Straight from the Source
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has created shockwaves across the world. Commentators and observers within the Middle East are paying close attention to and debating how this rapidly developing conflict on the continent next door will impact their respective countries and the overall stability of the region. It is no surprise that aside from the essential questions of right and wrong, much of the commentary has focused on how the dynamics in the Middle East may change and how states should react.
Given the high level of both the short- and long-term uncertainty, some commentators have opted to simply raise questions. Shaul Mishal in Haaretz News readily admits that few people, if any, have really “woken up to thinking seriously about the strategic consequences, for Israel and the Middle East in general, of the Russian invasion. Will the Russians try to translate the momentum in Ukraine into an initiative for reinforcing their status and their involvement in Iran and Syria? And how will the United States react? Is it possible it will exploit the nuclear agreement with Iran to deepen ties with Tehran to the point of building a triangle of forces including itself, Iran and Syria?”
Diana Galeeva, in an op-ed published by Arab News, focuses on the immediate lessons from Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine. In the end, though, she is unable to provide a definitive answer, except to admit the following answer: “The Ukraine-Russia war has already divided the Middle East. For example, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced Russia’s invasion as a ‘heavy blow’ to regional peace. ... Iran, meanwhile, has urged ‘restraint’ from both Russia and Ukraine and blames the US and NATO for the sharp escalation in tensions. ... [W]hat is clear is that world politics is moving toward extremely challenging times. This looks certain to change balances of power globally — either the superiority of the world order led by the West or the sharing of such dominance with other powers, such as Russia. Not least, alignments, competition and relative power stand to be affected at the regional level."
Moreover, reaction to the conflict and lessons to take away from it vary by country. Arab News’ Faisal Abbas considers the tragic developments across Ukraine to be the result of Russia’s siege mentality and, more important, serve as “a stark reminder” of “Western unreliability. … In more recent years our generation also saw embarrassing acts by the same superpower not standing up for its own values or acting upon its own redlines. ... Former US President Barack Obama threatened Syrian dictator Bashar Assad with an imaginary red line if he used chemical weapons in 2012. ... Ukraine — a democracy which did everything by the book and hoped to join NATO one day — is paying the price for believing that the US and the West would protect it if it chose a different orbit from that of its next door neighbor, Russia. All this comes as no surprise to us observers in Saudi Arabia or the wider Arab world. Luckily, we in Saudi Arabia have been investing in our own defense for decades. We have managed to blunt the majority of the Houthi terrorist attacks on our cities and civilian airports.”
Writing for Al Ahram, Mohamed Salem notes that from Egypt’s perspective, one of the immediate and most damaging impacts of the conflict will be on food prices: “Egypt has been watching this crisis closely and with great concern since its inception because of its implications for Egypt's food security - despite the vast geographical distance of more than 2,400 km between Cairo and Kiev. This crisis is directing attention to the importance of the strategic location of the Black Sea and the Balkans, not only as a sensitive contact area between Russia, on the one hand, and Europe and NATO states, on the other, but also regarding the economic consequences of any disruption there. The two disputing countries occupy paramount positions on the global food supply map as two of the largest wheat exporting countries. ... Whatever the fate of the Ukrainian crisis, it deserves constant attention and follow-up on its dangers and effects on Egypt. The bread subsidy file deserves a more comprehensive perspective in the design of public policies on this vital issue.”
In Iran, the government seems to be especially interested in the military tactics and strategy being deployed by the Russian and the Ukrainian militaries. According to a Tehran Times report, “Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, the deputy army chief for coordination affairs, has said that the Iranian military is closely monitoring all wars across the world. ... ‘For preparation and in order not to be caught unguarded we should always keep pace with the modern day’s technologies. The Supreme Leader as the commander in chief of the armed forces has said that when a war happens in the world you (armed forces) should stay near the mat like a spectator and assess different techniques that they use against each other and then see how we can make ourselves stronger against them.’”
In particular, the conflict has drawn the attention of many in Israel who are concerned with how Israel should position itself vis-à-vis the Russians. The tentative general consensus leans in favor of avoiding taking sides. This view is best exemplified by this Jerusalem Post editorial, which states that for Israel, the “best course is to stay out of the conflict in Ukraine. That doesn’t mean Israel can’t do humanitarian work or evacuate its citizens and Jews. Israel must remain committed to its values in this respect. However, when it comes to trying to tread the thin line between the West’s strong stance against Russia’s invasion and managing relations with Russia, Israel should try to not get dragged in. ... Israel has put out statements critiquing the war and has held calls with both sides. And while Israel could potentially serve as a mediator, it would serve Jerusalem best to stay neutral and not become overly involved in this conflict. Israel is in the Middle East and should maintain its close alliance with the US and Europe, without becoming a focal point in the war in Ukraine.”
Writing for the Times of Israel, Jason Shvili agrees with the general sentiment expressed in the previous editorial, but he is also concerned that Israel’s neutrality and ambiguity may become an impossible proposition the longer the conflict goes on. He argues that the Israeli government should prepare for the worst-case scenario: “Israel cannot afford to enrage Russia, which is why the Israeli government initially hesitated to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew that it was important to maintain friendly relations with Russia. But there will come a time when Israel can no longer sit on the fence between the West and Russia. At some point, the Jewish state will have to pick a side. I have no doubt that Israel will choose to side with the U.S. and the rest of the Western world in countering Russian aggression. When this happens, the Jewish state will have to prepare itself for direct conflict with the world’s largest country. In other words, Israel must prepare for an eventual war with Russia.”
Finally, and perhaps most worrisome for Israel, some in Israel believe that Ukraine is being abandoned by the West. Jerusalem Post’s Eric Mandel suggests that if true, this development has serious implications for how Israel should approach its own security and foreign policy decision-making: “The Israelis are watching closely and know that their national security is in worse shape than just a month ago. The lesson of Ukraine for Israel is that it must rely on itself by itself, and that is the message most other nations will also take. With a new nuclear agreement whose feeble restrictions on nuclear development will evaporate in just a few years, it means that Israel will need to act sooner rather than later to strike Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Ukraine is the flashing signal telling Israel it has to go it alone regarding Iran. The weak western response to the naked Russian act of aggression has increased the chance for regional and global wars.”