Russia and Iran as new axis against the West
While many world leaders clearly condemned the barbaric attack of October 7, Russia demonstratively refrained from doing so. At the same time, Moscow stepped-up its own rhetoric towards Israel and sees the conflict as a welcomed distraction from its own war of aggression in Ukraine. In the interview, Russia expert Arkady Mil-Man from the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) explains the impact of the attack on Russian-Israeli relations, Russia's role in the Middle East and why the West needs to rethink its policy towards Iran.
How would you describe the new reality unfolding in the region since October 7? What has changed? What needs to change?
The brutal attack on Israel on October 7 created a dramatic and substantial change in the country. Israel experienced a ruthless attack carried out by extremist Islamist terrorists that shocked many Israeli citizens with its cruelty, and the sense of security among the Israeli population was shaken. Israel will need to conduct a thorough investigation to examine how such an attack was able to take place and make changes to its policies accordingly.
The entire region witnessed the outcomes of radical Islamism, and there must be regional changes as the existence of terrorist groups in the area is no longer tolerable. These terrorist organizations pose a threat not only to Israel, but also to the entire free world.
How likely do you see that the current Gaza War will turn into a more significant regional conflict? Perhaps even into a global conflict?
The aggressive rhetoric of all extremist voices in the Middle East is highly dangerous. However, Israel hopes that the conflict will not escalate to the entire region and certainly not to a global war. The United States and European countries are also not interested in expanding the conflict to additional areas. Therefore, the United States has conveyed very sharp and clear messages to Iran and its proxy entities, including Hezbollah, that they should not interfere and open another front. Otherwise, the U.S. will intervene and act forcefully against them. As of now, it seems that the message has been delivered. The world needs to understand that we are in a confrontation between the free world and radical Islamistic forces, and the solution will not be straightforward.
Israel used to have close relations with Russia, how has the relationship changed over the years and what are the main factors for this?
Historically, diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union experienced prolonged periods of interruption, with restoration occurring only in the final years of the Soviet Union's existence. In the initial years following the dissolution of the USSR, Israel and Russia had to establish their relations anew, with very optimistic expectations on both sides. However, when Yevgeni Primakov assumed the position of foreign minister in 1996 and later prime minister in 1998, Russia's focus shifted towards strengthening its ties with Arab countries rather than Israel.
When Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000, there was another shift, and he enhanced Russian-Israeli relations, and during Putin's first years in office, the relations between Israel and Russia flourished. In 2003, after the American-led invasion of Iraq, Putin decided to modify Russia's relations with the West, a change that was evident in his famous speech in Munich in 2007. Putin's good ties with Ariel Sharon and later Benjamin Netanyahu strengthened the personal relations of the two countries' leaders. In 2015, the Russian military intervention in Syria led to an army coordination between Israel and Russia.
During the war in Ukraine, Israel attempted to maintain a neutral stance to safeguard two fundamental interests. Firstly, to ensure the continued freedom of operation in Syrian airspace to counter Iranian forces, preventing their expansion in Syria and the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. Secondly, to secure the well-being of the Jewish community in Russia. After the war crimes in Bucha and Irpin, Israel condemned these actions but still sought to maintain a neutral position to safeguard its interests. The current government under the leadership of Netanyahu continued the line of neutrality, but the events of October 7 represent a turning point. While many world leaders have condemned the murderous attack on October 7, Russia has adopted an anti-Israel line and refrained from condemning Hamas.
Can you characterize Russia's relationship with Hamas? What is the Russian interest in this war, and what can we expect from Moscow?
The relationship between Russia and Hamas has not always been as close as it is today. Throughout the 1990s and until Hamas's victory in the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Russia condemned the organization's terrorist activities. It referred to its members as Islamist militants, fanatics, and extremists. The relationship changed dramatically after the election when Putin declared that the organization was elected through a democratic and legitimate process. Russian Foreign Ministry officials began meeting regularly with Hamas representatives in 2006.
Moscow's main goal at this time is to divert the attention of the West, under the leadership of the United States, away from Ukraine. Increasing U.S. involvement in events in the Middle East serves this goal. At the same time, Russia blames the United States for the outbreak of the current conflict and aspires to restore its standing as an influential actor on the international stage, and thus is attempting to promote a ceasefire in Gaza.
For Hamas, ties with Russia are also significant, as it presents the organization as being welcomed in one of the most important capitals in the world. In principle, Moscow has clung to its position that Hamas – defined as a terrorist organization by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other members of the European Union – is a legitimate political organization.
Comments from senior Hamas officials shed much light on how close the organization is to Russia. For example, in an October 8 interview with Russia Today, a state-run media outlet, senior Hamas official Ali Baraka said that Hamas had updated Moscow about the attack shortly after it began. During the war, when a delegation of senior Hamas officials visited Moscow, Mousa Abu Marzook [editor’s note: Mousa Abu Marzook is a member of Hamas's political bureau and has been known as second in command of the terror organisation] said, "We look at Russia as our closest friend." After the visit, Hamas thanked Putin and the Russian Foreign Ministry for their efforts to halt "the Israeli violence against the Palestinian people."
There is evidence that Russian weapons have been found in Hamas's possession, including anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air missiles that apparently were transported via Iran – while Russia turned a blind eye. In addition, in the same interview with Russia Today, Baraka claimed that Russia had given Hamas a license to manufacture its own modified version of the AK-47 (Kalashnikov) assault rifle and ammunition. Hamas's armed wing uses Russian servers. On the economic front, too, it is evident that Hamas relies heavily on the Russian crypto market, sending tens of millions of dollars into digital wallets controlled by Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) while bypassing U.S. sanctions. According to Ukrainian reports, the Wagner Group helped to train Hamas terrorists.
At the end of October, Putin declared that “the fate of Russia and, indeed, of the whole world, including the future of the Palestinian people, is being decided on the Ukrainian front”. By connecting the two conflicts, Putin is clearly putting Russia on the side of Hamas and Israel on the opposing side, alongside the United States and the West. In effect, Putin has validated U.S. President Joe Biden's statement that Russia and Hamas are waging a war against democracy.
Many describe Hamas as an Iranian proxy. Should this war be seen as a proxy war between Israel and Iran? Or maybe a proxy war against the West?
Undoubtedly, there are close relations between Hamas and Iran, encompassing financial support and means of warfare. Iran's relations with its proxy organizations differ in nature. While Hezbollah's alignment with Iran is almost complete and is also based on religious aspects, Iran's connection with the terrorist organization Hamas has a distinct character. Our assessment is that the current attack by Hamas on Israel was an independent decision, but Iran was undoubtedly aware of this intention and immediately supported it. Hamas, along with Russia, Iran, and its other proxy organizations, engages in a war against democracy and the free world and its values. All the extremist Islamist elements present in the territories of Western countries pose a threat to their democratic future and values. Therefore, the lack of reaction of the authorities in Western countries to the actions of these Islamist extremists may have severe consequences for democracy and the ability of the free world to exist.
How would you characterize Iranian-Russian ties? Will this be a stable alliance or just a short-term alignment of interests?
Russia's relations with Iran have become a strategic alliance as a result of the war in Ukraine, and in order to safeguard it, Moscow has adopted a policy that is sympathetic to Iran's allies, including Hamas. The Russian Federation is now part of an “axis of evil”, along with Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and more. As long as Putin remains in control of Russia and the regime of the Ayatollahs persists, the relationship between Russia and Iran will likely deepen. This collaboration poses an existential threat to Israel and undermines the stability of the entire Middle East. The West must take a stance on this.
Are there any other countries that we can expect to see join this new Iranian-Russian alliance? What would you say are the driving forces behind this alliance?
North Korea has already joined the Iran-Russia axis, and Syria is, of course, a part of this coalition as well. The motivation driving these countries to align with this axis stems from anti-American and anti-Western sentiments. This “axis of evil” seeks to undermine democracies and destabilize Western nations. There is no need to look for sophisticated explanations for the hatred and unwillingness of these countries to embrace liberal democratic values that uphold the principle of human rights.
Considering Iran's central role in a new anti-western alliance, do you expect that Europe and the U.S. will change their Iran policy? Do you think a revival of the nuclear deal is likely?
The policy of Western countries must be to prevent Iranian nuclear weapons at all costs, as it poses a threat to the existence of the free world. Therefore, European and American states will have no choice but to look reality in the eyes and understand that without a policy change, they jeopardize their existence as democratic and enlightened nations.