MESOP MIDEAST NEWS: Russian invasion of Ukraine scrambles Middle East diplomacy

Top Biden administration officials are working the phones, seeking support from partners in the Middle East for tough US-led sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

In the Gulf, the US is also looking to oil producers for a boost in energy exports to mitigate the market disruptions as a consequence of the conflict.

Update from Russia:

We checked in today via email with Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, about what’s next re: Russia and Ukraine.

·     “No plans announced, only guesses,” Lukyanov told Al-Monitor. “For now the likely outcome is regime change in Ukraine with imposed conditions like non-alignment and demilitarization plus recognition of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation.”

·     With regard to relations with the US, West: “De facto break of relations for the next period (minimum one year) while restructuring of economy, reorientation to other partners, offering of strategic stability talks, and gradual restoration of relations after the break. And during the whole period — minimal interaction.”

·     Can Russia sustain sanctions? “The resilience reserve has been created, which will last for a certain period (maybe a year or so). Meanwhile efforts to further increase resilience and find some other sources for cooperation will proceed. How society will react? A question. For a majority it will be just a certain fall of the living standard; for an active minority — a change of living style.”

·     Extent of Russian opposition to invasion? “There is almost no visible opposition except some representatives for creative industries and not big number of public intellectuals. What is in place is a significant degree of confusion. Many people don’t clearly understand what happened and what will be the endgame.”

·     Consequences for Russian policy in the Middle East? “Not so much, but of course Russian counterparts there will be local players, not US or European diplomats. No ground for common interests with the West for the time being.”

And here are just a few highlights of how the US-Russia showdown over Ukraine is playing out in the Middle East from our correspondents:

Israel: Eyes on Syria, Iran

“Israel must position itself within the American camp,” writes Ben Caspit. “The question is to what extent it will have to identify with it and take a proactive stand. The cooperation and coordination between the Israel Air Force and Russian forces in Syria is a unique strategic asset for Israel.”

“Given the accelerated speed of nuclear agreement negotiations in Vienna between world powers and Iran, Israel cannot afford to give up its unfettered access to Iranian targets on its northern border,” adds Caspit. “That is why it must keep [Russian President Vladimir] Putin calm.”

Lilach Shoval this week reports on Israel’s increasing concern with Iranian drones which have violated Israeli air space.

Syria: Foreshadowing Ukraine

Russia’s military intervention in Syria over the past decade changed the Russian military, especially its use of air power, foreshadowing aspects of its invasion of Ukraine.

“The Syrian campaign has become an important preparation for Russian armed forces to confront stronger adversaries than the small Georgian army or the Chechen separatist guerrillas,” explains Kirill Semenov. “It was not certain whether the re-arming of the Russian army that began after 2010 could meet modern requirements, and the Syrian campaign became a test site for experimenting with these weapons in combat conditions.”

With its more sophisticated use of air power in Ukraine and Syria, “Moscow is sending a signal to NATO that their military capabilities include the Middle East,” writes Anton Mardosov.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, expect Russia to intensify its ties to the Middle East, says Al-Monitor contributor Semenov from Moscow, in order to “circumvent sanctions” in return for security assistance and “mediation services in the field of conflict resolution, such as Yemen.”

“At the same time, an open escalation, for example, in Syria can hardly be in Moscow’s interests now, as it creates additional risks, which will be more difficult to respond to, due to Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Europe,” adds Semenov.

And no surprise that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is all-in with Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

“Syria supports the Russian Federation,” Assad told Putin in a phone call on Feb. 25, “based on its conviction of its right stance that repelling NATO expansion is Russia’s right, because it has become a global threat to the world and has turned into a tool to achieve the irresponsible policies of Western countries that seek to strike stability in the world.”

Iran: No linkage yet between Ukraine, nuclear talks

Lukyanov told Al-Monitor this week that while Russia’s relations with the West “are deteriorating rapidly on the European front, Russian diplomats continue to work with others on the Iranian dossier. No changes yet, at least. There are some individuals who publicly call to start torpedoing the US at any occasion, including multiple diplomatic efforts not connected to the Ukrainian issue, but it doesn’t seem they represent any line close to the real one.”

The expectation of restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, may be just days away. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bageri Kani, left Vienna, the site of the talks, on Feb. 23 for consultations. It is unclear if the Russian invasion will affect Iran’s decision one way or the other.

Iran’s foreign ministry, not surprisingly, blamed the Ukraine war on “provocative moves by NATO spearheaded by the US.”

Turkey: Showing its limits

“Unfolding developments reveal the irrelevance of Turkish foreign policy, defying [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s apparent expectations to paint his country as a regional powerhouse,” writes Cengiz Candar.

“All that said should not suggest that Turkey has become a loser of the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” adds Candar. “If his new openings to the Gulf and Israel bear fruit, Erdogan can live without playing a major role in the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Despite the erosion of his popularity inside and Western rebuffs over the Ukraine standoff, it is still too early to write him off.”

On Friday, Feb. 25, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara cannot bar Russian naval forces traveling the Black Sea under the 1936 Montreux Convention. Ukraine had requested that Turkey consider a blockade. Andrew Wilks has the back story here.

Sudan: Hemedti in Moscow

“Sudan’s ruling council, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, visited Moscow Feb. 23, as the political crisis in Sudan drags on after a coup orchestrated by the army toppled the civilian-led government” in October 2021, Mohamed Saied reports.

Both countries are increasingly isolated from Washington and the West.

“Hemedti’s visit comes at a very sensitive time for both countries,” Saied adds. “Russia faces sweeping Western sanctions for ordering its forces to invade Ukraine, while the United States has threatened Sudan’s military with sanctions against the backdrop of the coup that derailed the country’s democratic transition.”

Egypt: Tourism takes a hit, but Suez is open

Egypt is already experiencing a decrease in tourism from Ukraine and Russia as a result of the crisis, Ahmed Gomaa reports.

Meanwhile, Egypt has assured the international community that the war in Ukraine will not affect traffic the Suez Canal.

“The head of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, recently said that the authority is ready for all possible scenarios,” reports Mohamad Hanafi.

Facts re: Russia

·         Largest country, with 11% of the global landmass.

·         9th-largest population, with 146 million people.

·         11th-largest economy, per GDP.

·         Second-largest oil producer , trailing only the United States, and the third-leading oil exporter, behind the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

·         Second-largest natural gas producer (behind the US and ahead of Iran), and the top exporter in 2020, although the US has moved into the top spot.

·         Second leading exporter of arms between 2016-2020, behind the United States; in the Middle East, the leading importer of Russian arms is Algeria.

·         Fifth-largest army, with 850,000 active military personnel (behind China, India, the United States and North Korea).

Russian exports to the Middle East

·         The Middle East and North Africa, excluding Turkey, account for just 5.36% of Russian exports (mostly fuel and consumer goods), according to the World Bank.

·         4.9% of Russian exports go to Turkey (mostly fuels, raw materials, consumer goods), Russia’s only major trading partner in the region.