The official Hamas Telegram channel was effusive in its praise: “In the name of God the most merciful . . . we welcome Russia’s tireless efforts to halt the brutal and systematic Zionist aggression against our Palestinian people.”
Over the subsequent week, Hamas issued 10 additional statements lauding Putin, framing him as a valorous counterweight to Western aggression — much as Putin imagines himself.
Yet, within Russia, the initial jubilation over diverting Western attention from Ukraine has evolved into something closer to unease. Russia has invested heavily in building relations with Hamas allies Iran and Syria and has given a nod and a wink to Hamas terrorism, which is sometimes executed with Russian weapons. Having stoked the fires of regional conflict, the Kremlin now confronts the possibility that it too could suffer from the conflagration.
Russian sway in the Middle East has been won with weapons. In 1989, the ayatollahs overcame their distrust of communism to ink an arms pact with the Soviet Union, a relationship that ballooned to $4bn in trade by the time Putin took the reins. Syria has equipped its military with Russian hardware since the Cold War, a partnership that intensified under Putin’s leadership. Some of those arms made their way to Hamas, with Russia looking the other way. When the terrorist group came to power in Gaza in 2006, Russia was the only member of the International Quartet to grant it recognition.
The Syrian civil war acted as a crucible for Russia’s relationships with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Although Hamas did not engage in the conflict — instead publicly disavowing Assad before a reconciliation brokered by Iran — Russia fought alongside Hezbollah, linking Russia with the Iran-led “axis of resistance.” (The Kremlin has meanwhile also given the nod to years of Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria, which have caused substantial damage to both.)
Regardless, Hamas proved its loyalty in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, making clear that its fight was Russia’s fight. A Hamas political bureau member declared the war signaled the end of the American unipolar order and with it the end of Zionism. Hamas leadership would receive two more invitations to the Kremlin over the following year.
The presence of Russian weapons in Hamas’s arsenal, the relatively cozy relationship, and the open praise now coming from Hamas have led to widespread rumors of more significant covert support. On Ekho Moskvy, a liberal though state-owned radio station, a political scientist claimed Russia had provided intelligence, and, via the Wagner Group, training and weapons to Hamas, a claim echoed by Ukraine’s National Resistance Center. Israel has been hit on all sides by cyberattacks, including some originating from “patriotic hacker” groups that often do the Kremlin’s bidding.
Russia is now calling for an unconditional ceasefire. While this is an unambiguously pro-Hamas position — saving the terrorist group’s brutal rule and allowing it to recoup its force in preparation for its next attack — it represents restraint compared to other “axis of resistance” members who are calling for unified Islamic war to eject infidels from the holy land.
Despite Moscow’s longstanding dalliances with Islamist groups, there’s palpable concern over the potential for further chaos and extremism. Russia was the home of more foreign fighters joining ISIS than any other country, and the North Caucasian ethnic groups that formed the bulk of these terrorist recruits are the same people bearing the brunt of the war in Ukraine.
Whether or not suspicions of clandestine backing prove true, Russia has long-established lines of communication with Hamas. Having seen its partner’s genocidal aims were more than just talk, the Kremlin now grapples with the volatility embedded in its own strategy of fomenting chaos.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which tracks authoritarian influence online.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.