and Ukraine is somewhat containable.” However, I think the war in Ukraine has massive global effects and is the equivalent of the great European land wars—like World War I and World War II. You could argue that Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel is like a Pearl Harbor event, opening up a whole new front in what’s now becoming a global set of conflicts. I say “global set of conflicts” rather than one conflict because they’ve all become entangled and intertwined. Actors like Russia and Iran are involved in both conflicts. North Korea, for example, is also supporting Russia in Ukraine; so is China, which also has equities in the Middle East.
So, there’s more of the sense that the Ukraine war is becoming a burden and opening up a whole new front of conflict, pulling the international system further down at a time when we’ve got to deal with climate change, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, technological change, demographic change, and demands from the rest of the world for more attention to be paid to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Everyone wants to have a voice. All kinds of different groups and constituencies and peoples that have been left out of the big power game at the United Nations want to be part of the action, and there’s been demand for reforming the international system for a long time to reduce the dominance of the United States and the West.
I think there will be more pressure this year, 2024, to try to find some quick resolution to Ukraine so that the issues in the Middle East can be focused on. And that will be disastrous because Ukraine is the largest country in Europe after Russia. Ukraine has been recognized for 30 years as an independent state, and if Ukraine is partitioned, the chances of it being re-unified again are slim. Moreover, partitioning Ukraine will set a precedent for a major power (in this case, Russia) having its way through force. Especially since Russia is a nuclear power and Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for some form of guarantee of its territorial integrity, this is going to have so many knock-on effects—including encouraging other countries to acquire nuclear weapons; emboldening Iran and North Korea, who have supported Russia; and highlighting the weaknesses of the United States and Europe. I can’t see how this will enhance the prospects for peace and security in the Middle East.
Putin has sought to align Russia with those countries in the so-called “Global South” that have spoken out against the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Do you think his messaging on this has been effective, and to what extent should this alignment concern a U.S. administration that has made great power competition its foremost foreign policy priority?
What Putin does is he attempts to ride a wave that’s already there. There’s already the framing in the region and in what we keep having to call the Global South—meaning the rest of the world—that this is a European imperial conflict between Israel and Hamas. Putin’s playing right into that. The irony, of course, is that Russia itself is an empire. Ukrainians for the past two years have been trying to make common cause with the same groups to try and talk about being colonized and trying to push off the colonizer that has come back for a land grab again.
But most of the rest of the world doesn’t see Russia as an empire. And this is a point that’s worth inspecting further. Some of this ties back to the Soviet Union’s role in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Latin America, when the Soviet Union was the champion of national liberation movements—Mozambique, Angola, Cuba—and the supporter of South Africa in its fight against apartheid. Russia genuinely did play a role there, so they’re not seen as a European empire that came and colonized anywhere else. Most countries see Russia as the continuation of the Soviet Union and, of course, the Russian Empire before it. But the countries in the rest of the world are not really cognizant of the fact that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. They don’t see Armenia, Georgia, or Azerbaijan, for example, as colonized by Russia; they just see them as provinces, maybe breakaway provinces from Russia, and they see Russia’s effort to bring Ukrainian territory back as sort of a territorial dispute.
They don’t see this in the same terms as their own struggles. I’ve heard representatives from African countries say: “Well, what do you guys know about Africa? Can you tell us about the history of this country or that country? Why should we know about Ukraine? This is a European problem, and this is a dispute between Russia and European countries that’s got nothing to do with us here.” And so, Russia plays on that, the fact that everyone always expects Europeans’ problems to dominate and resents the continued Euro-centric focus of world affairs.
Moscow plays on its old Cold War role of “national liberation, leader of the non-aligned world.” Another element for Russia in this context was also cultural, and this isn’t always fully appreciated. The great bard of Russia, the great poet, the great author is Alexander Pushkin. And Pushkin is of African heritage—it’s disputed where his family was from, some say he was born in what is now Cameroon or somewhere else in Africa. One of his great-grandfathers was a slave or was presented as a gift to Peter the Great, but he married into the Russian aristocracy and becomes basically like Alexandre Dumas in the French context, whose family were descended from African slaves in Haiti—part of the pantheon of the literary greats. Russians will say, what other European country would choose a black man as their great symbol? This shows we are not like other Europeans. And the Pushkin cultural legacy was played to the hilt by the Russians and the Soviets during the Cold War.
Then there’s anti-Americanism as well as anti-Westernism that Russia taps into. Moscow promotes the idea of European powers and the United States being the colonial overlords while Russia never had an overseas colony. European countries came in and seized territory in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America and also brought settlers. Russia is hyping this in a very cynical and hypocritical way because Chechnya is also a Russian colony. Russia still contains within the Russian Federation many indigenous peoples who were annexed over the course of Russian expansion, including indigenous Siberians, other native groups, and other Muslim populations that predate Christianity within the Russian Empire—the Tartars, for example, in the Urals. Islam is actually the oldest religion in Russia, and Russia expanded out to include a whole host of groups and also seized territory from China and the Ottoman and Persian empires at various points. That’s not seen at all in the “Global South.” In fact, Putin presents Russia’s expansion as a natural process, and as a strength; he uses all of Russia’s other ethnic and religious groups in his outreach to other places.
Putin is riding a wave that’s been created by the external framing of the war in Gaza as a post-colonial conflict, and he’s whipping it up. All of the ways that the United States is seen to blame, and that Israel is seen to blame—Putin is just fanning those flames. He’s not trying to calm the situation in any way right now. He’s trying to see what he can get out of it.
It’s a diversion from the past—from what Russia did in Chechnya—and it’s a diversion from what Russia’s doing now in Ukraine. It’s a diversion from the fact that Russia is cozying up to Iran. And it’s another way of finding an entry point into the Middle East to make sure that Russia has a role in “peacemaking”—to make sure it has a seat at the table. Putin always wants to be where the action is happening.