War in Ukraine: The Middle East is learning strategic lessons
By Dr. Moshe Albo & Dr. Michael Milshtein | March, 2022
The crisis in Ukraine broke out when the Middle East was experiencing growing tension in view of what many perceived as a decline in the United States' status as it strove to resolve crises via diplomacy (at the center of which was the issue of Iranian nuclear) and refrain from military intervention (as manifest in Afghanistan), as well as increased boldness among regional parties, primarily Iran, who feel that their latitude has grown due to the emerging geopolitical state of affairs.
Two fundamental questions are on all Middle Eastern actors' minds, including Israel's: One – is global state architecture really changing in a way that is detrimental to U.S. hegemony, and strengthens other forces, namely Russia? And two – does the campaign in Ukraine mark the entrenchment of "the language of force" in the international arena, alongside the weakening of political and economic tools represented by Washington?
The Sunni camp – "Walking on eggshells"
At present, the Arab world is being cautious with regard to the crisis, seeing the direction in which it will develop while attempting to avoid causing damage to interests shared with both the West and Moscow. Thus, with the exception of Syria and the Houthis in Yemen, who have sided with Russia, Arab countries have avoided a direct condemnation of the Russian assault against Ukraine. The "Sunni camp" states are clearly concerned about the damage the Russian maneuver could cause to the United States' image, further aggravating the seeping skepticism among Arabs in view of Washington's policy since Biden had entered office, in light of his administration's placated approach to Tehran, its hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, and disinclination to intervene in regional crises, such as the Gulf states' struggle against the Houthis serving as Iranian proxies.
In an Arab League emergency meeting in which the developments in Ukraine were discussed, the member states had refrained from condemning Russia, calling for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement noting that “The Republic of Egypt is following with great concern the successive developments in relation with the situation in Ukraine” and reiterating "the need to give priority to the language of dialogue and diplomatic solutions, and endeavors that would quickly settle the crisis politically". Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, and Libya have all issued similar statements, emphasizing the need to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and contiguity while protecting the safety of its citizens, but avoiding a direct condemnation of Russia. At this stage it is clear that, with the exception of Syria, who has expressed full support for Russia, the Arab world is trying to navigate between Washington and Moscow without stepping on any toes or paying the prices associated with a clear show of support for either side.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have avoided condemning Russia because they seek to maintain their collaborations with it on the security and energy fronts, which have gone up a notch in recent years. The UAE has a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and abstained from the vote on condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine along with China and India, resisting heavy American pressure. Saudi Arabia's and the UAE's criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East centers on Washington's "pivot to Asia" in its strategic competition against China and Russia, as well as the United States' consistent reduction in Middle East presence and involvement.
Furthermore, the crisis in the relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia following the assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi has not been resolved despite the strategic partnership between them. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the kingdom's ruler in effect, is still perceived by the White House as a persona non grata. Moreover, the shelving of the F-35 sale to the UAE for fear that they be used in Yemen, and concern over classified technology leaking to China, as well as the United States' unwillingness to add the Houthis to the official list of terror organizations and sanction them, and, above all, the nuclear deal with Iran that Washington is promoting in Vienna, which undermines Saudi Arabia's and the UAE's national security, have led the latter to form their own independent functional foreign policy that would primarily serve Riyadh's and Abu Dhabi's national security interests.
Thus, the two countries' decision to bolster their collaboration on energy and security with Russia and China is viewed as essential when reading the strategic map, as does their need to diversify their sources of support, and take independent, foreign policy management decisions, even if they do not align with American interests. One such example can be found in the Saudis' refusal to increase their oil production to counter the global rise in prices, and the coordination Riyadh maintains with Moscow on OPEC+, where both play a key role. Therefore, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will not easily chip away at the strategic relations they have forged with Russia in recent years, particularly when they have both realized that the United States is reducing its involvement in the Gulf, and is reluctant to respond to provocations and attacks against it or its allies by Iranian proxies in the region.
Egyptian commentator and businessman Emad Eldin Adib has expressed a popular sentiment in his popular show Al-Hikaya ("The Story") whereby the campaign in Ukraine is a manifestation of the conflict between "an intelligence officer who is a good student of Stalin's and an old man who is a bad student of Obama's". Arab commentators are perceiving Russia's move as an aggressive step designed to reshape world order, enabled by the weakness projected by the United States in the international arena, as well as Moscow's ability to leverage its military might to strategic accomplishments. At the same time, many voices in Arab media (broadcast as well as social) are poignantly criticizing Russian aggression for undermining international law, and infringing upon its neighbor's sovereignty, and the lives of its innocent civilians.
Nevertheless, the key recurring concern echoed in both institutional and popular Arab discourse pertains to the heavy economic prices that could be paid as a result of the rise in energy prices, the expected shortage of wheat supply, and the deterioration into a global financial crisis due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, which could ultimately impact the governments' stability.
The Vienna talks against the backdrop of Ukraine campaign – The Arab angle
The negotiations over the nuclear deal in Vienna are at their decisive stages. Washington is seeking to "clear the table" with Iran in order to focus on its strategic competition against Russia and China, so as not to end up getting dragged into yet another campaign in the Middle East. This approach is being perceived as a strategic threat to the Gulf and Arab states' national security, as well as a comprehensive realignment of regional ties and alliances.
Thus, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are engaging in dialogue with Iran to reduce the tension and deescalate, and subsequently refrain from a direct confrontation with Tehran, due to the assumption that their usual source of support offered by the U.S. is unstable. This assessment is based on the United States' chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and could be further strengthened in the event that the Russian use of force in Ukraine will achieve the strategic goals set out for it. In this context, stronger ties between the Gulf states and Iran could impact the development of security and political ties with Israel, as well as Jerusalem's ability to shape regional defense architecture by which to curb Iran.
At the same time, the campaign in Ukraine underscores the importance of military force buildup, and the lesson learned about the centrality of nuclear deterrence when bolstering sovereignty and countering threats. Iran's increased military might follow the possible signing of a nuclear deal with the great powers would be met with an accelerated force buildup among the Gulf and Sunni states, as well as a regional arms race. Moreover, the realization that Iran could develop legitimate nuclear capabilities in a decade is likely to spur other countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey) to invest in the same abilities in order to create a strategic balance of deterrence.
Turkey's Maneuver between West and Moscow
Turkey is the Middle Eastern actor that has adopted the clearest position on the crisis, and the only one who is unambiguously criticizing Moscow. The reason for that is a combination between Ankara being a member state of NATO, and Erdogan's desire to improve his image and status in the eyes of the West, probably because he hopes that the position embraced by Turkey will yield some future external assistance that would alleviate the severe economic distress currently endured by it. Turkey's strategic ties with Russia are softening the blow delivered by Ankara's policy, as the latter refrains from declaring that all bets are off with Moscow.
The practical manifestation of the Turkish position was its announcement that the Black Sea straits would be closed to military sea vessels as per the request made by Kiev and NATO. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has noted that the war in Ukraine is forcing Turkey to implement the 1936 Montreux Convention to which it is a party, which potentially limits the passage of Russian battle ships to the Black Sea. However, this move primarily expresses symbolic identification with NATO, and is not expected to impact the military campaign in Ukraine.
Thus, turkey is engaged in a complex relationship with Russia. While their partnership on security and energy (gas, tourism, civil nuclear, arms sales etc.) is close, Moscow and Istanbul do not see eye to eye on Syria and Libya, and the severest crisis between them that erupted when a Russian fighter jet was intercepted in 2015 is still etched into Turkey's mind. More concretely, Turkey has publicly objected to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, expressed overt support of Ukrainian sovereignty, and even sold advanced UAVs to Kiev, which greatly angered Moscow.
While Erdogan announced he would use the power given to him by the convention to impede the passage of battle ships (28 February), Turkey also stated that it would not be imposing sanctions or closing Turkish airspace to Russian flights. However, should the campaign in Ukraine continues, or should NATO and the U.S. apply greater pressure, Turkish policy vis-à-vis Russia could grow stricter, and increase the tension that already exists between the two countries.
The Palestinians – "Deciding not to decide"
Much like the rest of the Arab world, the Palestinians are also caught in a tangle of interests in view of the crisis in Ukraine, and are careful not to take a clear, official stance on the subject, with the exception of some minor left-wing parties, led by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), who have sided with Moscow from the very beginning of the campaign.
The limited number of statements and commentaries attest to a conflicted mindset in the Palestinian system. On the one hand, the PA is concerned that the crisis would push the Palestinian issue even further off the global agenda, and deepen the damage caused to the United States' international standing, at a time when it is headed by a president that the Palestinians believe intends to exert greater pressure on Israel, and promote peace negotiations between them.
On the other hand, Hamas seems to begin to wonder whether the current crisis reflects detrimental harm to Washington's image that would also project onto Israel. The quote attributed to Hamas Political Bureau member Musa Abu Marzouk, whereby the crisis attests to the United States' loss of hegemonic status in the world, and that those who cannot use military force cannot advance political steps, stands out in this context, alongside commentaries on Hamas' media outlets claiming that the crisis is stirring existential anxiety in Israel, as the latter realizes that its strategic source of support is destabilizing.
Hamas' position shows that it has engaged in monitoring and in-depth learning of the crisis, as have Hizballah and Iran, probably, in an attempt to understand its profound strategic implications, namely: Is a change in world order taking place whereby the use of military force is more legitimized that before, enabling the opposition camp to take bold steps? And what is the extent of the damage caused to the West's power, headed by the United States, and how will it affect Israel's latitudes, for instance, with regard to its activity in Syria?
The outcomes of the war in Ukraine have direct economic, political, and strategic implications for the Middle East. If the West should successfully curb Russian aggression, display might by using economic and political tools, as well as preserve the current world order under U.S. leadership, Washington's status in the Middle East would be strengthened, particularly among the "Sunni camp", which, for some time now, has been increasingly concerned that its American source of support is weakening. This would happen especially if Russia would "fold", but also if it were to end up fighting a long and exhausting battle in Ukraine.
However, should Russia's strategy succeed in Ukraine (military defeat or the Ukrainian government signing political concessions), while Moscow remains resilient and strong, highlighting the West's and U.S' inability to curb it, the processes of Russian and Chinese impact in the Middle East would be accelerated. This would further shake the Sunni camp's confidence as they watch Iran become increasingly bolder on several fronts, while gearing up to sign the nuclear deal as anticipated and would urge them to tighten their understandings with Moscow in an effort to push off the growing threats against them.
In any event, the return of the "Cold War" between Russia and the United States would impact Israel's ability to juggle between the two world powers, and could take its toll on it. Clearly siding with the United States, and defining it as a strategic source of support would directly project on Israel's image as perceived by other actors in the Middle East, as well as their understanding of the freedom of action at their disposal, particularly if the understanding that the game is no longer being played by the same set of rules, and that strategic world balances of power have shifted, will be honed.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University, and Dr. Michael Milshtein, senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS).
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