MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: The differences between Western&non-Western US allies in the Ukraine war
Dr. Jonathan Spyer Expert on Syria, Iraq, radical Islamic groups, and Kurds JERUSALEM INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGY AND SECURITY
For mid-level regional powers, avoiding non-essential friction with a major power like Russia is seen as an imperative, particularly in a situation where consistent support from their US patron is by no means a given.09.05.2022
A noteworthy element of the current war in Ukraine has been the contrast in response to it by the United States and key Western European countries on the one hand, and several US-allied states located outside of the Western cultural and geographical core, on the other.
Public discussion in the United States, Britain, and other countries has primarily depicted the conflict in moral and historical terms. For example, US political scientist and former senior official Eliot Cohen, writing in the Atlantic in April, contended, “For those of us born after World War II, this is the most consequential war of our lifetime. Upon its outcome rests the future of European stability and prosperity.”
In March, an article in Foreign Affairs suggested that the response to the Ukraine invasion could “consolidate a global alliance that unites democracies against Russia and China and thereby secures the free world for a generation to come.”
Such language has not been limited to pundits and the media. In a speech delivered in Poland in late March, US President Joe Biden drew parallels to World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This rhetoric has, unsurprisingly, not been entirely reflected in policy. The main countries of Western Europe are not unified in their response to the Ukrainian crisis. France, and particularly Germany, have been wary of adopting a confrontational stance toward Moscow. Germany is reluctant to absorb the enormous costs of an embargo on Russian gas. France has sought to mediate rather than choose sides and confront Russia.
Despite soaring rhetoric, the United States and Britain have made clear that they will not be sending their forces to challenge the invaders. At the same time, US and British assistance to the Ukrainian military in the post-2014 period appears to have played a decisive role in enabling the impressive performance of the Ukrainian forces in the war, including, crucially, the frustration of Russian ambitions around Kyiv.
Washington and London also appear serious in their determination to increase arms supplies to the Ukrainians and enable them to continue resistance in the next phase of the war that is expected to be focused in eastern Ukraine.
But the divisions among Western countries, and the gaps between rhetoric and action, even among the most determined elements, pale into insignificance compared with the gaps between the West and non-Western allied countries.
For example, India and US-aligned Arab states have been notable for their sharp departure from Washington’s position and their marked unwillingness to commit to the Ukrainian cause. Israel’s position, meanwhile, is interesting in that it stands somewhere at the midway point between the US/UK and EU position and that of non-Western US allies.
India has consistently maintained a stance of non-alignment on Ukraine. This derives partially from the traditionally close defense relations between Moscow and New Delhi. Russia still accounts for 50% of Indian defense imports, though the levels of cooperation are in decline, while those with the United States are increasing.
Despite public criticism from senior US officials and a warning that the consequences of a “more explicit strategic alignment” with Moscow would be “significant and long-term,” India has not budged from its stance. It abstained in the UN Security Council vote condemning the invasion. New Delhi has avoided public criticism of Moscow, sufficing with generalized comments regarding the need to respect the sovereignty of all states. However, India has called for an independent investigation into the killings in Bucha, Ukraine.
India’s neutral stance on Ukraine is particularly notable, given the increasing cooperation and convergence between US and Indian interests vis a vis the challenge of China and the Indo-Pacific. India is a member of the Quad, along with the United States, Japan, and Australia, and which Russia has criticized as a forum directed against China.
Given the country’s importance and the limited aid it could provide Ukraine, India’s stance on the Ukraine war appears unlikely to affect the growing closeness of US-India relations. A virtual summit meeting between Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 12 appeared to confirm that while no change in the Indian stance on Ukraine was apparent, this would not have ramifications for the separate but equally vital arena of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
An Indian commentator, in conversation with the author, expressed the opinion that for India, the war between Russia and Ukraine constituted a conflict between two European countries and lacked clear and immediate relevance for his country. This seems to be a fair summation of the core Indian stance regarding this issue.
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia’s stances have been similarly non-committal. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, in the early stages of the crisis, the leaders of both countries declined to take phone calls from Biden, who wanted to ask them to increase oil production to lower oil prices on European markets and reduce the harm that sanctions on Russia were causing.
Washington’s requests came after a series of moves by the US Administration, which had disappointed and concerned Gulf states. These included a US freeze of the UAE purchase of F-35 fighter aircraft and the failure to adequately respond to attacks by Iran-supported Houthis on Emirati and Saudi targets.
This comes within the context of ongoing negotiations with Iran, which are themselves a matter of concern for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Further, the Biden Administration continues the cold-shouldering of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman because of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In addition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have billions of dollars in trade with Russia. Saudi Arabia signed a military cooperation agreement with Moscow in August 2021, and several procurement deals were subsequently signed.
The responses of the Gulf states appear to be a message to the United States that Washington should not take their support for granted. In recent years, a truism has emerged that a decline in Washington’s need for Gulf oil has made the Gulf states less important in US global strategy. The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that this is not so.
The United States needs the Gulf states to act to maximize the efficacy of sanctions against Russia. The UAE and Saudi Arabia appear to be balancing between Washington and Russia.
Non-Western US-aligned countries are not inclined to regard the Ukraine invasion as a historical watershed in global affairs. This also applies to Bahrain and Qatar, and further afield, to Brazil and Mexico. They have declined to participate in sanctions against Russia.
In a more complex and partial way, it also applies to Israel. Israel has taken a more proactive stance in supporting Ukraine than any non-Western US allies. It has voted to support Russia’s expulsion from the UN Human Rights Council and provided a haven for around 12,000 non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees.
Jerusalem has, however, stopped short of active participation in sanctions against Moscow. This is the critical issue that could trigger Russian countermeasures such as decreasing cooperation regarding Israeli actions in Syrian airspace.
Israel regards the prevention of further Iranian advancement in Syria as a key strategic goal. Russian acquiescence is an essential and possibly crucial factor in this. Unsurprisingly, this perceived core strategic interest accounts for Israel’s stance regarding the Ukraine war.
The stances of Western-aligned Middle Eastern and Asian countries about the Ukrainian invasion reflect significant geopolitical changes. In the case of India’s position, one may detect a self-confidence deriving from a sense that the crucial contest for the United States in the period ahead is that with China, which will be conducted in Asia. From this point of view, New Delhi is aware that it is likely to pay little or no penalty for its equivocal stance on Ukraine simply because the stakes for the United States in Asia are too high.
Former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon wrote in Foreign Affairs, “From an Asian perspective, the war in Ukraine doesn’t augur shifts to come so much as it underlines a shift that has already taken place…Today, the center of gravity of the world economy has moved from the Atlantic to the east of the Urals. Geopolitical disputes and security dilemmas that could affect the global order are concentrated in maritime Asia.”
From the corresponding Middle Eastern point of view, the sense of partial US disengagement from a focus on the Middle East brings the urgent need for Western allies to develop their regional-level structures of strategic cooperation. This process is revealed by the growing levels of cooperation between Israel and key Western-aligned Arab states such as the UAE and Egypt.
For such mid-level regional powers, avoiding non-essential friction with a major power like Russia is seen as an imperative, particularly in a situation where consistent support from their US patron is by no means a given. The urgent common threat they face is from Iran, not Russia. Their response to the Ukraine situation is perhaps analogous to that of European countries regarding the Iranian project for domination of the Middle East. This may be summed up with a degree of cynicism: it’s undoubtedly a problem, but it’s not my problem.
Thus, at least as of now, the responses of non-European Western allies to the Ukraine war seem to suggest a more fragmented and localized global strategic picture rather than a return to a Cold War-style international contest between democracies and their allies and a rival alliance of Russia and China, as predicted by many Western observers.
This more localized reality should not be seen simplistically. The alliance with the United States will remain a fundamental element linking the countries mentioned above. In the Middle Eastern context, the involvement of CENTCOM as the US military structure with responsibility for the Middle East is serving to facilitate improved bilateral relations between regional states.
Yet, the lighter US footprint in the region is set to afford greater independence and freedom of action for allied countries. For example, this is demonstrated by Israel’s determined prosecution of its campaign against Iran, even during ongoing US efforts to conclude a renewed nuclear agreement. This greater independence of action, coupled with reduced US guarantees, appears to be the new norm.
Unlike in the period of the Cold War, neither Russia nor China today constitute closed, autarkic economic blocs. A situation of two closed camps, each trading only within its camp and armed exclusively by its superpower patron, does not appear to be emerging and is unlikely to occur.
This means that the notion of US-aligned countries forming a united front against a closed alliance of Russian and Chinese allied countries is unlikely to be realized – a more complex, interlocking strategic reality beckons. The responses of US-aligned countries to the Ukraine war provide an example of things to come.
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