Palestinian terrorist group Hamas shocked the world on Oct. 7 by launching an unprecedented deadly offensive against Israel, brutally killing over 1,000 people and taking at least 150 Israelis hostage.
As Iran-backed terrorists rampaged through Israeli cities, some – including many in Ukraine – pointed fingers at Russia, a country with established ties with Hamas and a clear beneficiary of a war set to diverge attention from its own atrocities in Ukraine.
"Russia is interested in igniting a war in the Middle East so that a new source of pain and suffering will weaken world unity," said Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky on Oct. 9.
Ukraine's intelligence even reported that Russia gave Hamas captured Ukrainian weapons in an effort to discredit Kyiv, while Polish President Andrzej Duda said, "This (war) certainly helps Russia and Russian aggression against Ukraine, it distracts the world's attention."
While experts agree that the tragic events in Israel benefit Moscow and its propaganda that actively supported the Hamas-ignited war in the Middle East, they remain skeptical of Russia's direct involvement in the attacks for lack of evidence.
Hamas and Gaza
Hamas is a radical Islamist militant group in control of the Gaza Strip – one of the two parts of Palestinian territories, along with the West Bank.
The group was founded in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a cleric active within the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Yassin and Hamas opposed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six-Day War in 1967.
The group doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist and sees Zionism as a colonial project that has led to the occupation of historically Palestinian lands.
Hamas has waged armed resistance against Israel, carrying out terrorist attacks like suicide bombings, kidnappings, and summary executions of Israeli soldiers and civilians.
The United States, European Union, and a number of other countries designate Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Iran is the main benefactor of Hamas, according to Israel and the U.S., funding it with tens of millions of dollars, as well as providing training and weapons.
Following the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel occupied the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, withdrawing its forces from Gaza only 38 years later, in 2005.
The West Bank remains occupied by Israel to this day, with the international community criticizing Israel for recurrent violence and crimes against Palestinians there, including the displacement of Palestinians by Jewish settlers.
Gaza, albeit not occupied, has been under an Israeli land, air, and sea blockade since 2007.
Israel has argued that the blockade prevents the movement of weapons and terrorists and is necessary to Israel's safety, yet human rights groups and the UN say the measure is an illegal collective punishment against Palestinian civilians.
Gaza has been de-facto governed by Hamas since the last election in 2006.
Meanwhile, the West Bank has been under the control of Fatah, the leading political party of the Palestinian Authority, which was established as the internationally recognized Palestinian governing body after the Oslo Accords of 1993.
The two territories have been isolated from each other for years due to an ideological rift between Hamas and Fatah.
Seeing Fatah as corrupt and weak in its stance against Israel, Hamas ousted its members from Gaza after the 2006 election. Fatah responded similarly in the West Bank.
Hamas, and to a lesser extent, the Palestinian Authority, have been criticized for severe corruption and disregard for democratic processes while in power, canceling and postponing elections for more than a decade.
Hamas has also been accused of gruesome human rights violations, including killings and systematic torture of its opposition, violence against women, and repression of civil society in Gaza.
Most people in Gaza also suffer from poverty and food insecurity.
More than two million people there – roughly half of them children, according to UNICEF – live with virtually no access to clean water, relying on Israel and international aid for basic utilities like food and electricity.
Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have resulted in many violent clashes over the years.
The UN says 6,319 Palestinians and 308 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks and retaliation strikes from January 2008 to September 2023.
More than 152,000 Palestinians and 6,200 Israelis were injured in that same period.
Hamas links to Russia
As Hamas terrorists rampaged through Israeli cities, murdering hundreds of soldiers and civilians, Russian propagandists rejoiced in triumph.
"Not a drop of pity or sympathy (for the Israelis)," Dmitry Steshin, Russian military correspondent known for his support of ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians, wrote on his Telegram channel.
"This mess is beneficial for Russia…Iran is our real military ally," said Russia's prominent propagandist Sergey Mardan.
Such a response from the Russian pro-war speakers, as well as the Kremlin's ties to Hamas and Iran, spurred allegations of Moscow's involvement in the deadly attacks against Israel.
The Soviet Union indeed fostered relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leaders, largely to ensure the spread of communism in the region and oppose the so-called American influence.
Russia's relations, specifically with Hamas, have varied.
Moscow has condemned some of the group's terrorist attacks yet has not designated it as a terrorist organization to this day.
After Hamas' victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, the Kremlin and Hamas leadership held several meetings.
Trying to stay relevant in the Middle East, Russia attempted to mediate peace talks between Hamas and other Palestinian actors. There were also reports of Hamas using Russian-made Kornet anti-tank weapons.
Relations worsened following the group's involvement in the Syrian civil war on the side of the opposition since Moscow backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, but normalized soon, given the numerous meetings between Russia and Hamas leadership since 2020.
The latest meeting between Hamas representatives and Russian officials took place in March 2023, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomed Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas, in Moscow.
Yet, experts say that while the Hamas-Israel war may benefit the Kremlin, there is no evidence that Russia was directly involved. Instead, the blame falls largely on Iran.
"Iran is acting with an increased sense of emboldening in the region," Hanna Notte, an expert on Russia's foreign and security policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Kyiv Independent.
"And that is a product of the changed Russian-Iranian relationship on the back of the war in Ukraine," she added.
Russia and Iran grew increasingly close following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with Iran now supplying Russia with weapons.
Notte thinks this is related to Iran's willingness to be more aggressive with its foreign policy, including against its archfoe Israel. She says she hasn't seen any evidence of Moscow's backing of Hamas terrorist attacks.
"Just because (Vladimir) Putin may benefit from the chaos doesn't mean that he sponsored it or initiated it in any way," Oz Katerji, a British-Lebanese journalist who covered conflicts in the Middle East for more than a decade, told the Kyiv Independent.
Both Notte and Katerji emphasize the Kremlin's close relationship with Israel, and especially its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as a crucial restraining factor for Russia.
Ties between Israel and Russia, especially their operations in Syria, have been so close that they limit Israel's aid to Ukraine.
"Putin's relationship with Netanyahu is one of his most important relationships in the world… so just because Russia and Iran are allies, and they cooperate, doesn't mean that they agree on everything," Katerji said.
Nevertheless, "Russia wants to foster pressure points globally in order to undermine Western support for Ukraine in this war of attrition," Notte said.
"Whether that is putting pressure on global food supplies by walking away from the Black Sea Grain initiative, whether that is keeping up the specter of nuclear escalation, or whether that is also causing instability in Africa or the Middle East," she added.
Russia's recent rhetoric in support of Hamas can be explained, with Moscow using the attacks as an opportunity to discredit Ukraine.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said that "the Kremlin is already and will likely continue to exploit the Hamas attacks in Israel to advance several information operations intended to reduce U.S. and Western support and attention to Ukraine."
Ukraine's Military Intelligence said that Russia had given Hamas Western weapons that it captured from Ukraine during the war.
"The next step, according to Russia's plan, should be fake accusations against the Ukrainian military for allegedly selling Western weapons to terrorists on a regular basis," the Military Intelligence said, warning of a Russian disinformation campaign.
Russia is also seizing the moment to advance its anti-American propaganda, playing the fictitious role of an anti-colonial champion.
"(Russians) present this disorder as a 'win' for Russia not just because it supposedly weakens the West but also because it is proof their worldview is correct," Jade McGlynn, a research fellow at the Department of War Studies at King's College London, told the Kyiv Independent.
Russian sense of patriotism and nationalism revolves around the country's opposition to other powers, mainly the U.S., Dr Ian Garner, lecturer in political studies and fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen's University, said.
"If America supports Israel, no matter what happens, no matter the reality on the ground, it is always a good thing to see Israel suffer. Because it must mean that America is suffering too," Garner told the Kyiv Independent.
"Russia presents itself as a friend of the colonized against the imperial West and the U.S.," McGlynn added.
"Of course, empirically speaking, this is absurd: Russia is conducting a nakedly imperial war in Ukraine," she added.