The war in Ukraine, begun in February 2022, has had important reverberations in many parts of the world, including the Middle East.
Prior to the start of the war, one of the great successes of Putin’s diplomacy was that Russia had developed good relations with all Middle Eastern governments considered to be pro-Western (anti-Western governments in Iran and Syria, by contrast, had good relations with Russia, but not with the United States or several European governments).
What accounts for Putin’s successful Middle East diplomacy? The preferences of Middle Eastern governments have had a lot to do with it.
Some pro-Western governments in the region may have seen cooperating with Russia at a time of increasing Russian-Western rivalry as a way of motivating the West to remain engaged in the Middle East (which governments there feared to be waning, as they often had in the past). Cooperating with Russia was also a way for those Middle Eastern governments – concerned about Iran and its allies – to give Moscow incentives to take their interests into account, and not back Tehran against them. Further, some saw Russia as an alternative arms supplier that did not make unwelcome demands about democracy and human rights the way that legislators, journalists and activists in the West often did.
Ever since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, in February 2022, the Middle East’s pro-Western governments attempted to maintain their balancing act between Russia and the West. Currently serving a term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) abstained on the Western-backed UNSC resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many Middle Eastern governments did support UN General Assembly resolutions (which are non-binding) against Russia, but some either abstained or did not vote on them. Even Israel – America's closest partner in the region – did very little to help Ukraine, due to its desire to avoid antagonising Russia and risk disrupting the Russian-Israeli deconfliction agreement, whereby Moscow turned a blind eye to Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria.
Turkey has had tense relations with the West over many issues, but it has played a crucial role in convincing Russia to allow the resumption of Ukrainian grain exports (which the Middle East is especially dependent on) that the Russian navy had blocked in the early months of the war. Although Western governments are displeased with Turkey for not participating in Western sanctions against Russia, as well as for threatening to block Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO, they value the role that Turkey has played in allowing Ukrainian grain to reach the world market.
The West has not been happy with Saudi Arabia, not only for its unwillingness to increase oil production at Western behest, but especially for joining with Russia in the OPEC+ format to reduce production (thus serving to keep oil prices high, which helps oil-exporting Russia and hurts the mainly oil-importing West). Calls in Washington that arose to review the status of Saudi-American ties could negatively impact the US-Saudi security relationship – something that Moscow would welcome.
There have been reports that the exigencies of the war in Ukraine have led to Russia drawing down its presence in Syria, as well as handing more responsibility to Iran there. To the extent that this occurs, it will mean that Russia is less able to maintain balance there between Israel, on the one hand, Iran and its Hezbollah allies on the other and among Turkey, the Assad regime, and Syrian Kurdish forces. The result could be a revival of conflict in Syria.
Further, the war in Ukraine may lead to Russia becoming a less useful partner for Middle Eastern states, if it results in Moscow being less willing and able to export weapons to the Middle East, due to Russian production problems arising from Western sanctions, besides Moscow’s own need for these weapons in Ukraine.
Indeed, Moscow has been importing Iranian armed drones for use in Ukraine. Russian dependence on Iran for such weapons may mean that, even beyond Syria, Russia is less willing, or able, to maintain balance between Iran, on the one hand, and its Middle Eastern opponents on the other. In the short run, Iran’s Middle Eastern opponents may redouble their efforts to court Moscow to counterbalance its dependence on Iran. In the long run, though, they may find Russia to be a less useful partner, if its dependence on Iran implies that Russia cannot, or will not, act to restrain hostile Iranian behaviour towards them.
Indeed, as long as the war in Ukraine continues, Russia may not be in a position to increase its military presence in the Middle East. It is not clear, though, how much the West, including the US, can come to the aid of Middle Eastern states feeling threatened by Iran, when America and Europe are more focused on both Russia in Europe and China in Asia. If they do not see either the West or Russia as able to maintain order in the area, regional powers in the Middle East may feel both a greater need to act on their own as well as less external restraint about doing so. Therefore, a prolonged conflict in Ukraine may lead to an increased conflict in the Middle East.
Finally, the longer the war in Ukraine goes on, the greater the possibility that grain export shortages could return, either as a result of a renewed Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain exports, or as the decreased capacity of Ukrainian farms, affected by the ongoing war, to produce as much grain as before. If so, this could heighten instability throughout the poorer countries of the Middle East – which would, in turn, threaten their richer neighbours. Nor is it just pro-Western countries that will be negatively affected, but anti-Western ones as well. The Ukraine conflict, then, could contribute to the breakdown of order in the Middle East that neither the West nor Russia could prevent or control.