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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Gamble With Hamas

By inviting Hamas leaders for talks, President Vladimir Putin is taking a risky diplomatic gamble that could significantly boost Russia's global influence but has already opened the door to accusations of double standards on terrorism -- accusations that the Kremlin itself has repeatedly directed at Western countries.

Hamas leaders confirmed this weekend that they would travel to Moscow in the second half of February and said that they did not expect conditions for the talks, despite U.S. pressure for Russia to urge Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israeli statehood.

Putin announced the invitation to Hamas -- which has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings in Israel since 2000 -- during a visit to Spain on Thursday. The invitation, which follows Hamas' victory in Palestinian elections on Jan. 25, won support from France on Friday but has enraged Israel, which fears Russia is lending legitimacy to a group that the United States and Europe consider a terrorist organization.

"[Putin], I believe, would feel very bad if Israel were to invite the Chechen terror organizations into Israel and give them legitimacy," Israeli Education Minister Meir Sheetrit said Friday on Israel Radio.

Israeli television broadcast images Friday night of Hamas posters praising Chechen rebels, The Associated Press reported. The posters showed images of Hamas leaders and Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for Russia's most horrific terrorist attacks, including numerous suicide bombings and the 2004 Beslan school hostage-taking that left 331 people dead, most of them children. It was unclear when the televised pictures had been taken.

Putin has refused to negotiate with Chechen rebels, whom he has branded terrorists. He and other senior Russian officials have criticized the United States and European countries for refusing to extradite rebels, accusing them of applying double standards in the global struggle against terrorism.

The Russian Foreign Ministry defended Putin's initiative, saying a dialogue with Hamas must be started right away to get the peace process back on track in the Middle East. It said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had discussed the issue with Russia's partners in the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators -- the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov also defended the plan, saying the West would eventually have to accept the necessity of talks. "Hamas is in power, this is a fact, and secondly, it came to power as a result of free democratic elections," Ivanov told reporters at a NATO-Russia meeting in Italy on Friday.

Moscow has not recognized Hamas as a terrorist organization -- a fact that Putin stressed during his recent annual news conference in the Kremlin.

Israeli interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took a softer line than many of his colleagues Sunday. "I think the Russian position is mistaken, as I have stated. But from what they said to us during the weekend, they will demand Hamas recognize Israel and give up terror," he told a weekly Cabinet meeting, Reuters reported.

If Russia can find some way out of the international impasse over a Hamas government, its role as an international player promises to be greatly enhanced. Putin has been seeking to boost Russia's profile while it holds the presidency of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations this year. Putin raised the Hamas talks during a meeting of G8 finance ministers in Moscow over the weekend.

Putin did the right thing by extending the invitation to Hamas, but he has taken a serious risk, said Alexei Malashenko, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Everything depends on Hamas now," Malashenko said. "While their leaders are negotiating in Moscow, some of their militants might be preparing and carrying out a terrorist attack against Israel, and Putin would have to face the tough question from the West and Israel of who are you receiving and negotiating with in the Kremlin?"

Russia's envoy to the Middle East, Alexander Kalugin, said Sunday that Moscow would try to persuade Hamas leaders to abandon their hard-line stance and embrace peace efforts. He met on Sunday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

Should Russia's diplomatic efforts fail, its prestige will suffer a stinging blow, Malashenko said. He added that Russia should have consulted with Israel and the other members of the Quartet before announcing the Hamas talks.

Putin appears to be counting on Hamas to adopt a more moderate stance after its election win, said Mikhail Roshchin, chief researcher of Islamic studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies. "Hamas understands that it has to somehow justify the confidence of voters having won the elections once. Otherwise, it authority won't last long," he said.

The Soviet Union was for years a main sponsor of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in its fight with Israel. Hamas beat Fatah in the elections.

Roshchin said Putin seemed to be following the Soviet-era policy of supporting marginal movements in the Middle East, where Moscow has long engaged in political games.

Explaining his invitation in Spain, Putin said that Hamas had come to power in democratic, legitimate elections and that the choice of the Palestinian people must be respected.