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Putin’s gambit amidst Israel’s war on Gaza

November 13, 2023 at 1:30 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 27, 2023 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

On the evening of 29 October, an angry mob provoked and organised through a Telegram channel alleged to be operated from Ukraine ran amok at Makhachkala Airport after receiving information about an aircraft carrying Israeli passengers landing there. The mob became violent, and climbed onto parked aircraft, attempting to break through the windows.

Makhachkala is on the Caspian Sea coast in the Caucasus region of Russia. It is the capital of the Republic of Dagestan, where over 80 per cent of the people are regarded to be Muslims.

Russian President Vladimir Putin interpreted the incident as a provocation with far more geopolitical repercussions than a mere outburst of anger. To support this stance, Dagestan President Sergey Melikov shared intelligence indicating that the administrators of the Telegram channel live in Ukraine.

The following day, Putin delivered an extensive speech during a UN Security Council meeting, addressing three main points. He first discussed the allegations that the subversive action had been orchestrated by Ukraine and the United States, making his suspicions public. Then, he emphasised the importance of unity among the Russian people, in particular the questions raised in Russia about the validity of the allegations regarding the war in Ukraine and the significant criticism of the Russian army. Finally, Putin seized the opportunity to clarify Russia’s position in the Middle East. He was pragmatic.

“The key to resolving the conflict for lasting peace in the holy lands lies in the creation of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state. A fully realised Palestinian state.”

This was an elaborate move to distinguish himself from the West’s unquestioned support for Israel and emphasise the sovereignty of the Palestinian people. Moreover, he characterised the events in Gaza as “horrific occurrences” and asserted that “the indiscriminate destruction of hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent people, who have nowhere to seek shelter from the bombardments, cannot be justified in any manner.”

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The shift of the world’s focus from the war in Ukraine to the war in Gaza has played in Putin’s favour. The violence in Gaza allowed him to regain the confidence of the Russian people, easing some of the pressure on him and giving him space to unite Russian society. Considering Russia’s multi-ethnic and multi-faith nature, any spread of religious conflict, whether inside Russia or on the world stage, raised alarm bells in the Kremlin as a possible destabilising factor.

The war in Gaza also provided a priceless opportunity for Putin to assert Russia’s position as a world power. Russia’s influence, which has waned considerably since the start of the war in Ukraine, is not being sought by the West to rein-in Iran and its proxies and to act as a bridge with the forces disillusioned with Western colonial policies. Putin insists that boosting Russia’s capabilities makes it stronger and present on the world stage.

The Russian president’s rhetoric has continued with his charm offensive towards the Middle East and the Global South. He has made it clear that it is possible to challenge the US, which he alleges has fuelled the war in Ukraine and given a blank cheque to Israel, which he calls its satellite state. Interestingly, he observed that, “Russia’s destiny lies in the determination of the Palestinian people’s future.”

Raising his voice while speaking, Putin’s body language was more assertive. “Russia is fighting on the battlefield for our future,” he declared, “for the principles of a just world order, for the freedom of countries and peoples.”

READ: Thousands march in South Africa in solidarity with Palestine

His speech raised many eyebrows in the West. This is the man who rejected Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty in 2022 and annexed Ukrainian land with a fait accompli. Even Russia’s war strategy is considered among the bloodiest in the world and less considerate of civilian life than Israel’s. The Russian military is responsible for the loss of thousands of innocent civilians. Russian troops even bombed an opera house where the word “ДЕТИ” (“children” in Russian) was visible in the garden, killing hundreds.

Importantly for Moscow, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taken a back seat in the eyes of the international community. Hence, Putin seeks to maximise Russia’s gains. His recent goodwill gestures towards Islam can be viewed as friendly, and his response to a speaker’s greeting at a meeting, where Putin responded with “wa alaikum as-salaam”, and his subsequent statement that there are over 8,000 mosques in Russia with plans to build more, serve as indicators of the ongoing policy. Furthermore, Russia has dispatched 27 tons of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza.

While Russia is not the sole beneficiary of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, Moscow is emerging as a potential “geopolitical winner”, according to an op-ed published jointly in Le Monde by senior French officials. “The Kremlin is betting on [the West’s] lassitude to win its war against Ukraine,” asserted the officials, as all focus is on the unfolding conflict in the Middle East. Russian actions in Ukraine are indeed getting further away from the international gaze. The Kremlin’s nominal support for Palestine, contrary to Western positions, will give more soft power dividends to Moscow.

Ultimately, the sincerity of the Kremlin’s words and actions will be assessed alongside Russia’s respect for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. Unfortunately, since international relations continue to be plagued by hypocrisy and double standards, mistrust and low expectations are the norm, rather than the exception.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.