October 29, 2023 - 11:00am

High-ranking Hamas officials arrived in Moscow at the end of this week to meet with Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister. The invitation — aimed, in part, at releasing Russian hostages  — was extended by a state seeking to regain some geopolitical prestige. 

The meetings follow on from Benjamin Netanhayu’s disastrous handling of the hostage situation that emerged following Hamas’s attacks on Israel on 7th October. Relatives of the 220 Israelis confirmed to have been taken captive in Gaza have been near-united in anger towards the Israeli Prime Minister and his government. Netanyahu’s decision to wait a week before meeting with them was the action of a man operating with suboptimal political instincts.

One day prior, Israel’s National Security Council chief Tzachi Hanegbi had insisted that Israel would not “hold negotiations with an enemy that we have vowed to wipe from the face of the earth”. Netanyahu sought to assure these families — a heady political force — that this was not his own view. Desperate relatives have previously demanded that the Israeli government explore all possible avenues for the release of hostages, including through leaders of Arab states, other countries, and even Hamas themselves. 

Israel clearly does not wish to negotiate with Hamas, and does not want foreign states to pressure it into doing so, either. Long-term short-termism from Netanyahu has, however, led to political dysfunction that has strengthened foreign powers critical of Israel. A vacuum has been created for other countries seeking to involve themselves in the hostage negotiation. One of these is now Russia. 

While leaders such as Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak have led Western states in a show of support for Israel, Russia has involved itself relatively late. Only in the second week of the conflict did Vladimir Putin call major leaders in the region. Bogdanov met with Hamas leadership in Qatar this week, leading to the invitation extended to the Hamas delegation currently in Moscow.  

In involving itself thus, Russia is seeking to present itself as a power broker in the region after a series of embarrassments regarding Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and China — three states it ordinarily likes to think of respectively as weaker, more loyal, or friendlier than they have recently proven.

According to Russian news agencies this weekend, Hamas has said it will locate and free eight Russian-Israeli hostages. There are clear reasons why Moscow would seek to use diplomatic channels to ensure the release of its citizens, but otherwise Russia has few methods for influencing the outcome of the war. Its intention, above all, is to demonstrate that it is not the isolated, beleaguered nation that the West has attempted to portray. 

Russia has never designated Hamas a terrorist group, and has played host to previous leaders. Russia, Putin argued at a recent meeting with religious representatives, “knows first hand” the effects of international terrorism. Nevertheless, he insisted, “the fight against terrorism cannot be conducted on the notorious principle of collective responsibility resulting in the deaths of the elderly, women, children, and entire families.” 

Russia has been attempting to lay the groundwork for greater military and diplomatic influence in the Middle East in recent years. It was no accident that Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra in the ruins of Palmyra after its liberation from Isis in 2016. As Netanyahu leaves room for other powers to take control of the hostage negotiations, Putin is hoping that such foundations may bear fruit in regaining some international influence.

Katherine Bayford is a doctoral researcher in politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham.