Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February has presented Europe with its greatest security challenge since the end of the Cold War, leading a revitalised NATO to throwing its support behind the Ukrainian government to prevent the collapse of an allied government and the spreading of aggression any further west. In addition to the instability in the European theatre and extremism issues emanating from the war, the consequences are far broader and longer lasting.
To examine what these issues are and how their impact might be mitigated, EER has assembled an expert panel:
- David des Roches: a professor of practice at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C., and a non-resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW). He is a former Army officer and career civil servant in the U.S. Defense Department, focussed on the Arab Gulf and Pakistan.
- Andrey Kortunov: a Russian political scientist, he is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a think tank based in Moscow that aims to promote global integration and focuses on preventing and resolving international conflicts, among other things.
- Said Saddiki: a professor of Political Science and International relations at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Morocco.
Dealing With the Exposure of Russia’s Weakness
Prof. des Roches began by speaking about three developments from Russia’s war on Ukraine that impact the Middle East.
The first is that the Russian army “is not what we thought it was”, says Des Roches. Operating from pre-war assumptions, Des Roches had concluded that the war would end with a “Russian victory within about two weeks”. But the Russians failed to take Ukraine’s capital because of logistical problems, while exposing further weaknesses in the Russian air force (which still does not have superiority over Ukraine), the ineffectiveness of Russian electronic warfare, and the incapacity of Russian stand-off weapons like missiles and also their long-range artillery that rarely find their intended targets.
Des Roches outlines the failure of the Russians to properly utilise close air support or even to target their airstrikes. He notes further the striking case of the Pantzer air defence systems the Russians brought with them that were captured and destroyed by the Ukrainians. And this was not because of any special capacity on Ukraine’s part: the Panstirs failed to work because tires were not inflated and in general they were not maintained properly. What this points to, says Des Roches, is the “broader systemic issues” of a “poorly trained, poorly motivated” army and this has a “strategic impact”.
The issue is not just changing calculations for NATO in terms of a direct confrontation with Russia. The Pantsirs, for example, had been considered world class and, among other things, had been of interest to Gulf states after the Iranian assault on the oil refineries at Abqaiq and Khurays. Now, smaller states that were looking to Russia as a way of broadening their security relations are finding that in practice Russia has no capacity to guarantee their security, neither in terms of responding to threats to states that rely on Moscow, nor in terms of acquiring Russian weapons systems, which do not work as advertised and frequently do not work at all.
What makes this situation more surprising is that it comes after the Armenia-Azerbaijan war in late 2020, where Russian air defence systems that Armenia had relied upon had been exposed as having weaknesses when faced with cheap, low-tech drones supplied by Turkey to the Azeris. Yet, the Russians—with their historic emphasis on electronic warfare—had not been able to correct for these deficiencies, and analysts had not picked up on these weaknesses as a potential factor as the war on Ukraine loomed.
The Return of Western Self-Confidence
The second issue Des Roches outlines is the resurgence of the American belief they can support “like-minded” nations at a distance—that is, states without American troops on their territory and states that do not have treaty guarantees from the Americans. After the catastrophic collapse of the American mission in Afghanistan, many had thought the American-led security order was finished, at least outside the Western Hemisphere, but the reaction to Ukraine has shown that the U.S. and its allies can lead an effective response, says Des Roches, obviously surprising the Russians, surprising many analysts, and possibly surprising Western states themselves.
It has also shown, Des Roches goes on, that the U.S. can train foreign armies capable of standing up to a much more powerful enemy, and the U.S. has done this in the Ukrainian case by training cadres of unit commanders. A key Russian weakness has been its hyper-centralised command structure and the absence of a mid-level cadre of skilled officers with freedom to act on their own initiative. This is a lesson that Des Roches says should be taken by Arab states, which in general have armies “closer to the Russian army [structure] … and a lack of trained junior soldiers”. Ukraine’s soldiers also proved adept at absorbing the “soft skills”—like the English language and distributed systems for giving orders—that have allowed them to react much more effectively when faced with aggression.
A Coming Food Crisis
The third issue is the “global food crisis and it has great potential to destabilise the Middle East”. Much of Ukraine’s wheat has been taken off the market because of the Russian devastation of farmland and the naval blockade, the Russian invasion has destabilised the market because of anticipatory reactions from speculators, and the sanctions on Russia have crimped its ability to export wheat. The result is higher prices, affecting countries dependent on wheat imports like Egypt and Yemen—poor countries already that might now be exposed to food shortages. As Des Roches notes, the last time there was a food price spike was after the global financial crash, which preceded the political instability we know as the Arab Spring. Many of the civil conflicts started by that process in 2011 are still ongoing to this day.
Opportunities for Radicals, From Syria to Afghanistan
Dr. Kortunov began by noting that there are many unknown variables, key among them how long this war will last and how it will end. With the war coming after the coronavirus pandemic and in the midst of a difficult energy transition, the effects will be widespread and protracted.
Kortunov highlighted that in any war the proliferation of weapons is a fact and it creates a risk that radicals will get hold of them. The “most important change” for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region from the conflict is that the rather close relations between Russia and Israel have deteriorated, and the “logic” of the conflict suggests they will get worse as Israel is pushed closer to the Western position of supporting Ukraine, in turn clarifying the Russian role in the region on the side of Iran’s radical regime. Relatedly, says Kortunov, Turkey is “becoming more assertive”, particularly in Syria. The breakdown of Russian-Western relations could well mean a failure to renew the United Nations mechanism for supplying humanitarian aid to northern Syria, perhaps presenting new opportunities to jihadist radicals.
There are probable negative implications for Afghanistan, says Kortunov, “mostly in the sense that Afghanistan is likely to be neglected”. At the present time, the Taliban regime is losing ground to the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP). It is doubtful whether the Taliban ever wanted to prevent Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorists again, but the rise of ISKP has shown that they cannot, and this could manifest itself in terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan over the next eighteen months or so.
Kortunov concluded by agreeing with Des Roches that the food security situation will be seriously disrupted and this has a significant knock-on effect on the energy markets that could destabilise a number of MENA states.
All of which means, says Kortunov, that the international community should “stop this war as fast as possible, even if this implies an imperfect compromise”.
The Calculations of MENA States in a Changing World
Dr. Saddiki says that the war in Ukraine presents both problems and opportunities for MENA states. The problems were outlined by the other panellists, said Saddiki, but the opportunities are most obviously two: in the short-term, the spike in oil prices will benefit some regional countries, and more broadly it gives MENA states a chance to reassess their strategic partnerships.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, says Saddiki, a number of MENA countries were shocked to find a lack of American support, most obviously in Syria, where the U.S. failed to support the rebellion against the Iran- and Russia-controlled regime, and in Yemen, where the U.S. refused to support its allies when they sought to reverse the illegal coup d’état by Iran’s Houthis. The withdrawal of American air defences from Saudi Arabia during a period of critical security threats did not help the U.S. position, and gave Russia an opening to create links with MENA states.
In a multipolar system, says Saddiki, there is a chance for a new non-alignment in the Middle East—or, it might trigger the MENA states to seek more firm security guarantees from the United States. Saddiki suggests that the MENA states have basically adopted a middle way that is “pragmatic” and in many cases manifests as a “calculated neutrality”, but this should not be interpreted as a new direction.
The U.S. continues to play a “major role and have a decisive influence” in the MENA region as a stabilising force, says Saddiki, but the future of that role is dependent on how the Ukraine war turns out. What the war has already shown is that the European Union is a dead-letter as a security partner: it cannot even defend itself, let alone be relied upon as a security guarantor in the MENA region. If the U.S. succeeds in rolling back Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, its position in the MENA will be strengthened, says Saddiki, but for a number of MENA countries this would be a problem since they would see it as reducing their role for manoeuvre by isolating Russia and recreating a rigid bipolar world of the kind that existed during the Cold War.
In the question and answer period panellists expanded on what can be done about the food crisis, possible changes in Russia’s role in Syria, the impact on Moroccan-Algerian relations if Russia seeks outside allies to avoid isolation, the changing security posture of NATO, China’s machinations in this crisis situation, and the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on Arab-Israeli relations.