October 19, 2023 - 9:45am

October 7 will live in infamy as the day Hamas launched its shock offensive against Israel, claiming the lives of over 1,400 Israeli citizens and sparking bloody retaliation, the full extent of which remains to be seen. It is also Vladimir Putin’s birthday.  

Burgeoning conflict in the Middle East presents numerous opportunities for the Kremlin, not least distracting the world from Ukraine. Russia has in recent days launched its largest offensive in months, targeting the Donetsk city of Avdiivka, yet gathering tensions in the Middle East have kept it off the front pages. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is clearly aware of this — following Hamas’s attack, he noted the “risk that international attention will turn away from Ukraine”. His appearance with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg shortly after the assault, comparison of it to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “the same evil” and offer to visit Israel all smack of a man desperately trying to prove his relevance. 

That is before taking weapons into account. US President Joe Biden is considering asking Congress for $100billion combining defence aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, despite opposition from some Republicans.  That may work — for now. An Israeli ground invasion of Gaza would mean both Ukraine and Israel requiring artillery ammunition

While Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has stressed that America “can do both and will do both”, concerns are growing in the Pentagon about the stockpile pressures of maintaining two wars whilst keeping Taiwan well-stocked for any possible future invasion by China. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov has already crowed that, as “new needs arise”, “the process of pumping the Kyiv regime with weapons […] will enter a downward trend.”

War in the Middle East may fund war in Ukraine. A protracted conflict would likely cause oil prices to rise. Moreover, Saudi-Israel normalisation is on hold. Riyadh had agreed to pump more oil next year as a goodwill gesture to gain the US Congress’s blessing for an associated defence pact with Washington, yet that deal is now in limbo. High oil prices would help shield Russia’s economy from the impact of sanctions and fund increases to its defence budget. Wagner militants also report lucrative opportunities to fight for Palestine in Gaza. 

The burgeoning conflict is a boon to Putin’s battles not just in Ukraine but also against the West. He has already suggested that Russia mediate, a traditional Kremlin demand in Middle Eastern foreign policy, and bid to restore its diplomatic clout after Ukraine. He further took the opportunity to criticise` America, attributing Hamas’s assault to “the failure of US policy in the Middle East”. American support for Israel is relatively easy for Biden as the world recoils from images of kidnapped children but, as war drags on, mounting Palestinian casualties could prove a weapon for Russia to use against the US in the information sphere. 

Undermining America is not just a goal in itself. Putin has often spoken of a “new world order”, and nowhere was this more apparent than at this week’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, where China treated him as guest of honour. Putin said the “current difficult conditions” mean the two countries should coordinate policies more closely, while conflicts “only strengthen Russo-Chinese relations”. 

Russia has traditionally sought a balanced regional foreign policy, yet Putin was slow to telephone Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Hamas’s assault and his comments likening Israel’s blockade of Gaza to the Nazi siege of Leningrad seem designed to provoke ire in Tel Aviv. Putin requires drones too desperately to distance himself from ally Iran and its proxy Hamas, while anti-Israel sentiment serves a broader purpose of strengthening ties with an ascendant and traditionally pro-Palestine China. 

It is “a new source of pain and suffering”, according to Zelenskyy, which could “erode global unity […] helping Russia destroy freedom in Europe”. War in the Middle East will bring untold pain. Yet, as so many suffer, Russia’s President will seek to capitalise on the conflict.