Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov started off his first interview with JNS after Hamas brutally attacked Israel on Oct. 7 by saying, “The terrorist methods used by Hamas during the initial stage of confrontation deserve only condemnation. And, of course, we condemn extremist terrorism, murder of civilians, hostage-taking, as well as a blockade of people and the creation of difficult living conditions or other violent actions against civilians.”
The ambassador’s remarks underline the “both-sides” approach taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials since Oct. 7. They have admitted Israel was the victim of an unprovoked attack but criticized the Israeli response, a line that has alienated and angered many Israelis.
JNS: Can you explain to me which measures Israel has taken that Russia sees as harsh?
Ambassador: It is difficult to assess what should be Israel’s response to what happened on the 7th of October, but the Israeli response should be led by the interests of the humanitarian situation. People in Gaza are not responsible for what Hamas’s leadership or terrorists from Hamas are doing.
JNS: Many Israelis were offended that President Putin compared what’s going on now in Gaza to the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad during World War II.
Ambassador: I advise you to read what exactly President Putin said. He said that military and other means like the Leningrad blockade should be not implemented. And that’s it. It’s not an accusation. It’s not a comparison of behavior of the Israeli armed forces with any of the events of the Second World War. We should not act to aggravate the situation.
JNS: Does Russia believe Israel’s intelligence regarding the recent explosion at a hospital in Gaza, which showed Israel was not responsible and Palestinian Islamic Jihad was responsible?
Ambassador: It’s not a matter of my belief. Our official reaction is: We are deeply shocked by what happened and we express our deepest condolences. We have a principled position about the inadmissibility on any violence against civilians, attacks on medical facilities, on other civilian infrastructure. I cannot guess who is behind the explosion, but this tragic event and catastrophe, as President Putin said, should be a signal, a trigger to the serious consideration of an immediate ceasefire and immediate ending of hostilities.
JNS: But when the IDF presents the intelligence proving its case, why do you find it hard to say this is the correct version?
Ambassador: You know what, I am not an expert. Everyone, including journalists, should let the experts make some conclusions and present their views. It doesn’t make sense to speculate now because all of us are not specialists and are not experts.
JNS: What is Russia’s possible role in what is going on right now in the region?
Ambassador: President Putin has contacted a few leaders in the region, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and made it clear that we are fundamentally ready in principle to continue to carry out our work, focused on the interest of ending this conflict, and we are trying to facilitate a ceasefire.
JNS: Is there a chance that Russia will become a negotiator?
Ambassador: I don’t see any obstacles to Russia being a negotiator, bearing in mind that we are keeping normal, constructive relations with the key leaders. We are impartial. We are not acting against the security interests of any country. In no way we are acting against the interests of the State of Israel and the people of Israel.
JNS: U.S. President Joe Biden just visited Israel. U.S. aircraft carriers are arriving in the Mediterranean. How does Russia see the U.S. involvement in what’s going on here?
Ambassador: The U.S., unfortunately, has not had a positive role in what is happening, because in the previous few years, they were trying to monopolize the peace process in the Middle East. But history shows us that, on many occasions, unilateral efforts were never successful. And, of course, part of the responsibility for the current situation lies with the United States. It’s now our firm position: The lack of the prospects of a peace process is one of the key reasons for the hostilities that are taking place now. We are expecting from American leadership that they contribute to stopping hostilities, achieving a ceasefire and deciding how to proceed towards a peaceful, diplomatic settlement.
JNS: Do you think the U.S. led us to what is happening now?
Ambassador: Of course, there is some blame, but I’m referring to the period before the war. I’m saying that the lack of a political horizon is one of the main causes of the current situation. Now is not the time to accuse somebody of creating this situation. It’s not the time for mutual accusations. It’s time to consolidate our efforts.
JNS: Is Russia planning to change how it sees Hamas after these terrorist attacks?
Ambassador: On many occasions, Russia is asked to apologize for sins we did not commit. Claims that we support terrorism, providing them with arms… it’s not true. We have explained that the only goal of and reason for our contacts is “How can we play the role without contacting terrorists?” The current contacts with the representatives of Hamas are aimed at achieving a ceasefire, rescuing hostages taken by Hamas and saving the civilian population. Without contacting them, how do you think this can be achieved? It does not mean we are terrorist supporters.
JNS: So, Russian officials will continue to meet with Hamas officials?
Ambassador: I think so.
JNS: Is Russia assisting Hamas with military equipment, as Ukraine has claimed?
Ambassador: The short comment is: Nonsense. It’s not true. Long comment is: We are not sending our arms in violation of our international obligations. And in the case of Hamas, we are not doing that.
JNS: What kind of solution does Russia see to the current war?
Ambassador: The solution is to pressure both sides in order to persuade them to reach a ceasefire. The longer the hostilities continue, the more difficult it will be to find a solution.