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Defense & Security
Emblems of Russian and Hezbollah's army depicted on the chess pieces

Russia-Hamas Relations and the Israel-Hamas War

by Arkady Mil-Man , Bat Chen Druyan Feldman

Researchers in the INSS Russia program argue: Now is the time for Israel to change it approach toward Moscow Since October 7, Russia has sided with Hamas, refuses to condemn the murderous terror attack that the organization perpetrated in the western Negev, and has questioned Israel’s right to defend itself. Russia’s behavior should underscore to Israel the need to change its policy toward the Kremlin and to stand firmly with Western nations, under the leadership of the United States. Moscow’s firm support for Hamas in the aftermath of the October 7, 2023 massacre represents a turning point in relations between Israel and Russia. While many world leaders have condemned the murderous attack on October 7, Russia has adopted an anti-Israel line and refrained from condemning Hamas. Only a week later after the attack, in a speech to leaders of former Soviet states in Kyrgyzstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the Hamas massacre was unprecedented, but in the same breath he accused Israel of a cruel response. He went on to compare the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip to the Nazi siege of Leningrad, which led to a high number of civilian causalities, estimated in the hundreds of thousands. Although Putin said that Israel has the right to self-defense, he added that the attack on innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip was unacceptable. It was only on October 16 that Putin, in a phone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed condolences to the families of the murdered Israelis, but without condemning Hamas. Russia’s strategy of maintaining good relations with both sides in any given conflict is reflected in its policy of nurturing ties with Hamas. For Hamas too, ties with Russia are highly important, since it positions it as an organization that is welcome in one of the most important countries 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. 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 and referred to its members as Islamic 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. In 2011, there was a temporary decline in relations after Hamas backed the opposition forces in the Syrian civil war. Hamas figures who were in Syria when the war broke out played an active role fighting alongside the opposition, while Russia supported President Bashar Assad. Nonetheless, ties were not severed, and over the years began to warm. Delegations of Hamas leaders visited Moscow, where they met with the Russian Foreign Minister and other senior officials, and meetings took place between Hamas officials and Russian diplomats in other countries. Russia did not adopt a consistent position during previous rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas and was influenced by its particular interests at the time. In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, there was a change in Russian policy as it sought to maintain an image of objectivity and deliberately scaled back its criticism of Israel – in contrast to previous conflicts, such as Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. This was probably in response to Israel refraining from criticizing Russia over its invasion of Crimea. Russia’s current interests are not to Israel’s benefit. 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. An increase in US 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. Second, Russia aspires to restore its standing as an influential actor on the international stage, and thus is attempting to promote a ceasefire in Gaza. In addition, 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. Moreover, it is very convenient for Moscow that the US is the focus of attention in the Middle East. Russia’s support for Hamas can be seen in the measures it has taken in the international arena. On October 16, Russia submitted a resolution to the United Nations Security Council on a ceasefire, but it failed to include any condemnation of Hamas and its attack on Israel. Rather, it condemned violence and terrorist acts against civilians, which could be interpreted as a condemnation of Hamas’s actions or of Israel’s operations in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the Russian resolution suggested that Israel was responsible for the explosion at the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, despite clear evidence that the rocket that hit the hospital was fired from within Gaza. On October 25, Russia used its veto power in the Security Council to block a US resolution calling for the condemnation of Hamas and supporting Israel’s right to defend itself. Later, Russian anti-Israel rhetoric became even harsher, returning to the terminology used by the Soviets, when on November 2, the Russian ambassador to the UN rejected Israel’s right to self-defense since it is an “occupying power.” Comments from senior Hamas officials also 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 itself, when a delegation of senior Hamas officials visited Moscow, Mousa Abu Marzook said that “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.” Hamas leader Khaled Mashal also said in an interview with an Egyptian television station that the Russians were impressed with the Hamas attack and that they would teach it in their military academies. Russia’s support for Hamas is not limited to the international diplomatic sphere. 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 US sanctions. According to Ukrainian reports, the Wagner Group helped to train Hamas terrorists. State-run Russian media has also adopted a clearly pro-Palestinian line. Russian propaganda seeks to justify the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine by highlighting the IDF’s killing of civilians and exaggerating the number of Palestinian causalities. After the blast at the al-Ahli hospital, the Russian media claimed that thousands of people had been killed – a figure higher even than the death toll reported by Gazans. Israeli soldiers are depicted as “immoral” because of the massive causalities they inflict on a civilian population, unlike the Russian soldiers who, according to state-run media, “would never be able to attack civilians, women, and children.” Russian social media channels, such as Telegram, are also awash with anti-Israel rhetoric and blatantly antisemitic comments. In the aftermath of the attempted pogrom against Israeli and Jewish passengers in Dagestan on October 29, Putin convened a meeting with the government and heads of the security establishment and drew a direct line between the war in Ukraine and the war between Israel and Hamas, accusing the United States and the West of undermining stability in Russia, the Middle East, and the entire world. He 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 US President Joe Biden’s statement that Russia and Hamas are waging a war against democracy. Putin’s comments and Russia’s behavior in the aftermath of October 7 highlight the misconception that Russia would not oppose Israel at critical moments. The change that Israel must make in its policy vis-à-vis Russia is to stand unequivocally beside the United States – which includes supporting Ukraine. The quicker Israel adapts its policy to meet the challenge, the better its strategic balance in the Middle East and beyond will be.

Defense & Security
Russian and Iranian flags on matching puzzle pieces

Increased Iran-Russia Military Cooperation After the Ukraine Invasion: Impact of US/Western Sanctions

by Ian Dudgeon

Iran and Russia have entered a closer political, economic, and military relationship during the past two years, the trigger widely seen as the upsurge in defence cooperation following Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This new relationship, described variously as a strategic alignment or strategic partnership, was seen by both Tehran and Moscow as necessary to meet mutual and separate critical national needs due to the restrictive effects on both of US and Western sanctions. Iran’s international affairs, since its 1979 Islamic revolution, have been largely shaped by two factors. The first is Iran’s strong adherence to national autonomy, maximum self-sufficiency, and non-alignment. The latter has included, as far as practical, a balance between East and West, or today, Global South and Global West. However, Iranians are cautious about trusting others. While, therefore, a strategic alignment with Russia, or potentially others, could be acceptable, a formal alliance that compromise’s autonomy, would not. The second factor is Iran’s relationship with the US, and in turn with Europe, other Western countries and the UN, and their use of sanctions to deter or change international adversarial differences. Iran-US relations since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution have been tense and conflicted, and especially with Iranian-supported regional state and non-state militia. Major US concerns include Iran’s support for “state and non-state terrorism,” human rights abuses, missile development, and their potential, some say intent, to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Decades of broadly-based US sanctions, along with EU and UN sanctions, the latter mostly nuclear related, have strongly impacted the nation. The one short period of Iran-US rapprochement commenced in 2016 when President Barack Obama successfully brought Iran onboard as a signatory to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA) or nuclear agreement. Obama’s aim was to firstly resolve the nuclear issue and use this as the stepping-stone to negotiations on other regional security issues. But this two-step process was undone by President Donald Trump‘s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose US primary and secondary sanctions. Trump’s action, and President Joe Biden’s subsequent “failure” to rejoin the JCPOA and repeal related US sanctions, bitterly disappointed a large cast of international stakeholders, including Iran’s moderates and other JCPOA signatories. For Iran, the US could not be trusted to seriously seek rapprochement and repeal US sanctions either before, or foreseeably after, this year’s US presidential elections. This distrust extended also to the Europeans and others who would continue to remain subject to US secondary sanctions. Iran saw its future fundamentally with countries that were willing to openly trade with them, notwithstanding US sanctions, and other countries or organisations that were prepared to overlook or actively circumvent or evade sanctions. Multilateral outreach included Iran joining two major non-aligned groups in 2023, the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and BRICS+6 (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa + 6). These comprise some 40 percent and 46 percent respectively of the world’s population, and some 20 percent and 30 percent of global GDP. BRICS also includes some 40 percent of global oil production. Key members of both include Russia, China, and India. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are part of the “+6 members” of BRICS, and are also Dialogue Partners of the SCO. Both organisations offer significant additional political and economic networking opportunities and economic options. Bilaterally, the relationship between Tehran and Moscow, from its imperialist Shah/Tsar and post-revolutionary Iran and USSR/Russia iterations to the late 1980s, has had its share of tensions and conflict, including territorial disputes. The past 30-year period from the early 1990s to 2021, however, has been relatively stable. Geographic proximity, including a maritime border across the Caspian Sea, facilitated a significant increase in trade, reportedly from some US$1 billion in 2005 to US$3.3 billion in 2021. Mutual security interests also saw an increase in regional military cooperation, including joint operations against ISIS in Syria, and increased Russian sales of military equipment to Iran. The relationship changed significantly in early 2022 due to Russia’s increased military equipment needs, and to help offset the broad impact of sanctions imposed by the US, the EU, and others on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Militarily, increased Iranian defence sales to Russia have included a range of munitions, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) systems, and potentially Iranian short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs). The UAV deal includes the construction of a factory for manufacturing thousands of Iranian drones in Russia’s Tartarstan province. In return Russia has sold, or agreed to sell, to Iran a range of advanced weapons systems, including the S-400 air-defence missile, helicopters, and SU 34 fighters. Enhanced cyber and satellite cooperation was also agreed. Russia has also passed to Iran many of the high technology Western weapons systems captured in Ukraine, enabling Iran to evaluate, copy, and develop counter-measures. Significantly, this new level of Iranian-Russian cooperation has lifted the military capability of both, with implications for the Middle East and Ukraine respectively. But how effective have the sanctions been? Iran has been subject to harsh sanctions since 1979, and developed a “resistance economy” involving official and extensive unofficial trade and financing arrangements. Because many related statistics are unreliable or unavailable, official GDP estimates may be highly inaccurate. Importantly, however, and despite fluctuations, the World Bank shows a consistent decline in Iran’s GDP since 1979. For Russia, due to shifting markets and higher prices for oil since early 2022, their GDP contracted some 2 percent only that year compared to a prediction of more than 11 percent, and has mostly recovered since. Economically, despite the challenges of sanctions, bilateral cooperation is strong, both economies still function, and their governments remain stable. Militarily, sanctions have facilitated closer cooperation between Iran and Russia, contrary to US, NATO, and allied interests. Are there areas for the US to negotiate the lifting of sanctions with Iran and Russia? US priorities for Iran could include rejoining the JCPOA, facilitating a reduction or cessation of state and non-state militia attacks against regional Israeli, US, and related maritime targets, and restricting specified military cooperation with Russia. US priorities for Russia could include various ceasefire compromises involving the war in the Ukraine, and restricting specified military cooperation with Iran. And the likelihood of progress? For the reasons above, progress on any issue between the US and Iran is very unlikely before this year’s US presidential elections. If or when afterwards would depend in large part on who was elected. For Russia, a ceasefire compromise in Ukraine could be possible if it gave them “temporary” retention of vast tracts of land captured post-2022. Timing will be dictated by battlefield outcomes, but the US Senate approval on 13 February of an additional US$60 billion of military assistance to the Ukraine, and its likely approval by Congress, makes a ceasefire in the foreseeable future unlikely.

Defense & Security
Map of the Red Sea

Red Sea politics: why Turkey is helping Somalia defend its waters

by Federico Donelli

Somalia and Turkey recently announced that they would expand the terms of a defence agreement first signed on 8 February 2024 to include the maritime sector. This came as tensions rose between Somalia and landlocked Ethiopia. Ethiopia is seeking access to the Red Sea through Somaliland, a breakaway state of Somalia. Federico Donelli, an international relations professor whose research covers Red Sea security and politics, puts this defence agreement into context. What’s the scope of the relationship between Turkey and Somalia? Turkey’s entry into Somalia in 2011 started out as a humanitarian partnership but soon turned into a strategic one. Its support since has been economic and infrastructural and has increasingly included the military. The Turkish government saw Somalia’s failed statehood and the lack of other major international stakeholders as an opportunity to increase its popularity across Africa. Turkey aimed to: - gain international visibility - test its ability to intervene in conflict and post-conflict scenarios - increase market diversification into east Africa - cultivate its image as a benevolent Muslim middle power by promoting Islamic solidarity. Several Turkish faith-based associations and NGOs already active in Africa became directly involved in development and relief projects. Major national brands, such as Turkish Airlines, promoted campaigns to raise funds for Somalia. Within a few years, Turkey’s involvement in Somalia was portrayed by the government and perceived by the Turkish public as a domestic issue. Turkey’s early efforts to bring Somalia back to the table of the international community were successful. With the reopening of Mogadishu’s port and airport in 2014, both managed by Turkish companies, the economic situation in Somalia improved compared to the previous decade. Turkish political elites began to present their involvement in Somalia as a success story. This is despite some remaining critical problems, including failing to root out the terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab. Turkey took responsibility for training the Somali National Army in partnership with other stakeholders, including the European Union and the United States. It opened a military base in Mogadishu in 2017. The base trains one of the army’s elite units, the Gorgor Brigades, and serves as a Turkish military outpost in the region. Al-Shabaab’s persistence has convinced Turkey that it needs to provide more active military support for Somalia’s development. Ankara also wants to protect its economic and political investments in Somalia. Finally, behind the Turkish deal with Somalia is the politics around the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato). Over the past 12 months, Turkey has moved closer to the United States. It’s positioned itself as an effective ally in Africa to counteract the negative effects of France’s withdrawal – such as the increasing influence of Russia. Turkey’s commitment to Somalia follows its efforts in Libya. In both cases, Turkey has proven willing to take on the security burden that other Nato members, particularly Italy, have refused to meet. Turkey’s engagement in Somalia is, therefore, part of a broader foreign policy strategy to gain more autonomy in global politics. Increased relevance within Nato would help achieve this. What’s the context of the maritime defence pact between Turkey and Somalia? Turkey and Somalia began working on an agreement between November 2023 and January 2024. Turkey agreed to train and equip Somalia’s naval force and help patrol the country’s 3,333km coastline. Turkey’s defence sector has had increasing influence in Ankara’s foreign policy decisions. Turkey sees itself as an exporter of defence industry products, and as a partner in training special forces and police. African countries are among the main targets for the Turkish defence sector. Somalia, therefore, provides an opportunity to spread more Turkish production and items. In 2022, Turkey became, along with the United States, the main backer of a new offensive against Al-Shabaab. It provided logistical support to the Gorgor forces and air cover to the national army. This cooperation has led to the 10-year defence agreement, including maritime security, signed in February 2024. Turkey and Somalia have been working on the accord for some time, but recent regional events have undoubtedly affected the announcement’s timing. An Ethiopia-Somaliland memorandum of understanding in January 2024 is one such event. Turkey has good relations with Somaliland, but considers the territorial integrity of Somalia to be essential for its stability. At the same time, the Horn of Africa’s political dynamics are shifting. Mounting tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia have led to new coalitions involving regional and extra-regional players. It’s important not to oversimplify, but two factions are emerging. On one side are Ethiopia, Somaliland and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). On the other are Somalia, Egypt, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia. At first, Turkey sought to mediate between the factions to defuse tensions. But its agreement with Somalia reduces Turkey’s room for manoeuvre. Although the relationship with Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed appears to be unaffected, there could be negative repercussions, especially for the many Turkish economic interests in Ethiopia. What is the UAE factor? When it comes to the Horn of Africa, the UAE plays a pivotal role. Turkey and Somalia each have a relationship with the Emirates. From 2014 to 2020, Turkey engaged in bitter rivalry with the Emirates in the wider Red Sea area. This was driven by the two countries’ different visions for the region’s future. Relations improved from 2020. During the 2020-2022 war in Tigray, both Turkey and the UAE supported the Ethiopian government. But recent developments in the Horn of Africa, such as the UAE-backed Ethiopia-Somaliland deal, threaten to create new friction between Turkey and the Emirates. Turkey doesn’t have the political will or material capacity to sustain this. In the past three years, the UAE has supported the Turkish economy with direct investment, changing the balance of the relationship. The situation is similar for Somalia. From a commercial and security perspective, the Emirates is important in Somalia. The UAE manages two key Somali ports – Berbera and Bosaso. It’s also moving to take over Kismayo. And the Emirates has been one of Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s principal backers. It would be risky for the Somali president to break ties with Abu Dhabi. What happens next? There is still much uncertainty about how the Ethiopia-Somaliland memorandum of understanding and the Turkey-Somalia defence cooperation agreements will be put into practice. What’s clear is that both the UAE and Turkey are becoming more active and influential in the region. And that African dynamics within and between states are closely intertwined with regional and global trends.