Russia is presenting itself as a champion of peace in the Israel-Hamas conflict, while defending the largest invasion in Europe since World War II. The United States and the EU, on the other hand, appear to believe that sanctions do not apply when the “right to self-defense” involves the indiscriminate bombings of civilians in the Gaza strip and attacks in the West Bank. This posture in support of Israel has sparked a wave of accusations of double standards: Western powers have been criticized for condemning Russia’s attacks against civilians and basic infrastructure in Ukraine, while at the same time justifying similar acts carried out by Israel in the name of its defense against Hamas.
Russia and China are seeking to take advantage of this situation in the fight to control the narrative. The battlefield is the United Nations Security Council, where Beijing and Moscow vetoed a Washington resolution last week as it did not urge Israel to lay down its weapons. Another Russian resolution that did not include Israel’s right to defense also failed to receive the minimum necessary votes.
“It has become clear that the U.S. simply doesn’t want U.N. Security Council decisions to have any kind of influence on a possible ground offensive by Israel in Gaza,” said Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia.
Moscow and Beijing have been singing the same tune almost since the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas. It is no coincidence, but rather another result of the “strategic partnership” and friendship “without limits” between the two countries, which they announced three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
“China and Russia have positioned themselves relatively clearly in the current conflict: criticizing Israel [although using diplomatic language], without explicitly condemning Hamas, and loudly criticizing the U.S. and the West’s support for Israel,” explains Björn Alexander Düben, an associate professor at Jilin University in China. It may be “somewhat surprising,” adds this analyst, since “both Beijing and Moscow have maintained good relations with Israel in recent decades.” “The conflict serves to advance their common objective of strengthening ties with the countries in the Global South, especially in the Muslim world,” he adds.
A couple of weeks ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin met again in Beijing. Although they did not issue a joint statement on the conflict in the Middle East, the official Chinese statement said that “China is ready to work with Russia to step up communication and coordination within the United Nations” and other multilateral organizations.
Putin, an advocate in the Palestinian case of the creation of an entirely new state, as recommended by U.N. Resolution 181 in 1947, used the antithesis of this argument to justify his invasion of Ukraine, whose existence he does not accept. He made this argument in speeches on February 21 and 24, 2022, when he launched a massive land, sea and air offensive that included the bombardment and assault of major urban centers such as Mariupol, Kharkiv and Kyiv.
The Kremlin is trying to maintain a delicate balance in the region. Iran is a key ally of Russia: it helps it evade Western sanctions and obtain ammunition. While Israel, the destination of many Russian exiles, is also a major trading partner and Jews are one of the country’s main minority groups. “Russia benefits from this seismic shift because Western allies are strained by continuing their military and financial support for Ukraine,” says Kawa Hassan, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Russia’s ambivalence was reflected in the two closed-door emergency meetings at the U.N. Security Council on October 8 and 13. The meetings ended without any joint statement due to Moscow’s refusal to condemn Hamas. Two public meetings later followed.
It’s common for the five powers on the Security Council to veto resolutions. Since 2011, Moscow has rejected up to 17 proposed resolutions on another key issue in the region, the Syrian war. The last time Russia used its vetoing rights was in July. This led to the temporary closure of the passage of humanitarian aid to the northwest of the country through the Turkish Bab al-Hawa corridor. Approximately 85% of the support for the civilian population crosses that stretch. The deal was finally extended for another six months at the end of August.
However, other vetoes are final. Russia, for example, refused in October 2017 to allow the U.N. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks against his population.
When Putin announced his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, he argued that “old treaties and [international] agreements are no longer effective” after the demise of the Soviet Union. The president gave as an example NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia, which had not been approved by the United Nations, the unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and America intervention in Syria, which was done without the approval of the al-Assad regime. He also argued that U.N. approval “was distorted” when NATO acted against Gaddafi in Libya.
China as an alternative mediator to the United States
China recognizes Palestine as a state and has a historical connection to the territory, which is linked to the national liberation movements of the Cold War. But Beijing has tried to stay out of the war and present itself as a friend of Israel and Palestine. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been in contact with both foreign ministries. “The pressing task now is to stop the situation from further escalating and causing a more serious humanitarian disaster,” he told his Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, last week. “China deeply sympathizes with the plight of the Palestinian people, especially the people in Gaza,” he told Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki.
Professor Düben considers that neither China nor Russia has “a special interest in the conflict.” Nevertheless, he adds, given the geopolitical tensions in recent years, “the fact that the U.S. and its major allies have taken a supportive stance toward Israel provides an incentive for Beijing and Moscow to do the same and take a contrary stance, as during the Cold War.”
Düben points to another reason: “In light of the constant flow of images of civilian suffering in Gaza, both Beijing and Moscow can portray the United States and its allies [because of their support for Israel] as irresponsible and guilty of double standards when it comes to human rights violations and alleged war crimes. They can use this to deflect Western criticism of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, or China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in its Xinjiang region.”
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