“When was the last time you saw a live television news report from Ukraine?”
That was the lead on a CNN story a few days ago recounting how the Hamas-Israel war has diverted media coverage, diplomatic attention and military aid away from Ukraine’s battle against a 21-month-old Russian invasion.
A horrific attack by Hamas militants on Oct. 7 killed a reported 1,400 Israelis and kidnapped at least 240. Most of the Israeli captives remain missing and presumed to be held in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza now under ferocious attack by Israeli Defense Forces.
Global sympathies were largely with Israel after the deadly Hamas strikes that targeted civilians as well as Israeli military and police. But the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza resulting from IDF air strikes on the densely populated enclave and a three-week-old ground invasion have pushed the death toll among Palestinians beyond 13,000 and displaced nearly 40% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, according to Gaza Health Ministry and United Nations officials.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of a ceasefire and restriction of humanitarian aid into Gaza have sparked anger and violent demonstrations around the world. The raging conflict and fears it could escalate have dominated news and diplomatic interventions, pushing concern for Ukraine out of the public spotlight.
The Economist, in an opinion piece a week ago, called on the European Union to step up aid for Ukraine because “American support can no longer be depended on.” Citing a growing contingent of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives bent on scuttling further aid for Ukraine, the British weekly warned “diplomats and generals are running out of bandwidth” in a world awash in multiple crises.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has seized on the West’s drifting attention to intensify his crackdown on domestic dissent. A St. Petersburg court last week sentenced a local artist to seven years in prison for slipping pacifist slogans into the price-tag holders on a local supermarket’s shelves. Russian authorities also brought new charges against a former Moscow city councilman to extend the prison term he is already serving for spreading “false information” about the war.
Putin has used the Hamas-Israel crisis to reframe his war in Ukraine as part of a mission to depose the United States from its dominant role in global affairs. He has switched from claiming to be “denazifying” the Kyiv government to seeking to build a new multi-polar world sharing power and influence with other “great” nations — like Russia, China and Iran.
“I think that many will agree with me that this is a clear example of the failed policy in the Middle East of the United States,” Putin said after the Hamas attacks he blamed on Washington. He has since abandoned the Kremlin’s historic support for Israel to renounce those ties.
Sergei Markov, a Putin ally and former Kremlin advisor, explained the diplomatic about-face as necessary to avoid Russia and the United States being on the same side in any conflict.
“Russia understands that the U.S. and the EU have fully supported Israel, but the U.S. and the EU are now the embodiment of evil and cannot be right in any way,” Markov wrote on his blog.
“Russia will not be in the same camp with the U.S. and the EU. Israel’s main ally is the United States, Russia’s main enemy right now. And Hamas’s ally is Iran, an ally of Russia.” In other words, the enemy of Russia’s enemy is Russia’s friend — Hamas.
Putin faces re-election in March and has attempted to prevent public backlash against the war that has cost hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries to Russian men. Casualty figures are considered state secrets but Western military intelligence analysts calculate the war’s toll based in part on the number of new recruits and released prisoners deployed to fight in Ukraine, the latter in exchange for commutation of their sentences after six months.
A “partial mobilization” a year ago compelled 300,000 reservists to active duty for the Ukraine war. Among the initial fighters sent to Ukraine were at least 50,000 mercenaries of the Wagner Group, whose founder Yevgeny Prigozhin led a mutiny against Putin’s defense officials in June — and two months later died in the mid-air bombing of his private jet.
Putin is loath to call another mobilization, the last one having sent as many as a million educated Russian men fleeing the country to avoid conscription. Instead, Putin has borrowed Prigozhin’s tactic of recruiting from within Russia’s prisons. Western intelligence reports estimate the number of violent criminals freed to serve six-month stints in Ukraine at 100,000. Among them have been killers able to return to the communities where their victims’ families live.
The Washington Post published a story last week under the headline “Russia frees killers from prison to go to war and kill in Ukraine.” Among the murder convicts released to fight was a former police officer serving a 20-year sentence for his role in the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist who exposed human rights abuses and war crimes committed during Putin’s wars in Chechnya and elsewhere.
Prigozhin’s Aug. 23 demise was the last headline-grabbing story of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Six weeks later, with the outbreak of the Hamas-Israel war, news coverage dramatically declined. In the CNN article on the drop in Ukraine coverage, media journalist Oliver Darcy said data analyzed by the GDELT Project showed that before Oct. 7, Ukraine coverage amounted to about 8% of CNN’s daily television news content. It has since fallen to less than 1%.
The Middle East crisis flared at a time when a dysfunctional U.S. House of Representatives threw into question further U.S. aid to Ukraine. While GOP lawmakers have traditionally taken a hawkish stance against the Kremlin, a small but vocal minority has been pressing for an end to Ukraine aid. The far-right conservatives are pandering to their Russia-friendly leader, former President Donald Trump, who famously took Putin’s word over U.S. intelligence reports that the Kremlin interfered in his 2016 presidential election win.
The current stalemate in territorial conquest in Ukraine has invited donor fatigue after nearly two years of Western allies coming to the aid of the embattled Ukrainians. It has also spurred calls for peace talks and setting “more achievable goals,” igniting a fierce debate between those who see a protracted war in which Ukraine cannot drive out Russian occupiers in the short term and those who see negotiating with Putin as capitulation to a dangerous aggressor.
Allowing Putin to proclaim victory, the advocates of continued backing of Ukraine contend, would encourage further Russian aggression against other neighbors, in particular former Soviet republics that are now independent and prospering members of NATO and the European Union.
Two veteran foreign policy experts last week appealed for “Redefining Success in Ukraine,” arguing in a lengthy article in Foreign Affairs that a new strategy is needed that balances means and ends amid disappointing results from Ukraine’s long-touted counteroffensive.
“Persuading Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian public to change course would be no easy task, given the justice of their cause and all that has already been sacrificed,” wrote Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan, a CFR senior fellow and former national security official in the Obama administration.
“But the reality is that what began as a war of necessity for Ukraine—a fight for its very survival —has morphed into a war of choice, a fight to recapture Crimea and much of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine,” the authors wrote in support of pressing Putin to agree to a ceasefire ahead of negotiations on how to end the war.
Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor who was U.S. ambassador to Russia in 2014 when Putin first sent mercenaries into Eastern Ukraine and seized the Crimean peninsula, posted an eight-minute video via Substack over the weekend on “Why we should care about Ukraine.”
Putin’s invasion 21 months ago sparked the first major war in Europe since World War II, as well as the first annexation of a European state’s sovereign territory, McFaul noted. He also called the Kremlin leader’s bellicose rhetoric as threatening a new great-power war and posing the greatest risk of nuclear weapons use since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
On the moral side of the equation, McFaul argued that Putin’s war violates the principle of sovereignty that has been a central tenet of the international order since the United Nations’ founding.
“If Russia wins, Putin would be emboldened to attack others,” he warned, later posting on Twitter “Note to Congress: Ukraine aid is not charity but serves critical U.S. interests.”