Jamie Dettmer serves as the opinion editor and Christian Oliver is the head of news for POLITICO Europe.
On the day of Vladimir Putin’s birthday, Hamas launched a violent attack against Israel.
The unexpected security crisis in the Middle East may have been seen as a positive event for the Russian president, whose main goal is to shift focus and support away from Ukraine. A significant conflict in Israel could achieve just that.
The primary concern is determining the level of responsibility the Kremlin bears for the simultaneous emergence of multiple crises in Israel, Kosovo, the Caucasus, and Africa that are posing challenges for America and Europe. Some may be inclined to view Putin as a skilled strategist or manipulator, deliberately inciting more conflicts than the Western world is equipped to handle.
To be honest, Putin did not start these crises, but he is currently content to worsen them and use them to his benefit. He is enjoying the disorder. The Kremlin’s boastful propagandists are already promoting the idea that a war in the Middle East is a victory for Russia and that financial support for Ukraine will diminish.
According to an EU diplomat, this gift was likely the best birthday present for Putin. The assault on Israel will shift focus away from other issues, particularly due to the US’s natural focus on Israel.
We anticipate that this will not significantly impact the backing for Ukraine. However, the duration of the conflict in the Middle East will also play a role. If we aim to be a political force in Europe, we must be capable of handling multiple crises simultaneously.
It is expected that the recent attacks by Hamas on Israel will shift the attention of the United States away from Ukraine, as the country has been preoccupied with the aftermath of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s removal by a faction of Republican conservatives who have been pushing to reduce aid to Ukraine. The competition to replace McCarthy is currently underway, which may hinder the Biden administration’s efforts to secure congressional support for providing more aid to Israel.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is concerned that the West may lose interest in Kyiv. He has been emphasizing the alliance between Iran and Russia, and framing the fight against Russia as equivalent to the struggle against Islamist militants. Zelenskyy referenced Israeli journalists who visited Ukraine and compared the actions of Russia to those of a terrorist organization attacking Israel, stating that Ukraine is facing a terrorist state.
The Kremlin gloats
What is the extent of Russian involvement?
Let’s begin with the Hamas assaults. Russia has been actively seeking the favor of the Islamist militants, as evidenced by recent visits to Moscow by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and other officials. Following the attacks on Saturday, Russian officials were quick to revive past plans to revert Israel’s borders back to their 1967 state. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov remarked that the U.S.’s “destructive policy” was hindering the establishment of a Palestinian state, and one could almost sense a smug satisfaction when former President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed the Hamas attacks as “predictable” and redirected criticism towards the Western world.
“He mocked the U.S. for not actively trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and instead interfering in Ukraine and supporting neo-Nazis, causing tension between two closely related groups.”
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, expressed his satisfaction that funding for Ukraine would decrease. He stated, “The flow of weapons to the Kyiv government will now decrease in terms of fact, emotion, finance, and technology.”
Is there any indication that Russia was directly involved in the attacks? This seems unlikely. In terms of Hamas’ weapons and funding, Iran is much more significant than Russia.
According to former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official Norman Roule, Moscow’s backing of Hamas has given the group the confidence to engage in violent actions. However, he believes that Russia’s involvement in this matter is likely to be minimal. Roule stated to POLITICO that this approach allows Russia to appear supportive of peace efforts, but the resulting violence creates chaos in the region, deflects attention from their aggressive actions in Ukraine, and causes U.S. naval forces to shift from the Black Sea to the eastern Mediterranean.
The flirtations with Hamas and support for the Palestinians also help Putin with his push to style himself as an important player in a global realignment against the West with the likes of China and Iran. Just days ago, he said that Russia’s intention was to “build a new world,” blaming the West for the war in Ukraine and said the conflict was being fought over “the principles on which the new world order will be based.”
Iran, Russia’s ally and primary provider of military support, desires a new global system. However, it is uncertain how much influence Tehran has over Hamas and their actions. Roule believes that while Tehran may not have been involved in the planning of the attack, they play a crucial role in creating and using proxies. He compares this to creating a destructive force and setting it loose on a community.
The Russian government is content with the strategy of exacerbating global geopolitical tensions.
There is currently a crisis occurring in the Caucasus region.
Critics of Putin are accusing him of intentionally creating a crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in the Southern Caucasus, which led to over 100,000 ethnic Armenians fleeing their ancestral homeland after a 24-hour military attack by Azerbaijan on September 19th and 20th.
Once more, it is a complicated situation. Some have portrayed the disaster as a reflection of Russian vulnerability – that Moscow was unable to ensure the safety of Armenians against the attacks from Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey.
On the contrary, Russia appears to be implying that it intentionally stopped providing support to the Armenians in Karabakh in order to put pressure on the U.S. and EU to assist with the influx of refugees. The underlying message from Moscow is that they are punishing Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for reneging on his alliance with Russia and attempting to steer his country towards a more western path.
It is probable that Putin had a part to play in this situation. Experienced analysts believe it is unlikely that Azerbaijan would have deployed its troops without approval from Moscow. It is also unlikely that the Russians would not have intervened with Iran, a historical enemy of Azerbaijan, to ease tensions regarding potential border changes in the South Caucasus.
By chance or not, while Azerbaijan’s military progressed, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was in Tehran discussing with high-ranking Iranian military and security leaders, such as Mohammad Bagheri, the head of the Iranian armed forces, and Amir Ali Hajizadeh, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division.
It’s not far-fetched to imagine that Nagorno-Karabakh was mentioned in conversations.
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, strongly suggests that he holds Putin responsible for the crisis in the Caucasus. He stated that the Armenians felt betrayed due to the lack of action from Russian peacekeepers.
After four days of Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, a bold and surprising altercation between armed Serbs and police unfolded in the village of Banjska in the northern Kosovo municipality of Zvečan. Kosovo has pointed fingers at Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić for orchestrating the attack, while some believe that far-right Serbian ultranationalists, who have strong connections with Moscow, were behind it.
Kosovars and Albanians have long argued that Russia is the primary force in trying to trigger a new war in the Balkans. Only last month, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said Russia was seizing on tensions over Kosovo to justify its “neo-imperial dreams.”
Whether Putin gets directly involved or not, a flare-up in the Balkans would clearly be in Russia’s interest, adding another major distraction for a tiring West that’s already having difficulty maintaining its coherence and unity.
In 2018, during a testimony to a panel in Congress, Henry Kissinger, a former U.S. Secretary of State who is well-versed in political maneuvering, rejected the idea that the numerous crises occurring in different regions were mere coincidences.
He cautioned that the older patterns of competition among powerful nations are resurfacing.
Reporting for this article was provided by Barbara Moens and Veronika Melkozerova.