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Russia benefits from war in Gaza. Was that the plan all along?

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It’s been four weeks since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The fog of war is still very thick. Weeks into the war, we still don’t know many details of either the attack itself or its planning. 

Yet there is one aspect of the bacchanalia of brutality of that day that experts, professional militaries and astute observers agree on: Hamas did not act on its own. No terrorist organization can make such a dramatic leap forward in its operational planning and execution capabilities without help from the outside. 

Currently, the conventional wisdom states the force helping Hamas to achieve spectacular success was Iran. Iran has denied connections to the attacks, but members of Hamas and Hezbollah say otherwise. But is their admission enough to conclude with certainty that Iran was the only helping hand in the operation? Does that admission make sense tactically and strategically? Is it possible the admission is a ruse to hide part of the truth? Is there another cunning power expertly lurking behind trying to stay in the shadow? 

We are reminded of the question Vladimir Lenin urged everyone to ask in situations like that: Who benefits here? The answer is simple. There is one power that benefits the most from the crisis. The address of that power is the Kremlin, Moscow. There is no hard evidence currently in our possession to unequivocally suggest one history of events or another. However, right now is the time to ask tough questions which may or may not lead us to the answers to help us face reality head-on.

Russia, at this time, is the only player interested in the conflict spreading out beyond the usual Gaza conflagration. Chaos is and has always been Vladimir Putin’s strategy for regaining Russia’s influence around the world. Russia has little to offer in terms of financial support or ideology. Its main export is instability. 

In the late 2000s, in the early days of Putin’s regime, Russia had surrounded itself with a circle of hot spots, primarily in the former Soviet republics. Gradually, with many successes steaming from U.S. inaction, Russia moved beyond to the Middle East and Africa

In Russia’s foreign policy toolkit, conflicts for the sake of a conflict are not a problem but a goal. The regime in the Kremlin, being a criminal regime, always looks for criminal opportunities. It is their strategy, not a tactic. Whether the regime is antisemitic or not is completely irrelevant.

We know, based on multiple sources, that training for the Oct. 7 attack started at least a year and a half ago. That is an important time. That coincides with when the Kremlin could see that the war in Ukraine was a lot more than it planned for. It needed a serious distraction for the U.S. to shift its primary attention to another hotspot. Perhaps this is how and then when the preparations began. 

One should never forget the longstanding ties between Palestine and the Soviet Union. Short of a brief period in the 1990s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas would always find an open ear in the Kremlin. That connection has never been broken, even when Iran got involved. Even the political structure of both organizations resembles more of the Bolsheviks than the Ayatollahs. Thus, it would not be farfetched to assume Russia’s involvement with Hamas not only on a political level — which is no secret — but on an operational level as well. 

The early stage of the October assault bears all of the markings of a classic Russian intelligence operation. It was painstakingly planned, impeccably organized, hit the weakest spots of the target and had clear tactical and strategic goals. It also appeared to be guided by handlers in ways unknown to the actual participants. It is a classic Russian trick to embed oneself in the process and leave right before the act, with the results going well beyond the goals of those responsible for the execution. 

It is unlikely that Iran wanted the operation to become successful to the point of igniting a regional conflict. Iran is not ready for such a situation until it gains nuclear capability. Yet it is clear that the initial stage of the attack set events in motion that would inevitably lead to a conflagration on a regional scale. 

One may argue Hamas lost some control after the unprecedented success of the first few hours. Yet it is hard to believe a successful operation would lead to anything less than a massacre, a pogrom, leaving Israel no choice but to retaliate in full force against Gaza and perhaps beyond. It is almost impossible to believe the tactical improvements Hamas displayed during its attack were the result of a self-improvement routine. There is clearly a third party helping it to achieve its spectacular results. Iran has never displayed such ability and is not up to the task with Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, gone

Assuming Russia was indeed involved at some operational level in training Hamas terrorists, how is it possible that Israel had no idea? But what if Israel knew? What if Israeli intelligence knew and so did Netanyahu? Netanyahu must have confronted Putin in one of their numerous meetings during the previous decade. What if Putin assured Netanyahu that the trainers were basically an insurance policy and Hamas would not do anything stupid beyond the “red lines”? What if the relationship between Israel and Russia which persisted even when Netanyahu was not in power — the relationship that, at times, was difficult to rationalize — was based on this tacit agreement? What if Israel was double-crossed? And even if Russia was not operationally involved in October events, it is almost impossible to imagine the Kremlin did not know about the preparations. 

Hamas leadership visiting Moscow earlier this year is as much of a coincidence as a grenade exploding on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane. Moscow must have known about the plot either from Iranians, directly from Hamas or through their own informers. Why Israeli intelligence did not know about it is another question. And though the Israel Security Agency takes most blame for the failure, Mossad should not escape unscathed from the greatest intelligence blunder Israel has ever seen. 

We will know sooner or later who guided Hamas to the most horrific massacre in modern Jewish history. Yet we should never forget there rarely has been a world crisis without Russia lurking in the background. This time is unlikely an exception.

Lev Stesin is a founding member of San Francisco Voices for Israel.

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