The political crisis in Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia have sent reverberations throughout the Middle East, where Western and Russian influences continue to weave a complex geopolitical web. MEI interviewed four of its scholars to produce this detailed account of the challenges the conflict poses to the region's political, security, and economic conditions.
Director of the Center for Turkish Studies
While Turkey has stood by U.S. and European declarations of support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Turkey is reluctant to take an aggressive stance against Russia. Turkey has historically appeared to lean West in Western conflicts with Russia, while in fact treading carefully with Russia. In the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, for example, Ankara did its best to tone down tension between Russia and the West. While praised by its Russian counterparts, Ankara’s stance was met with disappointment in Washington. The Syrian civil war is another example. Despite opposing stances, Russia and Turkey have followed a pragmatic approach and have downplayed their differences in favor of economic partnership. As such, Turkey will likely have to accept the situation in Crimea. It will try to de-escalate the crisis by only allowing the passage of non-military Western vessels through the Bosphorus and will not take any act against Russia.
U.S.-Russia tension due to Ukraine will harden Russia’s stance in Syria and prolong the civil war—which is Turkey’s nightmare. There is also the danger of suppressing Crimean Tatars, a historically Turkic community that comprises 12 percent of Crimea’s population. Crimea is the birthplace of prominent ideologues of Turkish nationalism, and a significant Tatar population resides in Turkey. If Russian aggression endangers Crimean Tatars, Prime Minister Erdogan’s domestic opponents will project the government as weak and unreliable when it fails to deliver on its promise to protect the Tatars. That might resonate within the AKP’s nationalist base and incite the Tatar community in Turkey; these are both critical domestic factors in regard to the upcoming elections.
With such complicated domestic issues and fast approaching elections, the Turkish government has no time or energy to get involved in foreign conflicts. Indeed, Turkey is already suffering from fighting on its southern border and cannot afford a new conflict on its northern border. Turkey will also proceed with nonviolence because Russia is an important trade partner. Turkey imports 75 percent of its energy from Russia, and the two countries have signed a 30-year energy contract. The Turkish energy minister has said that the crisis in Ukraine will not pose a threat to Turkey’s energy supply, assuming that the situation will calm down. More than half of Turkey’s gas supply comes from Russian energy giant Gazprom. The gas enters Turkey via two pipelines, one of which passes through Ukraine. If the pipeline is cut, Turkey will experience a major gas shortage. Additionally, Russia is the fourth largest recipient of Turkish exports, and Turkey and Russia have begun to cooperate on strategic investments. Russia will be building Turkey’s first nuclear energy reactor in Akkuyu, and Russia was among the competitors in Turkey’s $4 billion bid for a long-range high altitude air and ballistic missile defense system. An economic embargo by the West, with which Turkey would likely have to comply, would cut off gas imports and trade exports, stunting Turkey’s economy.
The Ukraine crisis might have strategic implications for Turkey as well. The tensions between Moscow and Kiev underscore the importance of Europe's drive for greater energy security. Turkey and Azerbaijan could be two key allies in that strategy.
The Southern Gas Corridor project is important in this sense. The project intends to transmit the natural gas to be produced in the Shah Deniz II field in Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey to Europe. Europeans have already started discussing the importance of the project, so the crisis might revive the Western commitment to find alternatives to Russian gas. This might help Turkey realize its long-sought ambition to become an energy hub. It will also strengthen its hand in its foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis the EU.
Finally, an increase in Moscow’s political military control over Crimea would alter the Black Sea strategic balance and might push Turkey to increase its military presence in the Black Sea. The Turkish navy would then have to stretch between the Mediterranean, Aeagean, and Black Seas.
Vice President for Policy and Research
Of the Arab countries, Syria is the most vocal and welcoming of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The Russian-Western falling out over Ukraine confirms the death of Geneva II, which was the political track within which the United States and Russia were supposed to settle the conflict in Syria. Russia’s aggressive move in Crimea bolsters the Syrian regime and creates conditions for further proxy conflict in Syria. It also puts pressure on the U.S. administration to take another look at its policies in Syria. At the end of Geneva II, it was quite clear that President Assad would not offer serious political concessions and that Russia would not pressure him to do so. These implications are made all the more clear after the international breach over the Ukraine. The United States has also been maneuvering closer to Saudi Arabia to recalibrate U.S. policy in Syria as well as to mend fences with its main Arab ally. Saudi Arabia itself has recalibrated its Syria policy to take into account the serious threat of al-Qa'ida.
The fallout in Ukraine might lead to more robust U.S. support for the Syrian opposition. There has been internal debate within the administration but no movement as of yet. Sooner or later we are likely to see more support for the opposition from the West and its allies, but that is not to say that this support will be a game changer for Syria. While it might slow regime advances, it will not significantly reverse them or dramatically alter the balance of power. While those supporting the Assad regime—Russia, Iran, Hezbollah—are not maxed out in terms of the amount of muscle they could lend the Syrian government, it is unlikely that they will dramatically escalate the quantity or sophistication of their weapons, and the large and direct support they are giving has already made a strategic difference. Funding Syria is expensive, and extra support seems unnecessary when the regime has already made huge strides. Further, more sophisticated weaponry triggers concerns for Israeli security and drags in unwanted attention from the West. The regime learned this lesson during the chemical weapons fiasco, when its use of extraordinary force led to strong international pressure and attention.
In Iran, a debate is under way as to whether aggression in Crimea and the resurgence of Cold War dynamics give Iran an opportunity to cement its relationship with one side. Hard-liners in the government look at Crimea as an opportunity to move further away from the United States and formally ally Iran with Russia and also China, an idea hearkening back to the days of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the possibility of circumventing the West and its sanctions. President Rouhani’s camp, on the other hand, sees Crimea as an opportunity to further open relations with the United States. Rouhani came into office campaigning against the hard-line plan, arguing that the West does matter and that exclusive alliance with Russia and China will not get Iran far. Historically, the Iran-Russia relationship has been full of suspicion, and Iranians are not troubled by Russia’s claims on Crimea.
Yet Iranian relations with Russia are an important factor for Rouhani. As soon as Rouhani came to office he tended to his relationship with Russia, meeting with President Putin in September 2013 to discuss economic cooperation during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. The last few Iran-Russia dialogues have strayed from nuclear matters to economic issues, with talk of a swap in December 2014 of $1.5 billion of Iran’s oil for Russian goods. However, such a report could be a rumor used as leverage for American support. While the Rouhani government has never been decidedly pro-Russia, it has always harbored hopes to use Russia as an instrument in its dealings with the West.
Energy is another important issue helping to determine Iran-Russia relations. Russians have benefitted from Iran’s isolation from the energy market. However, if Russian energy exports are limited by sanctions, Iran will look at Russian isolation as an opportunity. Such a change rests heavily on Iran’s dialogue with the West; if the nuclear talks do not progress, it is more likely that the hard-liners in Iran advocating allegiance with Russia will be empowered.
Director of the Center for Pakistan Studies
Afghanistan and Pakistan are both deeply engrossed in domestic issues and do not need to step out of them for Russia, a country to which neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan has deep ties. For Pakistan, Russia's strong relationship with India rules out much convergence. The legacy of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s continues to leave a bitter taste for most Afghans. On occasion, however, both countries have signaled a readiness to strengthen ties to Russia to make the point to the United States that they are not without options if it pushes them too hard.
It therefore came as an unwelcome surprise to the United States when Afghanistan’s President Karzai recently voiced support for Russia’s action in Crimea. This move was probably motivated by Karzai’s personal bitterness toward the United States rather than geopolitical strategy. It is a position that, outside of Karzai's inner circle, has little or no support in the government, among opposition elements, or in the wider public. For the most part, Washington has given up on Karzai and is just waiting for him to pass from the scene in upcoming elections. Any serious candidates are expected to side with the United States rather than with Russia.
As fallout from the sanctions placed on Russia, Washington probably expects to lose access to one of its two major land-based supply routes as it begins to remove heavy equipment from Afghanistan this year. It appears that the United States is prepared to rely entirely on Pakistani routes to the port of Karachi.
Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research
A more conflictual U.S.-Russia relationship would have indirect impact in the Gulf. It might be welcomed in many Gulf countries, which are concerned that the United States has been presuming common ground between itself and Russia and itself and Iran, and moving away from historically confirmed allies like Saudi Arabia. The main issue for Gulf countries is not U.S. relations with Russia itself, but the fate of the U.S.-Iranian—or P5+1—nuclear talks. If the United States and Iran are able to move forward, especially at a time when the P5+1 is falling apart, prominent Gulf countries will be concerned. If the P5+1 talks break down, this could end U.S.-Iran rapprochement and solidify the Iran-Russia, U.S.-Saudi, and U.S.-Egypt relationships.
Many longtime U.S. allies have been sending signs of displeasure toward the United States, such as the Gulf-backed $2 billion Egyptian arms deal. Also, Saudi Arabia recently gave Lebanon $3 billion to buy military hardware from France rather than the United States. These deals are aimed to remind Washington that Gulf money can easily go elsewhere. From the Egyptian side, Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi welcomed the relationship with Russia in order to shore up his global profile and military hardware at a time when relations with the United States are troubled. The Russian side has always been concerned about Islamist parties—a concern shared with Egypt’s new leadership. Egypt and the Gulf might continue to occasionally reach out to Russia, but the main strategic relationship will remain with the United States. This will remain the case after the Ukraine crisis, as before it.