Time is an ally of Russia in the Ukrainian conflict. Russia needs to reduce its rate of battlefield deaths and remain militarily active in Ukraine for as long as possible.
A great aid to Vladimir Putin would be a disruption in the supply of weapons to Kyiv, and a diminishing commitment from European and US governments to support the war or to provide military equipment. A rival crisis to distract Ukraine’s allies, in the form of war in the Middle East, could provide just this.
The conflict could also divert military equipment to the Middle East rather than to Ukraine. How large the diversion of arms is depends upon whether Israel chooses to try to reoccupy Gaza or not.
A war might also serve to further loosen the will of Ukraine’s allies to sustain their spending in Ukraine. It might do so because the implications of a wider Middle Eastern conflict, or China opportunistically attacking Taiwan, would outweigh the consequences of continued hostilities in Ukraine.
Russia’s competing friendships
The diplomatic picture for Russia towards the Israel-Hamas conflict is not clear cut. Russia has historically been friendly towards Israel. Israel has mirrored this by toning down any criticism it has made of the Ukrainian invasion.
Russia has recently become friendlier towards Iran as it has sought to buy military equipment. But Iran is likely to be the source of the military equipment used by Hamas to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system and to invade the country, including the electronic interference equipment used to deactivate the border sensors and remote sentries.
Iran is also the likely source of counterintelligence techniques that have enabled Hamas to avoid attention from the capable Israeli intelligence services. Russia has been active in selling intelligence techniques around the world and so Iranian counterintelligence is likely informed by Russian practices.
Russia has long operated multilevel diplomacy – managing to maintain positive relationships with competing and even warring nations – in the Middle East, and will continue to do so. It is unlikely to find disadvantage here.
Putin’s plans revealed?
Putin has a strong history of hiding in plain sight. He tells us what he intends to do, and we assume it is rhetorical bluster. But in reality Putin is telling us his plans and seeing how many of them he can complete.
Missed by the majority of the world’s media was the annual Russian security conference (the Valdai International Discussion Club, known simply as the Valdai), at which Putin spoke on October 5. There he described his ambition being to create a new world order founded upon a “civilisation-based approach”. This would recognise local differences and communities of common interest.
In this, Putin was softly echoing an Indian approach to society which emphasises the environment, meaning the physical environment, the people within it, and community as a supportive structure. It is also an echo of the ethos of Israeli kibbutz which emphasise equality, common identity, community loyalty and shared efforts.
This is an explicit rejection of western individualism and a nod to those in the developing world that Russia is a kindred spirit.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, will be aware that Russia is hoping for the international focus to be turned on Israel/Gaza and away from the Ukraine war. Ukraine President’s Office/ Alamy
In the speech, Putin recast the previous 20 years as Russia seeking to positively engage in helping to solve global challenges, but that this engagement had been seen as obedience to western desires and norms. Putin further argued that the world required multiple sources of power and ways of seeing the world, rather than to all follow western patterns of economic exploitation and ideological domination.
He cited China and India as plausible alternative sources of power and world views. In Putin’s civilisation-based approach, his invasion of Ukraine is not Russia trying to capture territory, but repelling the Euroatlantic control of Nato and the EU. Liberation from colonialism is at the heart of Putin’s Valdai speech – a message that ordinary Ukrainians would dispute.
Referring to the Middle East, Putin noted that Nato powers selectively engage with Arab nations. Protection is provided to those who are obedient, but not because of their values or traditions.
It is here that we can infer that Putin is supportive of both Israeli and Palestinian claims, and that it is only westerners providing an overriding security guarantee to one side over the other that generates the conditions for continuous conflict between Israel and Palestine.
How Russia benefits
Russia is a beneficiary but not likely an author of the conflict and upheaval in Israel and Gaza. Putin does not need to have caused the uptick in tension but he will not be disappointed to see it further escalate over the coming weeks and months.
Russia also benefits because of the distraction it places at the heart of the upcoming US presidential election and to a world order already placed on high alert because of Ukraine, because of China and Taiwan and Serbia and Kosovo.
For Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then, time remains on its side, despite all its military losses. A change in US president, an activist US Congress continuing to show disquiet about further funding to Ukraine, and the US needing to support Israel in the Middle East all will play decisively in how the Ukrainian conflict will end.
If the war in Ukraine is still raging in 2025, it will be Russia with the upper hand.