A group of high-ranking members of Hamas arrived in Moscow on Thursday, meeting with a senior Russian official in what looked like an affront to the West aimed at demonstrating how the Kremlin still holds sway over key players in the bloody conflict in the Middle East.
A deputy foreign minister of Iran, another major power in the unfolding conflict, was also in Moscow on Thursday, meeting with his Russian counterpart.
The meetings highlighted how, despite a slow start, Russia is trying to retain the role of an important power broker in the Middle East, presenting itself as an alternative platform for possible mediation. They also underscored President Vladimir V. Putin’s vision of international conflicts as an extension of the grand collision between Western states and the rest of the world, with Moscow at the forefront of that fight.
But by conducting a meeting with Hamas members, Moscow also engaged in a balancing act, further risking its already fragile relationship with Israel. On Thursday, the Israeli foreign ministry called Russia’s decision to invite the Hamas delegation “a reprehensible step that gives support to terrorism and legitimacy to the horrific acts of Hamas terrorists.” The ministry called on Russia to immediately expel the Hamas officials.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, in 2014. A group of high-ranking members of Hamas arrived in Moscow on Thursday, meeting with a senior Russian official.Credit…Mohammed Salem/Reuters
The delegation of the Palestinian military group was led by Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, who met with Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, Hamas said in a statement.
The two sides have discussed the release of foreign hostages from the Gaza Strip, the Russian foreign ministry said, according to RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency. They also discussed the evacuation of Russians and other foreigners from the region. In its statement, Hamas praised Mr. Putin’s position on the conflict and the active efforts of Russian diplomacy.
Since Hamas fighters launched a brutal attack against Israeli settlements on Oct. 7, Russia has kept a conspicuous distance from the conflict. Days after, in his first comments about the war, Mr. Putin called it “a clear example of the United States’ failed policy in the Middle East.”
In subsequent comments, Mr. Putin continued to accuse the United States of monopolizing the efforts to resolve the conflict and of neglecting the fundamental political issues that are preventing its resolution. He also called for an immediate cease-fire and the resumption of talks in the framework of the U.N.-approved two-state solution to the conflict.
But as the United States engaged in an intense flurry of talks with regional powers, presenting itself as the main power broker in the Middle East, Russia risked its assumed role as one of the major international powers with enough clout to be relevant in all major crises.
Recently, Russia has been trying to catch up. Last week, Mr. Putin called all major leaders in the region, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Mr. Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, met with Hamas leadership in Qatar this week, according to Tass, the Russian state news agency. The meetings in Moscow on Thursday built on these efforts.
Alexandra Appelberg, an editor with the Detaly news outlet in Israel, said that “Russia is trying to demonstrate that the West’s plan to isolate it following the invasion of Ukraine has failed and that it plays an important role.”
According to Ms. Appelberg, Russia has “practically no real levers” that can allow Moscow to influence the situation, but that it might want to “raise its prestige in the Arab world.”
Russia has historically capitalized on its ability to speak to all major parties in the ongoing conflict. One year after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Mr. Putin met with Khaled Meshaal, then the group’s leader, in Moscow. Despite its own traumatic history with terrorism, Russia has never designated Hamas as a terrorist group.
During a meeting with Russian religious leaders in the Kremlin on Thursday, Mr. Putin offered his condolences to Israeli citizens and said that Russia “knows firsthand what international terrorism is all about.”
But he also criticized Israel, saying that “the fight against terrorism cannot be conducted on the notorious principle of collective responsibility resulting in the deaths of the elderly, women, children, entire families.”
Mr. Bogdanov also met with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Bagheri Kani, on Thursday. In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry said that the two sides acknowledged the need “to stop armed hostilities in the Gaza Strip and around it.”
Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.