How will Russia's invasion of Ukraine affect MENA?

How will Russia's invasion of Ukraine affect MENA?
7 min read
14 March, 2022
Analysis: Russia's invasion of Ukraine has already changed the geopolitics of Europe and upset existing power structures. But how will it impact the MENA region?

On February 24, much of the world watched in shock as Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarise” Ukraine – tantamount to an invasion of another sovereign country.

Two weeks later, major Ukrainian city centres such as Kharkiv have been relentlessly bombed by Russian warplanes while Western sanctions have sent Russia’s economy into a freefall. Global markets have been roiled by supply chain shocks and the price of oil has skyrocketed to historic highs.

Europe has rallied against Russian aggression and NATO, whose relevance as a military alliance was in question six months earlier in Afghanistan, has coordinated efforts to assist Ukraine militarily.

While the battle being fought is geographically removed from the Middle East, its reverberations will undoubtedly be felt in the region. Whether it be rising prices of key commodities such as wheat, oil and gas, or the geopolitical fallout from Russia’s invasion in places like Syria, what is currently unfolding in Ukraine has the potential to impact regional dynamics. 

"States in the Middle East have generally not had to choose between Russia and the US since the fall of the Soviet Union. The US Fifth Fleet sits in the Persian Gulf as Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Dubai, and Jordan buys weapons from Moscow as US forces trains its soldiers"

Whose side are you on anyway?

Perhaps the most prominent and lasting consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the return of great power competition to the global stage. The post-Cold War relations between the US and Russia have been at best, cooperative, and at-worst, tension-filled.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, relations between the West and Russia have become decidedly hostile. The raft of Western sanctions adopted against Russia were described as an “economic war” by a Kremlin spokesperson, and those advocating for and opposing them fell almost neatly along the lines of the old Eastern and Western blocs.

States in the Middle East have generally not had to choose between Russia and the US since the fall of the Soviet Union. The US Fifth Fleet sits in the Persian Gulf as Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Dubai, and Jordan buys weapons from Moscow as US forces trains its soldiers.

There have been redlines and exceptions to this rule. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 Missile Defence System led to a diplomatic spat between Ankara and DC, ultimately culminating in the US imposing sanctions on its Turkish ally.

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For most Middle Eastern states, relations with the two superpowers were not mutually exclusive but rather complementary. Russia has not offered to replace the security architecture that the US upholds in much of the region, in particular in the Arabian Gulf.

Instead, Russian influence within these states has mostly unfolded within the context of the US security order. While doing business in the region, Russia and China have not had to bear the costs of safeguarding the security of GCC states against (real or imagined) threats from regional rivals like Iran, and neither has made any serious attempt or offer to become the new security guarantor.

Though both states famously attach no conditions to their support – which countries like Saudi Arabia prefer to the US’s criticism of its human rights record – this unconditional support can only occur in a purely commercial relationship. Moscow and Beijing are courting both Tehran and Riyadh – and while it is fine to have both as customers, it would be impossible to be the main military patron of both.

As it stands, the US has not prevented its allies from dealing with Moscow. Even when regional allies like Israel and the UAE have not come out as hard as it would have liked against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington has not censured them.

A Russian military convoy in Syria, where US and Russian forces have managed some form of diplomacy. However, if tensions become more hostile between the two superpowers, there is a risk of an escalation of violence. [Getty]
A Russian military convoy in Syria, where US and Russian forces have managed some form of diplomacy. However, if tensions become more hostile between the two superpowers, there is a risk of an escalation of violence. [Getty]

In a world of great power competition, however, this could change. A move towards Moscow could be seen as a move against Washington.

If US-Russian relations continue to grow more hostile, the US could force its allies to choose between it and Moscow. To tip the scales, it would leverage the benefits its allies receive through its relationship, whether they be security guarantees, diplomatic cover or weapons sales.

An end to US-Russia cooperation in Syria?

Despite a deterioration in US-Russian relations over the last decade, the two countries have managed to insulate their diplomacy in Syria. Russian, Syrian, Turkish, Israel and American aircrafts have flown over Syria – sometimes at the same time.

The map created by foreign powers in the northern parts of Syria looks like a perverse jigsaw puzzle that would shock even Sykes and Picot. Both Russian and US military convoys crisscross northeast Syria and, on occasion, have engaged in high-stakes bumper cars, with armoured personnel carriers trying to run one another off the road.

"In a worst-case scenario, all communication channels between Moscow and DC could be closed – including the deconfliction line in Syria. In such a case, the risk of the two countries’ militaries coming into contact would be higher, and with it, an increased chance of escalation"

To that end, the US and Russia have created a military deconfliction line. This channel of communication is meant to ensure that while both superpowers are on opposing sides in Syria, they do not actually fight one another directly. The risk of such a conflict is not just to Russian or American soldiers in Syria, but that having two warring powers in such close contact could lead to a wider escalation.

In a worst-case scenario, all communication channels between Moscow and DC could be closed – including the deconfliction line in Syria. In such a case, the risk of the two countries’ militaries coming into contact would be higher, and with it, an increased chance of escalation.

“Both sides, particularly Russia, might be tempted to start pushing to remind the other side that they can still cause trouble here,” Aron Lund, a fellow at The Century Foundation, told The New Arab.

Still, the greater and perhaps more consequential impact of declining US-Russia relations could be an end to diplomatic cooperation on the Syria file.

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“This could be very very dangerous for Syria. The Biden administration has, with Russian cooperation, successfully compartmentalised Syria,” Lund said.

“Biden wants to keep hitting the Islamic State and jihadists, get humanitarian aid flowing and wants the conflict to be stable. Russia has said, ‘fine, but we get things in return.’ They want to shift the humanitarian operation to Damascus,” he added.

The last opposition stronghold of Syria, in the northwest province of Idlib, is almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid for its survival. About 95 percent of the population relies on aid, and rates of malnutrition are high.

The humanitarian aid is trucked in from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, the last such border crossing in Syria. Previously, aid was sent into Syria through Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, however, the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution which authorised the use of these border crossings has since lapsed, largely due to Russian and Chinese vetoes.

"Whether or not Russia decides to exercise its veto on the cross border resolution, it gives it tremendous leverage against the Western powers invested in the well being of Syrian civilians"

Though Russia has played hardball the previous two times that the UNSC has had to vote on the annual reauthorisation of the use of Bab al-Hawa for humanitarian aid, it has ultimately acquiesced.

The UNSC needs to reauthorise the use of Bab al-Hawa in July. If the current state of diplomatic relations between the West and Russia continues, it is not hard to imagine a future in which Russia does not budge from its veto. The result would be catastrophic for the millions of civilians already living in destitution in northwest Syria.

In Lund’s eyes, however, it is not in Russia’s interest to allow the border crossing resolution to lapse. If aid stopped reaching northwest Syria, the majority of the humanitarian pressure would be on Turkey, which borders Idlib and with which it has maintained the ceasefire in Idlib since March 2020.

Whether or not Russia decides to exercise its veto on the cross border resolution, it gives it tremendous leverage against the Western powers invested in the well being of Syrian civilians.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou