With mounting concerns over how Russia’s war in Ukraine could impact the world, civilians of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are set to be among the hardest hit. There have been dire warnings over how rising prices of wheat, oil, and other stables could worsen hunger in the region, with many people hit with multiple consumer crises. However, there are also geopolitical ramifications to the Ukraine war.
Moscow has extended its power in MENA since its intervention in Syria in September 2015, but Vladimir Putin’s new expansionist vision could deepen Moscow’s reach in the region as Western and Russian tensions have spiked. Meanwhile, Washington could seek to pressure its regional allies into abandoning ties with Russia, thus leaving states torn between which side to choose.
Even if the Ukraine crisis is resolved soon, relations between Moscow and the West will likely remain sour for the foreseeable future, while some analysts have warned of a second Cold War. It is important to consider Putin’s Middle Eastern ambitions here. He once lamented that the Soviet Union’s collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. In 2018, Putin even said that he would revive the Union if he could change anything about Russia’s history.
Relations between Moscow and the West will likely remain sour for the foreseeable future.
Naturally, Russia has faced economic challenges after NATO member states imposed crippling sanctions on Moscow. Yet, this would arguably not deter Putin’s forceful foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Indeed, Russia has already turned to its regional ally, Iran, to alleviate the damages of aviation sanctions, suggesting it will look for new avenues to empower itself rather than succumb to Western pressure.
And despite some stigma over relations with Moscow, many Western allies in the region have avoided distancing themselves from NATO’s position, yet many would also be unwilling to decrease their ties with Moscow.
In Libya, for instance, Russia has sought to strengthen ties with Tripoli as it moves towards democracy to gain leverage in the Eastern Mediterranean and on Europe’s doorstep – even though it previously backed Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar’s faltered military campaign
Incoming Libyan Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha, who is perceived as Haftar’s man in Libya, was initially reluctant to condemn Russia’s actions. Indeed, Bashagha initially refused to mention Russia’s attack on Ukraine during his vote of confidence speech on March 1, even though it was the dominant international issue. He eventually condemned it, showing Tripoli felt pressured to stay in the West’s good books.
Egypt also followed NATO’s position in condemning Russia, despite its growing dependence on Russian arms and Moscow and Cairo’s military ties having expanded in recent years.
Egypt also followed NATO’s position in condemning Russia, despite its growing dependence on Russian arms.
Yet, although both Cairo and Tripoli heavily depend on relations with the US and Europe, their denunciations of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would not threaten their relations with Russia. There will still be a transactional relationship between Cairo and Moscow, and Russia is keen to uphold its influence in both Egypt and Libya.
Aside from these countries, it may appear that Russia is losing friends in the region. Despite some countries sitting on the fence – such as Iraq, Algeria, and Sudan – most countries in MENA, including Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, condemned Moscow’s invasion.
Notwithstanding these diplomatic setbacks, Russia still has considerable energy and military ties with regional countries, including in the Gulf. It is therefore likely that many regional governments will attempt to balance ties with Russia and the US.
Future competition between the West and Russia in the Middle East is indeed to be expected, following souring relations over Ukraine. Any collaboration, such as in Syria where the US and Russia previously communicated with one another to avoid any clashes, would most probably end. In the short term, Moscow will look to tighten its relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime and shore up his position in Damascus.
Moscow will look to tighten its relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The Assad regime was even willing to send its military forces to fight alongside Russian troops in Ukraine. Likewise, Haftar, who still remains a prominent actor in eastern Libya, reportedly sent “volunteer” fighters to Ukraine to assist Putin’s operations. Moscow can clearly still enforce its hold among its allies in the region, despite pressure from Washington.
Iranian and Russian relations could also strengthen as Tehran adopted the pro-Russian viewpoint of blaming NATO for provoking the invasion while praising Moscow’s role. The relationship between Tehran and Moscow may further tighten if renewed attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal fail – which could occur on the sidelines of tensions between Moscow and the West.
Meanwhile, Moscow is exploring other options where it can expand its influence. On March 3, the prominent Sudanese military figure Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka “Hemedti”) welcomed the possibility of a Russian naval base in Sudan, which would serve Moscow’s ambitions to secure its position in the Red Sea. Like Haftar and Assad, this potential alliance demonstrates how Moscow could still seek to play a role in empowering authoritarian regimes to expand its own geopolitical control.
Moscow is exploring other options where it can expand its influence.
A key area to watch in the future is the Gulf. While Qatar has played a neutral role in the crisis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have faced increasingly distant relations with Washington. And the Ukraine crisis has revealed how deep these divisions are. The UAE initially defied Washington after it refused to denounce Moscow’s invasion at the UN Security Council, while both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Princes refused to call President Joe Biden to discuss rising oil prices and raising their own output.
Although Abu Dhabi still wants to play both sides, it seeks to lessen its dependency on Washington’s traditional hegemony in the Middle East. Thus, the UAE may become a vital channel for Moscow to expand its regional reach.
Apart from their cooperation in empowering Assad’s regime in Syria, Haftar in Libya, and the military in Sudan, Moscow could work with Abu Dhabi to achieve an independent southern state in Yemen. Historically, South Yemen was once an ally of the Soviet Union until their mutual demise. And an eventual revival of such a state – one of Abu Dhabi’s key regional goals – could also grant Moscow access to a naval base on the Red Sea.
Ultimately, with a perceived image of Washington’s declining sway in the Middle East and beyond, and with continued military and energy relations with Russia serving as an alternative, Moscow’s aims of outmaneuvering Washington will only hasten.