Explaining his decision, which followed a solid win by Hamas in January's Palestinian parliamentary elections, Putin said that Russia -- unlike the United States and the European Union -- had never declared the group a terrorist organization. Moreover, he said the world should accept that Hamas won the election fair and square, in a "democratic way."
Hamas does not recognize Israel, and it has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks. So Putin's overture has raised concerns in the United States, the United Nations, and the EU -- Russia's three partners in the Middle East Quartet responsible for drafting the "road map" Middle East peace plan.
Middle East 'Begins In The Caucasus'
Because Russia made its move unilaterally, its fellow quartet members may suspect that Moscow wants to use both the Hamas victory and the political exit of ailing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to its personal advantage.
This suspicion was bolstered by Putin's statement at a Kremlin press conference on 31 January, when he called the Hamas victory a "great blow" for the United States' Middle East policy.
Even commentators in Moscow are suggesting Russia has begun pursuing a game of its own devising in the Middle East. Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin insider and head of the Effective Politics Foundation consultancy, speaking on his political talk show, "Real Politics," said that Russia has legitimate interests in the Middle East and has the right to pursue them.
"For Russia, the Middle East begins in the Caucasus," Pavlovsky said. "We will never have peace in [a place like] Stavropol Krai until the Middle East continues the peace settlement initiated by the United States. We should go there and do the job ourselves."
The Kremlin expert also said Russia was suitably equipped to hold talks with Hamas because the group "has never waged war against Russia or committed terrorist acts on its territory."
Since Putin extended the invitation to Hamas, Russian diplomats have attempted to explain his initiative to the remaining members of the quartet. On 11-12 February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the issue with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice later told U.S. CBS television that Russia had agreed to call on Hamas to recognize Israel and meet other quartet demands. Lavrov also spoke to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Javier Solana, the EU foreign affairs chief.
'Legalization Of Terror'
Not surprisingly, the most negative reaction to Moscow's invitation to Hamas came from Israel. Speaking in New York, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Levni stated that "any indication of weakness...will be perceived by Hamas as legalization of terror." She added that Hamas would have to recognize the Israeli state, lay down its arms, and repudiate terror before Israeli would consider talks with the group.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov believes that "the whole world should hold negotiations with Hamas" (epa)Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told his Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov, meanwhile, that "by inviting the leaders of Hamas to Moscow," Russia had "broken the unity of the international antiterrorist front." He said at a time when crucial decisions were being made -- such as the selection of a new Palestinian prime minister -- the decision to host Hamas in the Russian capital could have an unwelcome impact on Palestinian politics. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister and leader of the Likud opposition party, sent Putin a letter asking him to revoke his invitation.
But Moscow defended its position. Defense Minister Ivanov told Mofaz that "the whole world, sooner or later, should hold negotiations with Hamas." Ivanov added that Russia would establish contacts with Hamas on the condition that the leadership of the Palestinian group admits the inadvisability of its stance toward Israel and revokes terrorism. "In that sense," Ivanov added, "Russia's position doesn't differ from the position of NATO countries."
Meanwhile, Russian experts are speculating on whether Putin's initiative will succeed. Vladimir Isaev, the deputy director of the Oriental Studies Institute, said the Russian president's move was well-calculated, but that it is too early to talk about negotiations with Hamas in practical terms, as it has yet to formulate it position and upper leadership, pravda. ru reported..
“It still hasn't instituted itself as a political party; it doesn't even know how to fill the surprisingly many places it won in the Palestinian parliament," Isaev said. "It's one thing to organize demonstrations against cartoons, and another to govern a state. Let's see how they manage. If Hamas continues to look for an external enemy, there will be nothing to talk about."
Vladimir Kulagin, the professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, says Putin has made a certain risk in his overture to Hamas. If after talks with Putin the Hamas leadership repudiates terrorism and its stated goal of destroying Israel, it will be an enormous victory for Russian diplomacy. But if the talks fail, the responsibility for that will rest on Russia.
RFE/RL Russia Report
SUBSCRIBE For news and analysis on Russia by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Russia Report."