Prior to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Russia’s foreign policies relied heavily on pursuing “win-win” strategies, balancing relations with all states to advance key Russian interests in the region. Russia has maintained measured and moderated relations with Turkey and Israel while also supporting al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian War. Moscow has even managed to build good relations with the GCC states, despite the geopolitical disagreements between these parties. Moreover, this distinct policy approach has been applied to bilateral disputes between neighboring countries, such as protecting interests with both Israel and Palestine, as well as internal civil conflicts, such as in Libya. In the latter case, Russia provided military support to General Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), while at the same time brokered talks between it and the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Sarraj in January 2020. This was not a coincidence, but rather an example of Russia’s skillful balancing act, which seeks to bridge gaps between adversaries and bolster the interests of all sides in any dispute.
In analyses of modern Russian policies towards the MENA region, “zero-sum” approaches have generally been avoided. The rhetoric of “you are either with us, or against us” is rarely employed, in contrast to past policies. The most illustrative example of this was the Soviet stance on the Arab-Israel conflict, where Israel was recognized as a close Western ally, while Moscow supported the Palestinian cause. Today, relations are much more subtle, drawing on a range of pathways to tend to relations with both sides.
What will the impact of the Ukraine War be on Russia’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, the crucial political tool of its “return” to the Middle East? Will Russia be able to continue its “win-win” approach with other actors, or are the Kremlin’s policies shifting towards more hardline “zero-sum” positions? Have Russia’s actions in Europe damaged or altered its relations with the MENA region?
The Ukraine War has certainly strengthened some firmly established ties with regional allies, as the Syrian case demonstrates. Actions taken by Russia in the Ukraine War bear a close resemblance to those it used in the Syrian Civil War, and many have made significant comparisons between the two conflicts to further understand Russian tactics and predict its further strategies. Russia has maintained its close relationship with the al-Assad family – an ally from the Soviet era – keeping them in power through its intervention in the Syrian Civil War back in 2015. In return, al-Assad has stated that what is happening in Ukraine was a “correction of history and restoration of balance which was lost in the world after the breakup of the Soviet Union.” In March 2022, according to Western media, al-Assad’s army also launched a recruitment drive to join Russian forces in Ukraine.
The initial Libyan position over the Ukraine also suggests that the Kremlin’s balancing act there in recent years has paid off. During his vote of confidence speech delivered on March 11 before Parliament in Tobruk, Libya’s incoming prime minister, Fathi Bashagha, avoided any mention of the events in Ukraine. As a result, the Russian Foreign Ministry was notably the first major power to welcome Bashagha and his new government, although his appointment went unheralded by other ambitious politicians, including Khalifa Haftar, who considers Bashagha a personal rival. Despite that Moscow had offered military support to Haftar, it nonetheless has managed to sustain relations with multiple players in Libya, another example of the Kremlin’s finely calibrated alignments with regional players.
Other patterns, however, seem to suggest that Russia may be adopting more “zero-sum” strategies. In some of the Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, there has been a decidedly neutral response to the Ukraine conflict. In recent years, the Kremlin has sought to foster an increasing interdependence with these powers, who have in turn sought to balance relations with both Russia and their traditional Western allies.
By contrast, Qatari-Russian relations appear to be heading towards a fork in the road. Firstly, there is now more competition between the two fuel-rich nations, as Qatar has become one of Europe’s best hopes for weaning itself off of Russian natural gas. Germany, France, Belgium and Italy have all begun talks with Qatar to buy liquefied natural gas (LNG) on a long-term basis. Germany had already agreed to a long-term energy partnership with Qatar, although the complexity of negotiating energy flows must be considered when judging the potential of such an arrangement. As such, while Doha has demonstrated its readiness to come to the aid of Western countries over the last six months, questions still remain about Qatar’s limited ability to increase export volumes.
The Ukrainian conflict is not solely an energy issue, however. Long-term security cooperation between Qatar and the US has driven the emirate to align more closely with Washington, further deepening its ties in recent months. The current strength of the US-Qatar bond is based on the relations developed during the Sheikh Hamad era, as well as Qatar’s prevailing security concerns as a small state. The centrality of Al Udeid Air Base to US deployments in the region, the latter’s recognition of Qatar as a “Major Non-NATO Ally”, and ongoing Qatari mediation efforts (i.e., liaising between the US and Taliban) all exemplify the depth and symbiotic nature of their relationship. In other words, Qatar’s closeness to the Western block may require that Moscow adopt a “zero-sum” approach and pick sides in its dealings with Gulf states.
Another telling situation is the Israel-Arab conflict alluded to earlier. Despite mediation efforts, David Daoud of the Atlantic Council notes:
Israel’s sympathies are clearly with Ukraine. Israelis have rallied for Ukraine, privately donated aid, and even joined Kiev’s fighting ranks. The Israeli government also support Ukrainians by sharing intelligence, sending humanitarian aid, accepting Ukrainian refugees, and building a field hospital.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that the Russian Foreign Ministry made a statement singling out Israel’s vote in favor of excluding Moscow from the UN Human Rights Council, denouncing it as “illegal” and “politically motivated blocking.” It described the move further as “a thinly veiled attempt to take advantage of the situation around Ukraine in order to divert the attention of the international community from one of the oldest unresolved conflicts – the Palestine-Israeli one.” The statement highlights the fact that the US remains Israel’s traditional guarantor and central ally by concluding that “Israel’s course of maintaining the longest occupation in post-war world history is carried out with the tacit connivance of the leading Western countries and the actual support of the United States.” In statements such as these, one can easily hear echoes of Russia’s historic condemnation of “imperialist” policies in the region and Western support of Israel over Palestine. One example of this is the record of talks between USSR Ambassador Abramov and Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Meir on June 28, 1957 regarding the supply of arms to Arab countries. Abramov reminded Meir that Israel and other Western states threatened the stability of Arab countries, stating:
Everyone knows well… the activities of the imperialists of the United States, Britain and France in the Near and Middle East that threaten the independence and security of the Arab countries. Everyone also knows that in Israel there are still calls for further aggression against the Arab countries. So, the Chief of the Israeli General Staff Dayan said on May 24: ‘We are ready to fight against the Arabs for the third, fourth, seventh and eighth time. Arabs should know this.’
As Milan Czerny of Oxford University notes, this confrontational mode is neither new nor surprising: “As in the Cold War, Moscow uses the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in an instrumental manner.” Moscow is doubtlessly disappointed by Israel’s failure to back Russia in the conflict, despite their considerable diplomatic and economic efforts over the past few decades. This return to a more “with us or against us” tone implies a potential shift away from its typical nuanced and balanced positions, at least in situations where the actor’s allegiances lie so solidly with the West.
Based on these trends, one can predict that Russia’s foreign policies will becoming generally more “zero-sum.” To what extent such a stance will be effective, and how it may affect its main objectives, remains unclear. Moscow constantly strives to counter the West (especially the US) in the MENA region and world, as well as transform the international power dynamic. As such, several of its regional allies will likely be asked to make tough choices about picking sides on the Ukraine conflict and other issues. In pursuing this path, Moscow is set to raise the stakes on its potential wins – and losses – in the realm of foreign relations, marking a stark departure from the incrementalistic values of its previous “win-win” policy playbook.