JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – JANUARY 23: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) attend their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on January 23, 2020 in Jerusalem, Israel. President Vladimir Putin makes a one-day trip to Israel. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

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When the war between Israel and Hamas began a month ago, Russia was conspicuously cautious in its immediate response to the conflict, issuing cautious statements calling for cool heads and a ceasefire.

As Israel’s assault on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip has intensified, with more than 10,000 Palestinians now believed to have died in the heavily bombed enclave, Russia has increasingly abandoned its more neutral stance and become openly critical and hostile toward Israel.

Russia’s initially sober response to the outbreak of violence was seen as the result of careful consideration of the Kremlin’s competing and contradictory interests in the Middle East.

Russia has always maintained constructive relations with Israel. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a close relationship and vow to deepen Israeli-Russian relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as Iranian Petroleum Minister Javad Owji (second from left) looks on during the welcoming ceremony at the airport on July 19, 2022 in Tehran, Iran. Putin and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan arrived in Iran for the summit.

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In recent years, however, Russia has become extremely closely aligned with Israel’s arch-enemy Iran and, since its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, has become even more dependent on Tehran, relying on the country (among other rogue states) for weapons, especially Drones are used in war.

Against this backdrop, Russia found itself in an awkward position when the Iran-backed militant group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing about 1,400 people and taking over 240 hostages, as it did not want to openly criticize Hamas or defend Israel.

Over time, however, Russia has become more critical of Israel’s military actions, especially as the country begins to step on its own interests and alliances in the region, such as by attacking Russia’s ally Syria, a country where Moscow has military bases and whose leadership has sustained it.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi greets Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 19, 2022. With his visit to Iran, Putin probably wants to show that Moscow is still important in the Middle East, said John Drennan from the US Institute of Peace.

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Russia “is now in a situation where it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain that balance,” said political analyst, author and academic Mark Galeotti. He points out that Russia considered its relationships with countries like Iran and fellow oil producer Saudi Arabia to be more strategically and economically valuable than its ties with Israel.

“Ultimately, if you think about who it really needs, Russia needs Iran, not least as another source of military material, but also Saudi Arabia.” [Arabia] because both together can largely dominate oil prices worldwide. In this context, Israel must be sacrificed.”

Russia turns against Israel

Russia’s stance has changed gradually but dramatically in recent weeks as it has become clear that the conflict is affecting its military and geopolitical interests.

When Israel launched airstrikes on several military bases in Syria in October in response to a series of rocket attacks targeting Israel, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the attack violated Syria’s “sovereignty and international law.” Later in the month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the attacks were “unacceptable.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (r) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Sochi on November 20, 2017.

Around the same time as Lavrov’s comments, Russia tightened the screws on Israel even further by hosting a Hamas delegation in Moscow in late October for talks about hostages held by the group.

In some of the most critical comments yet, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on October 28 that Israel’s bombing of Gaza violated international law and risked causing catastrophe “for many decades, if not centuries.” The comments were widely shared by Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya, who said on November 2 that Israel, as an “occupying state,” had no right to self-defense under international law.

Putin also spoke out, telling senior government and security officials that he regretted the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In a televised speech on October 30, Putin said: “There is no justification for the terrible events currently taking place in Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of innocent people are being killed indiscriminately, with nowhere to escape or hide from the bombing.”

“When you see bloodstained children, dead children, the suffering of women and old people, when you see doctors killed, you naturally clench your fists and tears well up in your eyes. There is no other way to put it,” he added. Putin also tried to link the conflict in Gaza to the West, saying he would benefit from further instability in the Middle East.

Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to greet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.

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“Russia’s attitude toward Israel has already become significantly more critical,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and founder of the analysis firm R.politik, in her Weekly Digest analyzing Russian news.

Although Putin has refrained from directly attacking Israel in public, Stanovaya said, she noted that Putin “views the country as part of an American policy aimed at destabilization and chaos.”

“Moscow increasingly views Tel Aviv as part of Washington’s sphere of influence – an assessment that inherently marginalizes Israel’s importance to the Kremlin by associating it with Russia’s broader geopolitical competition with America. Conversely, there will be less incentive for the Kremlin to maintain this and, as before, invest in a balanced policy towards Tel Aviv,” she noted.

To be fair, relations with Israel were deteriorating before the current conflict, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put Western-backed Israel in a difficult position.

Israel has been pressured to condemn the invasion and join Western nations in imposing sanctions on Russia. It resisted, refused to impose sanctions and, unlike other allies, provided humanitarian rather than military aid to Ukraine. Still, his ambiguous position seemed to anger both Russia and the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with senior Saudi officials in 2014.

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Galeotti pointed out that Russia probably expected that its relations with Israel could definitely change if there was a change in leadership, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu became increasingly unpopular.

“I think there’s also the calculation that Netanyahu’s days in power may actually be numbered and a new government may actually be much more skeptical of Russia,” he said.

“Russia would like to have its cake and eat it, but when it comes down to it, if it has to choose a side, it has to keep an eye on Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

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