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Diplomacy Watch: Putin and Zelensky don’t agree on Gaza war

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As much of the world’s attention shifted to the Middle East this week, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky staked out contrasting positions on the war between Israel and Hamas.

The Russian president has reportedly not called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the weekend, and did not release a message of support or condolences following the attacks on Saturday.

Instead, Putin took the opportunity to blame U.S. policy for the latest outbreak of violence. “I think that many people will agree with me that this is a vivid example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East,” Putin said. “[Washington] tried to monopolize regulating [the conflict], but was unfortunately unconcerned with finding compromises acceptable for both sides. It put forward ideas on how it should be done and pressured both sides. Each time, however, without taking into account the fundamental interests of the Palestinian people,” he added, according to the Moscow Times.

On Thursday, Russia’s foreign ministry called on Israel to agree to a ceasefire and allow goods to come into Gaza. “The unacceptability of the indiscriminate bombardment leading to numerous civilian casualties was emphasized,” a Russian statement said.

Putin and Netanyahu have reportedly shared a friendly relationship in the past, but it has deteriorated over the course of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Israel has refused to join the Western sanctions regime, abstained from providing weapons to Kyiv, and largely maintained neutrality on the war, but tensions between Moscow and Tel Aviv have grown due to other factors.

For one, the war in Ukraine has brought Russia closer with Iran, who some have been quick to blame for the attacks in Israel over the weekend.

Second, as Moscow’s former chief rabbi explained to reporter Pjotr Sauer, many Jewish people are uncomfortable with Putin’s framing of the war as a fight against a “neo-Nazi” government.

Sauer elaborates in the Guardian: “Last summer, these tensions first spilled over into the public, when Russian officials accused Israel of supporting the ‘neo-Nazi regime’ in Kyiv. The spat was ignited after Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recycled an antisemitic conspiracy theory claiming that Adolf Hitler ‘had Jewish blood’ – comments that Israel described as ‘unforgivable and outrageous.’”

Zelensky, meanwhile, has repeatedly affirmed his country’s support for Israel, comparing Hamas’s attacks over the weekend to Russia’s conduct during the war. “The only difference is that there is a terrorist organization that attacked Israel, and here is a terrorist state that attacked Ukraine,” Zelensky said during a speech to NATO on Monday. He later told a French television station that he was confident that Moscow was supporting Hamas “in one way or another.”

During his visit to Brussels, the Ukrainian president also acknowledged that “everybody’s afraid” that Western attention and support for Kyiv could diminish as focus shifted toward the Middle East.

Zelensky earlier said Moscow stood to gain from tumult around the world. “We have data very clearly proving that Russia is interested in inciting war in the Middle East. So that a new source of pain and suffering would erode global unity and exacerbate cleavages and controversies, helping Russia in destroying freedom in Europe,” he wrote on X. “We can see Russian propagandists gloating. We can see Moscow’s Iranian friends openly extending a helping hand to those who attacked Israel.”

In Responsible Statecraft this week, Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, explored these dynamics and analyzed why, contrary to some opinions, a larger war in the Middle East could run counter to Moscow interests.

“While many in the West seem to think that Russia somehow benefits whenever conflict erupts in the Middle East, this might be an occasion when it does not. Moscow may be calling for a ceasefire, then, because it sees this as the best way to protect its interests,” he concluded. “The problem for Moscow, however, is that it is not in a strong position to either persuade or coerce Israel or Hamas to agree to one. Perhaps this is why Foreign Minister Lavrov indicated that President Putin would not be making calls to any other leaders about this.”

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

—A recent poll conducted by Gallup found that “After 18 months of grinding conflict, Ukrainians remain deeply committed to winning the war with Russia — although slightly less so than they were in the early months of the war.” The number of Ukrainians who would want to keep fighting until “it wins the war” dropped to 60% from 70% in September 2022. The number of respondents who wanted to seek a negotiated settlement “as soon as possible” increased slightly during the same time period, from 26% to 31%.

The poll also found that “In the South (45%) and East (52%) regions closest to the front line, support for continuing the fight is still lower than the rest of the country. As a result, the proportion who favor a negotiated end to the war as quickly as possible is also highest in the South (41%) and East (39%).” Just over 70% of residents of the north of Ukraine, which includes Kyiv, and the West were in favor of continuing to fight.

—Another poll — from the Eurasia Group Foundation — found that a majority of Americans (58%) think the United States should push for a negotiated settlement in the war in Ukraine. As Daniel Larison notes in RS today, “Support for diplomatic solutions [in Ukraine and elsewhere] has majority backing of Americans from across the political spectrum, so it is remarkable how little support for those same solutions can be found among our elected representatives and policymakers in Washington.”

The poll also found that a plurality of respondents named “avoiding a direct war between the U.S. and nuclear-armed Russia” as the top goal for the future of U.S. support of the war effort. More respondents believed that the “U.S. responded well to Russia’s war in Ukraine than did not,” though there was a strong partisan divide on that question.

— A New Yorker profile of national security adviser Jake Sullivan examines the administration’s approach to the war in Ukraine, explores some of the internal debates over which weapons to send to Kyiv, and looks into how Sullivan thinks about the question of diplomacy. The piece reports that the White House was “fully briefed” on the Track Two talks that took place between former and prominent Russians in the spring.

“There is little doubt that the Biden Administration has actively considered ways to get Russia to the negotiating table,” writes Susan Glasser. “Privately, Sullivan has had extensive discussions about what a peace deal might look like. ‘My conversations with him all the way through have been about what can you do to eventually bring this war to an end,’ an informal adviser of Sullivan’s told me. (…) ‘they want to find a way to eventually get to a freeze, to eventually get to a negotiated settlement. But it has to be something that keeps nato together. It has to be something that doesn’t isolate the Ukrainians or have them go off and undermine everything that’s been done. That’s a hard square to circle.’”

—National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that funding for Ukraine would not be endless. “On the Ukraine funding, we’re coming near to the end of the rope. Today we announced $200 million, and we’ll keep that aid going as long we can, but it’s not going to be indefinite,” he said. The White House is reportedly planning to try to get its languishing aid request for Ukraine through Congress by combining it with funding for Israel, Taiwan, and border security, though some Congressional Republicans have balked at the proposal.

U.S. State Department news:

During a press briefing on Tuesday focused almost exclusively on the war in Gaza, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that he didn’t have any evidence suggesting that Russia was involved in Hamas’s attacks.

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