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Israel-Hamas: Russia's Opening?

Israel-Hamas: Russia's Opening?

As the world focuses on the Middle East, the Kremlin sees opportunity in Ukraine.

Nikola Mikovic

Bogged down in Ukraine, Russia hopes that the ongoing Israel-Hamas war will distract Western attention from Moscow’s actions in the Eastern European country. There are fears in Kyiv that—if the conflict in the Middle East escalates—the United States might eventually stop providing the Ukrainian Armed Forces with weapons, or at least significantly reduce its military and economic support to Ukraine. But how likely is such an outcome?

The recent developments in Israel and Gaza have already affected Ukraine’s position in the global media, which had been featured prominently since February 24, 2022. International media coverage of the war in Eastern Europe has dropped markedly following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7: news of a Russian large-scale assault on the town of Avdiivka in the Donbas—a place that has a symbolic and strategic importance for Kyiv, and which is located near the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk—went relatively unnoticed. Although Russia appears to have launched a “renewed offensive” against Ukrainian troops on several sections of the 600-mile front line, this war has now fallen into the background for large parts of the global audience.   

Nevertheless, that does not mean that the West intends to abandon Kyiv or that it will give up on its support to Ukraine. Since 2014, the United States alone has provided more than $46.7 billion in security assistance for training and equipment to help the Eastern European nation. There are indications suggesting that Washington plans to continue providing military aid to Ukraine even if the conflict in the Middle East escalates. However, White House national-security spokesman John Kirby did recently hint that, in the long-term, Washington might have to change its approach regarding the war in Ukraine.

“We’re coming near to the end of the rope. Today we announced $200 million in additional military aid for Ukraine, and we’ll keep that aid going as long as we can, but it’s not going to be indefinite,” Kirby emphasized on October 11. 

On the other hand, Russia has reportedly started purchasing military equipment and munitions from North Korea, a move that is unlikely to be a game-changer in and of itself, although it will almost certainly allow the Kremlin to continue conducting local offensive military actions in the Donbas as well as in the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. But if the Israel-Hamas conflicts leads to a wider war in the Middle East, and Iran takes direct action, Moscow may no longer be able to count on drone supplies from the Islamic Republic. As a result, the Ukraine war could turn into a semi-frozen conflict similar to the Donbas war between 2015 and 2022.

Hypothetically, the Kremlin could use a Western preoccupation with the conflict in the Middle East to resolve at least some of its tactical goals in Ukraine. At this point, however, the Russian military does not seem to have the capacity to launch any large-scale offensive or to capture any major Ukrainian cities. Moreover, it is rather questionable that there is the political will in Moscow to “fight until victory.” This does not, of course, foreclose the possibility in the short-term of local assaults in the Donbas and southern Ukraine.

But unless the West completely halts its military aid to Ukraine, Russia cannot achieve any of its strategic goals in the Eastern European nation. The larger problem for Kyiv, however, is the fact that Western public opinion is no longer interested in the Ukraine war as it was in 2022. A portion of Americans in particular are growing weary of providing support to Kyiv. Additionally worrisome is Europe and its actions regarding the ongoing Russian invasion. European Union leaders have recently made it perfectly clear that the bloc “will not be able to fully replace the American support for the war-torn country.” More importantly, Ukrainian neighbor Hungary has a history of blocking EU military aid to Kyiv. Budapest openly threatens to withdraw its support to Ukraine. Further, Poland—Kyiv’s staunchest ally in the past—has reportedly stopped sending arms to Ukraine amid a diplomatic dispute over its grain exports.

If the current circumstances persist, Ukraine may have a hard time resuming the counteroffensive it launched in early June. Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as Kremlin top officials, are claiming that Kyiv’s attempts to recapture territory in southeastern Ukraine have “failed completely.” Ukrainian analysts, on the other hand, believe that the country’s military is not heavily dependent on the Western-made weapons and equipment, and that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have enough necessary resources for defense. Since the winter is coming, Russia is unlikely to launch a major offensive (not including local military operations) at least until the springtime. In the meantime, the world is expected to be focused on the Middle East. And that is exactly what the Kremlin is hoping for. 

Although Moscow reportedly seeks to preserve good relations with both the Israel and the Arab world, Kremlin propaganda seems to have taken an indirect pro-Hamas stance. Besides ridiculing those Russian businessmen and artists who have fled the country and moved to Israel since 2022, opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pro-Kremlin propagandists’ major narrative is also suggesting that America's Middle East policy has “failed,” and that Washington will not be able to arm both Ukraine and Israel. 

Vladimir Dzhabarov, Russia’s First Deputy Head of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs, is confident that, as a result of the war between Israel and Hamas, Western countries will reduce aid to Ukraine. Military experts in Kyiv do not rule out such an outcome, and point out that the war-torn country may have to change its plans and begin to reduce ammunition expenditure. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fears that, if the West cuts its security assistance to his country, time will be on the Russian side. 

Unless the United States and its allies—despite the situation in the Middle East—find a way to continue providing military assistance to Ukraine, the Russian military might regain the initiative on the ground, putting the Ukrainian Armed Forces in a difficult position. But Kyiv can find hope that it will not be left entirely alone against Russia in U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin’s statement that the United States will “remain able to project power and to direct resources to tackle crises in multiple theaters.”

In the long-term, however, the outcome of the Ukraine war might very well depend on the situation in the Middle East. 

Nikola Mikovic is a Serbian journalist and political analyst, focusing on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin in a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov. (Kremlin Press Office)

Eastern EuropeDemocracyMiddle EastRussiaUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy