With the unfolding of the Ukraine crisis, Russian-American and Russian-EU relations have clearly reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, the impact and implications of Russia’s actions extend well beyond Europe and relations with the U.S., starting most notably with the Middle East. Western governments would do well to take account of the Kremlin’s efforts to reassert its influence in these regions and formulate a firm, committed, and unified response in defense of their shared interests.
Russia’s shocking abrogation of Ukraine’s sovereignty with its annexation of Crimea and subsequent incursions into eastern Ukraine have left policymakers around the world reeling. Putin’s unwillingness to comply with Washington’s and Brussels’ demands for Russia to honor Ukraine’s territorial integrity testifies to the death of the attempted “reset” of relations, launched five years ago at the London G20 summit. Since then, aside from a new nuclear arms reduction treaty and occasional bouts of diplomatic cooperation, relations have only deteriorated.
This regression is unsurprising given Russia’s trajectory under president Vladimir Putin. The Russian invasion of Crimea is simply a further – though much larger scale and more dramatic – chapter in a very familiar post-Soviet saga. Russia has repeatedly intervened, at times including military action, in the former USSR republics as a means of weakening or subordinating these neighboring governments and keeping them out of the orbit of the United States and the Western European powers. Moscow’s sponsorship of persisting conflicts in places such as Transdniestria, its belligerent invasion of Georgia in 2008 and, most importantly, its recent assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are emblematic of Russian designs to reestablish its hegemony on a regional scale.
Significantly, however, Putin’s attempts to reassert Moscow’s power are not limited to the Russian Federation’s “near abroad.” In the Middle East, Russia has doubled down in its support of its decades-long ally, Syria. Moscow also provides Iran effective political cover and technical assistance for its nuclear program; and it endeavors to deepen its relations with Egypt and even with Jordan. The Middle East region’s energy resources, potential industrial and arms markets, and export of radical Islamic ideology make it too important for Putin’s expansionist Russia not to compete actively against the U.S. and its allies.
While the implementation of Putin’s expansionist strategy has been underway for several years, its Ukraine incursions represent a major acceleration. Putin and his inner circle of advisers who are behind Russia’s foreign policy are emboldened by their belief that the current US administration is incapable of the resolve, toughness and leadership necessary to check their ambitions, and that the Western Europeans are too divided and timid to take effective counter-actions against his aggression.
RUSSIA’S REASSERTION IN THE “NEAR ABROAD”
For American policy analysts and experts on Russia’s near abroad, Putin’s ambition of restoring Russia to its Soviet-like glory has been a matter of growing concern. Putin has on many occasions noted that he considers the fall of the Soviet Union the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. The former USSR republics as well as the former satellite states have to varying degrees lived under Russia’s shadow and influence since their very first years of independence.
While Russian leverage had, at least until the mid-2000s, significantly diminished in the 11 post-communist states that are now members of theEuropean Union, it has always remained significant among the former USSR member republics. Some of these states, especially those in Central Asia, are already well within Russia’s sphere of influence. However, Putin has attempted to consolidate his country’s hegemony over the South Caucasus countries (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) as well as the states directly bordering the EU — i.e., Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. In the latter two countries, Western influence nevertheless remains significant, and hopes for democratization and desire for closer integration with the EU remain high.
Nevertheless, since Putin’s return to the Russian presidency Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and, most importantly, Ukraine have now become pawns in an increasingly blatant tug of war between Russia and the West. American investment in the economic development and democratization processes of these countries has been significant. Still in transition, these states maintain the important geopolitical role of connecting the West with the East, Europe with Asia and providing an important buffer zone between Russia and Europe. Ukraine in itself represents an energy transit source of the utmost importance between Europe and Asia, and for Russia in particular.
Putin has sought to maximize Russia’s economic, energy, and geopolitical leverage in Russia’s neighboring countries. Placing an embargo on Georgian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian products has had devastating results on the economies of these countries in the past. Raising energy prices or completely cutting off energy supplies to Moldova and Ukraine continues to serve as another highly effective tool for Russia. Like most states in the region, these fragile countries also suffer from territorial integrity issues, and the presence of Russian armed forces in their breakaway regions continues to be a major problem. The self-assigned peacekeeping role provided Russia an invaluable entry point when conflict broke out in Georgia’s South Ossetia region in 2008, leaving thousands dead or displaced within sovereign Georgian territory, well beyond the borders of the conflict zone. The weak international response coupled with the West’s subsequent inaction in punishing Russia for its unlawful intervention helped to reinforce Putin’s perception of a weakened, feckless West.
In order to counteract the EU’s eastward expansion efforts, Putin created the project of a Eurasian Union that is to be officially formed in 2015. Led by Russia, this initiative’s economic precursor – the Eurasian Customs Union – already counts Belarus and Kazakhstan as members. The Eurasia Union has now also enlisted Armenia as a membership candidate after President Serg Sargsyan’s decision under Russian pressure in September 2013 to forego signing the EU Association Agreement. Putin effectively used the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorny-Karabakh as leverage for the advancement of his own agenda. After openly hinting at the possibility of conflict escalation in that region by selling weapons to Azerbaijan, Putin was able to persuade Sargsyan to abandon the lengthy Association Agreement negotiations with the EU shortly before November 2013 Vilnius summit.
After struggling to achieve full autonomy from Russia, leaders in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have become convinced that the fate of their independence rests in the hands of the West. This outcome can only be guaranteed if further and irreversible integration with the West is accomplished. Accordingly, securing EU membership is at the top of the agendas of democratic leaders and reformers in these countries.
With Russia’s recent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and the obvious threat of invasion or at least de facto Russian domination facing other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, the country’s sovereignty is now at stake. The Ukraine crisis represents a major foreign policy challenge for the United States as it has not only led to the significant worsening of Russo-American relations, but also called into question its ability to act effectively in unison with its European allies. The potential outcomes of this crisis threaten to significantly shift the current global power balance and further undermine US influence well beyond the Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. While just a few months ago most US officials and commentators would have dismissed the idea that something similar to the Cold War was emerging, analysts now openly acknowledge that the “chess game” that Putin is playing with the West is all too reminiscent of the Cold War.
Washington has made strong statements against Putin’s actions and has imposed multiple sanctions on Russia. The United States sided with the greater international community in condemning the referendum in Crimea to decide whether or not it would remain a part of Ukraine. Despite the majority of the UN Security Council members boldly rejecting this referendum, the Crimean government still carried out the unconstitutional vote in highly questionable conditions on March 16th. According to the Russian-backed authorities in Crimea, 97% of those voting on March 16 were in favor of Crimea seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia. In response, the European Union and the United States pledged to increase the sanctions and on March 17th President Obama signed an executive order, listing additional Russian individuals as well as banks to be sanctioned. Ukraine’s former president Yanukovych, who fled to Russia and was impeached, is also on this list of individuals to be sanctioned.
Some US policymakers still appear to believe that the Ukraine crisis can still be resolved through a combination of sanctions and diplomatic efforts means. But Western sanctions have so far failed to send a strong signal to Russian leaders or to pressure the government to cooperate with the international community. Furthermore, the present efforts to reign in a reckless Russia are reactive rather than strategic, and they fail to take into account that Moscow’s latest incursion into yet another independent state is part of a greater, long-term drive by Putin to fortify the perception that he and his Russian Federation are a potent global actor.
Recent developments along with additional threats of Russian aggression breaking out in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Slovyansk and other eastern cities are increasingly ominous for democrats in Ukraine and for Western interests more generally.
RENEWED RUSSIAN ENGAGEMENT IN THE NEAR EAST
Prior to the political standoff over Crimea, the greatest example of the reset’s failure was the powers’ inability to find a common, mutually beneficial approach to help end Syria’s brutal civil war. With an intelligence assessment in hand revealing that Syrian government agents had repeatedly used chemical weapons against its civilian population, US policy planners began to formulate possible responses that would prevent further attacks by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on the Syrian people; one of these was a campaign of missile strikes against military sites and bases containing chemical weapons.
Alarmed at the prospect of an Assad thus militarily weakened, Putin went on the diplomatic offensive to deter the looming bombing campaign, and had his foreign minister seize upon a rhetorical remark made by his US counterpart. Obama’s unwillingness to act without Congressional approval gave the Russians the time and space to broker UN Security Council Resolution 2118, whereby the Syrian government agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal under UN inspection, thus undercutting the basis for an armed response to the Assad regime’s ruthless use of chemical weapons on its own people.
Behind these unfolding events was Moscow’s decades-long support for the Syrian regime, beginning in 1970 under the rule of Hafez al-Assad and continuing with the succession of his son and current president, Bashar. As the peaceful demonstrations of Syrians’ “Arab Spring” had turned increasingly violent with the state’s vicious backlash in the summer of 2011, Russia became more and more involved, domestically and internationally. There was much at stake from the Kremlin’s perspective: Russia’s 43-year-old Tartus naval facility on Syria’s Mediterranean coast; Russian arms manufacturers, supplying 48% of Syrian imports throughout its exponential armament expansion of 2006-2010; and the last reliable Arab ally in a post-Cold War world, through which Russia could hope to project political influence in the Middle East.
Throughout capitals in the West, this peaceful solution to the crisis was nevertheless seen largely as a successful compromise, a step towards possibly resurrecting the spirit of the Reset, which at this juncture was barely breathing given disputes over the US missile defense posture in Europe, Russia’s sheltering of the indicted ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and diplomatic impasses over the Syrian conflict and Iran’s nuclear program. East of the Bug and Bosphorus, however, America’s hesitancy to react more decisively given the crossed “red line” was seen as weakened American resolve.
This was the case in Tehran, whose support for Assad briefly wavered only the slightest bit when news of the chemical attack on the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus broke. Newly elected president Hassan Rouhani condemned the use of the nerve agent sarin and, rather tellingly, did so without indicating a perpetrator. This subtle rebuke aside, Iran’s provision of Revolutionary Guard fighters, arms, funds, and logistical support to pro-government forces combating the rebels continued without pause. Iran’s fearlessness of international censure for its overt support of this brutal regime reflected an emboldened posture, one based on confidence that Washington would keep Israeli bombers at bay and be pliable in upcoming P5+1 negotiations.
Iran’s recent gains on the nuclear front, in sanctions relief, and regarding Syria were all achievable in part thanks to its interests aligning with Moscow’s, and in part by Russian design. Since 1995, Russia has exported nuclear technology to Iran, despite the vociferous protests of Western governments. Their leaders share grave concerns about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s suspected drive to weaponize his country’s nuclear energy program. These fears are exacerbated by the talks currently underway to build a second reactor, affording Russia capital, oil, and influence. Currently, there are reports of the two governments penning a $20 billion oil-for-goods deal, flaunting transatlantic solidarity over sanctions; renewed negotiations over the controversial sale of the anti-aircraft s-300 system to Tehran may well be in the offing.
Russia also provides further diplomatic assistance for its Arab and Persian allies. With respect to the P5+1 negotiations, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has been stalwart in backing Tehran’s efforts to roll back sanctions imposed by US and Europe. Regarding Syria, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin’s unswerving veto shields the Assad government from effectively punitive actions by the international community. Russia’s proven willingness to provide diplomatic cover for its allies is unlikely to be lost on other autocratic governments in the Middle East.
Moscow is also attempting to forge renewed relationships elsewhere in the Arab world, Russia’s erstwhile partner Egypt being one example. With the Obama administration’s decision to limit Egyptian arms sales in the wake of the army’s ouster of its civilian Islamist government in July 2013, Russia saw an opportunity to fill the gap. Last November’s high-level delegation to Cairo headed by minister Lavrov was followed by the recent visit to Moscow by Egyptian defense and foreign ministers – the first official visit in 40 years – in order to finalize an arms deal valued around three billion dollars. It remains to be seen whether this is simply a one-time transaction or a greater shift in Cairo’s orientation. Yet it underlines, as with Syria and Iran, Russia’s proactive approach in relationship-building when the opportunity arises.
Jordan is another example. While the degree of historic engagement with Russia differs significantly between the Hashemite Kingdom and Nasser’s Egypt (e.g., there were never 15,000 Soviet military advisors stationed in the former), relations between Amman and Moscow have been open and transactional since the mid-70s, excepting the monarchy’s vocal opposition to the Chechen wars. Presently, faced with ever increasing energy needs and a lack of cost-effective means to meet them, Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission last March completed several rounds of talks whose conclusion paves the way for Russia’s Rosatom to construct the country’s first nuclear reactor. Two years prior, a Jordanian-Russian Intergovernmental Commission was penned into being while Putin was on a state visit to Amman. Seeking to remedy its chronic trade deficit and desire to increase tourism, Jordan has kept the commission interacting with its willing Russian counterparts.
All of the aforementioned governments are united in their well-founded fear of the security threats emanating from the radical interpretations of Islam adopted by Sunni terrorist organizations. From the North Caucasus to the Sinai Peninsula to western Iraq, each one of these governments strives to contain and eradicate violent jihadist groups. Russia, persistent in its understandable concern about the export of such ideology to its significant Muslim population, understandably supports those governments in the region similarly working to prevent its spread.
The breadth of Russia’s reengagement with Middle Eastern states varies from legitimate transactions (Jordan), to arms sales to military governments (Egypt), to unwavering and manifold support for oppressive autocratic regimes (Iran and Syria). Common to each is Moscow’s opportunistic outreach when there is space to expand its influence and to check US policy objectives in the region, without regard for these governments’ treatment of their citizenry or neighbors.
US POLICY CONSIDERATIONS
The Ukraine crisis is far from over, and continues to test the effectiveness of Western diplomacy. While some American policymakers and experts may still hope that the sanctions currently on the table will help pressure Russia to comply with Western demands, further actions, such as helping build up Ukraine’s army and strengthening NATO’s military posture, are being considered. The EU has engaged with the interim Ukrainian government to expedite the final signing of the Association Agreement, and the US government has committed to providing Ukraine with a one billion dollar loan in tandem with much larger loans from the EU and the IMF in order to aid Ukraine’s failing economy.
Some American commentators believe that Putin is improvising in Crimea in reaction to the ouster of his ally, Ukraine’s former President Yanukovych, and simply taking advantage of instability in the country. In the authors’ view, however, Putin’s actions in Russia’s “Near Abroad” over the past several years, as well as his policies with regard to Syria and Iran tell a different story – the compelling story of a highly ambitious, strongly anti-Western authoritarian leader with a much longer-term and more far-reaching grand strategy.
Russia’s unabashed dismissal of the authority of the government in Kiev and its propagation of a counterfactual narrative in eastern and southern Ukraine could well have negative implications for the Middle East. Whether negotiating over a possible resolution to Syria’s tragic civil war or an agreement to enforce a strict limit on Iran’s nuclear capacities, Moscow’s word will be much less credible, and its behind-the-scenes actions much more suspect. Putin’s use of Russian troops to annex Crimea and subvert other parts of Ukraine is only the tip of the iceberg. A regime with such willingness to distort the truth and to flout the fundamental rules of international order for its own aggrandizement undermines the confidence of friend and foe alike.
Without fundamental shifts in their postures, Russia’s authoritarian associates in the Middle East have little alternative but to stick closely by Moscow. Other than Iran and Hezbollah, Syria has few, if any, allies to choose from; certainly none that can provide as many clear benefits as Russia. Moreover, Putin will not keep Assad from taking action independently at home or abroad. Similarly, Iran also lacks its share of backers on the world stage and so will be unlikely to shift its posture vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Faced with a less-than-conciliatory administration in Washington, Egypt will avoid too much reliance on the White House, likely shoring up relationships with less democratic, less demanding partners.
At their various negotiating tables, American and European diplomats are assuredly looking evermore askance at their Russian counterparts across from them. But while US policy makers have little room to maneuver out of the status quo when negotiating over Iran or Syria, they do have leverage to deal with Russia, rather than simply “put up” with it. It is hard to believe that the Kremlin has wholly foregone its decade-plus drive to be recognized as a worthy international player, despite the predictable Western outrage voiced over Crimea’s annexation. While nationalistic rhetoric plays well at home, the Russian leadership still wants prestige on the global stage — not isolation. Moreover, despite considerable foreign exchange reserves at the moment, the reality is that Russia’s economy is not a solitary monolith capable of self-sustenance, within the Eurasian economic community or otherwise. For one example, 45% of Russian exports go to the EU and US combined. Russia has much to lose in the long-term by weakening its political and economic relations with the West in return for a slice of land with Russian-speaking pluralities.
The Russian-provoked crisis in eastern Ukraine is far from over; rather, it is escalating. Amidst growing tensions, Ukrainians are preparing to elect their next president on May 25th. This election is of historic importance for the country, as the outcome could either involve a de facto dismemberment of the country or help pave the way towards some degree of Ukrainian stability and independence. Rather than allow itself to be sidetracked or outmaneuvered by Moscow, the West should concentrate on and increase its efforts to strengthen the Ukrainian government’s ability to uphold the rule of law, deliver services, realize the country’s economic potential, and defend its borders. In the immediate future, the West’s role is threefold:
– The U.S. and other, willing NATO allies must help prevent further loss of Ukrainian territory by better training and equipping of Ukraine’s army through regular joint exercises with Ukrainian forces, bolstered by the provision of appropriate material and systems.
– Western governments and international organizations must strive to best ensure that the May 25th election takes place in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner.
– A realistic economic stabilization and growth program must be formulated in a multilateral and inclusive manner, whereby Western governments and international financial institutions together with the Ukrainian government and business leadership achieve strategic consensus.
Witnessing continued Russian military aggression, NATO’s longer-standing members, led by the US, should in public and private forum categorically reaffirm to Russia the alliance’s unswerving commitment to its collective defense. Such language should be followed with actions designed to reassure NATO’s newer members to the east that the system of mutual protection will be wholly maintained, as well as to communicate to Russia that the post-Soviet order in Europe is not to be overturned. For example, requests from Poland or Baltic States for increased NATO military presence on their soil should be answered affirmatively and immediately with additional deployments of troops and materials. The West’s demonstration of its commitment to common defense does not “pour fuel on the fire”; bullies shy away from shows of force, not simply spoken words.
The events in Ukraine since February 28 have also provided a stark reminder for Georgia and Moldova (as well as some of the Central European post-communist states like Poland, Latvia and Estonia) of their weakness and vulnerability when it comes to dealing with Russia. And as we have seen of late in the Middle East, Putin’s aggressively assertive Russia behaves in an equally opportunistic manner there. Aid packages, trade deals, diplomatic postures – these and other instruments at the West’s disposal stand to be significantly more effective if its governments are proactive and consistent in showing their continued support for its allies and partners. Without the West’s vociferous commitment and consequent action, an emboldened, authoritarian Russia will readily take advantage of crises and their aftermath, leaving the international order less democratic and secure, and Western influence greatly diminished.
 A breakaway region of eastern Moldova with a significant proportion of Russian-speakers and 1200 Russian troops stationed there.