On October 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a dire warning about the escalating war in the Gaza Strip. In his remarks, Lavrov declared, “If Gaza is destroyed and two million inhabitants are expelled, as some politicians in Israel and abroad propose, this will create a catastrophe for many decades if not centuries.” To prevent such an outcome, the foreign minister reiterated Russia’s support for a ceasefire and humanitarian programs to aid besieged Gaza residents.
Lavrov’s comments, which were his harshest condemnations of Israel’s actions in Gaza to date, echoed recent statements by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran, all of which have condemned Israel’s destruction of civilian targets in Gaza and called for an end to the war. This synergy reflects Russia’s longstanding strategy of using anti-Israeli rhetoric to bolster its image in the Islamic world. Since the October 7 attacks on Israel, Russia has deepened its engagement with the Gulf monarchies, Iraq, and Iran. As Israel’s ground incursion into the Gaza Strip expands, Russia’s shuttle diplomacy in the Gulf region will likely intensify—and could yield new commercial opportunities for its sanctions-hit economy.
Russia Weighs In on Gaza
While the Kremlin has publicly called for a ceasefire in Gaza, Russian commentators have celebrated the war’s geopolitical consequences. Israel is the United States’ strongest Middle Eastern ally; consequently, its suffering from the October 7 attack, the international condemnation against it after its invasion of Gaza, and the war-induced derailment of Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization talks all undermine the United States and aid Russia. The popular Colonelcassad Telegram channel gleefully declared that “the normalization of Saudi Arabia and Israel is dying before our eyes, like Washington’s entire plan.” Russia is evidently relieved that NATO-style security guarantees for Saudi Arabia have been temporarily taken off the table, as they feared that the normalization pact would weaken Moscow’s partnership with Riyadh.
Sensing a more favorable geopolitical environment, Russia has leveraged the Gaza War to strengthen its diplomatic and commercial partnerships in the Gulf region. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, with the periodic assistance of Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin, has regularly coordinated with regional leaders on ceasefire plans, humanitarian assistance, and the eventual implementation of a two-state solution. This cooperation extends to the UN Security Council, where Russia has consistently voted to condemn Israel, forcing the United States to exercise the veto power and lose face among the developing world. It is not lost on the Kremlin that America’s use of the veto to defend Israel also undermines Western complaints when Russia vetoes resolutions critical of it and its allies, such as Syria and Belarus.
During his October 11 trip to Moscow, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani asked Putin to advance a ceasefire plan in the UN Security Council. Russia followed through on Iraq’s request; on October 17, it introduced a UNSC resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. This proposal only received support from five of the fifteen countries on the Security Council, and a subsequent resolution for the same purpose on October 26 only achieved four. However, the United Arab Emirates, one of the UNSC’s non-permanent members, strongly supported both of Russia’s ceasefire resolutions and coordinated with Russia on an October 18 UNSC emergency meeting about the al-Ahli Arab Hospital attack. In offering such rhetorical support for Gaza, even if unsuccessful, Russian leaders have thus found a way to deepen ties with Arab governments for comparatively little cost.
Russia has synthesized these diplomatic outreaches with economic overtures. Despite secondary sanctions pressure on Russia’s $19 billion energy investment portfolio in Iraq, Putin and al-Sudani discussed deeper economic cooperation and OPEC+ coordination. As the apparent breakdown of Israel-Saudi normalization talks would complicate Riyadh’s procurement of U.S. civilian nuclear energy assistance, Russia’s nuclear energy giant Rosatom sees potential opportunities for investment in the desert kingdom. On October 11, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak expressed optimism about nuclear energy cooperation and declared that bilateral trade with Saudi Arabia would reach $7 billion by 2030.
In spite of these outreaches, a deep distrust of Russia’s pro-Palestinian stance lingers in the Gulf. Saudi commentator Tariq al-Homayed argued that Russia’s illegal “bombardment of Syria and Ukraine” rendered its criticisms of Israel’s violations of international law in Gaza hypocritical. The Oman Daily speculated that Russia’s position on Gaza was simply an extension of the “new cold war,” attempting to whip up support in the Global South by attacking the United States but without genuinely caring for the lives of the Palestinians. Although Russia’s engagement with senior officials in the Gulf region counters claims that it is internationally isolated, its soft power deficit in the Arab world lingers.
The Expanded Moscow-Tehran Partnership
Another source of anti-Russian sentiment in the Gulf comes from its deep partnership with Iran, which most GCC leaders regard as the region’s primary source of instability. The White House has called Iran “broadly complicit” in Hamas’s October 7 attack—and the Arab world has quietly agreed with this characterization—but Russia has emphatically defended Iran from U.S. criticisms. On October 19, Lavrov described efforts to blame Iran for the conflict as “provocations” and praised the Iranian leadership’s “fairly responsible, balanced position.” During the October 30 visit of Iranian lawmakers to Moscow, State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Leonid Slutsky backed Iran’s plan to create a “special parliamentary platform” in the Asian Parliamentary Assembly to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
Despite Russia and Iran’s shared support for a ceasefire in Gaza, it is unclear whether substantive cooperation can take hold on the Gaza issue. Vahid Jalalzadeh, the head of the Iranian Parliament’s Commission on National Security and Foreign Policy, highlighted Russia and Iran’s cooperation in Syria as a precedent for similar anti-U.S. coordination in Gaza. Nevertheless, skepticism in Iran of Russia’s motivations and commitment to Palestine persists. Former Iranian Ambassador to Russia Nematullah Ezadi believes that Russia benefited from the Gaza War, and is pushing for a ceasefire to “gain prestige” and counter its reputation as an aggressor. Ali Larijani, who served as Iran’s parliament speaker from 2008-20, also claimed that Iran was closely monitoring Russia’s response to ascertain its reliability as a partner.
To its credit, Russia views the prospect of a multi-front Israel-Iran proxy war with alarm and has distanced itself from Tehran’s escalatory rhetoric. The Russian leadership views a broader regional conflict as a no-win scenario for its interests; any military resources that Iran devotes to fighting Israel are resources that cannot be purchased for use in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Moreover, if Russia feels compelled to forge a hard alignment with Iran, it is certain that Israel would retaliate in kind, both with sanctions against Moscow and transfers of highly advanced military equipment like the Iron Dome system to Ukraine. Conversely, if Russia decides not to take sides, its military partnership with Iran could be disrupted, and Putin could lose support among Russian ultranationalists, who are a largely pro-Iranian bloc.
The close nature of Russia-Iran cooperation on Gaza possibly reflects the Kremlin’s calculation that Iran will ultimately decide it is in its best interests not to broaden the war. Russian defense commentator Colonel Mikhail Khodaryonok believes that Iran will not instigate a regional war, as it lacks a nuclear deterrent. Khodaryonok also noted that Hezbollah’s leadership knows that an escalation would reduce their mansions in southern Lebanon to “dust and rubble”—one likely reason that Hezbollah has conspicuously demurred from creating a second front along Israel’s northern border. Russia’s enduring diplomatic ties with Hezbollah, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) militias, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels could serve as a useful check on these group’s intentions.
Notwithstanding mutual suspicions, Russia’s coordination with Iran on the Gaza War has benefited its bilateral economic relations. As the dimming prospects for Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization have undercut the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor’s viability in the near term, Iran and Russia announced plans on October 28 to invest $38 billion in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). As this corridor has a trans-Caspian dimension, the two countries have also tried to de-escalate tensions in the South Caucasus after Azerbaijan’s September 2023 conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh. Lavrov’s October 23 visit to Tehran, which included meetings with counterparts from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey, injected life in the flailing 3+3 South Caucasus dialogue format.
In short, while Russia’s ability to contribute to a ceasefire in Gaza is limited, it has exploited the conflict to upgrade its regional partnerships. If American support for Israel undermines its relations with the Global South, causes the GCC to pursue a more independent and multipolar foreign policy, and eviscerates prospects for a renewed nuclear agreement with Iran, Russia could be the Gaza War’s primary geopolitical beneficiary.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.