Russia and the Middle East: Responses to the War in Ukraine

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

A new journal article explains how regional states are seeking to balance the benefits of Russian and Western partnerships. 

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As the G7 summit convenes this week, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza are at the top of mind for the representatives from Washington, London, Paris, and other Western capitals. At the same time, Russia is hosting a meeting of BRICS—an organization of countries that seeks to counter Western influence and promote cooperation between members. Among confirmed attendees are China, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, who bring a similar focus on the ongoing conflicts. 

Despite the miles between them, the two wars are intertwined in one key way: the failure of the West to lead a successful solution. And for Ukraine, the Gaza war shows not just a general failure by the West, but hypocrisy. Sentiments are similar for many in the global south. Western leaders did not hesitate to punish the Russian invasion for its violations of international law, but have not been willing to treat Israel the same way.  

This image of inconsistency has brought criticism that the “rules-based order” may be little more than a slogan, especially as regional states perceive the US to be valuing “Ukrainian lives more highly than Palestinian lives,” working to Russia’s geopolitical advantage.  

A new article in Middle East Policy delves into the recent history of Russian engagement and the reasons that the Middle East has been largely noncommittal on the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. Jeffrey Mankoff, a distinguished research fellow at the US National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, asserts that some regional capitals “share President Vladimir Putin’s assessment that the war in Ukraine is inaugurating a new age more friendly to middle powers.” 

The primary reason for the artful ambivalence of many countries allied with the West, Mankoff argues, is their weighing the benefits of Russian influence in the region. For authoritarian regimes, Russia offers itself as a valuable ally who, unlike the West, appreciates a government that shares its interest in stability, regardless of their democratic or human rights record. Moscow serves as an external balancer to allow such states to resist US pressure on reform.  

Russia serves to push back on more than US pressure, though; many regional states agree that the war in Ukraine is “accelerating the arrival of a post-Western, multipolar world that amplifies the voices of regional powers.”  

In recent decades, Moscow’s influence in the Middle East has grown significantly. States were quick to create military cooperation agreements, which include the purchasing of arms without restrictions around human rights issues. Russia has also expanded diplomatic outreach and energy investments, which are welcomed even by American allies. The appeal, Mankoff explains, lies in Moscow’s providing “regional leaders options that enhance their strategic autonomy and promote their ambitions for greater influence.” 

Following the outbreak of the Ukraine war, Washington attempted to whip support against Russia from regional states. Some chose to take part, but a majority—including many of the strongest states—remained ambivalent or invoked rhetoric but not substantial action. Outside of the US, governments face little pressure from their citizens, many of whom believe that NATO is more at fault for the war than Russia. Primarily, Mankoff asserts, states “must take into consideration Moscow’s ability to hold their interests at risk.” 

Its ability to cut off grain supply from Ukraine has, at times, raised food prices across the region, especially in unstable places like Lebanon. Its security presence in Syria keeps at bay extremist groups and Iran, while its burgeoning partnership with the latter is viewed as a potentially important constraint on Tehran’s ambitions. And as a secondary effect of the war, Europe’s rejection of Russian energy has Gulf producers filling the gap. 

As the war in Gaza rages on nearer to home, the Middle East is only less invested in the war to its north. Russia’s influence is holding—if not expanding—but it will not come to replace the US anytime soon, though it poses questions to American policymakers. The maneuverability Moscow offers remains attractive to regional actors, and its support for Palestinians has “complicat[ed] US efforts to construct a new security order in the region.” 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Jeffrey Mankoff’s Middle East Policy article, “The Middle East and the Ukraine War: Between Fear and Opportunity”: 

  • While the US has been aiming to strengthen Middle Eastern partnerships with countries that are compliant to a “rule-based international order,” Russia has focused on preserving friendly authoritarian regimes and military access. 
  • States in the region agree with Putin’s claim that the Ukraine war is accelerating the arrival of a post-Western, multipolar world that diffuses influence to middle powers. 
  • Russia had been largely absent from the region until the early 2000s, when it began providing arms to states with fewer restrictions than their Western partners. 
    • In the years after the Arab Spring, Moscow refocused on its diplomatic outreach, energy investment, and weapon sales with regional American partners. 
    • Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War forced regional actors to engage with Moscow, even if they hadn’t intended to, and provides it continued leverage. 
  • Russia emphasizes authoritarian stability over democracy, which many regional rulers benefit from; in return, some states have worked to oppose sanctions on Russia and often abstain in the UN from voting against Russian interests. 
  • Moscow has not hesitated to provide arms and technology when the US or others refused; by 2017, the Middle East accounted for 50% of Russia’s foreign arms sales. 
  • Analysts in Russia now view the UAE as Moscow’s closest partner in the Middle East, having signed a strategic partnership. 
    • In 2016, the UAE shifted to supporting the Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria and began to develop closer ties. 
    • Trade between Russia and Iran appears to travel through Dubai, which promotes the UAE’s capacity to meet its economic goals of diversification. 
  • Middle Eastern states do not seek to replace the US, knowing that Russia cannot provide the security provisions that Washington does, but engagement provides them leverage in negotiations. 
  • The war in Ukraine has received little engagement from MENA states, which have remained neutral or in favor, and at times have attempted to utilize it as an opportunity to bolster their role as a negotiator. 
    • Despite longstanding security relationships with the US, Israel, Jordan, and the UAE have remained largely ambivalent, and the outbreak of the Gaza war has only provided greater distance. 
  • Moscow is increasingly recognized as a presence in the region that is not going away, so states must protect their interests in imports and minimize the threat of Russian military interference impacting them. 
  • Russia’s close ties with Iran for some provide a chance of checking Tehran’s power, but others fear that the support will only strengthen Iran. 
    • Russia, like Iran, is increasingly focusing its foreign policy on antagonism towards the West. 
    • Dependence on Iran is forcing Moscow to increasingly side with the “axis of resistance” and some fear that the leverage Tehran holds may push Russia towards taking more assertive sides. 
  • Russia is largely treated as a hedge in the case of US disengagement or inability to fulfill its regional security role. 

You can read “The Middle East and the Ukraine War: Between Fear and Opportunity” by Jeffrey Mankoff in the Summer 2024 issue of Middle East Policy. 



(Banner image: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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