Opinion: Zelensky’s inescapable new reality

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

Hours after Hamas terrorists launched their brutal rampage against Israeli civilians, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a fierce defense of Israel and an unequivocal condemnation of Hamas.

Frida Ghitis - CNN
Frida Ghitis - CNN

“Terror is always a crime, not just against country or specific victims, but against humanity as a whole,” he wrote. Zelensky added that “Israel’s right to defense is beyond question” — and urged the world to stand united against terror.

A couple of days later, addressing NATO’s parliamentary assembly, where Ukraine had been a focus since Russia invaded it some 600 days ago, Zelensky noted the inescapable new reality facing his embattled country.

“These days, our attention is focused on the Middle East,” he declared via video link. “No one can ever forget what terrorists did in Israel,” he said.

Zelensky has steadfastly continued supporting Israel, despite his often-tense relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, repeatedly drawing the connection between what Hamas did to Israel and what Russia has perpetrated against Ukraine, and its indiscriminate slaughter of Ukrainian civilians. He even urged NATO leaders to show their support by traveling to Israel.

While taking a principled stand, Zelensky — and the Ukrainian people — are fervently hoping that the world’s new security crisis, the eruption of a new war in the Middle East, will not become yet another obstacle in Ukraine’s efforts to push back against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aim to deny Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign country.

Now, the war between Israel and Hamas, which started on October 7, Putin’s birthday, looks like a gift for the Russian autocrat, and prominent Russians are openly delighting in it.

Putin, who has actively developed ties with Hamas in recent years called it “an example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East.” Russian television programs ridiculed the US and Israel, and a high-ranking Russian diplomat boasted of how Russia would benefit from the conflict.

In talks with regional leaders, Putin, whose forces’ attacks in Ukraine have left tens of of thousands of civilian casualties, said he was worried about “a catastrophic increase in the number of civilian casualties.”

Diplomat Konstantin Gavrilov told the Izevestia newspaper that the crisis would have a direct impact on the “special military operation” — Putin’s war against Ukraine. “Ukraine’s sponsors will be distracted by the conflict in Israel,” he said, and “the amount of military aid will go down.” As a result, he said, “the course of the operation may turn sharply in [Russia’s] favor.”

US officials have taken pains to deny that support for Ukraine will suffer as the US mobilizes to support Israel. President Joe Biden says both wars are critical to US security, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assured NATO defense ministers that, “We can and will stand by Israel, even as we stand by Ukraine.”

That is clearly the Biden administration’s intention, but the chaos in the Republican-held House of Representatives makes appropriating money much more difficult, and GOP members, while strongly supportive of Israel, are divided about aid for Ukraine.

That is yet another source of satisfaction for Putin and one of anxiety for Zelensky, as Ukraine’s forces prepare for winter combat — and civilians brace for another winter of Russian attacks.

The potential benefits to Russia of the Hamas attacks on Israel are so evident, that some are speculating that Moscow was involved, pointing to Russia’s strong ties with Iran — Hamas’ principal sponsor — to nearly half a dozen visits to Moscow by top Hamas officials since 2020, to the fact that the attack happened on Putin’s birthday, the same date that Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, one of Putin’s most effective critics, was assassinated in 2006, in what some believe was a birthday “gift” to Putin. (The Kremlin denies involvement.)

Israel’s ambassador to Moscow told a local newspaper, “We do not believe that Russia was involved in any way.” The suggestion, said ambassador Alexander Ben Zvi, was “complete nonsense.”

On Monday, while Israelis were still fighting Hamas elements inside the country, a Hamas official went on Russian television and highlighted Russia’s support. “They sympathize with us,” said Ali Baraka, head of Hamas National Relations Abroad, pointing to their mutually beneficial relations. “Russia is happy that America is getting embroiled in the Palestine war,” he said. “It eases the pressure on the Russians in Ukraine … so we’re not alone on the battlefield.”

Whoever had a hand in training, planning and carrying out Hamas’ attack in Israel — an attack in which they also killed dozens of Ukrainian and Russian citizens — there is no question that the escalating tensions in the Middle East, at least in the short run, are strongly favorable to Moscow’s campaign against Ukraine, and have created extremely serious new challenges for Kyiv.

“Russia,” Zelensky wrote two days after the attack, “is interested in triggering war in the Middle East, so that a new source of pain and suffering could undermine world unity, increase discord and contradictions, and thus help Russia destroy freedom in Europe.”

So far, NATO has stood firmly in support of Israel. But, just as the terrorists count on Israel’s response provoking a counter-reaction, stoking anti-Israel sentiment, Russia could also benefit if the public in NATO-member countries turns against Israel, and internal divisions bleed into NATO’s unity.

Ukraine has enjoyed muscular support from the West, which was has been unified in its view that Russia started a war of conquest, clearly outside the bounds of international law and modern international norms.

To defeat Russia, and to save Ukraine, Zelensky needs continued support, especially from the US, the country with the world’s largest, most powerful arsenal.

The question is whether that arsenal, and the reservoir of good will for Ukraine, can withstand not only the dysfunction plaguing America’s Republican Party — but also US commitment to supporting Israel, by far its most important ally in what remains the world’s most volatile region, the Middle East.

These two wars, between Russia and Ukraine, and between Israel and Hamas, are very different. The circumstances of each conflict and their key figures are very different. But it’s remarkable that in both cases the side that launched the assault brazenly went after civilians in violation of the laws of war and attacked democratic countries — however flawed.

And both — Hamas and Russia — have been run by autocratic leaders who deny their enemies’ right to live in a sovereign country. That they are both allied with autocratic Iran, and have both amassed power by dismantling any semblance of democracy at home and even killing their internal rivals. (They deny it, but the evidence is ample.)

Another parallel is that these two conflicts have the potential to spread in catastrophic ways.

And, in both cases, the side that was attacked — Israel and Ukraine — deserves continued support on the path to defeating enemies that undermine global stability.

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