The Ukraine crisis, while largely a distraction in a region embroiled in its own multiple conflicts, has nonetheless been received in the Middle East with a collective “I told you so”. The West’s response to the Crimea annexation and Ukraine incursions is widely viewed as a vindication of the assessment by friend and foe alike that the West’s global commitment and staying power cannot be relied upon, that Western decline is endemic, and that various individually-tailored pivots are the order of the day for America’s Middle East partners.
In parallel, developments in Ukraine have embellished Russia’s credentials as an actor able to stand up effectively for its allies, one that understands that geo-politics is still very much with us – and that speaks a language of power that resonates with Middle Eastern leaders.
Incorporating a Russia angle into one’s geostrategic toolbox appealed to many Middle Eastern states even before the current crisis, as Russia had been actively re-asserting itself in the region in recent years. Russia has moved to re-strengthen its ties with Egypt since the military coup last year, and has established good relations with General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, offering him political support and arms. Russia is now also Egypt’s number one source of tourists. Russia has similarly renewed ties with post-occupation Iraq, with major arms deals under discussion. Visiting Washington DC in April, Egyptian FM Nabil Fahmy spoke of Egypt’s “Global rebalancing to diversify its portfolio of strategic and economic relationships…Our emerging relationship with Russia is one that we will seek to nurture and leverage.” Both Egypt and Iraq abstained from the vote on UNGAR 68/262, which rejected any change in the status of Crimea and re-affirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity .
The regional allies most dependent on the US – the GCC states (notably Saudi Arabia) and Israel – have been very vocal and even blunt in their criticism of Obama Administration policies, while both maintain normal, and in the case of Israel, rather close relations with President Putin. Neither Israel nor the Gulf states will be too bothered by Western appeals to principles of international law and human rights in shaping their own views on the Ukraine crisis.
Putin has made a point of stressing Russia’s closeness to Saudi on many issues (Syria being the major exception), and Israeli unwillingness to actively side with the West over Ukraine has been conspicuous, certainly not escaping the attention of Washington.
Which is not to say that the West’s Middle East allies really see in Russia a replacement option – rather that they see greater value in both doing some geo-strategic balancing and in being able to use a flirtation with Russia as part of their respective strategies for managing the West, deflecting any Western criticism and guaranteeing future Western assistance and arms sales. This flirtation is mutually beneficial – Russia’s geo-political positioning gains from its re-invigorated presence in the Middle East.
A possible arena for Ukraine spill-over is in diplomatic problem-solving in the region. Americans, Europeans, and Russians are locked together in collaborative efforts on all three of the regional issues on which there is most diplomatic activity: the E3+3 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme; the Geneva Process to resolve the Syria conflict, and the Middle East peace process Quartet. The Israel-Palestine issue is likely to be least affected – long at an impasse, with the Quartet more moribund than vital, and with America designated to play a solo lead role but unable to budge its Israeli ally, as the latest round of failed talks exemplified.
Syria is the most pressing regional crisis in terms of human cost and regional ramifications and where the Ukraine tensions might be most keenly felt. The West and Russia back opposing parties but diplomacy has been predicated on the global powers delivering the cooperation of their warring local allies and last year a deal was reached and ostensibly implemented on chemical weapons. Irrespective of Ukraine, diplomacy and the Geneva process are now anyway deeply frozen. However a prolonged Ukraine stand-off could lead to more traction being gained for an expanded Western military footprint in Syria – that Syria is a more realistic environment to demonstrate Western hard power and to take a stand against Russia rather than Crimea/Ukraine itself. It is worth though remembering that the West has avoided military entanglement in Syria for good reasons, none of which have been altered by events around the Black Sea or in the Donbas region.
Another issue for potential fallout is Iran. So far the E3+3 nuclear negotiations with Iran have been unaffected despite hints and concerns expressed. The crisis could push Iran and Russia closer together, and certainly inside Iran there is an open and heated debate as to whether Iran now has a better “Russia” option against Western sanctions. But there are also limits to how far either Iran or Russia – already together in backing the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria – would want to align themselves more closely. The success of Iran’s new leadership is predicated on removing Western sanctions. Although it could co-operate with Russia to minimise the impact of sanctions, this is a fall-back option rather than a preferred one. Nevertheless, the Ukraine crisis will strengthen voices in Tehran and Moscow who back a harder line against the West and could upset an already delicate balance in support of diplomacy in Tehran.
For Europe these implications for the Iran talks suggest two additional considerations. The first relates to energy needs and sources – an arena in which Iran can be a competitor to Russia and an alternative for Europe should the sanctions at some point be lifted. European options for reducing energy dependency on Russia will point to the Middle East – whether increasing imports from the Gulf (with Poland just agreeing a gas deal with Qatar), more actively helping create a security environment that brings Libyan oil back online, pushing harder for a deal with Iran, or drawing closer still to an unreformed Algeria. However, any such energy pivot will require time.
The other relates to economic sanctions, which have become the favourite tool of US hard power in the 21st Century, often with European backing but sometimes with worrying implications for Europe, especially when the reach is extra-territorial and means Europe taking a far heavier economic hit than America. If the Ukraine crisis leads to a serious and concerted effort to sanction Russia and especially to the US further deploying its control of the global banking system in geo-politically punitive ways then it is reasonable to expect Russia with others (possibly including China), to try to create new channels to immunize themselves from this threat – and that will have implications for Iran and far beyond.
Seen from the Middle East, a prolonged crisis between Russia and the West may bring short term benefits that can be exploited for tactical advantage by various players, but in the broader scheme of things it adds another risky and unwanted layer of uncertainty and volatility to an already fragile and incendiary regional reality.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.