When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, casualties of the brutal onslaught included not just the slowly developing normalization between the Jewish state and Saudi Arabia. The attack also abruptly ended Israel’s thirty-five-yearlong pragmatic relations with Russia, started by the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and continued by all his successors, who had hoped to maintain a balanced position despite escalating tensions between the U.S.-led West and the authoritarian axis of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.
While Hamas, supported by Iran, clearly aims to become the top dog in the Palestinian street, win its power struggle with the declining Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and derail the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement, Moscow put the nail in the coffin of the Russian-Israeli thaw that the began under Mikhail Gorbachev.
Moscow now champions Hamas and Hezbollah, just as the USSR once supported the PLO. “This is a ‘special operation’ by Russia to distract attention away from Ukraine and draw the U.S. back to the Middle East and away from Europe and East Asia. China is fully on board,” says an Israeli ambassador to one of the Eastern European countries, who knows the Kremlin well, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The repercussions of rebalancing power dynamics in the Middle East and beyond are far-reaching. Moscow, Beijing, and Teheran seek to destabilize and destroy American allies in the region and eventually push the United States out of the region.
As declassified CIA documents show, the relationship between Israel and the USSR was hostile for decades after Joseph Stalin’s initial support of the nascent Jewish state against the declining British Empire. This included a breach of diplomatic ties after the 1967 Six-Day War, in which the Soviets supported, trained, and equipped two principal Arab states, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Ba’athist Syria.
The Soviets and their satellites also supported Yasser Arafat’s PLO, Marxist George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and other left-leaning terrorist organizations, which together formed a “terrorist International.” The German Red Army Faction, the Italian Brigate Rossi, the Japanese Red Army, and even the Provisional IRA trained with the Palestinian terrorist organizations. The parallels with Russia’s engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah are stunning, given their Islamist roots. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Russia.
The UN was also a battlefield. The Soviets co-sponsored the “Zionism is Racism” UN General Assembly resolution in 1975, which the United States vehemently opposed. The resolution was finally repealed in 1991.
The USSR moderated under Gorbachev, though anti-Israel sentiment lingered. Moscow restored relations with Israel only in October 1991, two months before the union’s collapse. Gorbachev also allowed Soviet Jews to emigrate and cut Soviet support for international terrorism.
With large Russian-speaking communities and business and family bonds in the former Soviet countries, ties between Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus republics, Central Asia, and Israel continued to grow. Israel, Russia, and Ukraine even abolished their mutual tourism visa regimes in 2008 and 2010.
Nevertheless, the unreformed Soviet-trained foreign policy establishment harbored hostility towards pro-Western, pro-American Israel and tilted toward the vast Muslim world. They certainly were not happy with the Abraham Accords, Israel-Saudi rapprochement, and other steps taken to strengthen U.S. allies as Washington tried to extricate itself from the Middle East and focus on Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific. One of them, Sergey Karaganov, Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs and President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy advisor, publicly called himself an anti-Semite and told the author in 2013 that Israel “will cease to exist” in ten to fifteen years.
In personal interactions with Russian experts and diplomats in Moscow, this author repeatedly heard criticism of Putin’s and the Russian military’s policy of cooperation with Israel. As the Kremlin’s ties with Teheran grew stronger, Hezbollah’s, as well as Hamas’ leaders, made a beeline to Moscow—also after the October 7 attack,
Putin’s generation of Russian policymakers expressed nostalgia to the author for adventures in the Global South, fondly reminiscing about their days in the jungles of Angola and Mozambique and the deserts of Libya, Egypt, and Iraq. While declaring a host of Islamist organizations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, “terrorist,” Moscow hugged the two most committed to Israel’s destruction.
Israel, meanwhile, pursued its own priorities. Jerusalem wanted free emigration of Russian Jews to Israel, a domestic environment minimally tainted by anti-Semitism, and most importantly, freedom of action against Iranian proxies in Syria, Israeli officials told me. Privately, Netanyahu felt a kinship to the authoritarian Putin, as he did towards Viktor Orbán of Hungary, an Israeli diplomat said in an interview. In addition, there was fear of the Russian military, imprinted by the Soviet victory in World War II.
When Russia deployed forces to Syria in 2015 to support President Bashar al-Assad, Israel negotiated a “de-conflicting” agreement that allowed its air force to operate in Syria’s skies and strike Iranian and Hezbollah targets on the ground. De-conflicting proceeded after Israel denounced the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. “Even after October 7, the de-conflicting agreement is intact, at least partially, and neither party wants to start shooting at the other”, said a former Israeli senior diplomat with experience in the matter. “However, no one knows how long these arrangements will survive.” The key is the increasingly close ties between Russia and Iran.
Teheran came to Putin’s aid when the ongoing Ukraine invasion got tough. The Russian military got caught unprepared in a crucial type of warfare: drones. At that time, no other country but the Islamic Republic was providing weapons to Moscow. Supply of the Shahed-136 kamikaze drones and construction of a factory in Alabuga in Tatarstan to produce thousands of them obligated Putin to the Ayatollahs, says another Israeli diplomat.
In the last two years, and especially since the Hamas attack, Russia’s engagement with terrorist organizations has grown. According to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation,
In an interview with Russia Today, Hamas official Ali Baraka claimed that Russia had given Hamas a license to manufacture its own modified version of the AK-47 (Kalashnikov) assault rifle and ammunition. Hamas’s armed wing uses Russian servers. On the economic front, too, it is evident that Hamas relies heavily on the Russian crypto market, sending tens of millions of dollars into digital wallets controlled by Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) while bypassing U.S. sanctions.
U.S. intelligence sources told this author that the Russian private military company Wagner was involved in supply and logistics training for Hamas, quoting Ukrainian sources they deem reliable. The same Wagner company reportedly moved Syrian SA-22 Pantsyr anti-aircraft systems from Syria to Lebanon to provide cover for Hezbollah as it confronts the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “This is a fast-moving theater that requires constant intelligence monitoring and analysis,” an Israeli diplomatic source said.
The most pronounced break with the recent past, however, is in the realm of diplomacy and propaganda. Israeli diplomats have pointed out that Russia has made much ado about alleged Ukrainian “neo-Nazis,” including President Volodymyr Zelensky, trying to justify the invasion as “fighting fascism” next door. In March 2022, the UN General Assembly denounced Russia for aggression and demanded complete troop withdrawal from Ukraine. Now Moscow is leveraging anti-Israel sentiment in the UN to reposition itself and consolidate support, initiating a UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel and demanding a cease-fire.
Members of The U.S. Global Engagement Bureau and intelligence sources tell this author that Russian state-sponsored bots are supporting both anti-Israel and pro-Israel radical voices on social media. The purpose is to boost polarization in Europe and the United States and redirect attention away from Ukraine.
Russia is reverting to its pre-Gorbachev anti-Semitic status quo. Moscow’s flagship foreign propaganda TV channel and online platform RT is competing with Hezbollah’s Manar TV and Al Jazeera Arabic in its vitriol against Israel, while Hamas is fanning the flames, launching their Russian-language channel (Gaza Now) on the popular Telegram and X (Twitter) platforms.
Putin, long considered a “philo-Semite,” publicly referred to Anatoly Chubais, the former privatization czar and the Chief of Staff for President Yeltsin, who left the country, as “Moshe Izrailevich,” mocking his Jewish identity and Israeli citizenship. The bureaucracy interpreted this as a green light to attack Israel and the Jews. Putin also called Zelensky “the shame of the Jewish people.” On Russian state TV and popular YouTube channels, outbursts of anti-semitic hatred have appeared.
In the North Caucasus, government neglect of Islamist incitement against Jews, including allegations that Jews are planning to buy or seize land in Dagestan, led to an angry mob attacking passenger airplanes from Israel and Dubai, searching for Jews they thought could be hiding inside airliner engine casings.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Zelensky, who formerly allowed the country to vote against Israel in the UN repeatedly, responded with visceral recoil against the Hamas attack and signaled solidarity with Israel.
Public opinion in Israel has been drifting away from Russia and towards Ukraine since the February 2022 Russian invasion, and hundreds of Ukrainian-Israelis reportedly volunteered to fight in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Ukrainian rabbis vociferously pushed back against the Russian “de-Nazification” narrative and supported their country’s war effort.