Hamas, Hezbollah war against Israel: Russia’s calculations

Russia’s special envoy to the Middle East recently held talks with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Hezbollah’s candidate for the presidency Sleiman Frangieh and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Hamas, Hezbollah war against Israel: Russia’s calculations

Outgoing Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib greeted by his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Moscow, Nov. 22, 2021. (Credit: Evgenia Novozhenina/AFP)

Jean-Yves Le Drian, Amos Hochstein, Abu Fahd Jassem al-Thani and... Mikhaïl Bogdanov. This week, at a time when the war in Gaza reinvigorated international interest in Lebanon, Russian President’s personal envoy for the Middle East held discussions with several local political figures, including caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

According to the official Russian news agency TASS, the phone call was an opportunity for Bogdanov to stress the “inadmissibility of the armed conflict spreading to the territory of Lebanon,” as Hezbollah has been sporadically bombing Israel since Oct. 8.

But while Moscow’s appeal is in line with that of the rest of the international envoys, who said they fear a destructive war in Lebanon, the Russian calculation is quite different.

New world order

In order to understand what lies behind this call to distance Lebanon from the war, one must first look at Russia’s overall policy towards the war. Since the start of the war on Oct. 7, Moscow has distinguished itself by its rather conciliatory stance towards Hamas, which has cooled its relations with Israel. Even though several Russian citizens were killed or taken hostage on Oct. 7 during Hamas’s attack, Moscow did not condemn its action.

What’s even more worrying for Israel is that Hamas representatives traveled to Moscow at the end of October for talks with Bogdanov, who also serves as deputy foreign minister, in the presence of his Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri Kani. After the release of two of its nationals as part of the truce agreement in Gaza, the Kremlin was quick to thank the Islamist movement.

But why has Russia, which has good relations with Israel, chosen to run counter the international community? “The Russians want to reposition themselves as anchored in the global South,” said Michael Young, the editor of Diwan, Carnegie’s Middle East blog.

In fact, the war in Gaza has greatly amplified the divisions between Western countries — which unconditionally supported Tel Aviv, particularly in the early days of the war — and the Third World, which is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

“This is a continuation of what the Russians have been doing for some time, seeking to turn economically towards Eastern countries such as China, India and even the Arab countries, to tell the West that they can manage without them,” added Young.

This is because since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European countries have imposed sanctions against Russia, its leaders and its oligarchs in order to put pressure on the Kremlin by weakening its economy.

Since then, Moscow has claimed that it wants to establish a less Euro-centric world economic and political order — an ambition also shared by Teheran and, to a lesser extent, Beijing.

“Both countries tried to set up a trade route that would enable them to circumvent the sanctions, to which the West has responded by proposing to link India to Europe via the port of Haifa in Israel,” said Yeghia Tashjian, a Russia specialist and researcher at the American University of Beirut.

This is not the only reason behind Russia’s position on the Hamas-Israel war. “It is clear that the Russians are taking advantage of the fact that the US is caught up in another conflict and can no longer concentrate on the Ukrainian counter-offensive,” said Young.

Tashjian agrees. “We’re hearing less and less about arms deliveries to Ukraine, as the Western world is busy with the war in Gaza,” he said. “The prolongation of the conflict is clearly in the Russians’ interests, even though they are calling for a ceasefire.”

Bogdanov and Frangieh

It may therefore seem strange that Moscow, which wants the war to drag as long as possible, pushes for a lull in South Lebanon. “A wider involvement of Lebanon in the conflict is not in the interest of the Russians, quite simply because it would risk spreading to Syria, which Vladimir Putin refuses,” said Tashjian.

As early as Oct. 7, the press reported that the Israelis had warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is being kept in power in some way by the Russians and Iranians, against any attempt to get involved in the conflict.

Moreover, Israel is relentlessly bombing Iranian positions in Syria and has already struck the Damascus international airport four times without any retaliation from the Syrian Army. While it had previously tolerated Israel’s air raids in Syria, Russia recently raised its voice, denouncing these attacks and warning against any escalation.

Another interpretation is that Russia is aligned with the position of its ally Iran, which also does not seem to want escalation from Lebanon. “The Iranians fear that a conflict could weaken their regional allies, and Moscow is moving in the same direction,” said Young.

This is all the more the case as Israel seems to be seeking a green light for targeted strikes against Hezbollah so as to force the latter to withdraw to the north of the Litani River.

In addition to the security situation, Bogdanov also mentioned the presidential issue in his contacts, at a time when the country is experiencing a flurry of diplomatic activity, with Arab and Western capitals hoping to replenish Lebanese power in preparation for the post-war period.

This was the background to Bogdanov’s talk with Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, but above all with Sleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada movement and Hezbollah-backed presidential candidate, with whom Russia maintains regular contact.

Should this be seen as a form of support for Frangieh at a time when the international community’s calls converge for a third candidate other than Frangieh, and former minister Jihad Azour, who is supported by the opposition?

“During the discussions, Bogdanov affirmed his attachment to Lebanon and called for the presidential election to be held as soon as possible,” said a source close to Frangieh.

What is certain is that, in this diplomatic waltz around Lebanon, Moscow wants to have its say.

This article was originally published by L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Joelle El Khoury.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, Amos Hochstein, Abu Fahd Jassem al-Thani and... Mikhaïl Bogdanov. This week, at a time when the war in Gaza reinvigorated international interest in Lebanon, Russian President’s personal envoy for the Middle East held discussions with several local political figures, including caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.According to the official Russian news agency TASS, the phone...