Reading between the lines of Russia’s official statements on Hamas, it’s arguably the case that Moscow prefers Fatah over that group but still maintains ties with the latter for pragmatic reasons owing to its control of the Gaza Strip. Unlike Hamas, Fatah isn’t designated as a terrorist group by anyone nowadays, it’s recognized by the international community as Palestine’s legitimate representatives, and it also recognizes Israel’s right to exist, all of which Russia approves of.
One of the most viral fake news narratives that’s proliferated across the global information ecosystem since the start of the latest Israeli-Hamas war is that Russia’s ties with the latter imply endorsement of it. Photographs of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meeting with the group’s political leadership during their visits to Moscow in the past have been spun as either proof that the Kremlin had a hand in its sneak attack earlier this month or at the very least favors it over Israel. Both perceptions are flat-out false.
The reality is that Russia maintains ties with Hamas for pragmatic reasons owing to the fact that it controls the Gaza Strip, which is legally supposed to be part of a future independent Palestinian state per relevant UNSC Resolutions. These relations are purely political, not military or strategic, and they’re intended to facilitate Moscow’s efforts to revive the stalled peace process with a view towards ideally mediating a solution to this long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict in that event.
The following pieces explain Russia’s balanced approach towards this conflict citing official sources:
These details add context to Russian officials’ explicit condemnation of Hamas’ terrorist activities.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on 11 October that “Of course, one cannot help but condemn acts that cannot be called anything other than terrorism” and then added that “We need to stop terrorist attacks”. That same day, Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov declared that “The terrorist methods that Hamas militants used at the beginning stages of the confrontation certainly must be condemned; this is non-negotiable.”
Several days later, spokeswoman for the Russian Embassy in Israel Marina Ryazanova told TASS that “the number of dead Russian citizens, who also had Israeli citizenship, has risen to 16 people” and that “The updated lists of missing persons provided by the Israeli side include eight Russian citizens.” In other words, Hamas is guilty of slaughtering (dual) Russian citizens during their terrorist attack, but Moscow won’t designate them as terrorists since that would undermine its envisaged mediation role.
Ambassador Viktorov justified this pragmatic approach during a press conference on 17 October by reminding everyone that “First, there is no international recognition of Hamas as a terrorist organization, <…> Hamas is not on the UN list of terrorist organizations either.” At the same time, however, he also clarified that “Our maintaining communication with some representatives of Hamas does not in any way whatsoever mean that we support such [terrorist] actions.”
Despite Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip for over a decade and a half, it’s important to note that President Putin isn’t convinced that they’ve won over everyone’s hearts and minds there. He mentioned during a press conference in Bishkek on October 13 that “Not all of [Gaza’s residents] support Hamas, by the way”. The Russian leader is also aware that Hamas isn’t supported by all Palestinians either since those in the West Bank are represented by Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.
Palestinian Ambassador to Russia Abdel Hafiz Nofal told Russian media last week that “There is a big difference between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. They are two different things altogether. The Palestinian Authority is part of the international community. We have an embassy in Russia, we have embassies all over the world, we are recognized by more than 140 countries, so there is a big difference between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.”
President Putin is obviously aware of this and that’s why he recently had a call with President Abbas but hasn’t talked to the Fatah leader’s Hamas counterpart, nor is he likely to do so either after his group killed Russian (dual) citizens during its terrorist attack. He also touched upon those two’s differences during his press conference in Beijing after the Belt & Road Initiative Forum when he was asked about this by a reporter. Here’s what President Putin said according to the official Kremlin website:
“There are differences within the Palestinian community, between the West Bank and Gaza. But I would not go as far as to call them antagonistic towards one another…This does not mean however that there is no need for them to build closer contacts. This does not mean that the Palestinian community, or society, does not need to strive for its unity. Of course, this is what the Palestinians must strive for. But this is their business. We cannot manage this process.”
Reading between the lines of all the official Russian statements on Hamas that have been shared thus far, it’s arguably the case that Moscow prefers Fatah over that group but still maintains ties with the latter for pragmatic reasons owing to its control of the Gaza Strip. Unlike Hamas, Fatah isn’t designated as a terrorist group by anyone nowadays, it’s recognized by the international community as Palestine’s legitimate representatives, and it also recognizes Israel’s right to exist, all of which Russia approves of.
This insight suggests that Russia supports the scenario of Fatah one day regaining control of the Gaza Strip from Hamas, ideally through democratic means but it probably wouldn’t object to this happening in the aftermath of the latest conflict either. That’s not to imply that Russia wants Israel to forcefully carry out regime change there since it’s proven through its unsuccessful ceasefire proposal that it wants the fighting to end as soon as possible, but just that it would still find a way to promote peace in that case.
Since Hamas’ destruction by Israel can’t be taken for granted, it would be premature for Russia to cut off ties with that group by designating it as terrorists despite them carrying out indisputable acts of terrorism, including against over a dozen Russian (dual) citizens. The Kremlin’s priority is to present itself as a truly neutral actor in this latest war in order to revive the stalled peace process with a view towards ideally mediating a solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This noble goal necessitates maintaining pragmatic ties with all parties otherwise there’s no chance that the US’ monopoly over the peace process, which Moscow regards as responsible for failing to resolve the aforesaid long-running conflict during the heyday of its unipolar hegemony, will be broken. Relations with Hamas are therefore seen by Russia as a diplomatic means to this end, not as anything deeper since it’s repulsed by the group’s terrorism, and it arguably prefers Fatah if forced to choose between them.