The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has sent shockwaves around the world, with major implications for global security and geopolitics. One region significantly impacted is the Middle East, which has complex relations with both Russia and Ukraine. This article provides an in-depth analysis of the roots and context of the war in Ukraine, and its multifaceted effects on the Middle East region.
Key aspects explored include the historical background of Russian-Ukrainian relations; the buildup to Russia’s 2022 invasion; Moscow’s motivations and goals; reactions and policies of Middle Eastern states; impacts on regional conflicts; energy and economic ramifications; changes to regional alignments and partnerships; and possible future scenarios. With the war still ongoing, the eventual outcomes remain uncertain. Nevertheless, it is clear the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will have profound consequences for the Middle East for years to come.
Roots of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
While tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated rapidly in recent years, the roots of the conflict run deep historically. Russia and Ukraine share intertwined ethnic, linguistic, and cultural connections, with modern Ukraine emerging from the ashes of the Russian empire and Soviet Union. But despite these interlinkages, Ukraine has developed a distinct national identity and sought greater autonomy and independence from Russian dominance.
Fraternal or paternalistic perceptions toward Ukraine as Russia’s ‘little brother’ persist in Moscow, conflicting with Kyiv’s nation-building aspirations. Differing interpretations of formative historical episodes underpin divergent contemporary national mythologies and identities. Debates over the ‘ownership’ of the medieval Kievan Rus civilization, seen alternatively as the cradle of both Russian and Ukrainian identity, as well as over destructive Stalin-era collectivization drives and the devastating World War II Nazi occupation, all feed competing narratives.
Ukraine’s Post-Soviet Statehood
Ukraine’s post-Soviet trajectory has been a major driver of escalating tensions with Russia. Following the 1991 Soviet collapse, Ukraine emerged as an independent state for the first time in centuries. However, in the immediate post-independence years, Ukraine experienced political volatility, economic upheaval, and a failure to establish an effective, coherent national identity and unified statehood.
Widespread corruption, fluctuating experiments with closer alignment with Russia or the West, and a segmented population with divergent orientations between western and eastern regions all hampered Ukraine’s transition and development. This weakness and vulnerability caused concern in Moscow over potential Western encroachment and influence in what Russia saw as its rightful strategic domain.
The Orange Revolution Watershed
A key turning point came with Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which saw mass protests over a rigged presidential election bring reformist, pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko to power over the more Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych. This cemented the theme of Ukraine’s geopolitical balancing act between East and West while fueling Russian suspicion and hostility. After Yanukovych’s comeback in 2010, his ouster via renewed protests in 2014 constituted another blow to Russian interests. Moscow accused Western governments of fomenting regime change in its backyard.
The Euromaidan Protests and Yanukovych’s Ouster
The Euromaidan protests that erupted in late 2013, named after Kyiv’s central Independence Square or ‘Maidan,’ marked a dramatic peak in tensions. Demonstrators mobilized against President Yanukovych’s rejection of an EU association agreement, instead favoring closer Russia ties. As protests escalated, Yanukovych cracked down harshly while seeking Russian backing.
After security forces violently dispersed protesters in February 2014, Ukraine’s parliament removed Yanukovych from power. Outraged at this affront to its interests, Russia swiftly moved to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and foment separatist insurgencies in eastern border regions. This aggressive reaction demonstrated Moscow’s readiness to destabilize Ukraine to prevent its integration with Western institutions. However, Russia’s interventions also spurred nationalist resistance and antipathy within Ukraine.
The Donbas Insurgency
Since 2014, fighting has persisted between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas industrial region of eastern Ukraine. Moscow provided fighters, weapons, and resources to sustain breakaway statelets in Donetsk and Luhansk, keeping Ukraine weak and divided. Despite ceasefire attempts, localized clashes never fully ceased. Over 14,000 lives were lost prior to 2022. This grinding ‘frozen conflict’ both drained Ukraine and served as strategic leverage for Russia.
Moscow could use military or economic pressure via the Donbas to influence Kyiv, while using its patronage of the separatist zones to block Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. Russia’s large military buildup around Ukraine in early 2022 included reinforcements for its proxy forces in the Donbas. The region was used as justification by Moscow for subsequent military intervention.
The annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 represents one of Moscow’s most provocative acts against Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. Crimea harbored Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet and was of huge strategic value. Its population also had historic cultural ties to Russia. After the fall of Yanukovych, Russian special forces and local militias swiftly seized control of the region, followed by a contested referendum to join Russia amid heavy military occupation.
Ukraine and nearly all world powers condemned the de facto annexation as illegal. But Moscow claimed Crimea’s secession was legitimate self-determination, while harnessing nationalist sentiment over righting perceived historical injustices. The annexation demonstrated Putin’s willingness to unilaterally use force to reshape borders and realize irredentist ambitions. It was a powerful warning that Ukraine’s sovereignty could be further dismantled.
NATO and EU Ambitions
Ukraine’s growing alignment with the European Union and NATO has been an overriding security concern for Russia. After the Cold War, NATO’s eastward expansion to incorporate former Warsaw Pact states was seen by Russia as encroachment into its natural sphere of influence. Preventing NATO from expanding up to Russia’s borders has become an obsession for Putin. Ukraine joining NATO would represent a huge strategic blow for Moscow by ending buffers between Russia and the alliance.
Both the EU and NATO have cultivated closer ties with Ukraine over recent decades through initiatives like NATO’s Membership Action Plan and Eastern Partnership. But skepticism among some Western members over Ukrainian corruption and deficiencies has slowed Ukraine’s institutional integration. Russia aggressively lobbied against Ukraine’s Western alignment using carrots and sticks, including incentives like cheap gas deals, as well as punitive trade restrictions.
Russia’s Motivations for Invading Ukraine
At the heart of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are geopolitical imperatives rooted in Moscow’s desire to reestablish its great power dominance over former Soviet domains. The Kremlin saw Ukraine’s Westward drift as an intolerable threat to its security and historical prestige. Bringing Ukraine decisively back under Russian control became an overriding objective for Putin, who harbored ambitions of restoring imperial glory.
Beyond Ukraine itself, shattering Kyiv’s pro-Western orientation was also intended to send a message deterring other post-Soviet states like Georgia and Moldova from aligning with NATO. Russia also sought to undermine NATO’s credibility amid questions over Western willingness to militarily aid Ukraine. The invasion formed part of Putin’s confrontational strategy to roll back Western influence from Russia’s periphery.
A key war aim highlighted by Putin was the ‘demilitarization and de-Nazification’ of Ukraine. This implied a forcible removal of Zelensky’s pro-Western government and its replacement with a Russia-aligned regime – potentially restoring ousted leader Yanukovych. Destroying Ukraine’s military capacity also featured prominently in Moscow’s statements about its objectives.
Eliminating the dominant political and security orientation Moscow derided as ‘anti-Russian’ was viewed as necessary to pull Ukraine definitively back into Russia’s orbit. However, Russia seemingly underestimated the resistance it would face to forcibly overturning Ukraine’s government and imposing a new order.
Russia also sought to create a more favorable security environment for itself by pushing back Ukraine’s borders and establishing a buffer zone against NATO forces. This included demanding the ‘demilitarization’ of areas near Russian territory. Gaining control of the Donbas could provide strategic depth and a land corridor to Russian-annexed Crimea.
Occupying the Sea of Azov coastline would block Ukraine’s access and enable Moscow to consolidate a ‘land bridge’ to Crimea. The vast territory Russia sought to seize would put its military in a much stronger position relative to NATO. However, Russia’s initial expectations of quickly seizing most of eastern and southern Ukraine proved miscalculated.
Protecting Ethnic Russians
Moscow claimed one motivation for intervention was protecting Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population from what it alleged was discrimination and neo-Nazism endorsed by Kyiv. While invoking a ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine, credible evidence of systematic persecution of ethnic Russians in Ukraine was lacking.
Nevertheless, animosity toward Ukraine’s post-2014 government in portions of eastern Ukraine provided some basis for Moscow to claim indigenous support. And Putin exploited latent sympathies and cultural links with Russia among some Ukrainian Russians. But polling showed most rejected joining Russia, belying the narrative their rights required forceful defense by Moscow.
Ukraine’s extensive natural resources, advanced industries, and highly fertile farmlands represent tempting economic prizes for Russia. Analysts argue Moscow harbored long-term aspirations to control these assets, bringing Ukraine into Russia’s economic orbit. Gaining dominance over Ukraine’s economy could also help compensate Russia for Western sanctions imposed over its aggression.
However, hopes for reaping economic gains have been complicated by the war’s destruction within Ukraine and the further penalties Russia has incurred. While some territory in eastern Ukraine offered economic assets, Russia’s ability to fully integrate these into its economy remains dubious given Ukraine’s staunch resistance.
More subjectively, Putin has articulated visions of gathering in Russian-speaking peoples scattered outside Russia after the Soviet collapse back under Moscow’s wing. This irredentist nationalism resonates with segments of Russian society that lament the country’s shrinkage since 1991.
Reabsorbing Ukraine represents a partial restoration of Russia’s historic empire and Soviet-era power and redemption for the ‘catastrophe’ some Russians perceive in the USSR’s breakup. While not an official war aim, this nationalist-tinged ambition to ‘gather the Russian lands’ helps sustain public support for bringing Ukraine to heel. However, it risks overreach in trying to control a sovereignty-conscious nation.
Reactions from the Middle East
Syria under Bashar al-Assad has been Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East region. Since intervening militarily in Syria’s civil war in 2015, Russia has propped up Assad’s regime and cultivated intimate military, economic and diplomatic ties. Syria has consequently emerged as relatively staunch in its backing of Moscow after the Ukraine invasion.
Assad echoed Russian talking points condemning NATO expansion and accusing the West of provoking Russia’s actions. Syria also recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine. However, Syria has stopped short of providing direct material support for Russia’s war effort thus far.
Dependence on Russia
Syria’s position largely reflects its heavy dependence on Russia. Moscow provides critical military support and protection for the Assad regime at the UN. Syria remains devastated after 11 years of brutal conflict and desperately needs Russia’s continued backing for reconstruction and security assistance. Offering stronger support for Russia’s war in Ukraine could jeopardize this lifeline.
Assad also likely shares Putin’s interest in undermining Western credibility and influence globally. Russia’s challenging of the Western-dominated order dovetails with Assad’s confrontation with Western powers over Syria’s civil war. Damascus benefits from Putin’s pressure on NATO and distraction of US/EU focus from Syria.
Syria does face potential risks from aligning itself closely with Russia’s flagrant breach of state sovereignty in Ukraine. Parallels could be drawn with Russia’s military interventions against Assad’s own sovereignty during Syria’s war. Damascus also wants to avoid further antagonizing the West, seeking sanctions relief and normalized relations. Hence why overt Syrian backing for Russia remains measured rather than full-throated.
Iran has similarly emerged as broadly supportive of Russia’s position since the Ukraine invasion, without fully endorsing Moscow’s military attack. Iran’s relations with Russia have substantially deepened in recent years amid shared strategic interests in Syria and tensions with the West over issues like Iran’s nuclear program. But Tehran also treads a nuanced line between East and West.
Tehran aligned itself rhetorically with Moscow against NATO enlargement and Western interference, portraying Russia as responding legitimately to provocations. Shared opposition to US hegemony provides grounds for Iran to boost Russia against Western pressure. An undermined America benefits Iran’s ambitions for regional influence and sanctions relief.
However, Iran has avoided cheering Russia’s war. While selling drones to Moscow, Iran denies directly arming Russia. Tehran likely wants to extract concessions from Russia but avoid becoming a target of Western sanctions or Ukraine’s ire. Directly backing the breach of state sovereignty also risks awkward parallels with Iran’s own separatist minorities and contested borders.
Iran may aim to follow China’s playbook, nominally keeping neutrality while continuing beneficial trade with Russia. China-Iran ties have also grown, providing an alternative geopolitical partner. Boosting trade with Russia helps counter US sanctions, but others warn Iran’s economy remains deeply interconnected with Ukraine’s and the West’s. The balancing act is precarious.
Turkey’s stance has been significantly more opposed to Russia’s invasion due to its strong ties to Ukraine. As a Black Sea neighbor, Turkey sees upholding Ukrainian territorial integrity as within its interests. Millions of ethnic Turkic Tatars also live in Ukraine. Turkey was instrumental in brokering November’s Black Sea grain deal.
However, Turkey also shares deep historical, economic and political ties with Russia, making outright condemnation of Moscow difficult. Turkish drones sold to Kyiv have inflicted damage on Russian forces, prompting Moscow’s ire. But Turkey has avoided wide-ranging sanctions on Russia. Its mediator role reflects this delicate balancing act between rivals.
Turkey’s opposition stems partly from military concerns about Russian expansionism. Turkey does not want Russia controlling the entire Black Sea coast. Stronger NATO presence in the Black Sea is welcomed as a counterbalance. Turkey also has its own history of tensions with Moscow over regional hegemony, including proxy conflicts in Syria and Libya.
However, Turkey has extensive energy, tourism and trade ties with Russia that it is unwilling to sever. Natural gas imports from Russia, Russian tourists in Turkey, and other economic links Have deepened amid recent rapprochements between Erdogan and Putin. Jeopardizing these benefits limits how far Turkey can practically distance itself from Russia.
Azerbaijan similarly treads a careful line between Russia and Ukraine, given its complicated mix of competing affiliations. Azerbaijan’s ethnic and cultural bonds to Turkey pull it toward support for Ukraine. Baku also welcomes arms sales to Kyiv and stronger NATO presence around the Black Sea.
Russia however remains indispensable to Azerbaijan as security guarantor for its borders. Azerbaijan’s sympathy for Ukraine only extend so far before Russia’s military role becomes an overriding priority. Intensified violence in Ukraine also risks diluting Western attention to Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Israel has emerged as cautiously supportive of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Kyiv’s unexpected battlefield resilience resonated strongly in Israel given its own national narrative. Israel extended humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, despite its population including around 1 million Russian and Ukrainian Jews.
However, Israel has avoided direct military supplies to Ukraine that could antagonize Moscow. Israel relies on Russian forbearance toward its air campaign in Syria against Iranian forces. Keeping dialogue open with Moscow remains a priority. Israel has similarly refrained from harsh economic sanctions that could damage its interests.
Saudi Arabia & Gulf States
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies similarly condemned Russia’s attack as a breach of sovereignty and international law. However, enthusiasm for sanctions has been tempered by their energy and economic reliance on Russia. The UAE declined to back U.S.-led condemnation at the UN. Saudi Arabia has resisted calls to raise oil production to compensate for lost Russian output.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi appear most concerned with preventing direct blowback for the Gulf region. Continued flow of Russian energy imports is vital. Overly antagonizing a key player like Moscow also undermines the global influence GCC states have been cultivating. But Russia’s reduced status could open doors for Saudi Arabia and China to fill voids left in the Middle East.
Iraq finds itself in an awkward position between its vital political backing from the US and close economic ties to Russia. Baghdad imports Russian oil and wheat while also hosting Russian energy firms. However, Iraq joined in UN condemnation of Russia’s invasion, fearing similar territorial breaches by neighbors if powerful states reshape borders unilaterally.
Shiite political factions in Iraq split between those supported by Iran and more Western-aligned groups. This produces divergent stances on Russia. But most agree Iraq must not get deeply embroiled in conflicts between bigger powers beyond the Middle East. Preserving internal stability remains the overwhelming priority.
Egypt under President Sisi has aligned itself with Russia more assertively than most regional states. Cairo pointedly refused to back a UN resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion. Egypt has also continued military cooperation and exercises with Russia despite US calls to reduce ties. This reflects the Putin regime’s growing importance to Egypt as a strategic partner and investor.
However, pro-Russian sympathies among Egyptians are complicated by memories of Cold War rivalries. Russia assisted Egypt during the 1950s and 60s under Gamal Abdel Nasser, but it sided with Israel against Egypt during later regional wars. This leaves lingering wariness. Public opinion in Egypt remains split between support for fellow Slavs in Russia and for Ukraine upholding Arab Spring-style resistance.
Syrian Kurds have faced a complex dynamic since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kurdish forces in northeast Syria have relied heavily on Moscow’s backing and protection against Turkey after the US drawdown. So abandoning Russia seems risky. But Kurds also feel strong cultural and ideological affinities with Ukraine’s territorial resistance.
The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq meanwhile suspended oil exports that relied on a Russian-owned pipeline through Ukraine. But Kurdistan’s energy dependence on Turkey limits solidarity with Kyiv. Wary of alienating Moscow, most Kurds have
avoided overt cheering of Ukraine’s stiff defense. But grassroots Kurdish sympathy is strong for Ukraine’s David vs Goliath struggle, reminiscent of their own self-determination struggle against powerful external state actors over the decades. How Kurds ultimately balance these competing imperatives in relation to the Ukraine war remains to be seen.
Lebanon represents perhaps the starkest regional case of internal divisions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Pro-Western segments in Lebanon fiercely condemn Russia’s actions and support Ukraine, in line with most of European public opinion. However, pro-Moscow factions like Hezbollah strongly back Russia’s position against NATO expansion.
Hezbollah has been vocal in defending Russia’s grievances against Western interference and ambitions for regionally dominant role. This aims to validate its own resistance identity and ambition for political control in Lebanon against Western-backed rivals. Hezbollah also retains religious, ideological and military ties to Iran, which leans toward Russia.
However, many Lebanese fear Russia’s aggression in Ukraine today could be mirrored elsewhere like the Middle East tomorrow. Ukraine’s resistance provides inspiration. Lebanon’s proximity to Europe and lingering political bonds there incline its pro-Western elements away from Russia. Ongoing economic collapse also limits Russia’s leverage in Lebanese affairs. But internal tensions simmer.
Finally, reaction among Palestinians represents another ideological and geopolitical faultline. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas maintained relative neutrality, upsetting both those seeking condemnation of Russia and those urging solidarity against Western dominance. Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers conspicuously praised Russia’s actions though without pledging material support.
Sympathy with Russia
Many Palestinians view Russia as an ascending power challenging the West’s favorable tilting toward Israel in the conflict. Western hypocrisy in strongly defending Ukraine while ignoring Palestinian plight is condemned. Russia’s reassertion of traditional spheres of influence draws parallels to Palestinian resistance forces fighting for autonomy against Israeli control.
Looking to America
However, the Palestinian Authority retains heavy political and economic dependence on the US and EU despite tensions. Overtly backing Russia risks losing vital Western aid and diplomacy around peace talks. Washington’s preoccupation with the Ukraine war also reduces its bandwidth to address Palestinian issues. Most Palestinians ultimately see resolution lying with Western powers like the US rather than alternatives like Russia.
Implications for Regional Conflicts
With global attention and resources heavily diverted toward the conflict in Ukraine, several major ongoing conflicts involving Russia across the Middle East region have been impacted in consequential ways since February 2022. From Syria’s civil war to ethnoreligious tensions in the Caucasus, the growing tensions and violence in Europe have begun reshaping regional disputes and political struggles beyond the Middle East.
The nearly 11-year civil war raging in Syria between Bashar al-Assad’s regime, opposition forces, Kurdish elements, and extremist factions has been significantly influenced by Russia’s military intervention since 2015. With Russian airpower and other support propping up Assad, the war’s trajectory tilted decisively in Damascus’ favor.
But theUkraine war is now distracting Russian military focus and siphoning off resources from Syria. Amid Ukrainian resistance exceeding expectations, Russia cut some personnel in Syria to reinforce its flagging invasion. Western sanctions and export controls also limit Russia’s access to components needed to replenish precision-guided munitions stocks drawn down in Syria.
This has fueled unconfirmed reports that the Kremlin is seeking to recruit Syrians as mercenaries for deployment to Ukraine’s cities where their experience in urban warfare could assist Russia’s stalled offensive. Thousands of loyalist Syrian fighters have reportedly registered to fight alongside Russia. However, actual deployments may be smaller.
The decreased Russian presence in Syria appears to have encouraged anti-Assad rebel factions in the northwest to mount a recent offensive. Gaining greater control over sections of Idlib Province, the last major rebel-held bastion, aims partly at pressuring Damascus while its Russian patron is distracted next door. Turkey meanwhile continues launching strikes against Kurdish militias in north Syria.
Opening for ISIS?
Finally, a potential unintended consequence looms that Islamic State militants could exploit Russia and the West’s focus on Ukraine to regroup in Syria’s eastern desert regions. ISIS remnants in Syria grew bolder in 2022 with increased attacks. Now they may gain even more breathing room to rebuild organizational strength and staged higher-profile attacks. But this threat remains uncertain.
The simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory flared up again violently in September 2022 while global attention centered on Ukraine. The worst fighting since their 2020 war erupted. At least 286 soldiers from both sides died before a US-brokered ceasefire took effect.
Russia holds strong influence over both Armenia and Azerbaijan as former Soviet states. But the Ukraine war has strained its ability to manage this long-running ethnic and border conflict. Armenia hosts a Russian military base and relies heavily on Moscow. However, Azerbaijan’s ties with Russia also deepened in recent years amid tensions with the West.
Preoccupied with battling Ukraine, Russia has less bandwidth to pressure either Baku or Yerevan over Karabakh. The recent ceasefire was mediated by the US, signalling eroding Russian influence. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan may feel emboldened to unilaterally pursue gains while Russia is distracted. Ongoing clashes show the danger of the conflict spiraling out of control. Moscow’s weakened hand could undermine regional stability.
More broadly across the Caucasus region, Russia’s Ukraine invasion and problems sparked reactions. In Georgia, simmering resentment toward Russia over its 2008 military intervention and occupation flared up. Huge protests condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Fears grew of a potential renewed Russian offensive into the remaining chunks of Georgian territory outside its control.
In the North Caucasus Russian republics like Chechnya and Dagestan, volatile ethno-religious tensions were exacerbated by authorities coercing young men into enlisting to fight in Ukraine. Growing discontent over the war could worsen radicalization. The Ukraine conflict and declining Russian control across the Caucasus seem set to bring greater instability.
In the Gulf region, several long-running conflicts have also been impacted by reverberations from the Ukraine war. Yemen’s civil war saw intensified clashes and ceasefire breakdowns between the Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebels supported by Iran. As global powers focus more on Europe, conflict parties in the Gulf may see opportunities to consolidate gains militarily before new pressures or peace drives materialize.
Meanwhile diplomatic momentum behind restoring the Iran nuclear deal, potentially reducing tensions between Iran and America along with Gulf states, stalled amid renewed inflexibility in negotiations as the Ukraine crisis escalated. The chance for near-term Iran-Saudi de-escalation now looks low. US allies like Saudi Arabia face heightened insecurity from shifting great power dynamics. But economic interdependence will still compel Gulf states toward caution. Regional conflicts rumble on but large-scale escalation remains unlikely.
Energy and Economic Impacts on the Middle East
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sent seismic ripples through energy and commodity markets worldwide, with the Middle East profoundly impacted. As a hub for hydrocarbon production and an emerging trading crossroads, turbulence from the war has been widely felt across the region with complex effects, and consequences will likely endure long after violence subsides.
Oil and Gas Price Shocks
With Russia a massive global oil and gas exporter, its pariah status among Western economies amid sanctions has constricted energy supplies just as post-COVID demand rebounds, sending prices skyrocketing. Brent crude exceeded $120 per barrel at times in 2022, the highest since 2008. Turmoil increased the geopolitical risk premium on top of supply-demand fundamentals.
As OPEC’s largest member alongside Saudi Arabia, Russia’s estrangement from Western markets hands more influence to the Saudi-led oil cartel. Despite US pleas, OPEC refused to hike output enough to compensate for Russia’s partial exclusion and ease prices. With Saudi spare capacity dwindling, the West has scant options to bypass OPEC’s pricing power as the Ukraine conflict reduces market liquidity.
Weaning off Russian imports
The EU and US have moved to wean themselves off Russian hydrocarbons. The Middle East is an alternative, but boosting supply substantially requires long-lead investments, not flipping a switch. The Gulf and Iraq are expected to eventually divert exports to Europe that previously went to price-depressed Asia. Libya and Algeria also aim to benefit by filling European import needs.
Yet for natural gas, Europe’s dependency on Russia proves harder to break than oil, given weak alternatives and insufficient LNG export capacity. Energy ties between Russia and states like Turkey and Egypt have even deepened amid mutual needs. Cutting Russian gas supply entirely could devastate parts of Europe’s economy. Global gas flows are being reshuffled, but divorce is difficult.
Food security crisis
The war has also massively disrupted food exports through the key Black Sea corridor, propelling world prices for wheat, vegetable oils, and fertilizers. Ukraine and Russia accounted for almost a third of global wheat trade. Shortages hit poor Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen that relied heavily on inexpensive Ukrainian and Russian grain imports and now face soaring inflation.
Meanwhile, Gulf hydrocarbon producers benefit from inflated revenues. Increased capital flows into sovereign wealth funds allow states like Abu Dhabi to purchase assets cheaply from distressed sellers in Europe and diversify their investment portfolios during the turmoil. Their large dollar reserves provide insulation from market volatility.
Economic decoupling prospects
Some Gulf states also aim to take advantage of Russia’s partial international isolation to advance their own sovereign wealth funds and capabilities in sectors like arms manufacturing, agriculture, and technological development where Moscow’s access is now constrained. However, most regional economies remain deeply interconnected with Russia’s – divisions can only go so far.
Changing Regional Alignments and Partnerships
The Russian-Ukrainian war has shaken up geopolitical dynamics and relationships across the Middle East. Regional powers are cautiously adjusting to the new realities, with major realignments underway. While predictions are difficult amid the still fast-moving conflict, Russia’s diminished status seems likely to open doors for other external powers like China and perhaps even Turkey to play more influential roles in the region.
Russia: Diminished Influence?
Despite maintaining several key allies, the limits of Russia’s ability to shape regional outcomes or come to the aid of partners have been starkly exposed by its setbacks in Ukraine. Military capacity is bogged down, arms stocks depleted, economy weakened, and soft power tarnished by the carnage in Ukraine. Moscow will be severely challenged to prop up Syria, broker disputes like Armenia-Azerbaijan, or reap large economic benefits across the region.
However, write-off of Russian influence in the Middle East would be premature. In some spheres like energy, economic ties and military sales, Russia remains indispensable. Its permanent UN veto remains powerful. Moscow’s residual sway with Iran and ability to play potential spoiler mean it cannot be ignored or fully abandoned by regional players, even if its pretensions as a dominant power are now questionable.
China: New Inroads?
Conversely, the distraction and difficulties imposed on Russia provide incentive and opportunities for China to cautiously expand its presence and partnerships across the Middle East. Beijing already makes inroads in spheres like infrastructure investment, technological development, and energy imports. With Russia under pressure and America’s focus divided, openings may appear for China’s economic influence in particular to grow.
Political alignment will prove more difficult for Beijing. Most regional governments remain deeply tied to Washington for security support and military hardware, limiting how closely they can align with rival great powers. But China has shown interest in leasing bases in states like the UAE. If the Ukraine war persists in bogging down Russia and diverting US efforts, China could leverage openings to critically expand its regional security role. Much depends on avoiding direct clashes with Washington’s enduring regional interests.
Turkey: Balancing Act
Turkey aims to position itself as an increasingly important geopolitical player straddling Europe, the Middle East, and ex-Soviet blocs following Russia’s alienation from the West over Ukraine. Courting both Russia and Ukraine to broker ceasefires reinforces Ankara’s mediator image. Supplying armed drones gives it leverage with Kyiv. Rising tensions around Russian-annexed Crimea provide maritime opportunities for Turkey in the Black Sea.
Cultivating ties across divides allows President Erdogan to pursue a largely independent foreign policy path. But dancing between polarized blocs carries constant risk of misstepping. Overreach, direct clashes between Russian and NATO-Turkey forces, or grave economic damage from the fallout of a wider war could all still derail Ankara’s ambitions. For now, the balancing act precariously continues.
Israel: Cautious Opportunism
Israel also sees potential opportunities amid the Ukraine crisis fallout to subtly improve its regional standing. Keeping channels open to Moscow while backing Ukraine enhances Israel’s leverage with both. Additional gas sales to Europe reduce Russia’s presence and offset Israeli-Europe tensions over Palestine. Closer collaboration with Gulf states is possible against shared threats from Iran.
However, Israel must tread cautiously to avoid overplaying its hand and remain somewhat neutral for its own security. Provoking Moscow risks dangers along its northern borders. Bickering with Washington over Iran would undermine relations with its closest ally. Hence Israel makes incremental moves to capitalize where it can, but major realignments remain unlikely. Its regional position stays fraught with pitfalls.
Conclusion: The Road Ahead
As the Russian-Ukrainian war passes its first year in 2023, the road ahead for the Middle East region remains highly uncertain. Much depends on the final military outcome in Ukraine and resulting shifts in global power dynamics. Should Russia consolidate control of eastern Ukrainian territories and solidify a new status quo, its regional sway may gradually stabilize, though within more limited confines.
Alternatively, renewed Ukrainian counteroffensives and chronic instability in occupied zones could further sap Russian influence and create openings for other actors to fill voids. Outright Russian defeats could seriously undermine its ambitions as a dominant power in both Europe and the Middle East. However, Moscow retains enough key levers that writing it off would be premature.
Other external powers like China and Turkey have definite potential to capitalize on circumstances and expand their regional foothold. But both face constraints on how far they can truly replace Russia’s or America’s historic weight in the region’s affairs.
Internal conflicts from Syria’s war to Arab-Iranian Gulf rivalries show no definitive signs of resolution thus far, despite shifts in relative strength of patrons. Their eventual outcomes remain contingent on many factors beyond just Russian power.
Both opportunities and perils await Middle Eastern states navigating this tense geopolitical realignment under the clouds of the Ukraine war and a global order in flux. Managing turbulent external forces while pursuing internal reforms will prove a difficult balancing act with many treacherous unknowns ahead.
Hinnebusch, Raymond. “The Ukraine War and the Middle East: The Regional Conflict System.” POMEPS Studies 46 (2022).
Kozhanov, Nikolay. “Neither with the West, nor with the East: How the War in Ukraine Reshapes the Middle East and North Africa’s Geopolitics.” Institut Montaigne (2022).
Oliker, Olga. “Implications of the Russia-Ukraine War for the Middle East and North Africa.” International Crisis Group Report (2022).
Paraschos, Amberin Zaman, Alex Vatanka. “Ukraine War Sends Shockwaves Across the Middle East.” United States Institute of Peace (2022).
Phillips, Christopher. “Sympathy for the Devil: Regional Reactions to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.” Chatham House Research Paper (2022).
Sayigh, Yezid. “Echoes of the Ukraine War in Syria: Caution and Opportunism.” Carnegie Middle East Center (2022).
Trenin, Dmitri. “Russia in the Middle East: Jack of All Trades, Master of None.” Carnegie Moscow Center (2019).
Zisser, Eyal. “The Impact of the Ukraine Crisis in the Middle East.” The Institute for National Security Studies Insight No. 1428 (2022).