Russia’s neutrality ballet on Israel-Palestine

While some Russian heavyweights push to recast Israel as a hostile state, the Kremlin is unlikely to budge. Instead, Moscow will stay ‘neutral’ to maximize its West Asian influence, all while edging closer to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Is it possible that the philo-Semitic Russian President Vladimir Putin is slowly but surely re-evaluating his geopolitical assessment of Israel? To call this the key riddle in Moscow’s corridors of power is actually an understatement.

There are no outward signs of such a seismic shift – at least when it comes to the officially “neutral” Russian position on the intractable Israel-Palestine drama.

Except for one stunning statement last Friday at the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Summit in Bishkek, when Putin blasted Israel’s “cruel methods” employed to blockade Gaza, and compared it with “the siege of Leningrad during World War Two.”

“That’s unacceptable,” declared the Russian president, and warned that when all of Gaza’s 2.2 million civilians “have to suffer, including women and children, it’s hard for anyone to agree with this.”

Putin’s comments may have been one hint at the changes underway in the frustratingly opaque Russia-Israel relationship. A close second is this very important article published last Friday on Vzglyad, a security strategy website close to the Kremlin, diplomatically titled “Why Russia remains neutral in the conflict in the Middle East.”

It’s crucial to note that only six months ago and mirroring a near consensus among Russia’s intelligence community, Vzglyad editors were calling for Moscow to shift its considerable political weight toward supporting the number one issue for the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The article noted the key points Putin voiced in Bishkek: there’s no alternative to negotiations; Tel Aviv was subjected to a brutal attack and has the right to defend itself; a real settlement is possible only via an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

The Russian president favors the UN’s original “two states” solution and believes that a Palestinian state should be established “by peaceful means.” But, as much as the conflict was “a direct result of the failed policy of the United States in the Middle East,” Putin rejects Tel Aviv’s plans to launch a ground operation in Gaza.

This qualified hedging is certainly not evidence of Putin swinging to what is a near consensus among the General Staff, the siloviki in several intel agencies, and his ministry of defense: They consider that Israel may be a de facto enemy of the Russian Federation, allied with Ukraine, the US and NATO.

Follow the money

Tel Aviv has been extremely cautious not to frontally antagonize Russia in Ukraine, and this may be a direct consequence of the notoriously cordial relations between Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet way more consequential than Israel on the geopolitical chessboard are Moscow’s evolving relations with Arab states today, especially OPEC+ partner Saudi Arabia which has helped thwart western efforts to control oil prices.

Also highly central to Russia’s regional policymaking is its strategic partnership with Iran, which has reaped dividends in Syria and the Caucasus, and which helps contain US expansionism. Finally, Moscow’s complex, multi-layered, back-and-forth with Ankara is crucial to Russian economic and geopolitical ambitions in Eurasia.

All three West Asian powers are Muslim-majority states, important affiliations for a multipolar Russia that hosts its own sizable Muslim population.

And for these three regional actors, without distinction, the current collective punishment of Gaza transgresses any possible red line.

Israel is also not that significant anymore in Moscow’s financial considerations. Since the 1990s, immense quantities of Russian funds have been transiting to Israel, but now, a substantial portion is returning right back to Russia.

The notorious case of billionaire Mikhail Friedman illustrates this new reality well. The oligarch quit his home in the UK and moved to Israel a week before the launch of Al-Aqsa Flood – which in turn had him hastily grab his Russian passport and head to Moscow for safety.

Friedman, who leads the Alfa Group with major interests in telecom, banking, retail, and insurance, and is a wealthy survivor of the 1998 financial crisis, is suspected by the Russians of “contributing” as much as $150 million to the enemy regime in Kiev.

The reaction by Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin could not have been sharper – or less concerned about Israel’s sentiments on the matter:

“Anyone who left the country and engaged in reprehensible acts, celebrating gunfire on Russian territory and wishing victory to the Nazi Kiev regime, should realize they are not only unwelcome here, but if they do return, Magadan (a notorious transit port to the gulag in the Stalin era) is waiting for them.”

Russophobia meets collective punishment

As the collective west resorted to a monomaniacal “We are all Israelis now,” the Kremlin’s strategy is to visibly position itself as the mediator of choice in this conflict – not only for the Arab and Muslim worlds but also for the Global South/Global Majority.

That was the purpose of this week’s Russian draft resolution at the UN Security Council calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, which was predictably shot down by the usual suspects.

Three permanent Security Council members – US, UK and France, plus their neo-colony Japan – voted against it. To the rest of the world, this looked like exactly what it was: irrational western Russophobia and US puppet states validating Israel’s genocidal bombardment of civilian-dense Gaza.

Off the record, intelligence analysts point to how the Russian General Staff, the intel apparatus, and the ministry of defense seem to be organically aligning with global sentiments on Israel’s excessive aggressions.

The problem is that official and public Russian criticism of Netanyahu’s serial, psychotic incitation to violence, alongside his rightwing National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, has been non-existent.

Moscow insiders insist that the Kremlin’s official “neutral” position is frontally clashing with its defense and security agencies – especially GRU and SVR – which will never forget that Israel was directly involved in the killing of Russians in Syria.

That view has strengthened since September 2018 when Israel’s Air Force used an Ilyushin-20M electronic reconnaissance plane as cover against Syrian missiles, causing it to be shot down and killing all 15 Russians on board.

This silence in the corridors of power is mirrored by silence in the public sphere. There has been no debate in the Duma about the Russian position on Israel-Palestine. And no debate at the Security Council since early October.

Yet a subtle hint was offered by Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who stressed that “peaceful coexistence” has a “religious dimension” and requires “just peace.” This does not exactly align with the announced ethnic cleansing of “human animals” (copyright Israeli Defense Ministry) in Gaza.

Along some corridors close to power, there’s an alarming rumor of an intricate shadow play between Moscow and Washington, wherein the Americans will deal with Israel in exchange for the Russians dealing with Ukraine.

While this would seal the west’s already ongoing process of throwing the sweaty sweatshirt actor in Kiev under the bus, the Kremlin is highly unlikely to trust any American deal, and certainly not one that would marginalize Russian influence in strategic West Asia.

This two-state solution is dead 

Russia’s “neutrality” ballet will continue. Moscow is impressing on Tel Aviv the notion that even within the framework of its strategic partnership with Iran, weapons that could threaten Israel – as in, ending up with Hezbollah and Hamas – will not be exported. The quid pro quo of this arrangement would be that Israel also not sell anything Russian-threatening to Kiev either.

But unlike the US and the UK, Russia will not designate Hamas as a terrorist organization. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov has been very forthright on this issue: Moscow keeps its contacts with both sides; its “number one priority” is “the interest of the country’s (Russian) citizens who live both in Palestine and Israel”; and Russia will remain “a party that has the potential to participate in the settlement processes.”

Neutrality, of course, may reach a dead end. Overwhelmingly, for the Arab and Muslim states actively courted by the Kremlin, the dismantlement of Zionist-led settler-colonialism should be the “number one priority.”d

This implies that the two-state solution, for all practical purposes, is fully dead and buried. Yet there’s no evidence anyone, not least Moscow, is ready to admit it.

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