Discussions / Russia's War Against Ukraine from the Perspective of the Global South

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Middle Eastern Responses to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s two closest partners in the Middle East—Iran and Syria—have been supportive of Moscow’s war effort against Ukraine. America’s traditional partners in the Middle East, by contrast, have not joined the US and other western governments in providing aid to Ukraine or even imposing economic sanctions against Russia. There appear to be several reasons for this, and each Middle Eastern government has its own set of calculations and concerns with regard to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. There are, however, several overlapping reasons which many of these governments share, even though some of these reasons may be more important to some states than to others.

One of these is the conviction that the war in Ukraine is less important to the Middle East than the region’s own ongoing tensions and conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hostile relations between Iran on the one hand and both Israel and the Arab Gulf monarchies (especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) on the other. Related to this is a concern that American and other western support for Ukraine is distracting the US and its European allies from paying attention to what Middle Eastern governments consider to be far more pressing concerns for them in the region. Also related to this is the fear that aiding Ukraine or sanctioning Russia could well result in the Kremlin responding by either supporting or just not restraining hostile actions again them by Iran and its various Shi’a militia allies (including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen).

Putin’s Middle East policy has been one of supporting opposing sides simultaneously, thus giving all parties an incentive to cooperate with Moscow for fear of the consequences of not doing so. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in particular worry about how their joining the US in aiding Ukraine and/or sanctioning Russia could result in Moscow abandoning its “even-handed” policy and siding with Iran against them. This worry is intensified by their fear that Washington’s preoccupation with its concerns about Russia’s war against Ukraine and China’s activities in East and Southeast Asia have made the US less willing or able to help its traditional Middle Eastern partners vis-a-vis Iran.

Another reason why several Middle Eastern governments have not joined the west in imposing economic sanctions on Russia is that they profit handsomely from not doing so. Turkey and the UAE in particular have profited both from their own bilateral trade with Russia as well as by serving as hubs through which Russia can obtain goods that it no longer can directly from the west due to sanctions. Further, instead of acting to increase oil exports in order to keep energy prices lower in the west, Saudi Arabia has cooperated with Russia in the OPEC+ format to decrease oil exports in order to keep petroleum prices higher than they would be otherwise.

There may also be a larger geopolitical motive for why America’s traditional Middle Eastern partners have not joined the west in aiding Ukraine or sanctioning Russia. While they may not approve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they do not want to see Russia defeated there either. This is because they fear a return to the American-dominated “unipolar world order” which prevailed during the 1990s and 2000s during which Washington made a number of unwelcome demands on them with regard to democratization and human rights. The rise of China, of course, suggests that even a Russian defeat in Ukraine would not necessarily lead to the resurrection of a world order dominated just by the US. However, China’s unwillingness to become more active in the region than it has so far raises Middle Eastern fears that a Russian loss in Ukraine could lead to what they consider to be undue American influence returning.

The eruption of the Israel-Gaza conflict in October 2023 has also reinforced another incentive for America’s traditional Muslim partners to not join the US in aiding Ukraine or sanctioning Russia. Muslim public opinion—to which authoritarian Muslim governments are not immune—sees America and the west as guilty of a “double standard”: opposing Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory but not opposing the much older Israeli occupation of Arab territory. They genuinely do not understand why they should join the US in helping Ukraine resist Russian occupation when the US is supporting Israel continue what Muslims see as Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

Despite their continued reliance on the US for varying degrees of support, there have been numerous reasons why America’s traditional allies in the Middle East have not joined the west in supporting Ukraine or sanctioning Russia.


Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He received a PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been awarded fellowships and scholarships by the Institute for the Study of World Politics, the Brookings Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Kennan Institute, the United States Institute of Peace, the Earhart Foundation, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, the Fulbright Program, and Durham University (UK). His research focuses on Russian foreign policy (especially toward the Middle East) and on great power competition.

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