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Russia’s media and the Gaza conflict: a realpolitik shift in narrative

In a world where the flow of information is as crucial as the wielding of military power, the Russian state media’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has marked a noteworthy shift in the Kremlin’s strategic communication on the region and on conflict in general. The Russian government, through its state-run media outlets, has taken a measured yet increasingly pronounced stance on the war in Gaza, suggesting a nuanced realignment of its geopolitical messaging, especially given the context of its own invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian state media's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflects a strategic shift in the Kremlin's geopolitical messaging, aligning more with the Palestinian cause and challenging Western narratives.
The Russian state media’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflects a strategic shift in the Kremlin’s geopolitical messaging, aligning more with the Palestinian cause and challenging Western narratives.

A Cautious Approach
Initially, Russian broadcasters approached the conflict with a certain degree of caution, reflecting perhaps a hesitancy to become entangled in the complex web of Middle Eastern politics or raising too many accusations of hypocrisy given Ukraine.

This editorial reticence, however, was soon replaced by a state media narrative that echoed President Vladimir Putin’s sentiments, comparing the struggle of Palestinians in Gaza with Russia’s campaign in Ukraine against what he has termed the American “root of evil”. This alignment with the Palestinian cause may signal an attempt by Russia to weave the Gaza conflict into its broader strategic rivalry with the United States.

Russia has long prided itself on a Middle Eastern policy driven by realpolitik, carefully balancing relationships with regional actors such as Israel, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. This approach allowed Russia to maneouvre diplomatically without being tethered to ideological commitments. However, their violent and bloody incursion into Ukraine has strained this policy, leading to a deterioration of relations with allies in the region, and a diminishing of Russia’s influence on the military and security fronts. The narrative from Russian media reflected this reality, for a long time circumventing outright condemnation of Hamas whilst offering a moderate criticism of Israel. This was most explicitly articulated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said “we strongly condemned… the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7th against Israeli civilians… But, at the same time, we cannot recognise as acceptable those methods which began to be used (by Israel) against Hamas, from which civilians suffered the most.”

Perceptions of Global Security
This is certainly a shift from previous pro-Israeli positions by Russia. The fraying of Russia-Israel relations over recent years stands out as a significant shift in international alliances. Beyond this, Russia seems intent on establishing itself as an alternative power centre to the United States in the Middle East. This pivot resonates with certain communities that have historically viewed U.S. involvement with scepticism. Russian state media has leveraged this sentiment to reshape the narrative surrounding the war in Ukraine, where Russia is often cast as the aggressor. By focusing on the U.S. and NATO’s support for Israel, Russian media suggests these Western powers no longer hold the moral high ground.

The war between Hamas and Israel seems to Russian media as an opportunity to point out the West’s alleged failures in protecting civilians globally. The conflict is seen as one that could lead Western, especially U.S., leaders to split their focus and resources, potentially reducing support for Ukraine in favour of Israel. Pro-Kremlin news goes as far as suggesting that the West is abandoning Ukraine.

This is a shift. As noted, Russian state media first condemned the atrocities against civilians in Gaza, with President Putin saying “your fists clench and you get tears in your eyes” looking at photos of “bloodied, dead (Israeli) children”.

But then things changed. Russian media reaction to the bombardment of the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza, for instance, was a notable shift (with the assumption that the devastation was Israel’s fault). Russia called for an emergency UN General Assembly session, and state media coverage expressed explicit outrage in stark contrast to Russia’s own actions in Ukraine.

Maria Zakharova, spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry told Radio Sputnik “we qualify such a felonious deed as an act of crime – as an act of dehumanisation”.

This led, predictably and rightly, to accusations of hypocrisy, especially given Russia’s history of targeting civilian infrastructure in both Syria and Ukraine.

Moral Ambiguity and International Response
The selective stance of Russian media on the Gaza conflict, especially concerning the portrayal of atrocities, has not escaped international scrutiny. Western media outlets have criticised Russia’s position as inconsistent, given its military campaigns. Their narrative, however, finds a resonance in the Middle East, where there is a longstanding wariness of Israel and its Western allies.

As Russian foreign policy analyst Hannah Notte notes, the Kremlin is keen to use the conflict to deepen the rift between the developing world and the West. Russian media’s shift in focus also reflects an understanding of the war’s potential impact on international relations. By aligning with the Palestinian cause, Russia not only appeals to anti-Western sentiments but also attempts to redirect the narrative of global leadership and moral authority away from a US dominance to one where Russia has a moral authority (however much this contradicts its history in Ukraine).

The framing is a world order where the United States and its allies are no longer the default champions of justice and where Russia emerges as a defender of the oppressed.

In sum, the Russian state media’s evolving narrative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a microcosm of the Kremlin’s larger geopolitical strategy. It reflects a nuanced understanding of the complex interplay between regional politics and global perception, but it framed very much against its own invasion of Ukraine and need for allies.

While the West may view Russia’s stance as hypocritical, the Kremlin’s representation of Gaza-Israel is a calculated move designed to sway public opinion and realign alliances in a region that remains pivotal to global stability. The approach of Russian media underscores the ongoing battle for influence the increasingly isolated nation finds itself fighting – not just on the ground, but in the minds and hearts of the non-Western international community.