The emerging cold war will also have a negative impact on the already fragile regions of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Both sides will have less motivation to cooperate with each other even with respect to matters such as humanitarian assistance, counter-terrorism efforts, or arms control in the Middle East, including the ongoing Vienna talks over reviving the Iran nuclear deal known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Yet, opinions on the extent to which the war in Ukraine may impact the influence of Russia in the region vary. As the conflict in Europe has locked significant military, personal and financial recourses of Russia, some observers and media pundits claim that Russia’s progress in projecting its influence in the Middle East will slow down or even decline.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Prof. Dimitar Bechev, a Lecturer at Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGA), said that he expects that Moscow’s influence in the region “will decline as Russia will get bogged down in Ukraine and will have less time and resources to pursue its ambitions beyond the post-Soviet space.” He also noted that Russia will likewise be hurt because of the coming food crisis, while dependence on wheat imports from Russia will also hurt countries such as Egypt and Libya.
In a similar vein, Dr. Mark Katz, Professor of Government and Politics, at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government in Fairfax, Virginia, observes that Moscow’s focus on its war in Ukraine leaves it with fewer resources to play an influential role in the Middle East. However, he suggests that not only does Moscow still want to play an influential role in the region, but so do a number of Middle Eastern actors.
Chiara Lovotti, a Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, notes that there is no sign of Russia’s declining influence in countries in the Middle East and North Africa. This became apparent as soon as Putin’s war in Ukraine began. “Countries like Algeria, Iran and Iraq abstained from the UN General Assembly vote against Russia on the 2nd of March while Syria even voted against the resolution, as anyone could easily expect,” she noted. Lovotti also recalls, that even countries that chose to save face with the West and voted to condemn Russia’s invasion, “battened down the hatches immediately, issuing declarations inviting consideration of Putin’s concerns as legitimate national security demands.”
But with Russia facing an unprecedented reaction from Western countries over its invasion of Ukraine, it is quite likely that both sides will confront each other within international forums including the United Nations, forcing the rest of the international community to choose sides.
And as the world rushed to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many Arab countries, including the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have largely kept quiet. Joze Pelayo, an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, observes that many Gulf Arab states are in a dilemma of how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine without undermining their relations with the US and the West. “They have been reluctant to pick a side so far, despite their vocal support for the principles of non-interference, which is the opposite of what Russia is doing in Ukraine,” he told Inside Arabia. Only Bahrain, a major non-NATO ally, voted in favor of the UNSC Resolution calling for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine as well as Kuwait (another major non-NATO ally), [WHICH COUNTRY?] which was the only state to rapidly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In this regard, Prof. Bechev expects that we may see some rhetorical condemnation of Russia’s actions (e.g. as in the UN General Assembly resolutions) but it would be a great surprise to see countries implementing sanctions. He recalls that Gulf producers have not been responsive to the US calls to ramp up oil production either while countries like Algeria and Egypt will probably continue to import arms from Russia, as well as Iran. While the long-term effects of the Russia-Ukraine crisis will affect how Arab countries and the Gulf states, in particular, maneuver between the US and Russia, Pelayo thinks “the conflict is likely to provide states in the MENA region, especially oil-producing states, with greater leverage over the US and Western allies. “
As a result, some Arab countries may reduce the effect of the Western sanctions, since they have not shown any desire to participate in isolation of Russia. Pelayo, for example, mentions the possibility that many Russians may even seek safe haven for their wealth in some of the countries of the Gulf. Moreover, Russia has also made it clear that imposing sanctions against it is the equivalent of declaring war, including those countries that support those sanctions, Pelayo believes that “many countries of the Gulf would not want to burn any bridges with Moscow.” This is especially true if they consider their national interests and relations with Russia moving forward long after the war has passed. Yet, he warned that many banks and financial institutions in the Gulf could face sanctions if they continue doing business with Putin’s circle. However, Pelayo said, “It is unclear what actions the Biden administration would take in this delicate situation, especially since they seek Gulf state’s cooperation in oil production and other areas.”
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Middle Eastern countries are facing two different geopolitical approaches pursued by the two super powers, according to Katz. In his view, Russia has a history of “foreign policy compartmentalization in which it cooperates with those where it shares common interests even when it is at odds with them over others.” The US, on the other hand, “has more of an ‘all or none’ approach in which conflict with another government over one issue tends to spread to others,” he told Inside Arabia. What is important here, he noted, is that America’s traditional partners in the Middle East all still want to continue their cooperation with Russia. He also thinks that America is not in a position to stop them from doing so but their cooperation with Russia now at a time when the West is at odds with it will negatively affect Washington’s image of its “partners” in the Middle East going forward.
As a result, Lovotti thinks that the countries of the Middle East and North Africa risk not only being in the spotlight of Russia’s competition with the West (which, partially, they already are), but also they may become the battle arena of the new cold war competition. In her view, Moscow could challenge its Western rivals through the use of its considerable military presence. In such context, the Sahel has already acquired strategic importance for Moscow, as a link between North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden, and Central Africa. “These regions are rich in natural resources and hubs of political instability where Russia finds military and economic opportunities,” she told Inside Arabia.
Finally, with Russia becoming a pariah on the international stage, there’s good reason to believe that Moscow will promote its own interest and avoid working in cooperation with the UN and Western actors. Although UN agencies are present in many MENA countries, Lovotti observes that Russia’s willingness to dialogue with them is compromised. She pointed out that in Mali, for instance, Moscow and Bamako opposed the blue helmet’s proposal to investigate the massacre that saw 300 civilians killed in a “special operation” against terrorist groups, where evidence was provided by local NGOs of the Wagner mercenaries’ involvement in the killing. Thus one may assume that Moscow in the future may further promote its interests through the deployment of private military companies, and military sales rather than through initiatives in international forums. Yet, such an approach may not be as successful as in the past, as Russian recourses are increasingly overstretched due to the war in Ukraine. Because the war in Ukraine is going badly for Russia, Katz observes that Moscow may need to bring home its soldiers and military contractors from elsewhere [??] to fight in Ukraine. He also noted that Moscow may also need to keep for its own use weapons that it was previously willing to sell to the Middle East before the Ukraine war. Under these circumstances, he thinks that “Russia is not likely to be increasing the number of private military contractors or weapons systems it sends to the Middle East.” As a result, it seems that Russia will most likely decline after this war since in Bechev’s words “Russia is not the Soviet Union and its resources and connections are more limited.” In his view, Ukraine will suck up lots of energy in the coming months (and years), leaving much less time for the Mideast and North Africa.
Nevertheless, given its success in using asymmetric power projection tools in promoting its interests in the region, it would be naïve to think that Russia will simply abandon the Middle East .