Background of the Current Russian-Ukrainian Conflict
On February 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially recognized the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, two self-proclaimed states controlled by pro-Russian groups in Donbas, Eastern Ukraine. The next day, Russia’s Federation Council unanimously authorized the use of military force, and Russian soldiers entered both territories. On February 24, President Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. Minutes later, missiles struck the military infrastructure across Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv. Russia’s actions received widespread international condemnation, as many Western countries imposed new sanctions, aiming to trigger a financial crisis in Russia. European countries started to militarize and concerns of a “nuclear war” have started getting the attention of media headlines.
What are Russia’s objectives in this war/military operation? According to Dr. Maxim Suchkov, Moscow-based expert in the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), President Putin stated the goals of the operation is to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine. The latter seems easier to grasp; Russia seeks to destroy the military arsenal of Ukraine that may threaten Russian security. “Denazification,” however, is more complex. Suchkov says that some view this as an attempt to “decapitate Ukraine’s leadership – oust from power and bring to justice the leaders of Ukraine and the neo-Nazi formations (radical nationalist groups such as the Azov Battalion) that they embraced as a spearhead of Ukraine’s domestic politics.” The Russian expert adds that others see this as a long-term process aimed at changing the political and foreign policy orientation of Ukraine. If this is indeed the aim, it will take time, and the risk is that this process may lead to a formal partition of Ukraine into a part that is more open to this “denazification process” (Eastern Ukraine) and another that is strongly anti-Russian and nationalist (Western Ukraine). It is important to mention that during the ongoing negotiations between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations in Belarus, the Russian side also demanded from Ukraine the recognition of Crimea as an inseparable part of the Russian Federation and the recognition of the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics. The Russian hesitation for not annexing these two republics may provide Moscow some room to maneuver for a future settlement to reincorporate these regions in a federal neutral Ukrainian state if Kyiv meets Russia’s main demands.
From the Russian perspective, Moscow sees three threats from Ukraine: a geopolitical threat (if Kyiv joins NATO); an existential threat (Ukraine obtaining nuclear weapons); and a biological threat (Ukraine hosting “murky US biological laboratories.)” Suchkov says if we pay attention to the tone of the discourse, we will get a sense that Ukraine is not the ultimate addressee of these concerns – the US is.
For Russia, the main threat is not Ukraine’s accession to NATO, but the US navy under the NATO flag challenging the naval balance of power in the Black Sea and deploying advanced missiles possibly with nuclear warheads in Ukraine. For this reason, by analyzing Putin’s political psychology, we realize that he intends to engage with the US. Superpowers talk to superpowers, not to regional rivals. Hence, Putin’s main goal is to bring US President Joe Biden to the negotiating table and redraw the political security map of Europe. China’s position, of course, is crucial in this conflict since it cautiously backs Moscow; in the long run, this will be profitable to Beijing.
Will history repeat itself? During WWII, two important conferences took place that shaped the political map of Europe. In 1943 in Tehran, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, US President Franklin Roosevelt and British PM Winston Churchill met to redraw their map of the sphere of influence in Europe and the Middle East, envisaging post-war settlement. Two years later, the same leaders met at Yalta to discuss the post-war reorganization of Germany and Europe. The conference aimed to shape a post-war peace that represented not only a collective security order, but also a plan to provide “self-determination to the liberated peoples of Europe.” The main intent was to discuss the re-establishment of the nations of war-torn Europe within a few years as the Cold War divided the continent. Today, President Putin may be pushing for a similar scenario to address and limit NATO’s expansion in an area that was traditionally considered Russia’s sphere of influence. Russian policymakers have long hinted that they felt betrayed by the West, which promised them that in return for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s recognition of Germany’s unification, NATO would not expand east. However, NATO broke this promise and swallowed the Baltic states and Eastern European countries. NATO denies that the alliance provided any promise not to expand east.
Nevertheless, it seems President Biden is in no hurry to meet his Russian counterpart. The US has no interest in drafting any agreement at this point, as it tries to make Russia bleed and push Ukrainians to engage in guerilla warfare and the Russians toward a war of attrition as the Soviets experienced in Afghanistan. Robert Gilpin writes that prestige and status (not power as neo-realists claim) are the actual currencies of international relations. If a state’s prestige and status are recognized by its rival, then there is space to avoid clash. The US is unwilling to recognize Russia’s status because it will give Moscow a much higher status and great prestige, as the US considers Russia a “declining great power.” For this reason, the US will not directly clash with Russia for the time being, as Washington believes Moscow will weaken as it exhausts itself in the process of challenging US-led international order.
From the US perspective, this war could also turn profitable in an effort to replace Russian gas by providing alternatives and selling arms to NATO members. Recently, the US Congress approved the sale of 250 Abrams tanks, and the Pentagon deployed Patriot missile defense systems to Poland. Such arms sale agreements could boost the US arms industry. It’s also important to underscore Putin’s miscalculations, as not only NATO member countries took a “firm stance” against Russia, but Finland is now considering joining the alliance. Realizing this war would dry their resources, the Russians may change the military calculus altogether and mobilize their tactical medium-range nuclear warheads. The Europeans, already sinking in high gas and food prices, would not have so much space to maneuver or retaliate and would pressure the Americans to react and pursue negotiations.
The implications of this crisis will also impact recent developments in the Middle East. The following analysis is based on interviews conducted with regional experts and will shed light on regional dynamics and how the crisis in Ukraine may trigger a shift in the political developments and the regional order in the Middle East. Russia’s relations with regional actors like Turkey, Iran and the Persian Gulf region will surely be affected by the military operations in Ukraine.
Testing Russian-Turkish Relations
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will continue sitting on the fence for a while. Both Presidents Erdogan and Putin have invested politically and economically to consolidate and raise their bilateral relations to a new level. However, for now, this relationship is asymmetric and hierarchical in favor of Russia. Hence, Turkey is dependent in many ways on Russia. President Erdogan will aim to continue cooperation with Russia in the region, but he would also step up engagement with NATO to improve his global standing and reduce international criticism for his domestic conduct. Excluding the ongoing war in Ukraine, Erdogan knows that going against Russia and directly confronting Moscow is very risky and would open the possibility of a three-front war in the region in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
In his comments to the Weekly, Dr. Igor Matveev, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, the Russian Academy of Sciences, explained that Turkey’s stance toward Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has been predictable. Turkey didn’t bandwagon NATO and has successfully placed its national interests above the alliance’s interests. According to the scholar, safeguarding the national interests has been the basis for closer pragmatic Russian-Turkish dialogue on Syria and other regional conflicts.
Dr. Matveev explains that after the unsuccessful 2016 coup d’état in Turkey, President Erdogan, regardless of harsh public rhetoric, “has been showing readiness for more systematic and less ideological foreign policy (i.e. a local version of Realpolitik).” Remarkably, this fact has been indicated by numerous Turkish experts. “In practical terms, it means that Turkey will stick to a multi-vector policy, not closing doors for cooperation neither with the West nor with Russia in short- and middle-term perspectives,” said Dr. Matveev.
Regarding Turkey’s limitations, I previously argued in my analysis “Will Turkey gamble with Ukraine against Russia?” that Turkey would continue supplying Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine, but in case of military escalation, Turkey would not cross the “red lines” and directly challenge Russia.
Unlike what happened in Nagorno-Karabakh, in this war, the Russians have shown their preparedness against Turkish drones. Despite the fact that the TB2 Bayraktars are still operating and useful for the Ukrainian side, the Russian Ministry of Defense almost daily is announcing that its forces are downing many drones, including TB2. It is well known that Ukraine and Turkey have a military agreement, and the Ukrainian side is providing Turkey with a missile and military engine to boost Turkey’s growing arms industry. For Russia, this mounts a threat as it may shift the future military balance of power toward Turkey and Ukraine in the Black Sea. For this reason, Russian forces have destroyed most of the Ukrainian heavy military infrastructure (including its naval and air force) and arms industry.
Meanwhile, as NATO pressure intensified on Turkey, Ankara—exercising its right under Article 19 of the 1936 Montreux Convention—warned all coastal and non-coastal states that it will not allow warships through its Bosporus and the Dardanelles. The convention also limits the period of stay in the Black Sea for warships of non-Black Sea states. In emergencies, Turkey has the right to prohibit or restrict the passage of military ships through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. However, this action also exposed Turkey’s limitation by raising the following question: How will Turkey react if Russian naval warships seek to pass through the straits? Will Turkey prevent them? The answer is clear.
As a Black Sea state, Russia has the privileged right to transit the Turkish Straits to return its warships to their bases. The treaty states that during armed conflict, belligerents’ warships “shall not” pass through the Straits unless the ships belong to a state that borders the Black Sea and are returning to their home ports. Once Turkey determined that Russia was “at war,” it had no choice under the treaty but to stop Russian warships from passing through the straits. The only exception is that Russian warships that are returning to their bases in the Black Sea from other areas are permitted passage. For example, a Russian fleet registered in the Black Sea but currently located in the Mediterranean Sea is allowed to pass through the Turkish Straits and return to its base. The condition also applies to Russian fleets currently in the Black Sea that belong to a base in the Mediterranean or Baltic Sea. Russia is free to take them out of the Black Sea. This option will provide Russia enough space to maneuver its naval power and downplay Article 19 of the Montreux Convention. Turkey is aware that blockading the access of the Russian warships through its Straits will be viewed in Moscow as a “declaration of war.” This is the last thing Erdogan wants, knowing well the economic and political consequences will be harsher than what Turkey tasted after it downed the Russian jet in 2015.
Suchkov is also concerned that this crisis is an opportunity for Turkey to re-establish itself in the Black Sea and in the Western community. Ankara enjoys good ties with both Moscow and Kyiv and seeks to balance itself by supplying arms to Ukraine on the one hand, but also abstaining from sanctioning Russia. Suchkov argues that Turkey may indeed be useful to the Russian endgame here, but “Moscow should also be careful since President Erdogan is known for his penchant to fish in muddy waters.” Even if the outcome of the conflict may not favor Erdogan’s interests, he never goes home with an empty basket.
For this reason, President Erdogan cannot antagonize Russia and risk full-scale war since domestically, the implications of this war will be heavy on the Turkish government. Already, on February 22, six Turkish opposition parties, except the Kurdish HDP, called for the revival of the parliamentary system in the country aimed at establishing an alliance to topple Erdogan in the coming parliamentary and presidential elections in June 2023. According to recent polls, the opposition coalition is ahead and indeed may oust Erdogan, given the financial situation Turkey is experiencing. The current crisis will worsen Turkey’s economic and political situation.
Finally, any change in the leadership in Turkey would affect the current track of the Russian-Turkish relations. Dr. Matveev highlights that in post-Erdogan Turkey, Ankara is likely to move closer to the Western camp due to the pro-Western (pro-US) allegiance of the Turkish military, entrepreneurs, technocrats, diplomats and civil servants – regardless of their liberal or nationalistic personal views. This could form a long-term challenge for Russia on the Turkish track, given the successful “co-opetition” both sides had managed to arrange in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s worth mentioning that on March 2, Meral Akşener, leader of the Turkish opposition İYİ Party, raised an alarm asking who can guarantee that Turkey’s eastern provinces are safe from a similar kind of Russian aggression. She also called Russia a “security threat” for Turkey. This is another indication that the Turkish opposition is not on the same wavelength as Erdogan’s multi-vector foreign policy.
Impact on the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations
As the world’s attention is concentrated on Ukraine, there is interesting progress in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West. There are major signs that a deal may be reached soon, as European delegates have flown back to their capitals to confer with their governments, meaning there is a draft agreement in place. Tehran says the outcome of the Vienna negotiations hinges on Western countries to make a final decision. However, military operations in Ukraine will have an impact on the Iranian nuclear negotiations which may reflect on Russia’s relations with Iran in the Levant, mainly in Syria. Russians are concerned that this agreement may have repercussions on Iranian-Russian relations and that Tehran may come with certain terms with Washington for regional arrangements in the Middle East.
Dr. Matveev reflects this concern, arguing that a possible US-Iran deal on the Iranian nuclear dossier will produce a visible impact on the Middle East political and economic landscape, i.e. going far beyond political and military issues. Moreover, Matveev argues, “The real closeness of Washington and Tehran to the deal could have been indicated by a non-US-hostile Iranian stance during the recent vote on Ukraine at the UN General Assembly with the Iranian delegate abstaining instead of fully supporting Russia.” Furthermore, lifting sanctions on Iran would inevitably enlarge the Iranian economic potential thus providing Tehran with more capabilities and opportunities to maneuver in Iraq and especially Syria. This in turn could result in more economic competition but at the same time more cooperation between Russia and Iran on Syrian soil (for instance, launching an ambitious project of building a railway from the Syrian coast to the Iraqi border). However, much here will depend on success in facilitating a Russian-Iranian strategic partnership.
Earlier this month, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov commented the following on Iranian nuclear negotiations: “Moscow had to ask the US for guarantees first, requiring a clear answer that the new sanctions will not affect its rights under the nuclear deal. We requested that our US colleagues … give us written guarantees at the minimum level of the secretary of state that the current [sanctions] process launched by the US will not in any way harm our right to free, fully-fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran.” This of course caught the Iranian side by surprise, but at the same time, the Russians want to gain guarantees that their relations under the nuclear agreement will not be affected by the newly-imposed sanctions.
“Moscow—increasingly troubled by the lack of a much-expected military-occupation ‘cakewalk’ through Ukraine and faced with significant economic pressure—chose to play the ‘Iran card,’” said Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, associate fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs – American University of Beirut and author of Iran in Focus brief. For the Iranian scholar, creating complications in the Vienna talks could be traded with Western concessions on the Russian-Ukrainian front, while bringing the talks to their soon-expected close may free Western political-diplomatic capital to more clearly focus on confronting the Russian challenge. Dr. Fathollah Nejad told the Weekly he believes an Iran freed from energy sanctions as a result of a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could weaken Russia’s energy position.
Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an advisor to the Iranian delegation at the nuclear talks in Vienna, tweeted that the nuclear negotiations are not over yet. “On the one hand, Iran is waiting for clarification from Moscow about their demands from the US. On the other hand, the US has not responded to a number of Iranian demands that are key for the revival and the full implementation of the nuclear deal,” added Dr. Marandi. Russia’s argument was that if according to the deal, the Iranian side was going to transfer enriched uranium and heavy water to Russia, as happened after the 2015 JCPOA deal, then the Russian side, which is under Western sanctions, may find certain financial and logistic difficulties in dealing with this issue. Hence, the US could issue waivers for work related to the transfer of excess fissile material to Russia.
The signing of the nuclear deal and possible rapprochement between Tehran and Washington may also have implications in the Arab world. Syria may be a turning point.
Will Russia lose its grip on the Arab world?
Syria was the only state in the Arab world that sided with Russia in the UN General Assembly voting against condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine. Syria’s Foreign Minister said his government “supports” Putin’s decision to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic and will seek to cooperate with them. Lately, Damascus has been desperately trying to reintegrate into its region and revive diplomatic ties with the Persian Gulf states. Syrian President Bashar al Assad needs to capitalize on his relations with the Persian Gulf states in order to soften Western sanctions that destroyed his war-torn economy. The last thing he needs is more punishment for his loyalty to Russia. The Syrian state is known for its Realpolitik and playing with its rivals and allies to its own advantage. Some Russian analysts are concerned that Assad may use the signing of the Iranian nuclear agreement to his advantage to open a window with the Americans to revive his economy in exchange for certain concessions toward his loyalty to President Putin. Such a scenario may also put Lebanon’s Hezbollah in a difficult position. This of course would not only endanger Russia’s military/political position in the Levant, but also its energy security where Novatek and Rosneft oil and gas companies have invested in the Lebanese and Syrian energy sectors.
Lebanon is already becoming a sinking ship and witnessing a food security crisis. Many streets in Beirut are empty as people are unable to buy gasoline and fuel due to hiking prices and the ongoing financial crisis in the country. The conflict in Ukraine is roiling oil and natural gas markets. Oil prices have hit a seven-year high at more than $110 per barrel. This rise is primarily due to concerns about whether the coming sanctions on Russia will affect financial transactions for Russian oil and gas. Russia is the world’s second-largest oil exporter. Moreover, up to 90-percent of Lebanon’s wheat and cooking oil imports come from Ukraine and Russia, as well as a large proportion of grain imports. Lebanon is facing a bread crisis; according to Gerges Barbari, director-general of Grain and Sugar Beets at Lebanon’s Ministry of Economy and Trade, Lebanon’s wheat reserve “is sufficient for a month and a half.” As a result, the government is seeking to finalize agreements to import wheat from other countries and has been in communication with the United States, France and India. However, the price of a tonne of wheat could rise by 30 to 40 percent, which would see the cost per tonne jumping from between $360 and $400 to about $500. This also hints at why the Lebanese Foreign Ministry took a harsh stance toward Russia in “condemning Russia’s invasion on Ukraine” and later voting in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution against Russia to please the Western side for aid.
Another interesting impact of the military escalation in Ukraine is on Russia’s relations with the Gulf states. Gulf countries such as Qatar have shown readiness, if certain financial guarantees are met, to provide more gas to Europe. However, Qatar ensured that finding ways to divert cargoes from Asia to Europe will take some time and is “almost impossible” to quickly replace Russian supplies to Europe. Qatar is undergoing a major expansion of its liquefied natural gas capacity. By helping Europe now, Qatar will certainly improve its image and its chances to sign long-term contracts with European buyers.
Saudi Arabia is under significant US pressure to increase its oil production to drive down prices. So far, it has refused to do so because higher prices are boosting its revenues. But the kingdom may also sense an opportunity to challenge Russia’s dominance over the eastern European oil market. For the Saudis and Emiratis, this is a balancing act with the Americans and Russians.
Policymakers in Moscow have paid attention to the promising fact that the UAE’s delegate abstained from acting against Russia during the February 27, 2022 vote at the UN Security Council. It’s worth mentioning that the UAE, as was the case with Iranians, can be an attractive zone for Russian businessmen escaping the Western-imposed sanctions on Russian companies. According to Dr. Matveev, Arab states in the Persian Gulf have been expressing growing interest in access to unique Russian high-tech firms (including space, nuclear and intellectual energy, cybersecurity, anti-fraud, cryptocurrency, oil and gas services). Russia is eager to broaden cooperation to provide effective security coverage for Arab projects in Syria, as well as to enlarge supplies of grain, barley and other agrarian commodities, which would help to enhance the food security of Arab states.
However, Moscow’s relations with the Arab world, especially the Persian Gulf states, are crucial for reintegrating Syria into the “Arab family” with Russia’s blessing. The Persian Gulf states have shown over the last years that they are engaging in an independent and flexible foreign policy. The real question is to what extent can the Americans pressure their “traditional allies” to re-shift their position from Moscow. Regional developments in the near future will provide an answer.
Assessing Future Regional Scenarios
Below are some scenarios that could happen in the Middle East depending on military and political developments in Ukraine:
- Let us consider that Russia may be stuck in the “Ukrainian mud.” Moscow may need Ankara to arrange a temporary settlement in Ukraine. Will the Syrian and Nagorno-Karabakh scenario be repeated where both sides sidelined the Western influence and Russia accepted a Turkish role in the region? If Ukraine is divided into two zones, will Russia accept a Turkish “peacekeeping force” in the western part of Ukraine? Will the US give a “green light” for Turkey to enter in such a game? What will Turkey gain in return? Is such military adventure within Turkey’s capabilities? Dr. Mitat Çelikpala, professor of international relations and the dean of Faculty of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences at Kadir Has University, says such a scenario is beyond Turkey’s financial and military capacities, and Turkey cannot act alone without an international decision. Hence, for now, Turkey will continue its mediating role between both sides to avoid any spillover effect near its borders. Some would think these scenarios are unrealistic for the time being, but developments on the ground may provide us with some hints in the near future.
- Iranian and Western sources claim that both sides may reach a breakthrough in negotiations in the coming weeks. Russia and China may also take their share from the “nuclear pie.” However, Moscow’s concerns of Iran shifting from its “anti-US” rhetoric may raise certain challenges as Tehran would have larger space to maneuver in the Middle East, especially in the Levant where Russia has politically, militarily and financially (energy security) invested in Syria and doesn’t want to see the cards collapsing. On the contrary, if Russia’s military operations in Ukraine are prolonged, the Syrian crisis may see the light as the US, Turkey, Iran and Russia come up with an arrangement where all sides secure their interests and the interests of their partners. Of course, such an infant scenario may still be wishful thinking without local and regional support (Arab and Israeli) and depends on whether the Russians and Americans have the political will to detach the Syrian conflict from Ukraine. Such an arrangement would also influence the economic revival of Lebanon.
- Russia seeks to extend its bilateral ties with the Arab world, especially the rich Persian Gulf States, to compensate for its financial losses under the Western sanctions. However, the Persian Gulf States are known for their flexibility, and they would not go to extremes and face isolation. These monarchs will play the “balanced card” until the outcome of the war in Ukraine is decided. They will follow the direction of profit; if relations with Russia will profit them, they will provide financial incentives to Moscow, and if the Europeans come up with attractive proposals and projects related to gas pipelines, pragmatism may shift toward the West.