Amid Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel and Israel’s military response in Gaza has significant and challenging repercussions for both countries and for U.S. support for Ukraine’s defense. Both Ukraine and Russia are seeking political and diplomatic support from the international community, which is watching closely to see who supports and who condemns Hamas and Israeli actions. At the same time, the war in Gaza threatens to take global attention and resources away from Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself. This change in focus could lead to a diminution of economic and military assistance for that embattled country. For the United States, maintaining diplomatic, military and economic support for Ukraine will remain a strategic priority despite these challenges.
Ukraine: Challenging Balancing Act
The latest Israel-Hamas war presents several diplomatic challenges to Ukraine. Since the Russian full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine has worked assiduously to gain the international community’s support. This has meant seeking military, economic and humanitarian assistance to fight the war and protect its citizens as well as legal and diplomatic support to condemn and prosecute the crimes Russian President Vladimir Putin and others have committed against them. Because Russia is one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), the UNSC has been paralyzed and unable to respond to Russia’s aggression. As a result, Ukraine has repeatedly turned instead to the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) for condemnation of Russian actions. Garnering the votes necessary to show UNGA support for Ukraine has required careful courting of a variety of members of the global community. Divergent international responses to the Israel-Hamas war threaten to undercut that long-term effort.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was quick to condemn Hamas’s actions, and drew parallels between Israel’s efforts to defend itself and Ukraine’s defense against unprovoked Russian aggression. However, as the scale of Israeli assaults against Gaza intensified, Zelenskyy took a week to make a statement stressing the importance of preventing civilian casualties.
Even then, he refrained from criticizing Israeli attacks directly. Zelenskyy clearly wants to align himself and his government entirely with the United States’ position of support for Israel, but at the same time he wants to avoid alienating key players in the Arab world, like Saudi Arabia, which in August hosted peace talks to support Zelensky’s proposed 10-point plan. Whether he can manage this balancing act and keep global attention focused on Ukraine remains to be seen. At follow-up peace talks in Malta in late October, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were reportedly no shows.
Russia: Easy Diplomatic Path, Unforeseen Domestic Complications
In contrast to Zelenskyy, Putin did not immediately condemn Hamas’s terror attack against Israel, instead labeling it the result of a failed United States’ Middle East policy. Russia has also used its seat on the UNSC to put forward resolutions condemning attacks against civilians without mentioning Hamas and to veto a U.S.-sponsored resolution that recognized all states’ right to self-defense.
Russia’s diplomatic response reveals how its international diplomacy mirrors Ukraine’s in attempting to court the global community. Russia sees Ukraine’s efforts to garner support in the UNGA and is countering with its own diplomatic push. In Moscow’s view, this is best done by taking Hamas’s side against Israel, since it never broke off relations with Hamas nor designated it a terrorist organization. Indeed, only days after Hamas’s horrifying attack, a delegation of senior Hamas officials arrived in Moscow for meetings, purportedly to discuss the release of Russian-Israeli hostages and the evacuation of Russian citizens from the area.
Russian efforts to court the non-Western global community also fit in well with Russia’s broader strategy both for waging the war against Ukraine and increasing its role in the Middle East. During the Hamas visit to Moscow, Iran’s deputy foreign minister was also in the Russian capital and met with both Russian and Hamas officials. The war against Ukraine has strengthened the ties between Russia and Iran, as Russia buys drones and other military equipment from that country. This also allows Russia to position itself as a would-be broker/peacemaker with influence over Iran, which backs both Hamas and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Finally, the Kremlin seeks a new world order based upon “multipolarity.” That requires blowing up the existing world order. An expanding conflict in the Middle East would advance that goal by threatening U.S. influence there. So even beyond the benefit Russia garners from a Middle East war distracting global attention from its war in Ukraine, Russia gains by the conflict undercutting U.S. influence and bolstering Iran as a potential pole in Russia’s envisioned world order.
Domestically, however, Russia’s emphasis on the impact of the Israeli response on civilians in Gaza is provoking a reaction among the country’s significant Muslim minority. Russia is dealing with an outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in the North Caucasus region that threatens the tenuous stability there and raises questions about the Putin system’s ability to control the country. If Putin does not carefully balance his rhetoric in support of the Palestinians and critical of Israelis, he could do untold damage to his efforts to trumpet a peaceful, multinational composition of the Russian Federation.
United States: Maintaining Support
For Washington, like for Kyiv, a key issue in the wake of the Israeli-Hamas war will be maintaining support for Ukraine’s defense against Russia. This requires both providing military and economic assistance to Ukraine and Israel simultaneously, and working to ensure that the public’s attention does not drift away from the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the United States, also like Ukraine, will have to walk the diplomatic tight rope of supporting Israel while not alienating the Arab states Ukraine is courting. Only by successfully doing this will Washington be able to continue to help Ukraine garner the support from the global community necessary to ensure that Russian aggression does not go unpunished. This is vital for preserving the liberal international order the United States helped establish in the wake of World War II.