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For Putin, Gaza is an endless gift

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The mafia supposedly asked cui bono (who benefits?) when trying to figure out who was behind a hit. There is no evidence that Russia’s Vladimir Putin had anything to do with Hamas’s horrific slaughter of 1,200 Israeli civilians last year. But Russia has been a leading beneficiary. To reach that conclusion, you have only to ask, cui malo (who loses?). The biggest answer geopolitically is Joe Biden. As Israeli forces move into the Gazan enclave of Rafah, that is only likely to get worse.

Fate decreed that Hamas’s barbarity took place on October 7, which is Putin’s birthday. The geopolitical instability since then has been delivered gift-wrapped to Moscow. Putin now finds it easier to depict Biden’s “liberal international order” as a hollow shell. Biden has made it clear that he will back Israel to the hilt if the International Criminal Court issues any indictments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues. By contrast, the US president supports the ICC indictment of Putin for his alleged war crimes in Ukraine. 

The irony is that until October 7 Putin and Netanyahu had something of a mutual admiration society. Each recognised in the other a strongman leader who would do what it takes to hold on to power. Each shared a disdain for American liberals, and do-gooding democrats in general. Those overlapping resentments remain. Since its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, however, and particularly since October 7, Russia has tilted away from Israel and thrown in its lot with Iran, Israel’s chief enemy.

Iran has sent Russia vast supplies of drones to use against Ukraine. Russia, in turn, has given up any pretence of being even-handed between Iran and Israel, which it had delicately been trying to do for many years. Moscow also received a delegation of senior Hamas officials three weeks after the attacks on Israel. Ominously, Putin has also been drifting into overt antisemitism. Until recently, he was one of the few leaders in Russian history who avoided that ancient scapegoat. Now he routinely refers to the fact that Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. Bizarrely, he does this in tandem with alleging that Zelenskyy is running a Nazi state. 

Anything that is bad for Biden is good for Putin. As he is the only defender of a “rules-based international order” in the 2024 presidential election, a Biden victory would be bad news for Moscow. As Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told the FT Weekend Festival last weekend, a Biden second term would tee up Ukraine for a 2025 counteroffensive against Russian-occupied territory.

A Donald Trump victory would mean Ukraine’s enforced capitulation to Russian terms at the negotiating table. The more chaos there is in Gaza between now and November, the harder it will be for Biden to defeat Trump. That is what makes the Israel Defense Force’s move into eastern Rafah this week so dangerous to Biden. 

For the most part, Putin is a passive beneficiary of the fallout from the IDF’s Gaza operations. But his interests on this overlap with Netanyahu’s. The Israeli leader this week in effect sabotaged chances of a ceasefire with Hamas by saying he would move into Rafah regardless.

Israel’s leader has an epic conflict of interest. When the war ends, there will be an Israeli general election. Polls suggest that Netanyahu’s Likud party would not pass Go, which means he could go straight to jail on his delayed corruption trials. He has every incentive to keep the war going. This makes Netanyahu as big a threat to Biden’s re-election prospects as Putin. 

It remains possible that Biden’s team, led by Antony Blinken, his secretary of state, and Bill Burns, his CIA director, will find a way to get Israel and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire and the release of some hostages. That could change the weather in Israel. Netanyahu knows it would be far harder to resume military operations once that three-stage process has begun. As Sullivan also said last weekend, diplomacy is about getting “a thousand no’s, until one day you get to a yes”. Arriving at that yes is the White House’s overriding priority. 

Failure to secure a ceasefire could mean thousands more civilian deaths in Gaza, possible famine as humanitarian aid is restricted and more campus protests in America. It would also lead to widening splits in the Democratic party. Biden recently held up a weapons shipment to Israel over humanitarian concerns. He will be forced to be far tougher than that if the Gaza war escalates again. 

All the while, Biden will need to bear one thing in mind. What is good for Netanyahu is good for Putin, and therefore for Trump. 

edward.luce@ft.com

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