What Underlies Moscow’s Good Relations with the US’s Middle East Partners in the Ukraine War Era?
Mark N. Katz
Ever since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow’s main partners in the Middle East — Iran and Syria — have largely backed Putin’s war effort. Iran has even shipped large quantities of armed drones to Russia for use against Ukraine and has helped it evade Western economic sanctions as well. By contrast, long-time allies and partners of the US in the Middle East, as well as other governments in the region, have largely not joined the US and its Western allies either in supporting Ukraine or sanctioning Russia.

This is clearly not the policy toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine that Washington, Kyiv, Brussels, and other Western capitals had hoped for from the American’s Middle Eastern partners such as the Gulf Arab monarchies, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel — all of whom the West has been cooperating with, supporting, and even defending for several decades. Why has this occurred?

There are two main reasons. One has to do with the success of Vladimir Putin’s Middle Eastern diplomacy which he has pursued ever since he first came to power at the turn of the century. This has been aimed not just at improving Russian ties with the anti-Western regimes in the region, but with traditionally pro-Western ones as well. The other is the nexus of reinforcing considerations resulting in America’s Middle Eastern partners concluding that it is not in their interests to join the US and the West in supporting Ukraine or sanctioning Russia — and, indeed, that doing so could well be harmful to their interests. Each of these factors will be examined in turn.

Putin’s Successful Middle Eastern Policy

Although the Soviet Union did attempt to establish good relations with conservative, pro-Western governments in the Middle East, it only achieved limited success at this due to Moscow’s emphasis on supporting anti-Western regimes, including those which came to power by overthrowing pro-Western ones. Indeed, even Arab nationalist regimes in the Middle East sometimes feared that Moscow supported internal forces which sought to overthrow them. This changed by the end of the Gorbachev era when Moscow’s relations improved with pro-Western Middle Eastern regimes in line with the general improvement of Moscow’s relations with the West.1 But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of political, economic, and interethnic turmoil in Russia during the 1990s, Moscow became less active in the Middle East (though not inactive).2

When Putin first came to power, his priorities regarding the Middle East were to make sure that Middle Eastern governments did not support the then ongoing Chechen rebellion, and to bolster the ailing Russian economy through boosting exports to and seeking investment from the Middle East. Achieving both of these goals required building Moscow’s ties with wealthier states in the Middle East, which tended to be America’s traditional partners. Russia and most of America’s traditional partners in the Middle East also found common cause in not supporting the US decision to invade Iraq.3

Further, Moscow and America’s Middle Eastern partners were on the same page in opposing American and Western attempts to promote (however weakly) democracy and human rights in the region, especially at the time of the Arab Spring in 2011. Finally, Putin’s efforts to improve relations with America’s traditional Middle Eastern partners were cemented through Putin visiting several of them, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.

Just as in the Soviet era, though, Putin pursued policies that America’s Middle East partners found threatening. Yet while Russian support for the pro-Iranian Assad regime in Syria was unpopular with those Middle Eastern governments which had hoped to see it fall, Moscow was successfully able to portray itself as a steadfast defender of its allies while playing into fears of America’s Middle Eastern allies that the US was not. Further, while the Gulf Arab states and Israel were unhappy with how much Putin was cooperating with Iran, Putin was able to placate them somewhat through cooperation with them as well.

Putin’s policy, then, was a successful application of a “carrot and stick” strategy: governments unfavorable toward Putin’s cooperation with Iran dared not break with Russia for fear that such a break would further Russia’s cooperation with Iran. Yet Putin’s willingness to cooperate with Iran’s adversaries (something Tehran did not like) suggested that he might somehow restrain hostile Iranian actions against them. Perhaps
“The best example of this policy was the secret but well-publicized Russian-Israeli deconfliction agreement over Syria whereby Moscow did not interfere with Israeli attacks against Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria”
(Tehran was not at all pleased with this but was — as Moscow well knew — in no position to break with Russia over it).

A serious downturn in Russian-Turkish relations occurred when Turkish forces shot down a Russian fighter jet in November 2015. A breakdown in Russian-Israeli relations threatened to occur when Moscow blamed Israel for the downing of a Russian military aircraft by Syrian forces trying to strike Israeli aircraft exiting Syrian airspace after a raid there in September 2018. In both cases, though, Putin expediently agreed to resume normal relations with both Turkey and Israel relatively soon after these incidents.

Already seeing that America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies did not act to aid Ukraine or sanction Russia after Moscow annexed Crimea and began its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Putin may have anticipated — or at least hoped — that they would not do so following Russia’s broader war against Ukraine that began in February 2022. If so, he was correct.

Motives of US Middle Eastern Allies

Each Middle Eastern government has had its own individual reasons for not joining the West in supporting Ukraine and/or sanctioning Russia. Moreover, there has not been complete uniformity in their policies. Turkey, for example, has sold armed drones to Ukraine, but has not joined in Western sanctions against Russia. There appear, though, to be only a handful of motives for why America’s Middle Eastern partners have generally not supported Ukraine or sanctioned Russia.

One of these has to do with a generalized resentment over what public and elite opinion in the Muslim countries of the Middle East view as American and Western “double standards.” There is general resentment that while the US has criticized Russia for all the damage caused by its intervention in Ukraine, the American-led intervention in Iraq also caused substantial damage. In Gulf Arab countries, there is also resentment about how the US has (in their view) done much more to help Ukraine fend off Russia than to help them fend off Iran and its various Shi’a militia allies.
“There is also resentment in the Arab and Muslim worlds that while the US has acted to reverse Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory, it has not acted to reverse Israeli occupation of the West Bank or isolation of Gaza”
— a resentment that has been aggravated by the high level of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza resulting from Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in response to the latter’s attacks against Israel on October 7, 2023.

Public opinion, of course, does not determine how authoritarian or illiberal democratic Middle Eastern governments formulate foreign policy. For example, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco all signing the “Abraham Accords” normalizing relations with Israel has not been popular in these countries, but these Arab governments signed and observed them anyway — as the US had been urging them to. As public opinion in the Middle East is generally not pushing the US’s Middle Eastern partners to join America and the West to support Ukraine or sanction Russia, decisions by America’s Middle East allies not to do so are actually more in line with public opinion in their countries.

But in Israel, where there is genuine public sympathy for Ukraine and dismay about Russia, the various prime ministers in office since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war have also adopted policies similar to the Middle East norm of not aiding Ukraine or sanctioning Russia for realpolitik reasons which the Israeli public is understanding of.

A more concrete reason for America’s Middle Eastern partners not to abide by Western economic sanctions against Russia is that this practice has been quite profitable for them. Turkey and the UAE in particular have benefited from Russia using them as alternative trade routes with Western countries with which direct bilateral trade has been ended or curtailed. Wealthy Russians seeking to avoid Western sanctions have also moved their assets to Turkey and the UAE, among other countries. The most important OPEC producer, Saudi Arabia, chose not to increase oil exports as the Biden Administration requested to prevent the cutback of Western petroleum purchases from Russia leading to higher energy prices for Western consumers. Instead, Saudi Arabia has cooperated with Russia in the OPEC+ format to reduce oil exports in order to support oil prices — a policy that has also benefited all other Middle Eastern oil producers, including Iran.

Another reason for the US’s Middle Eastern partners to not join the West in aiding Ukraine and sanctioning Russia is concern about how Moscow might retaliate against them if they do. Middle Eastern states fearing Iran do not want Moscow to increase its support for Tehran’s ability to threaten them. Israeli officials have cited their desire to preserve the Russian-Israeli deconfliction agreement regarding Syria; Israel does not want Russia to stop turning a blind eye to Israeli attacks and start helping Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah ward them off or retaliate in kind. Israeli officials have also cited their fear that overt Israeli support for Ukraine could result in the Kremlin adopting policies harmful to Jews in Russia (including preventing them from emigrating to Israel). Gulf Arab states also want to avoid actions that result in Moscow increasing its cooperation with Iran.

Whether they import grain from Russia, Ukraine, or neither, US partners in the Middle East are all affected by the continuation of the war in Ukraine affecting grain exports to the region and thereby increasing the possibility of domestic unrest in poorer Middle Eastern states which could negatively impact richer ones. Compounding this possibility is a belief many of them have (whether accurate or not) that America and the West cannot or will not be able to help restore order in their region if it breaks down.

Finally, leaders in the US’s Middle Eastern partner countries appear to share a geopolitical perspective closer to that of Moscow than that of Washington and Brussels. Key elements of this perspective are that the US-dominated unipolar world order has ended and a multipolar one has come into being, that the new multipolar world order provides opportunities for regional powers to take advantage of, and that US and Western criticism of authoritarian governments in the Middle East undermine the stability that America’s Middle Eastern partners see themselves as providing for the region (which Moscow and Beijing appreciate). Indeed, the US’s Middle East partners see cooperating with Russia and China as a way to make Western governments understand that they have other great powers they can turn to. In fact, they seem to fear that a Russian defeat in the Ukraine war could result in a resurgence of the West and all its unwelcome demands about democracy and human rights.

Conclusion

Both Putin’s successful diplomatic outreach to them and the mutually reinforcing concerns and calculations about their own interests have resulted in America’s longtime partners in the Middle East being generally unwilling to support Ukraine or sanction Russia ever since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022. Nor will the possibility that US support for Ukraine might decline as a result of rising Republican opposition going to encourage America’s Middle Eastern partners to become more sympathetic to Ukraine or hostile to Russia. Indeed, if they conclude that Russia is likely to prevail, they might decide that it is in their best interests to align themselves with, or at least not against, Russia. But even if US and Western support for Ukraine continues, it is doubtful that the US’s Middle Eastern partners will alter their current policies regarding Ukraine and Russia.
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