For the Russian leader, the current conflict in the Middle East provides a convenient smokescreen for his army’s actions in Ukraine. Advances around Avdiivka, in the east, could mean the invasion front being rescheduled.
(DW) While the eyes of the world are fixed on the Middle East conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Sunday (15/10) advances by his army on the Ukrainian front, especially around the town of Avdiivka, in the eastern Donetsk region.
“Our troops are improving their position in almost all of this area, a very vast area,” he said in an interview on national TV, praising the choice of an “active defense” strategy. “This concerns the areas of Kupiansk, Zaporíja and Avdiivka.”
Avdiivka is less than 15 kilometers north of Donetsk, the Russian-powered capital of the region of the same name, whose annexation Putin unilaterally declared in 2022. Avdiivka briefly fell under the control of Russian separatists, supported and armed by Moscow, in July 2014, but was retaken by Kiev. Since then, it has been at the forefront of the conflict and has been bombed frequently, even before the Russians invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
On Saturday, the mayor of Avdiivka, Ukrainian Vitali Barabach, declared that the situation was “very tense”, with the Russians mobilizing more and more troops to surround the city. This was despite Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski’s assurances the day before that his army was “standing firm” in the area, resisting the assault by enemy soldiers.
The president also noted that around 1,600 civilians remain in Avdiivka, and that evacuations are difficult due to constant shelling. Before the Russian offensive, the town had 30,000 inhabitants.
The current offensive against Avdiivka comes four months after the start of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, which was long-announced and surrounded by hope. However, so far the Kiev army has only managed to recover a few towns from the hands of the invaders.
Putin used the television interview to state that the counter-offensive had “completely failed” and to anticipate: “We know that in some combat zones the opposing side is preparing new offensive operations. We see it, we know it and we react accordingly.”
Russia: dubiousness towards Israel and a smokescreen
The fact that, since the terrorist attacks by the Palestinian group Hamas against Israel on October 7, the world’s attention, especially that of the Western powers, has been focused on the Middle East, undoubtedly benefits Putin and his war party.
On the one hand, the Kremlin has avoided taking sides with either the Israelis or the Palestinians. “Traditionally, Russia has cultivated good diplomatic relations with both sides, while maintaining a certain distance,” Middle East expert Ruslan Suleymanov explained to DW. “These relations are, in part, even trusting, even after Russia attacked Ukraine and the relationship with Israel deteriorated to some extent.”
The aforementioned deterioration was largely due to comments made by Russian Foreign Minister Serguei Lavrov in May 2022: referring to Zelenski, of Jewish origin, he said that the “staunchest anti-Semites” were, as a rule, Jews themselves.
Jair Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister, condemned his counterpart’s words at the time, calling them an “unforgivable and outrageous statement and a terrible historical mistake”. “However, since then nothing irreparable has happened,” comments Suleymanov.
In practice, Putin and his supporters are now reproducing in relation to Israel and the Palestinians the tired narrative they applied in relation to the war in Ukraine: “the West”, above all the United States, is to blame for the Hamas offensive.
In Suleymanov’s opinion, the Kremlin ultimately profits from the escalation of violence in the Middle East, since “the attack at least diverts attention from what the Russian army is doing in Ukraine”. Everything else is propaganda for Russian domestic consumption – although for most of the population, being indifferent to the conflict in the Middle East is too distant and complicated, the orientalist pointed out.