Putin Is Getting What He Wants

As Israel and Hamas descend into all-out war, Russia has been more of a bit player than a lead actor. There is no evidence that Moscow directly aided or abetted Hamas’s vicious attack against Israel on Oct. 7, despite some early suggestions. Diplomatically, too, the Kremlin has been of negligible significance, unable to defuse the metastasizing tensions.

Last week made plain its peripheral status. While President Biden traveled to Israel as part of intensive U.S. shuttle diplomacy across the Middle East, President Vladimir Putin of Russia — having waited nearly 10 days to dignify Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel with a phone call — headed instead to Beijing. At the United Nations, Russian officials lamented the war’s civilian casualties and pressed for a humanitarian cease-fire. But it was little more than showmanship. Lacking leverage over the parties in conflict, Moscow cannot arrange the release of Hamas’s hostages or secure humanitarian corridors, let alone stop the fighting.

Yet despite its limited sway, Russia is emerging as a major beneficiary of the war. With minimal effort, Moscow is reaping the benefits from the regional chaos that threatens Israelis and Palestinians with devastation and desolation. In three key areas — its military campaign against Ukraine, its designs on the Middle East and its global war of narratives with Western states — Russia stands to gain from a protracted conflict. Without doing much, Mr. Putin is getting what he wants.

First and foremost, events in Gaza are distracting Western policymakers and publics from the war in Ukraine. Fighting a grinding counteroffensive while enduring relentless Russian bombardment, Ukraine must now share the airwaves with Israel and the Palestinians. Fears that Western societies have begun to suffer from “Ukraine fatigue,” real enough before Oct. 7, will continue to grow. For Russia, that could bring some welcome respite from the constant scrutiny of its crimes against Ukraine. With all eyes on Gaza last week, a deadly Russian missile attack on the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia went under the radar.

If media attention is in short supply, so too are munitions. Mr. Biden has vowed that the United States can support both Israel’s and Ukraine’s security needs, and is asking Congress for $105 billion in emergency funding to cover them. But Israel may eventually need weapons that are now running short in Ukraine, including armed drones and artillery rounds. Trapped in a war of attrition of its own making, Russia must be relishing the appearance of a new and demanding conflict for the United States, draining the strength of its adversaries.

What’s more, the war in Gaza threatens to postpone — if not derail — the Biden administration’s efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Even before this month, Washington had the herculean task of reconciling the parties’ disparate demands related to U.S. security guarantees, a Saudi civilian nuclear program and the fate of the Palestinians. The new cycle of violence now threatens the initiative altogether.

That would please officials in Moscow, who have always viewed the Abraham Accords, a set of deals between Israel and several Arab states struck in 2020 that paved the way for the Saudi normalization process, as an American project that sidelines Russia. Its faltering offers Russia more than just the sheer pleasure of seeing America struggle. Moscow has its own designs for nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia and also hopes to thwart the maturing of an Arab-Israeli defense partnership against Iran, an increasingly close Russian partner.

But Russia’s biggest gain may come in the court of global opinion. Moscow’s messaging on the conflict — the Kremlin has refused to call the attack on Oct. 7 “terrorism” and blamed the escalation on Western policy mistakes — aligns Russia with public sentiment across much of the Middle East. Silhouetted behind platitudes about peace, calls for the protection of all civilians and acknowledgments of Israel’s right to self-defense are hints of a pro-Palestinian position. In Russian media coverage, the display of Palestinian suffering in Gaza has taken center stage and Russian officials have spotlighted humanitarian concerns while avoiding any direct censure of Hamas. Moscow’s affinity for the Palestinian cause is not new, but the Kremlin has become more explicit about it.

Yet Russian aspirations go beyond the Middle East. Styling itself as David to the Western Goliath, Russia has framed its war against Ukraine as an “anticolonial” fight to end the West’s global dominance — tapping into powerful grievances held across the developing world about Western arrogance and hypocrisy. The Kremlin’s response to the war in Gaza, putting distance between itself and Washington’s unequivocal pro-Israel stance, is designed to exploit those feelings further. For Russia, increasing disillusion with the West and even winning over new sympathizers for its challenge to the global order would be advances worth the risk of upsetting Israel. That such a position plays into tensions in Europe is a pleasing byproduct.

Russia’s cynicism in all of this is self-evident. At the U.N., Moscow called for an emergency session over the attack on a hospital in Gaza — never mind that it has spent 20 months bombing residential buildings and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Yet in countries roiled by anger and anguish over Israel’s military actions in Gaza, Russia’s criticism plays well into preconceived notions about Israel and its Western backers. Amid a tribalization of pain, the fissures between the developing world and the West are widening. Russia will not waste the chance to deepen the rift further.

Supporting Ukraine over the past 600 days, and now standing with Israel in the wake of its darkest hour, Western officials have tried to convince the rest of the world that the global order is on the line and that democratic values are under threat. But as Israel and Hamas tumble into a whirlwind of violence, the West is far from winning the battle of narratives. The Ukraine war has receded into the background; U.S.-led diplomacy in the Middle East is in disarray; and the West and the rest face each other over an abyss of mutual incomprehension.

From this state of affairs, Russia will do its best to pocket the gains.

Hanna Notte (@HannaNotte) is the director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

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