David Des Roches, a professor of practice at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C., a non-resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), and a former Army officer and career civil servant in the U.S. Defense Department, with Jackson Embrey, a former non-commissioned officer in the United States Army and current Master’s student at George Washington University
The decision of Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine in February will have a far-reaching global impact, including the Middle East. The invasion will affect the Middle East in three major areas. The first is the global perception of Russian military superiority. The second is the validation of the United States’ concept of supporting partners at a distance. The third is the destabilization of poorer countries caused by the Putin-created food crisis.
Systemic and Personnel Failures of the Russian Forces
Simply stated, the Russian armed forces have not performed as expected by most security and defense analysts. This underperformance has damaged the perception of Russian military competency. Thousands of internet images and videos demonstrate not only the poor training of Russian ground forces, but the ill-maintained state of their equipment. Famously, we saw backed-up vehicle convoys which ran out of fuel, as well as multi-million dollar, ostensibly world-class air defense systems like the S1 Pantsir immobilized by rotting tires due to corruption and poor maintenance. These two instances are not isolated but demonstrate a larger systemic failure of the Russian forces in areas such as basic soldier skills, motivation, resupply lines, and operator maintenance.
A second unexpected failure of the Russian military is their failure to achieve air space superiority or even fully control most local battlefield airspace. The ineffectiveness of Russian electronic warfare has surprised most observers, including me.
A third failure is inaccurate and generally ineffective Russian long-range missile and artillery batteries. As an example, the failure rate of Russian missiles has been estimated at about fifty percent and sometimes higher. While there have been reports of hypersonic missile use, the Russians have flown the complex hypersonic flight pattern, but have used the standard ballistic missile trajectory. At the same time, although we have seen various missile systems (such as the Kalibr cruise missile) employed from a degree of platforms, ranging from submarines to aircraft, the overall lack of targeting ability is noteworthy. All this means that many missile strikes hit civilian infrastructure rather than high value military targets. This type of employment minimizes the overall strategic effect of these weapons.
On a larger scale, the shortcomings of Russia’s war in Ukraine will have a negative strategic impact for Russia. Many countries, including in the Middle East, looked to Russian-made systems as an attractive alternative to Western air defense systems. These countries will now question the utility of Russian systems after witnessing their underperformance. Many advanced fires and air defense vehicle systems such as the Osa, the Tunguska, the Shilka, and the Strela 10M have failed to live up to expectations. Ukrainian forces demonstrated Russian air defense systems are vulnerable to low-cost, easily available weapon systems such as armed drones. Going forward, the Russian model for air defense, as well as their image as a leading electronic warfare state, will lose its appeal to many foreign militaries. While the Russian plan of layering integrated of air defense systems appeared sound, we are now seeing the flaws of this model and its weapons in practice.
The Return of American Defense Support Mentality
The success of American and Western armament provision, as well as previous military advising programs, may lead to a recognition that the United States can support partner forces at a distance. After the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan there was an international belief that the United States would be not only incapable but unwilling to provide adequate defense capabilities to countries outside of the Western Hemisphere. However, the success of U.S. military supplies to Ukraine should change that narrative.
The U.S. is not taking direct combat action, such as establishing a no-fly zone or sending ground support troops. Instead, the United States has provided game changing weapons and equipment to Ukrainian forces. As an example, the shipping of M777 Howitzer artillery pieces, which are an important part of the U.S. Military arsenal, haven proven extremely effective on the battlefield, and perhaps even more so the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). The United States has demonstrated that even without a formal treaty, alliance, or physical troops on the ground, they have been able to greatly support the Ukrainian war effort.
The effect of previous U.S. military advisors to Ukrainian forces cannot go unappreciated either. During the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and the Donbass, Ukrainian forces were soundly defeated by Russian forces. Shortly after this defeat, the Ukrainian military began working with Western advisors to improve their military structure and leadership capabilities. This restructuring placed an increased focus on developing the abilities of junior leaders, as opposed to the more “top-down” approach that is popular in the Russian military model. The results have been striking. Ukrainian forces have shown the strength that a tactically educated junior leadership corps delivers battlefield results. Many Middle Eastern countries currently have military rank structures closer to the Russian model than Western models. After witnessing the drastic improvement of low-level soldiering abilities shown by the Ukrainian forces, Middle Eastern countries should embrace a restructuring of their military to empower junior leaders to exercise initiative on the battlefield.
Global Food Crisis Leading to Political Destabilization
Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s largest wheat producers. In 2020, Russia exported 37.3 million tons of wheat while Ukraine exported 18.1 million tons. The devastation and destruction of farmland in Ukraine, Russian port blockades, and the removal of Russian wheat from the market due to sanctions all stand to cause a drastic upward spike in wheat prices on the international market. This spike will most likely not affect wealthy nations; however, it may negatively impact developing nations in places like the Middle East.
For example, Egypt imports more wheat annually than any other country, according to The Observatory of Economic Complexity. When food prices last spiked upward in 2011, it caused a food shortage which exacerbated existing political tensions in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. This resulted in major political change and helped facilitate the social movement commonly known as “The Arab Spring”. When food prices rise in a politically tumultuous area, it often leads to increased instability. Therefore, a rise in food prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine may contribute to further political instability in the Middle East going forward. Overall, the Russian invasion of Ukraine stands to impact conflict and political dynamics in the Middle East in various ways, but only time will show to how great a level each of these areas is impacted.
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