THE BELL WEEKLY: Why Putin is backing Hamas

The Bell

Hello! This week our top story covers what Moscow has to gain from the Hamas-Israel conflict and why Putin is openly backing the Palestinians. We also look at a billionaire’s return to Russia amid a new campaign against emigrants, and analyze a new religious appointment for Putin’s personal confessor.

Why Putin is backing Hamas

The Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel were a rare boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian authorities – inasmuch as they pushed Russia’s war in Ukraine off the global front pages. For the first time in many years, Putin showed unambiguous solidarity with Palestine, and took more than a week to offer his formal condolences to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

  • In the Soviet era, the USSR built a legacy of support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its Arab allies against Israel. It’s worth recalling that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, head of Fatah, studied in the Soviet Union, and in 1982 defended his dissertation titled, “The Relationship Between Zionists and Nazis” at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies. However, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia quickly discarded its overt pro-Palestine position and under Putin, Moscow adopted a complex policy of pragmatism in the Middle East, trying to maintain good relations with a range of warring parties: Iran, Israel, the Arab states, Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah.
  • As part of this balancing act, Moscow has never voiced unequivocal support for either side in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, until last week, the relationship between Russia and Israel appeared to be more good than bad. Despite appeals from Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Israel does not supply arms to Ukraine and has not imposed sanctions on Russia. Putin and Israeli premier Netanyahu enjoy a long-standing, cordial personal relationship. At the same time, Russia has long nurtured a cautious friendship with Hamas — a relationship that survived even the civil war in Syria where Russian and Hamas forces were on opposing sides.
  • But this time, Putin has almost entirely thrown his support behind one side – the authorities in Gaza (i.e. Hamas). Although Putin diplomatically stated that Israel “has been subjected to an attack of unprecedented brutality and has a right to self defense,” for a period last week his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were no plans for a direct conversation with Netanyahu. Then finally, on Monday, nine days after the initial Hamas attack, the two leaders had a call, in which Putin offered his "sincere condolences" to the families of Israelis that were killed, said Russia was ready to help achieve a diplomatic solution and that Moscow wanted to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza strip".
  • Speaking publicly last week, Putin compared Israel’s blockade of Gaza with the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad during the Second World War – a particularly powerful condemnation from a Leningrad native. “The Palestinian problem lies in the heart of every Muslim,” Putin said. “They feel it as an injustice elevated to an unbelievable level.” In Putin’s version, blame predictably lies with the United States and its failed Middle East policy. The only solution, for him, is the establishment of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem.
  • In a post on its Telegram channel, Hamas thanked Putin for “his position towards the ongoing Zionist aggression towards our people” and his “opposition to the siege of Gaza.”
  • The reasons for Moscow’s stance are more or less clear — and not just related to Russia’s close relationship with Iran, Hamas’ sponsor. Russia has a greater interest than ever in seeing an escalation in the Middle East. For the first time since Feb. 2022, the war in Ukraine dropped down the global news agenda, and after the Hamas raids, Russia itself ceased to be public enemy No. 1. 
  • Russian TV propaganda is already trying to exploit the situation to extract maximum gain for Russia and the Kremlin’s worldview. Sunday’s edition of the country’s main weekly political show, Vesti Nedeli, devoted an entire segment to the “fake news” allegedly being spread by pro-Israeli Western media outlets. Meanwhile, NTV’s main political program described the same “fake news” as an “Israeli Bucha,” referring to the Russian propaganda stance that the Russian army’s slaughter of civilians in towns near Kyiv was faked. Another segment in Vesti Nedeli was dedicated to Putin’s long-standing claim that Ukraine is arming terrorist groups with the weapons it receives from its Western allies.
  • The new war in the Middle East also raises questions for opponents of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Educated Russians traditionally side with Israel in this conflict, and Palestinians are typically held collectively responsible for the activities of Hamas and other terrorist groups. The latest attacks were the first instance in which Russians who do not support Putin’s war but who protest against collective accountability found themselves in a position similar to the Palestinians, who are widely accused of supporting Hamas terrorists.

Why the world should care

Russia hardly played a significant role in preparing the Hamas attacks on Israel, but without doubt the Kremlin is one of the main political beneficiaries. The emergence of a new burning global issue, especially one that will inevitably preoccupy the US, is bad news for Ukraine and the rest of the world. The Middle East is yet another front for the conflict between Russia and America, and the risk of further escalation between them is increasing.

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Fridman heads home, as pro-war lobby push for punishments against emigrants

Russia’s pro-war lobby last week launched a new campaign against Russian citizens who left the country after the invasion of Ukraine. The speaker of Russia’s Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, proposed conducting checks on those that come back to Russia to ensure they showed no “desire for Nazi victory,” in his words, and had not provided financial support to Ukraine’s military while they were abroad. He also suggested charging them with high treason. Coincidentally, billionaire Mikhail Fridman, the wealthiest Russian businessman who had remained living in the West after the invasion, also announced his return to Russia last week.

  • As the head of Russia’s legislature, Volodin has been a long-term campaigner for imposing new legal restrictions on Russians who oppose the regime. At the start of the year he proposed confiscating real estate belonging to those who have been declared “foreign agents”. That proposal went nowhere, but now Volodin has a new group in his sights: Russian emigrants.
  • “Anyone who left the country and committed vile acts, celebrated shots fired towards Russian territory and wished Kyiv’s bloodstained Nazi regime victory must understand that not only are they not welcome here, but that if they return, Magadan awaits,” Volodin said on Oct. 10. Magadan is a regional center in northeastern Siberia, notorious for its brutal Stalin-era Gulags where huge numbers of prisoners died mining gold in minus 40-degree celsius temperatures.
  • The following day, Volodin fleshed-out his comments, saying that on their return to Russia, emigrants should be investigated for high treason. “This behavior is covered under article 275 of the criminal code on state treason. If they are now starting to return, having previously made statements against this country and even financed the Ukrainian military, of course we must choose the best place to send them right away.” Several deputies followed up Volodin’s remarks with proposals of their own, such as creating a register of “unfriendly emigrants.”
  • Following the terrorist attacks on Israel, propaganda outlets targeted prominent Russians who had moved there. For instance, state media dredged up Instagram posts from Maxim Galkin, a comedian who was dubbed a foreign agent, with RIA Novosti writing: “This showman, who repeatedly allowed himself to insult his colleagues in his performances and criticized the special military operation, ridiculing Russia’s actions, now sees no reason to join the Israeli army.” The former state reformer and one-time liberal icon Anatoly Chubais was another target. Telegram channels first shared photos of Chubais leaving Israel for Dubai (“abandoning his new home in its moment of need”), and then, after it emerged that Chubais had returned to deliver humanitarian aid to the victims of the Hamas attacks, “patriotic” channels started complaining about how he had “never helped our people.”
  • This new campaign against emigrants formed the backdrop to Mikhail Fridman, co-owner of Alfa Group, announcing his own return to Russia. Fridman ranks ninth on Forbes’ list of the wealthiest Russians, with a net worth of $12.6 billion. Lviv-born Fridman spent the better part of a decade moving his money to the West after he relocated to London in 2014. When he was slapped with sanctions last year, he fought back, actively working to recruit Russian opposition figures to help his cause. But those efforts haven’t paid off and this week Fridman announced he was returning to Moscow due to the Hamas attacks, having only just moved to Israel a week earlier.
  • The pro-war lobby immediately pounced on Fridman’s return. Dmitry Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister and now senator for the occupied Zaporizhzhia region wrote to the Investigative Committee urging a probe into Fridman on suspicion of funding Ukraine’s military. Several Duma deputies wrote similar requests to the Prosecutor General.
  • Putin himself even commented on the oligarch’s return. The president, who has often mocked businessmen who transferred their money to the West and then found their assets frozen under sanctions, said: “I don’t see anything immoral here,” and that everybody has the right to choose their place of residence. Pointedly, however, he added that if somebody has violated the law, they should be held accountable, and that accountability doesn’t stop with the letter of the law. “It is one thing to break a law, but another to violate some moral and ethical standards in respect of one’s homeland. If the overwhelming majority of citizens believe that somebody behaved immorally towards Russia, of course they will feel that when they come back here,” he said. These words could indirectly suggest that Fridman has committed no crime, but remains liable for public condemnation.

Why the world should care

After 18 months of war, the Russian authorities have yet to push widespread repercussions for people who left the country – but this may well be included in any preparation for further rounds of mobilization. Many Russian billionaires will be watching Fridman’s fate closely. If Putin visibly forgives him, it could encourage other wavering businessmen to join the pro-war lobby.

Putin’s priest gets a Crimean flock

Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the Russian Orthodox Church has been named the religious leader of occupied Crimea. Officially, the move to name Metropolitan Tikhon as head of the Church's Metropolis of Crimea represents a second successive demotion for Tikhon (whose secular name is Georgiy Shevkunov). That should be seen as no surprise — Patriarch Kirill sees Shevkunov as his most dangerous rival. However, Crimea is a politically significant diocese and this appointment could be a springboard to regain influence within the Church.

  • Officially, Tikhon holds no high office in the Russian Orthodox Church. Informally, his influence is regarded as second only to the patriarch. He is known as Putin’s confessor and while the true extent of the pair’s closeness is unclear, they have known each other since the early 2000s and certainly enjoy a good personal relationship.
  • Tikhon — one of the brightest figures in the Russian church, a cinematography graduate and writer — has been a central driver behind Russia’s resurgent patriotic ideology under Putin. In particular, he promoted the creation of patriotic multimedia parks and museums throughout the country, under the label “Russia: My history” — a project to which the government allocated hundreds of millions of dollars and where Putin is a regular visitor (1, 2, 3).
  • Tikhon’s previous post was as Metropolitan in Pskov, one of Russia’s oldest cities, but now a poor provincial town. He was sent there in 2018 as Patriarch Kirill sought to move him away from Moscow’s Sretensky Monastery and dilute his influence on the president. That plan achieved little: from the very start, Putin paid high-profile visits to Tikhon in Pskov, and this spring he joined the president on a visit to Crimea, where the cleric is overseeing the creation of the Tauride Chersonese archaeological park (on which the government has spent $200 million).
  • Tikhon’s appointment to Crimea has experts guessing whether the move is a promotion or a push further into exile. In calculated comments, he himself compared his new role with being sent to exile in Kolyma – part of the same Siberian Gulag prison region where Volodin proposed sending enemies of the people and disloyal emigrants. In terms of the church hierarchy, Crimea is by no means an important diocese and would not normally be likely to provide the next patriarch. However, it is a hugely important political appointment. Tikhon will almost certainly fall under Western sanctions for taking the position and — along with his experience working in the occupied territories — this is a significant bonus for his future career back in Moscow. Moreover, Putin is sure to be a regular visitor to Crimea, giving ample opportunity to continue fostering and establishing influence with the president.

Why the world should care

The Orthodox Church – and Tikhon Shevkunov in particular – represents a powerful force in the development of Russia’s state-led patriotic ideology, which, in turn, is a major driver of the war in Ukraine.


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