Go to Appearance > Menu to set Top Menu

The war in Ukraine confronts America’s Middle East allies with a “moment of truth” after years of skillful balancing between Washington and Moscow. While initially delivering signs of loyalty to their key American ally, in the long-term, they will seek to regain their bargaining power and freedom of maneuver vis-à-vis the great powers.

Middle East capitals have closely monitored the escalating standoff between Russia and the United States over Ukraine. If US adversaries like Iran may silently rejoice over the opportunity to play with time or gain leniency during the nuclear agreement negotiations, Middle East US partners have had no choice but to reconsider how to best preserve their strategic interests vis-à-vis Washington and Moscow. Following Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, their long-avoided “moment of truth” has come.

America’s Middle East friends will have to grapple with tough questions of loyalty and pressing strategic dilemmas for the years to come. Under what conditions will they be expected (or forced) to publicly and concretely “choose a side” between their American ally and their Russian “frenemy”? Or conversely, will they be able to maintain their balancing act to a degree acceptable to both Washington and Moscow?

The Spillover to the Middle East

Although the Middle East stands as a secondary theater of the ongoing Russia-West standoff over Ukraine, it may dramatically affect the crisis’s global repercussions. From an American and Russian perspective alike, the MENA region forms an integral part of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, providing a key platform for both Western and Russian power projection and for setting counter-balancing incidents and precedents.

This “linkage” is no news to America’s Middle East allies. Most of them – and primarily Israel, Egypt, and Jordan – experienced first-hand the interweaving of the global arena and their regional one since the early days of the Cold War. Others were forced to grapple with the post-Cold War US-Russia tensions following President Putin’s widespread charm offensive towards America’s Middle East partners. Among them, Turkey, which has uniquely (and thus far rather successfully) positioned itself as a “swing state” between the US/ NATO and Russia in the region, but also Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Since 2015, America’s Middle East partners also wrestle – both strategically and operationally – with Russia’s military involvement on the Syrian frontlines, which none of them view as disconnected from the 2014 war in Ukraine.

In early 2022 as well, America’s Middle East allies cannot ignore the various signs pointing to a military spillover of the Ukraine crisis into the Mediterranean, where Russia’s military moves are both meant to increase pressure on the West from yet another strategic angle and deter Middle Eastern actors from exploiting Russia’s “distraction” with Ukraine by launching escalatory operations in the region.

Since the beginning of 2022 Russia increased its military activity in the Mediterranean, culminating in February 15th  “naval military drill” attended by Defense Minister Shoigu and Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief. The drill involved a heavy maritime build-up in the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. In parallel, Russia deployed long-range Tupolev Tu-22M strategic bombers and MiG-31K fighter jets with hypersonic Kinzhal missiles to its airbase base in Syria. The West viewed Russia’s increased military presence in the area as designed to counter the NATO airborne naval mission groups in the Mediterranean before and during Moscow’s assault on Ukraine.

The crisis over Ukraine has had destabilizing effects on the energy and food markets in the Middle East. The crisis brought new spikes in gas and oil prices with Saudi Arabia choosing (for the time being) to support OPEC+ unity which benefits Russia, defying the US request to increase the oil supply and lower the prices.  What’s more, the Middle East countries, heavily dependent on grains imported from Russia and Ukraine – primarily Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel- may face significant food supply disruptions, deepening their fear of food insecurity. In the realm of domestic politics as well, the Ukraine crisis may be a turning point for most America’s Middle East allies. The US and European diplomatic efforts with Russia have thus far dislodged the “human rights agenda” from the negotiations table, potentially emboldening Ankara’s and Riyadh’s authoritarian leaderships to deepen their relations with Washington without the fear of American preconditions -a potential new liability for Russia.

America’s US Allies Facing New Dilemmas and Opportunities

Turkey stands out as an iconic example of how the Russia-West standoff over Ukraine may offer a balanced combination of challenges and opportunities for US Middle East partners. Indeed, Ankara has a lot at stake in the current crisis, following years of wavering between Washington and Moscow. While being the second most capable army in NATO, the controversial acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system has driven a wage between Ankara and its Trans-Atlantic allies. In the last decade Russia and Turkey promoted several strategic economic cooperation projects, including the TurkStream gas pipeline and nuclear reactors construction. The two countries are also interdependent in the Syrian, Libyan, South-Caucasian and Black Sea theaters where their relationship has oscillated between cooperation, rivalry, confrontation, and even crisis.

On the dilemmas side, Ankara is pressed to choose a side between NATO and Russia, and also between Russia and Turkey’s important Ukrainian partner, that has desperately asked President Erdogan to shut down the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Russian Navy vessels in accordance with the (never applied) 1936 Montreux Convention. Since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 Russia has reshaped the balance of forces in the Black Sea basin to its advantage and might tilt it even more if Moscow seizes the entire Ukrainian southern coast during the crisis. The weakening of Ukraine, which has become Ankara’s strategic partner in the defense realm, might constitute a significant loss to Turkey. And yet severing economic ties with Russia is also not an option for an unraveling Turkish economy.

For the time being, Ankara strives to maintain its neutrality as exemplified by its dual condemnation of Russia’s invasion but also a proposal to mediate between Moscow and Kiev. While Turkey officially raised the possibility of closing the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Russian warships, it simultaneously emphasized Russia’s  “right” to return its ships to their bases.

On the opportunity side, since before the invasion Turkey tried to contrast its position with Berlin’s “deviation” from the hard line on Russia. From the “ugly duckling” of NATO’s Southern flank, Ankara is trying to refashion itself as a reliable and balancing force between the West and the East. By providing diplomatic and security assistance (drones) to Ukraine President Erdogan has turned the ongoing Ukrainian crisis into a long-awaited occasion to pave the way for further rapprochement with Washington (reportedly including renewal of negotiations over the F35 deal). The crisis might inject new impetus into Erdogan’s motivation to mend relations with Israel.

Despite seeing the US as the core and ultimate bedrock of its national security, Israel has managed to nurture cordial relations with the Kremlin while developing friendly relations with Ukraine. For several years Israel has secured Western, and even Ukrainian, understanding for its intensive public engagement with senior Russian officials due to Moscow’s dominant position in Syria directly influencing the IDF’s freedom of operations in that theater. In 2014 Israel did not officially accept the annexation of Crimea, but neither did it join some of the UN resolutions against Russia, which would become indicative of its neutral stance.

Since the beginning of the current crisis however, Israel’s ambiguous position has come under tremendous pressure. Western commentators and Ukrainian officials demanded that Jerusalem supply Kyiv with defensive military equipment and commit to joining harsh sanctions when a Russian invasion occurs. There were reports that Israel refused the US proposal to supply Ukraine with the Israeli manufactured Iron Dome air-defense systems, due to the potential of a Russian backlash. Israel was also pressed by its Western partners to relocate its Embassy in Kyiv to the city of Lviv to signal that it shares Washington’s concerns of an “imminent invasion.”

From the Russian side, Israel suspected that some of Moscow’s aggressive signals in Syria since early 2022 were addressed not only to Washington and NATO, but also to Jerusalem, with the implicit message that the latter should restrain its military activity in Syria against Iranian entrenchment. Now that war erupted in Ukraine, Israel wrestles with a dilemma on how to secure its freedom of operations in Syria, rescue its citizens living in Ukraine and honor its historic mission to protect Ukraine’s Jewish communities, without jeopardizing its relations with Moscow that is now vilifying Ukraine as a “fascist country” whitewashing its anti-Semitic past.

Even after the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Israeli officials still walk on eggs when relating to Moscow’s role in the crisis. While Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned the Russian attack, Prime minister Bennet refrained from doing so. It became a controversial issue in a public debate with leading voices calling to “stick with the West” against Russia. US/EU imposing strong sanctions on Russia puts additional pressure on Jerusalem to reexamine and change the equilibrium it adopted thus far vis-à-vis the West and Russia. Moscow in turn, understanding Jerusalem’s predicament, might satisfy itself with Jerusalem’s adoption of a somewhat “less negative” position than the “Western-average.”

Although the Arab monarchies are wholly dependent on American security guarantees, after the Arab Spring they gradually developed a significant relationship with Russia, a consequence of the perceived waning US presence in the region. Russia showcased another not negligible advantage: its support for the authoritarian regimes in the Gulf.

The new reality of US energy independence from Middle East oil pushed the Gulf capitals and Moscow into a joint effort to raise oil prices in the last five years within OPEC+. As oil revenues provide the bedrock of both Russia’s and the Arab monarchies’ budgets, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this relationship. Furthermore, this oil-alliance also enables the Gulf States to limit Russia’s support for Iran.

Qatar for its part, stands as a major investor in the Russian oil giant Rosneft, which is under US sanctions. Alongside competition in the gas market, the two cooperate in the framework of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. In turn, the Gulf countries’ sovereign funds are major investors in Russia.

The West has demanded that the Gulf countries lower energy prices, as such a move would make it easier for the Europeans to inflict harsh sanctions on Russia, while also helping to mitigate the spiking inflation in the US. For Russia, the energy weapon vis-à-vis the EU remains critical, and behind the scenes Russia is pressuring its Arab partners to defy US demands. All parties are indeed mindful of the spring 2020 Saudi-Russian crisis within the framework of OPEC+ that plunged oil prices to a historically low level. Strong Western sanctions on trade and investments with Russia might boost the US leverage to drive the Gulf countries further away from Russia.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi was embraced by President Putin after his toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo in 2013. Since then, Russia has strengthened its influence on Egypt by securing the nuclear power plants deal, supplying key military equipment, cooperating in the field of gas extraction in the Mediterranean, and advancing numerous other joint economic and political projects. On the other hand, it has faced much pressure to curb its relations with Moscow, with the US successfully preventing the supply of SU-35 Russian made aircraft to Egypt, threatening it with CAATSA sanctions and offering US arms. Egypt has potentially much to lose from the escalating West-Russia standoff. Specifically, it has a long history of “bread-riots” and is heavily dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain supply. On the opportunity side, the ongoing crisis and its repercussions on the energy market might ultimately boost Egypt’s position as a provider of natural gas to Europe.

Conclusion

Whatever the “endgame” (if any) of the Russia-West standoff around Ukraine, it seems that none of the potential scenarios will ease the choices for US Middle East allies. The crisis has already challenged the US’s global standing and may further affect America’s regional deterrence-posture and reputational clout while accentuating fears of US abandonment in times of need. It will also bolster Russia’s and China’s expanding presence in the MENA region (and beyond in the Red Sea), while emboldening Iran and its proxies.

In the short term we should expect that US Middle East allies will half-heartedly support any pushback against Russia, but they will subsequently seek to regain the initiative and cement their ability to keep balancing between the global powers. As such, the US waning – yet robust – presence in the Middle East may recalibrate its regional allies’ geopolitical orientations and enhance their bargaining power and freedom to maneuver while helping them embark on new (or renewed) regional alliances. Ultimately, the US-Russia standoff over Ukraine may lay the groundwork for an increased strategic autonomy for US partners in the Middle East in the years to come – at their own peril or for their benefit.

Authors:

Dr. Sarah-Masha Fainberg is a Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer at Tel-Aviv University and Visiting Professor of Israeli Affairs at Georgetown University. She previously served as Policy and Strategic Issues Advisor in the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Lt. Colonel (reserve) Daniel Rakov is a Senior Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS). He had served in the IDF for more than 20 years, mainly in the Defense Intelligence (Aman).