Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin ((AP/Adel Hana; Alexey Maishev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) (AP/Adel Hana; Alexey Maishev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
Ismail Haniyeh, Vladimir Putin

“The question is whether this is an effort to legitimize and recruit Hamas to be part of that broader coalition. Or is this for show, or something else entirely?” said Jonathan Schanzer.

By David Isaac, JNS

Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh arrived in Moscow on Sept. 10 at the head of a senior delegation from the terror group for talks with Russian officials.

Analysts speculate that Moscow’s invitation to Hamas, like an earlier one in May, is meant to send a message of dissatisfaction to Israel.

“The Russians typically use meetings with Hamas to signal displeasure with Israel, perhaps in relation to Ukraine,” Hillel Frisch, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), told JNS.

A noteworthy aspect of the May meeting is that it came a month after Israel Prime Minister Yair Lapid, then foreign minister, accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine, specifically in relation to alleged atrocities committed outside Kyiv.

Of the current meeting, Frisch said it was unclear what specifically Russia may have found objectionable about Israeli statements or actions.

Anna Geifman, senior researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s department of political science, told JNS that it might be a general warning, a way for Russia to tell Israel that if it takes a “wrong step” it will strengthen relations with the region’s hostile actors. “The message may be: ‘If you become our enemy, we’re going to deal with your enemies,’ ” she said.

For Geifman, the important point is that this isn’t something new. “The Russians have always played the anti-Israel, or anti-Western, card whenever it was convenient for them, from the Soviet days. They’ve always talked to terrorists. It’s not even a question of talking—it’s collaborating,” she said.

Noting that the Soviet Union set up special schools to train terrorists, Geifman said not much has changed despite 25 years of “supposed democracy.”

“You can call them anything you like. Maybe they’re not Soviets, but if they act along the same old patterns, they’re the same old bad actors,” she said.

Moscow’s Shrinking World

Another reason for the Russian embrace of Hamas is that its options in terms of international diplomacy have shrunk, as Russia has become a “pariah” on the world stage with its invasion of Ukraine.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin has no one who wants to play with him. So he’s happy to invite anyone. And, not surprisingly, it’s going be someone with whom no one wants to play either,” said Geifman.

Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), agreed that this partly explains Moscow’s actions. “You’re looking at a government that wants to demonstrate its ability to engage diplomatically around the world, amid an ongoing battle in Ukraine,” he told JNS.

“Perhaps it is an act of desperation, an effort by Putin to try to seek some legitimacy, or to demonstrate that he’s still a world leader who’s in demand, but it certainly strikes me as an odd choice given that it’s not as if Hamas can provide legitimacy,” he added.

“That’s some of the context, but I would actually argue that this move is a very deliberate attempt to demonstrate that there is a growing alliance that is taking shape around the world,” he said.

It appears that Putin is building an axis of like-minded governments and entities, Schanzer said. “It really does look like he is working to create a new revisionist axis that already includes the Iranians, includes China potentially, and includes North Korea.”

“The question is whether this is an effort to legitimize and recruit Hamas to be part of that broader coalition. Or is this for show, or something else entirely?” said Schanzer. “The bottom line is that there is no clear, mutual interest between these two actors. Russia doesn’t have very clear interests as it relates to the Gaza Strip.”

“It is a bit of a jolt that a Russian leader who’s largely isolated on the world stage and looking for new ways to engage appears to be legitimizing and elevating Hamas with this meeting,” he said.

Schanzer also agreed that Russia may intend the meeting as a disapproving signal to Israel. “Perhaps there’s an escalation ladder that Putin is climbing: ‘If you continue to malign me diplomatically, this is what you’re going to get in return.”

In terms of an Israeli reaction, he expects that if there is one, it will be “via private channels” given how carefully the Israelis have been acting due to Russia’s presence in Syria. If Russia promises Hamas something in terms of weaponry, the Israeli reaction might change, he said, but he sees that as an unlikely scenario given that Russia is not in a position where it has weapons to spare.

Geifman agreed: “Israel will have to be careful primarily because of the Russians in Syria. Israel must have a free hand there as much as possible because of Iran and Hezbollah. And I don’t think Russia is going to invest in Hamas. And even if they give them weapons, they won’t be good weapons.”