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Russia has a Policy of Principled Neutrality Towards the Latest Israeli-Hamas War


Sat, 21-10-2023 03:40 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko (South24) 

US President Joe Biden claimed during his presidential address on 19 October that “Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: they both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.” This opinion reinforced the perception among some that Russia supports this group in its latest war with Israel, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky first speculated on X (formerly Twitter) shortly after its sneak attack, though the Israeli Ambassador to Russia later said this isn’t true

In the time between those two leaders’ statements, however, Hamas, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority all expressed approval of Russia’s position towards this conflict. It’s therefore understandable why some have fallen under the impression that there’s some truth to Zelensky’s and Biden’s assessments. Accordingly, they consider the latest Israeli-Hamas war to be an expansion of the Russian-US proxy war in Ukraine. For as compelling as this may seem, it’s factually false as will be proven in this piece.  

Russia actually has a policy of principled neutrality towards this conflict and is unlikely to waver from its position. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was the first official to react to it on 7 October when she “call[ed]on the Palestinian and Israeli sides to implement an immediate ceasefire, renounce violence, (and) exercise restraint”, which implied mutual responsibility. Shortly after, President Vladimir Putin elaborated on this during his meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister in Moscow on 10 October.

According to him, “[the latest violence] is a glaring example of the failures of the US Middle East policies. They tried to monopolize the peace settlement, but unfortunately paid no attention to searching for compromises that would be acceptable for both parties.” In other words, the US could have resolved the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the heyday of its global power after the end of the Cold War if it had the political will to put equal pressure on both sides, yet it declined to do so. 

From Russia’s perspective, this perpetuated the self-sustaining cycle of violence between the two parties. Israel’s refusal to implement relevant UNSC Resolutions calling for the creation of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders created an environment where extremist groups were able to entice desperate Palestinians into committing acts of vengeance. Every such attack against Israel is then exploited by it as a justification for the aforesaid refusal, which then fuels this vicious cycle. 

The preceding assessment explains why Russia regularly reminds everyone of its consistent support for a two-state solution and the need for each side to respect the other’s legitimate security interests. About that second point, while Russia sympathizes with the Palestinians’ plight, it doesn’t endorse the methods employed by Hamas in pursuit of their people’s independence. In fact, Russia has explicitly condemned the latest example of this on several occasions thus far. 

On 11 October, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “of course, one cannot help but condemn acts that cannot be called anything other than terrorism.” During his same interaction with the press, he also said that “We need to stop terrorist attacks”. Interspersed between these statements was criticism of Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas and the consequent civilian casualties, which most of the global media focused on while ignoring his criticism of that group’s actions. 

Many also failed to report what Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov said that same day during a debate on this issue hosted by the prestigious Valdai Club think tank. In his words, “the terrorist methods that Hamas militants used at the beginning stages of the confrontation certainly must be condemned; this is non-negotiable.” This strong statement was influenced by the fact that Hamas killed at least 18 of Russia’s dual citizens, while 7 remain missing and 2 were taken hostage. 

At the same time, Russia still maintains communication with Hamas for pragmatic reasons owing to its control over the Gaza Strip, which is supposed to be part of an independent Palestinian State per the previously mentioned UNSC Resolutions. Ambassador Viktorov explained on 17 October that Russia won’t designate Hamas as terrorists since the group isn’t on the UN’s list. He also clarified that these purely political ties “do not in any way whatsoever mean that we support such [terrorist] actions.”

These two officials’ description of Hamas attack against Israel as terrorism add context to President Putin’s reaffirmation of Israel’s rights to exist and defend itself on 13 October when speaking to the press following a meeting in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek at the time. Nevertheless, he also urged it to be careful about civilian casualties, likely because Russia is concerned that such losses fuel the vicious cycle of violence by creating tragedies that extremist groups then exploit it. 

The Kremlin’s immediate priority is therefore to stop the fighting as soon as possible, hence why it recently proposed a UNSC resolution to this end, though it failed to pass after that body’s permanent Western members vetoed it on the pretext that the document didn’t condemn Hamas. Russian Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzia said that his country’s intentions were humanitarian and aimed at easing civilians’ suffering, which is why it didn’t want to politicize the text. 

President Putin had earlier said on 13 October that Russia could mediate a resolution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict if requested to do so by both sides “because we have had good relations with Israel over the past 15 years, absolutely right. And traditional relations with Palestine. So no one will suspect us of wanting to do someone’s bidding.” For that to happen, Russia must maintain pragmatic ties with Hamas, which would be ruined by condemning it at the UN. 

Furthermore, both warring parties and the Palestinian Authority would have to free themselves from what he previously described as the US’ monopolization of the peace process, which is a lot easier said than done and doesn’t appear possible until after the latest violence ends, whenever that might be. If Russia officially designates Hamas as a terrorist group or supports any UN resolution that only blames it for this conflict, however, then it would disqualify itself as a neutral mediator, ergo why neither is likely. 

Israel and Hamas would obviously prefer for Russia to take their side at the other’s expense, but it refuses to do so and instead equally criticizes both for their respective actions thus far in order to keep open the possibility of mediating between them whenever this conflict inevitably ends. Within the Mideast Quartet on this issue, the US and EU have exposed themselves as biased in support of Israel, while the UN is functionally irrelevant in this regard, thus leaving Russia as the only truly neutral party. 

If it were to abandon this policy of principled neutrality, then everything that’s been achieved thus far in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could quickly unravel, which might lead to the warring parties convincing themselves that they’re caught an existential struggle with all that entails. The latest war could then expand to the point of another World War in the worst-case scenario that Iran and the US directly come to blows as a result of their support for Palestine and Israel respectively. 

Russia might not be able to prevent this from happening, but it also won’t do anything that pushes events in that direction like disqualifying itself from possibly mediating between Israel and Hamas, and it certainly has no intention of involving itself in the worst-case scenario if it unfolds. The Kremlin is therefore expected to maintain its neutral stance in the hopes that others will join it in convincing both warring parties to agree to a ceasefire with a view towards eventually reviving the peace process. 

Andrew Korybko

Moscow-based American political analyst 

- Opinions expressed in this analysis reflects its author and doesn't represent the center's views