From Aggressors to Peacekeepers: The Hamas attack has dealt a serious blow to the global anti-Putin cause

The visit of a Hamas delegation to Moscow has sparked outrage in Israel, while in Russia, it has been explained by the need to negotiate the fate of the hostages. The Kremlin is positioning itself as a peacekeeper and mediator in the current escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, most commentators view it as one of the primary beneficiaries of the conflict, as it allows Moscow not only to bolster its image as a stronghold against Western neocolonialism in the eyes of the Global South but also to create another crack in the ‘unity’ of the West. If this unity was previously being challenged by far-right elements, exposing its 'manipulative' nature, it is now also under attack from the left, highlighting its disregard for 'shared Western values' in its treatment of Palestinians. Moreover, when it came to the Russia-Ukraine war, Western unity was based on a fairly straightforward assessment of who was the 'aggressor' and who was the 'victim'. However, in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, such unambiguity is not apparent in public opinion, both in the global South and the West. In one way or another, the conflict in Israel appears to be another episode in the wave of 'revisionism’ that is increasingly gripping the world, calling into question the established world order and reinforcing the revisionist discourse of Russia and China, jointly challenging the role of the West in maintaining this order.

Moscow's Role: Instigator or peacemaker?

If the terrorist attack by Hamas against Israel had not occurred, Vladimir Putin would have had to orchestrate it. Politico has aptly labelled this attack a 'gift' to Putin. It is important to note that one does not need to search for direct 'traces of the Kremlin ' in it, although as recently as March, a Hamas delegation visited Moscow to meet with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. According to members of the delegation, they sought to convey to Moscow that their 'patience in the face of ongoing Israeli pressure was running out'. While this may have sounded like mere rhetoric at the time, even nine months ago it would not have taken much political imagination to imagine how beneficial a military escalation in the Middle East could be for Moscow. The visit was seen as a warning to Israel, which was facing public pressure to adopt a more pro-Ukrainian stance. But perhaps, as with the Kremlin's ostentatious threats to attack Ukraine in 2021, politicians and pundits simply underestimated Hamas's strategic brutality.

Another indirect channel connecting Russia to the Hamas attack is its rapidly evolving military relationship with Iran over the past year and a half. This is not about any direct agreements or supplies, as there are no clear traces of those and likely never will be. Tehran's extensive collaboration with Moscow, the establishment of ties with Beijing, and parallel attempts at gas agreements with the West have significantly strengthened Iran's position and influence in the region. Moreover, as Re:Russia has recently highlighted, the Russia-Ukraine war has demonstrated the effectiveness of Iran's military development strategy, which has been geared toward creating, under sanctions and limited resources, military-technical capabilities able to counter an army equipped with high-tech weaponry. Iran has supplied these types of weaponry to its sponsored 'axis of resistance' in the Middle East. The effective use of such weapons by Ukraine against Russia (paradoxical as it may seem) has also served as inspiration for recipients in the Middle East.

In any case, the key moment in Moscow's official response to the Hamas attack, as has been noted by nearly all observers, was the absence of any condolences from Putin and official figures regarding the deaths of Israeli civilians. The absence of such condolences was of a fundamental nature. Condolences expressed by Western leaders, for example, framed the events as a terrorist attack and Israel as its victim. Meanwhile, the countries that did not offer condolences actively engaged in interpreting the events only when Israel's retaliatory strikes resulted in the deaths of civilians in Gaza. At that point, they spoke either in terms of categorical condemnation of the Israeli strikes or in terms of peacemaking that equalised the parties and removed the question of responsibility for the escalation of the conflict.

The Kremlin's definitive position as 'peacekeeper' within the conflict, which was finally established last week, is the justification for the Hamas delegation's visit to Moscow, especially since the Russian interpretation of the talks was that they were primarily about the fate of the hostages.

The Grand Stage: Bewilderment or contestation?

The war in Ukraine and the Hamas attack are interconnected at a deeper level. Both, as well as the recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh, are part of a unified 'wave of revisionism' – a series of attempts to rethink the established order of things and the balance of power. Michael Kimmage and Hannah Notte in an article for Foreign Affairs refer to this new state of the world order as 'The Age of Great Power Distraction’. They argue that, in the coming months, many parties affected by the conflict between Israel and Hamas will find that all four great powers – the United States, China, the EU, and Russia – lack the potential to resolve the current crisis. These great powers are tied to their own interests and commitments. Russia relies on military assistance from Iran. The United States is seen as Israel's ally and lacks sufficient influence in the Arab world. China may offer mediation but will avoid direct involvement as it lacks leverage in the region, while Europe finds itself practically paralysed by its own internal debates. This is the primary characteristic of the current world order, encouraging and fueling the revisionism of other geopolitical players.

However, a more traditional interpretation of the crisis suggests that China and Russia are not so much 'bewildered' as they are striving to challenge the order they see as having been established by the West, which is now being renegotiated in a series of conflicts sparked by the war in Ukraine. China and Russia (unlike the US) want to demonstrate their non-involvement in the conflict and, based on this, have seized the role of mediator in the Middle East. However, in reality, 'peacemaking' is typically employed as a tool of strategic influence, and in this case, it is serving as an instrument of legalisation of the 'revision' of the established balance of power, which was the goal of the terrorist attack.

As many commentators have noted, the Hamas attack was intended to strike a blow to US-mediated efforts to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel (although, as experts from the Atlantic Council have noted, it only temporarily halted this process). However, this is not the sole point of 'revision' – the attack also sought to shift the intra-Arab balance of power. During the first half of 2022, radical groups in the Middle East suffered a series of electoral defeats. Lebanese voters deprived Hezbollah and its allies of the majority they had held for the past 15 years, and a few months earlier, Iran's close ally in Iraq, the 'Al-Fateh' alliance, suffered a political blow when its opponents formed a parliamentary majority. Analysts at War on the Rocks believe that these events are what prompted Iran to step up military and material assistance to the 'axis of resistance'

The peace process proposed by Russia and China is designed not only to reduce the role of the United States as a strategic negotiator, but also to legitimise radical forces in the Middle East as the main representatives of Palestinian interests and the sympathetic Arab world. Therefore, the interpretation of the 'revisionist wave' as a result of the 'bewilderment' of the 'great powers' seems less well-founded than its interpretation as another episode of 'contesting' the existing order. In all three episodes – Ukraine, Karabakh, and Israel – the tools and capabilities of the 'collective West' are clearly insufficient to contain a new outbreak of an old conflict and influence its outcome. As long as this is the case, there are new temptations to redefine the established balance at ever new points, and states holding positions of 'contestation' are interested in firing every gun hanging on the wall, thereby proving the 'staleness' of the old order.

Framing the Conflict: Aggressor or victim?

Another important thread in recent commentary over the past three weeks has revolved around discussions of how the Israel war is allowing Moscow to radically shift the perception of the conflict in Ukraine, not only in the eyes of the global South, but also in the eyes of the world community as a whole. Indeed, Putin, who was recently presented in Western public opinion as the new semi-Hitler, now appears as a wise peacemaker talking about the suffering of civilians.

Generally speaking, Russian rhetoric regarding the war between Israel and Hamas falls into the Kremlin's traditional positioning of Russia as a stronghold for the global movement against Western 'neocolonialism', masking the fact that it is waging a colonial war in Ukraine, as The Wall Street Journal has pointed out. From the outset of the conflict, Moscow has emphasised what it calls the 'hypocrisy' of Western governments, who have sharply condemned the mass killings of civilians in Ukraine while offering only moderate criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza. This, as noted by various experts and commentators, opens up new possibilities for Russia in its relations with countries in the Global South and gives it reason to expect support and understanding from anti-American and anti-Western segments of global public opinion.

However, as the past few weeks have shown, the war in Israel has a greater potential to split Western public opinion than the war in Ukraine. More precisely, it allows for two potential sources of division. CWhereas the Western political mainstream was under attack from the extreme right over the war in Ukraine, which in one way or another exposed the manipulative nature of the ‘unity’ of Western values, it is now also under attack from the left, which is exposing the disregard for these values in its treatment of the Palestinians.

The problem, however, appears to be even broader. In the case of the Russia-Ukraine war, the basis for anti-Russian unity, which the West tried to achieve, was the obviousness of the identification of the 'victim' and the 'aggressor' in the situation. And it was this obviousness that formed the emotional basis for unity in sympathy with Ukraine. In the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the widespread sympathy of the population of not only the global South, but also a substantial part of the West toward the Palestinians creates a situation of complete ambivalence in the perception of the military conflict. In this conflict, the identification of the 'aggressor' and the 'victim' depends solely on the focus of the observer's sympathy. This new framing, which is in harmony with the key concepts of Russian propaganda, is dealing a very serious blow to the ideology of 'unity' that the Western political mainstream has promoted over the past year and a half.