What Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Means for the Middle East
Don’t bet on Moscow.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed several truths about its foreign policy, while the poor performance of its military has revealed facts about its defense policy. Both suggest that Gulf countries that have been seeking closer ties to Moscow as a hedge against a declining American commitment to the region are likely wasting their time.
Russia, already straitened by sanctions, will find itself further weakened as the world moves away from the fossil fuels that undergird the bulk of its economy. Over the coming decades, funding for military research and development can be expected to slow to a trickle, reducing both Russia’s own relative military capability and its ability to supply other nations with cutting-edge weapons. Nor can Russia expect to draw significant foreign investment in its defense industry. Most investors will be deterred by current and threatened sanctions, while the others will be interested in exploiting the country’s economic desperation, not in rebuilding its military industry.
Meanwhile, Russia’s ability to supply willing buyers with current weapons will be greatly reduced while defense spending and production are funneled toward rebuilding its war-torn military. Nor will Moscow’s recent willingness to share technology with its export customers be an unalloyed draw. Russia leader Vladimir Putin is not transactional; his choices are made with an eye to long-term goals. Buyers of Russian military hardware should understand that he will expect this favor returned.
Russia’s goals and the Middle East
Putin began the invasion of Ukraine with two goals. First, the strategic aim to “break American dominance,” as a Syrian government official recently put it to me, and to establish a unipolar world order in which Russia is perceived as the primary superpower.
Moscow’s logic is this: A successful seizure of Ukraine will cause a crisis of confidence in the U.S. and NATO, and that this will be reflected in the willingness of other nations to back Russia at the UN; evade sanctions for Russia’s benefit; and invite Russian troops and Russian bases to their ports and soil. Russia would be perceived as the only global heavyweight willing to back their goals with military action, and will therefore be the partner of choice for national governments seeking to retain power and fringe groups seeking to seize it.
But Moscow offers neither the trade nor the development incentives of the U.S., Europe, or China. Its foreign policy success in Syria thus far is based on militarily backing an unwanted dictator. The depletion of Russia’s military in Ukraine and the tumbling of Russia’s economy will make this brand of foreign policy impossible. What will Russia have to replace it?
Russia’s second strategic aim in Ukraine is rooted in a realistic assessment of economic forecasts. As its economy shrinks, it will need funds, resources, and tools from outside its borders to stay afloat. Moscow will look to its neighbors for food security, mining production, market access, and transport routes. Putin’s political actions in Belarus and Kazakhstan—where he financed and armed an attempted coup this January—demonstrate his belief that he needs puppet governments in surrounding capitals. When Ukraine failed to acquiesce, Putin chose to invade.
Russia’s desperate needs will turn Putin’s eye to the Middle East. The Gulf should expect arm-twisting within OPEC+, for as long as it exists, as well as pressure to share green energy technology that would then make Russia their competitor. Russia will continue to use its leverage in the UN, with Iran, and with Syria, to increase or decrease the ability of groups like the Houthis and Hezbollah to arm themselves, and will use this to extract favors from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel in Europe, Syria, Libya, Iraq, or across Africa that may be expensive or cost them critical international goodwill. Egypt has been spared this pressure thus far and has not been put in a position to compromise their own foreign policies, but that pressure is likely coming.
Hedging is risky
The UAE’s abstention from the UN’s vote to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 27 was understandable in the context of Dubai’s immediate national security concerns. It was expected and logical that Russia would introduce a resolution to designate and disrupt armament of the Houthis as soon as they took the Presidency of the Security Council. Russia has prevented passage of any new resolution on the Houthis for the past five or more years. Unlocking their support was critical.
But it comes with serious risk: Fast-forward to a theoretical ground incursion by Iran into the UAE. In this situation, because they abstained on the Ukraine vote, the UAE should expect the international community to similarly abstain from condemning an Iranian violation of their sovereignty.
The Emirati abstention on the U.S.-sponsored vote in the UN Security Council surprised the Biden administration (though it should not have) and angered many members of Congress. Herein lies a second, if somewhat limited, political risk taken by the UAE.In August 2017, then-President Donald Trump signed the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, which aims to punish Moscow for its destabilizing actions globally. Under this legislation, countries that trade with Russia’s defense or intelligence sectors are susceptible to secondary sanctions. This presents some risk for the UAE, though it is unclear how Washington might implement secondary sanctions or what incentives it could offer its partners to stop cooperating with Russia.
The U.S. and Europe would like to see countries in the Middle East join them in supporting Ukraine’s resistance against the war waged by Russia. If NATO countries lend Ukraine combat aircraft, they gamble with sparking a world war. Arab nations would not risk the same escalation by doing so. Humanitarian relief is one thing, but the Gulf could also funnel much-needed funding or protective equipment to Ukraine’s fighters with much less red tape than the U.S. or European nations.
Saudi Arabia could manage this desire from western partners to their political advantage. The Kingdom would prefer not to increase oil output, despite pressure from the U.S. to raise production and bring down the price per barrel on the international market. Any Saudi support for Ukraine would likely result in Russian refusal to follow Saudi direction in OPEC+. This would allow Saudi to say “yes” to U.S. requests to increase production, but not have to fulfill them, on the grounds that Russian refusal tied their hands.
Gulf countries could be helpful to the international community by using their understanding of Russian needs to devise pathways for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine while saving face. Without a route to an offramp, Russia is unlikely to pull back.
The tragedy for Russia is that it is also unlikely to win. And this flawed invasion experiment has only served to strengthen America’s standing in the world. It has proven that America can still easily build global coalitions when necessary. While Russia will be radioactive, more a predatory pariah than partner. It would be foolish for nations that previously enjoyed beneficial relations with Russia to invite that radioactivity onto themselves now, in the emerging world order where Russia is not the unipolar power it hoped to become, but instead a failed bet.
Kirsten Fontenrose is president of Red Six International, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a former Senior Director for the Gulf at the White House.