Op-edIsolated Russia needs Iran now more than Iran needs Russia

Russia’s priorities are clear after Netanyahu-Putin call, and Israel isn’t one of them

A 50-minute conversation between the two leaders on Sunday won’t yield any change — because as Russia has long demonstrated, it has picked a side

Ksenia Svetlova

Executive Director ROPES (Regional Organization For Peace, Economics & Security); Senior non-resident fellow Atlantic Council; former member of Knesset (Hatnua)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements, after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements, after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped out of his government’s weekly cabinet meeting to take a nearly hour-long call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Almost before it had concluded, each side had already published its own version of how the conversation went.

Netanyahu’s office mentioned criticizing Moscow’s alliance with Iran and expressing dissatisfaction with its stance on Israel’s war with Hamas. The issue of the Israeli hostages in Gaza was also discussed.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, highlighted “the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip,” saying that Putin insisted Israel’s military response to the Hamas terror onslaught cannot lead “to such dire consequences for the civilian population.”

As the call took place, Russia’s veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was speaking at the Doha Forum. Referring to the war in Gaza, he said that Russia “strongly condemned the terrorist attack against Israel on October 7.”

But, he added, “at the same time, we do not believe it is acceptable to use this event for the collective punishment of the millions of Palestinian people with indiscriminate shelling.”

On one hand, the explicit use of the words “terrorist attack” regarding the Hamas-led slaughter that took place on October 7 can be considered a slight improvement over Putin’s initial statement on the massacre in which thousands of terrorists stormed through the border with Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping roughly 240 more to the Gaza Strip.

In that previous comment, issued during a conversation with Netanyahu a full 10 days after the onslaught, Putin simply condemned “any action of which the civilian population becomes victims.”

Yet, as Russia attempts to maintain its long-held balancing act in the Middle East with Putin’s hosting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last week and calling Netanyahu on Sunday, it’s doubtful that its current policy on Israel, Hamas and Iran will change significantly.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during their meeting in the Kremlin on December 7, 2023, in Moscow. (Sergei Bobylyov/Pool/AFP)

“Hamas carried out a terrorist attack on October 7, which we immediately condemned. Hamas has a political branch operating in Doha, and we have a relationship with that political branch, and we immediately contacted the people in Doha to discuss the fate of the people taken hostage,” Lavrov said Sunday during his speech in the Qatari capital, demonstrating how Russia differentiates between the terror organization’s armed and political wings.

Unlike dozens of other radical Islamist organizations and movements, Hamas is not banned in Russia, nor is it recognized as a terrorist organization. Russia has maintained relations with Hamas’s political wing since the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, maintaining that since Hamas is not on the United Nations list of terrorist organizations, there is no imperative for Russia to designate it as such at home.

Senior Hamas official Ghazi Hamad speaks in an interview with Lebanese channel LBC on October 24, 2023. (Screenshot: X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israel flatly rejects this differentiation — in regard to Lebanese terror group Hezbollah as well as to Hamas — insisting that the political leaders who incite people to violence and finance the terror are just as responsible as the perpetrators of the attacks. After all, it was Ghazi Hamad, a senior member of Hamas’s political bureau, who recently pledged to repeat the massacres of October 7 “again and again” until Israel is eradicated.

But what’s even more significant for Israel is that Russian-Iranian ties are flourishing as the two countries become increasingly dependent on each other.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, center, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose for a photo at the Saadabad palace, in Tehran, Iran, July 19, 2022. (Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The Kremlin is yet to confirm the finalization of a deal to sell Iran its state-of-the-art SU-35 fighter jets, as well as Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters and Yakovlev Yak-130 jet trainers (as reported in Iran’s state-run media), but it relies heavily on Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones for its war against Ukraine and has started producing and modernizing the drones on its own soil with Iranian-supplied parts.

While Iran has sought Russia’s partnership for years and was often rebuffed, today it seems that an isolated Russia needs Iran more than the other way around.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, greet each other as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stands at right, during their meeting in Tehran, Iran, July 19, 2022. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

With no end to the war in Ukraine in sight, Russian reliance on countries such as Turkey and Iran for trade and military equipment is likely to grow. If Netanyahu had counted on Putin’s warm feelings toward Israel and the Jewish people to prevent him from courting the Jewish state’s worst enemies, then Russia’s ties with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Iranian proxies are sobering evidence that warm feelings don’t stand in the way of Russian interests and realpolitik.

Israel belongs to the Western camp, while Russia aspires to lead the anti-West bloc. It seems probable that the sides will increasingly move further away from each other.

The writer, a former member of Knesset, is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and executive director of ROPES.

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