The Real Reason Russia’s Middle East Partners Choose Putin Over Principle in the Ukraine War
Russia’s Middle East partners have been quick to condemn the aggression of the U.S. and its allies in the Ukraine. But as Russia’s security concerns in the Middle East have only grown in recent months, it is worth asking why Russia’s regional partners are so quick to side with Moscow rather than with the West.
The short answer is money. The Middle East is Russia’s most lucrative region, and the country has spent years trying to gain dominance over it. As a result, Syria, Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council are all at the vanguard of Russian imperialism. The more countries that side with the West and the United Nations in opposing Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the more likely it is that other Middle East countries will see the cold side of Russian policy — and the less likely they will be to support Moscow in the future. Readers of this blog know by now that I take a hawkish view on international affairs, and that I support an independent, NATO-led, collective defense alliance that is capable of defending Western Europe as well as the lucrative markets of the Middle East. So here’s a question for you: how likely are you to side with principle in the Ukraine war?
Russia’s Middle East partners share a common interest in regional dominance
A lot of the criticism of the Russian intervention in the Ukraine has focused on the fact that Vladimir Putin’s army crossed the border into eastern Ukraine. Many have also overlooked the fact that Russia also has a major interest in maintaining a strong and unified Syria, a critical regional partner in the Middle East.
The Kremlin’s priorities in the Middle East are, however, broader than just local concerns. It is building a long-term presence in the region, which will depend on its ability to maintain control over key resources and waterways, among other things. And, at the same time, Russia is trying to expand its influence in some of the region’s most sensitive and important diplomatic and economic fields — areas where the West has a large and entrenched presence. This is a much broader and deeper geopolitical goal that may explain why Russia’s regional partners do not form a united front against the West.
Why Russia’s Middle East Partners Choose Putin over Principle in the Ukraine War
With the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, one of the main issues that divided the international community was the legitimacy of Russia’s intervention. Many saw it as a blatant violation of international law, as well as of basic norms of state behavior.
There were also concerns that the ethnic minorities in Ukraine’s eastern regions would be targeted by the Russian military, and that this would lead to a full-blown ethnic conflict.
Given this context, it is no surprise that most of Russia’s regional partners chose to support Moscow. Even though the West has called for a “free, fair and immediate” investigation into the events in Ukraine, most of the criticism of the Russian military intervention in the Ukraine has focused on the fact that Russia “unilaterally” annexed Crimea.
Russia’s Middle East partners are playing the long game
A lack of unified front among Russia’s regional partners has been the norm for many years. After all, each country has its own interests and perceptions of the world that may come into conflict with those of the others. Countries that share important economic and political interests can, and do, communicate with one another through diplomatic channels, usually through the specialties department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
However, what Moscow is doing in the Ukraine is unprecedented. While it is true that the Russians have a long history of intervening in other countries’ affairs, the level of intervention and the scale of the Russian military presence in the country are unprecedented.
This raises a number of questions: Why is the Russian government suddenly concerned about its neighbors? Why has it been so hesitant to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries? And why has it been so quick to intervene in another country’s affairs, such as Syria and Libya, where other regional partners have been much more reticent to take military action?
The real reason Russia’s Middle East partners choose Putin over principle in the Ukraine War
What explains the divergence between Russia’s regional partners and their official position on the Ukraine conflict?
There are a number of possible reasons. First and foremost, the Cold War has shaped the attitudes and policies of most countries in the region. There is a strong nationalistic streak in many of them, and the notion of “Western imperialism” still has a lot of adherents.
Second, Russia is playing a long game in the region. It wants to be the dominant power in the Middle East for a long time, and it is prepared to sacrifice some of its partners in the fight for that goal.
Finally, and related to the first point, the Kremlin’s strategy may be working. Recent polls have shown that most Russian citizens support the military intervention in Ukraine, and the level of support for Russia among the Middle East’s regional partners may be higher than was previously expected.
If the current trend continues, Russia will gain access to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean within the next decade. This will give it sweeping influence on the oil and gas markets as well as on the security of supply.
If the region continues to be turbulent, Russia may ultimately have to intervene to maintain its security. Moscow has been reluctant to do so in the past, but its recent actions in Ukraine may have changed its mind.
This will make the security of the Russianspeaking populations in the Middle East even more important to Moscow’s broader security.
The Middle East may have been the source of Russia’s most valuable investments in the past, but longer term, it may also prove to be the source of its greatest threat.