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Hamas release of Russian hostages highlights Putin’s new Middle East stance

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RIGA, Latvia — When a Hamas delegation visited Moscow in late October, Russian diplomats handed them a list of eight Russian-Israeli citizens being held hostage in Gaza — captives Russia wanted the Palestinian militant group to set free. Hamas immediately signaled that the list would get special attention, state-run media reported.

“We are very attentive to this list and will process it carefully because we look at Russia as our closest friend,” a senior member of Hamas, Mousa Abu Marzook, told RIA Novosti news agency. “As soon as we find them, we’ll release them.”

Since then, Hamas has been making good on its pledge.

Three of the Israeli Russian hostages were released. That number included Roni Krivoi, 25, a sound engineer who was working at the music festival attacked by Hamas. Last Sunday, he became the first adult male with an Israeli passport set free, even as most of the exchanges involved women and children.

Moscow stressed that the release of Krivoi and the subsequent freeing of two more Israeli Russian dual nationals — Elena Trufanova, 53, and her mother, Irina Tatti, 73 — was secured independently of mediation by the United States, Qatar and Egypt that secured a pause in fighting and other releases.

Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, posting on Telegram last Sunday, credited “the release of a Russian passport holder” — evidently Krivoi, although she did not name the hostage — to “direct agreements between Russian representatives and Hamas,” which she noted Moscow intends to continue.

“We are grateful to the leadership of the Hamas movement for their positive response to our urgent appeals,” Zakharova said Thursday. “We will continue to strive for the speedy release of the remaining Russians held in the Gaza Strip.”

The special treatment for the abducted Russians is a new manifestation of the growing alignment between the Kremlin and Hamas, a relationship in which President Vladimir Putin is seeking to present himself as a leader and champion of a new “multipolar world order” and the Palestinian militant group gets a veneer of legitimacy at a time when many countries have branded it as a terrorist organization.

Since Oct. 7, when Hamas carried out an attack inside Israel, killing some 1,200 people and abducting more than 200 others, Putin has carefully calibrated his position, apparently keeping in mind Russia’s growing reliance on Iran, a main sponsor of Hamas, as a supplier of drones and missiles for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Russia initially expressed “concern” over the attack but did not condemn Hamas. And rather than stressing condolences to Israel, Moscow pointed fingers at the United States and the West, blaming Washington for decades of failure to resolve the long-simmering conflict in the Middle East and suggesting that Russia could be a mediator.

While Hamas quickly became a pariah in much of the world after the Oct. 7 attack, Russia rolled out a red carpet for the Hamas delegation.

“The fact that Moscow invited them in late October is a very big deal as it’s a way for Hamas to show that they are not some alleged terrorists and that they are being invited for official talks,” Ruslan Suleymanov, an independent Russian expert on the Middle East, said in an interview. “So these releases are a gesture from Hamas to highlight Putin’s special role, but only the U.S., Egypt and Qatar take part in the real talks about hostages and the cease-fire.”

Hamas has also benefited from political and diplomatic support provided by Russia in its role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, where its representatives blocked U.S.-led resolutions against Hamas.

But while potentially expedient in the short term, Russia’s pivot toward Hamas also carries risks. Already, it has driven a wedge between Russia and Israel, putting in jeopardy the Kremlin’s prided ability to juggle relationships with all parties in the region — no matter how bitterly they hate each other, analysts said.

It is also unclear that Hamas even knows the whereabouts of the remaining hostages on Russia’s list.

And while Moscow has built ties to Hamas’s Qatar-based political wing, to whose representatives the Russians handed their list, Russia has no leverage with the military arm of the group operating on the ground in Gaza and which ultimately will decide who is freed now that the pause in fighting brokered by the United States has ended.

In any case, Krivoi, the abducted sound engineer, was a lucky beneficiary of Russia’s diplomatic outreach. He was released, the first hostage adult male with an Israeli passport to be set free, and sent to a hospital in Tel Aviv.

A few days later, Trufanova and Tatti, a doctor from southern Russia who moved to Israel five years ago to reunite with her daughter, were released. The pair were kidnapped from Trufanova’s home in Kibbutz Nir Oz. Her husband, Vitaly Trufanov, was killed during the Oct. 7 attack, and her son, Alexander, is still in captivity.

Hamas has also played up Russia’s role.

“The prisoners were released during the truce period but separately from the rest of the hostages, as they are not part of this deal,” said Hamas official Basem Naim. “This action is in appreciation of the Russian position supporting the rights of the Palestinian people in general and the resistance. It also aims to strengthen this bilateral relationship for future collaboration.”

Naim said others on Russia’s list “could be missing on the other side” — meaning Israel. “But,” he added, “in case there is another truce, we would keep searching, and releasing them is possible.”

Putin not only refrained from condemning Hamas after the attack but also did not immediately call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who for years was considered one of his closest friends among world leaders.

Some Russia watchers regarded Putin’s stance as revenge for Netanyahu’s lack of demonstrative support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and also as a sign of a grudge against Israel for giving refuge to thousands of Russians who have fled Putin’s government in the past two years.

Suleymanov said Russia was also using the war in Gaza to portray itself as allied with countries in the Global South against the West.

“Putin is partially rejoicing that right now the U.S. security system and its relationship in the Middle East are facing their toughest test in years,” he said. “Because it’s the U.S. that was promoting Israel’s alignment with the Arab world but is now forced to juggle its own ties to it while taking a very clearly pro-Israeli stance.”

“Russia, in conditions of Western isolation, is trying to demonstrate itself as an anti-Western force,” Suleymanov added. “But this is a test for Russia, too, as it can’t afford to lose Israel.”

Although Russia had long portrayed itself as capable of working with anyone in the Middle East, the war in Ukraine has realigned Putin’s foreign policy — forcing the Kremlin to move closer to Iran. That alliance had deeply alarmed Israel even before the attack by Hamas.

Abbas Galyamov, a political consultant and former Putin speechwriter, said the Russian president had lost a carefully balanced position.

“For years, he walked a tightrope between Israel and his Middle Eastern partners in the face of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran and the Palestinians, but after Oct. 7, they fell on the side opposite of Israel,” Galyamov said. “I view it as him losing the ability to conduct independent foreign policy in the region and turning more into an Iranian proxy.”

“The ayatollahs perhaps said, ‘We supported you on your key issue, Ukraine, so it’s time to stop fussing and support us on our fundamentally important issue,” he added.

Galyamov said Putin’s siding with Hamas could undermine his goal in Ukraine: to sustain the fight until Western support for Ukraine begins to erode — something that could happen faster if Donald Trump returns to the White House.

“In that regard, part of Republicans who are isolationist are his allies, even if they don’t sympathize with him personally but believe that two post-Soviet states fighting are not their business,” Galyamov said. “But supporting Israel is the peak of their policy. And by aligning with Hamas, Putin is knocking the wind out of their sails, as they’ll see he sides with evil wherever he appears.”

Ebel reported from London. Hazem Balousha in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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