The Ukraine Crisis and the Middle East
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, launched on 24 February 2022, marked the largest invasion in Europe since World War II and the most significant escalation by the Russian state against the Ukraine since 2014. However, the ramifications of Russia's invasion of Ukraine are also likely to be felt by countries throughout the Middle East as Putin attempts to further Russian global influence. This article argues that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will affect the Middle East in three key areas: (1) a reduction in exports of wheat from Ukraine and Russia to the region; (2) a transformation in the dynamics and likelihood of a new Iran nuclear deal; and (3) the prospects of new political dynamics forming in the Middle East as a result of Russia’s actions.
MENA's reliance on Ukrainian and Russia wheat
Firstly, a long and protracted conflict in Ukraine could spell dire consequences for countries in the MENA region that are reliant on Ukrainian and Russian wheat exports. Since the beginning of 2022, the price of wheat has risen by 37 percent – the last time wheat rose to such levels was during the 2008 global financial crisis. Ukraine and Russia are the Middle East’s largest suppliers of wheat and a sharp increase in the price of this commodity could raise the price of bread throughout the region, which has a long-standing record of sparking civil unrest and protests across the Middle East. Therefore, one cause for concern for the Middle East is that a number of countries here depend on wheat exports from Ukraine, including Lebanon, which is already in a crippling economic crisis and acquires 60 percent of Ukraine’s wheat — more than any other country in the Middle East. This demonstrates that a prolonged Russian invasion of Ukraine could be detrimental to Lebanon's own security situation. For example, on 24 February 2022, Lebanon's Foreign Ministry condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and called for an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine:
"Lebanon condemns the invasion of Ukrainian territory and calls on Russia to halt its military operation immediately and withdraw its forces… and return to dialogue and negotiations as a better means of finding a solution”
This shows that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become a critical issue for the leaders of Lebanon. The following day, Lebanon's Economy Minister, Amin Salam, stated that Lebanon has wheat reserves sufficient for only one month at most because of fears in the market due to the current crisis in Ukraine. Therefore, Salam stated that Lebanon has had to enter into talks with other countries including India and the United States to import wheat. “We don’t want to create a state of panic, we have positive indicators,”said Salam. Therefore, Syria has said that it is now working to distribute these stocks to use them over the next two months throughout the country. However, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has said that 12.4 million people in the country are struggling with food insecurity. This demonstrates that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the new sanctions against Moscow could exacerbate the crisis in Syria. Also, Yemen, which has itself been conflict ridden since 2014, imports almost all of its wheat, with more than a third of it coming from Ukraine and Russia. Yemen's population is also highly dependent on bread, which is believed to account for over 50 percent of the calorie intake for the average household in the country. Save the Children’s director in Yemen, Rama Hansraj reported:
“In Yemen, 8 million children are already on the brink of famine. Families are exhausted. They’ve faced horror after horror through seven years of war. We fear they will not be able to endure another shock, especially to the main ingredient keeping their children alive".
Hansraj also warned that there could be a global “ripple effect” that would unleash “additional horrors” in other vulnerable countries. Therefore, the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war could deepen the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Additionally, the war could cause unrest in Egypt because of the centrality of wheat to the Egyptian population. Egypt is the second-largest customer of Russian wheat and it imports the most wheat in the world. According to S&P Global, Egypt’s government purchased 3.5 million tonnes of wheat in the middle of January 2022. Therefore, the most populous country in the Arab world has begun to purchase wheat from other countries, particularly Romania. However, 80 percent of Egypt's imports have come from Ukraine and Russia. Nader Saad, spokesman for Egypt's government, stated that the country still has nine months of supply of wheat to feed its over 100 million population. However, he added: “We will no longer be able to buy at the price before the crisis”. This could have considerable implications for the 70 percent of Egypt's population who receive five subsidised pieces of bread a day. In 2020, the weight of the subsidised bread was reduced and now the Egyptian government is considering an increase in the price of bread. When then-president Sadat decided to stop the subsidisation of bread in 1977, it resulted in widespread “bread riots”. The riots only ceased when Sadat chose to cancel this measure.
The Iranian Nuclear Deal
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has even altered the dynamics of the proposed new Iran nuclear deal, the old deal having previously been derailed by the Trump administration. As the situation in Ukraine started to worsen in February, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s Foreign Minister, accused NATO of provocative actions against Russia which have resulted in war. Also, the Iranian government abstained from voting on the UN resolution to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 02 March 2022. In comments after the vote, Iran’s UN envoy Majid Takht Ravanchi stated:
“In order to find long-term and sustainable solutions to such crises, it is necessary to address their root causes. We note that the current complexities in the fragile region of Eastern Europe have been exacerbated by the provocative actions and decisions of the US and NATO. The security concerns of Russia must be respected".
Certainly, the Iranian government could take no other stance due to the importance of Russia as a strategic ally.
It is possible that the war could even benefit Iran in the ongoing nuclear negotiations. While the war continues, nuclear talks in Vienna are now moving towards a defining moment, and the current state of affairs suggests that the likelihood of an agreement is increasing. The situation that is unfolding in Ukraine improves the bargaining position that Iran has in the final stages of these nuclear negotiations, as the European countries and the United States may become more eager to reach a final deal with the Islamic Republic as a means to focus their efforts on issues that they believe are more critical at this current moment (i.e. the Russo-Ukrainian war). The ongoing war is also impacting global energy markets, increasing the price of oil, and thus improving Iran’s capacity to deal with the sanctions imposed on it by the Western world.
However, despite the potential positives, the war has also resulted in a delay to the progress of the new Iran nuclear deal. Indeed, after a number of months of talks in Vienna, a revised deal was believed to be days away from a conclusive agreement under which sanctions by the US would be lifted in exchange for the Islamic Republic returning to full compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But Russia has now hindered these diplomatic efforts by demanding written guarantees that its economic trade with Iran will be exempt from the new US sanctions imposed on Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, stated that:
“We requested that our US colleagues … give us written guarantees at the minimum level of the secretary of state that the current [sanctions] process launched by the US will not in any way harm our right to free, fully fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran".
It is believed that Lavrov’s demands to exempt trade between Russia and Iran from these sanctions will be denied because such provisions would create an enormous loophole in the regime of sanctions. Therefore, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, dismissed these demands as “irrelevant”, stating that sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine “have nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal”. This means that there is a likelihood that the Russian government could choose to veto the nuclear deal altogether. Officials from Iran have criticised Russian intervention in this case, stating:
“The Russians put this demand on the table at the Vienna talks two days ago. There is an understanding that by changing its position in [the] Vienna talks, Russia wants to secure its interests in other places. This move is not constructive for [the] Vienna nuclear talks".
Therefore, the Russo-Ukrainian war has created a setback to the substantial progress made towards a new Iran nuclear deal.
On 05 March 2022, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. It is believed that the two leaders discussed the ongoing nuclear negotiations between world powers (including Russia) and Iran, about a revival of the 2015 JCPOA agreement. This took place the same day that Russia said that Western sanctions imposed on it over its invasion of Ukraine were now an obstacle to the Iran nuclear deal. The Israelis are against a rival of the JCPOA agreement and Russia’s latest move could bring both countries closer together on this matter.
Changing political dynamics of the Middle East
The Russo-Ukrainian war could also force countries in the Middle East to form formidable alliances with either Russia or the US. Any growth in alliances will impact countries in the Gulf region and this would be most notable in the cases of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Both of these countries balance their alliances between the US and Russia. For example, the US is by a long distance the largest supplier of weapons to the Gulf countries, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). However, some of these traditional regional allies of the Western world have broadened their reach due to concerns that the US is not the guarantor of their security anymore. Therefore, the UAE and Saudi Arabia also operate the OPEC+ oil production deals in agreement with Russia. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Russia signed a Military Cooperation Agreement in August 2021. In February 2022, the UAE abstained on the US-backed UNSC resolution that opposed Russia's invasion of Ukraine and called for immediate de-escalation and an end to hostilities. This demonstrates that relative power, competition and alignments stand to be affected at the regional level because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
At the same time, Gulf countries could even benefit from a sustained war between Russia and Ukraine. For instance, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has faced severe criticism over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, could witness a recovery in his standing around the world if Saudi Arabia is asked to lower the price of oil and raise production. Also, officials from the US and Europe had hoped that the Qatari state would redirect some of its gas exports to Europe as a means to ease the region’s energy shortages but the country's energy minister warned that no country will be able to replace Russia's gas supplies to Europe with liquified natural gas (LNG). Therefore, the war in Ukraine can be an opportunity for Gulf energy producing countries to demonstrate to the US and Europe how critical they are to the interests of the Western world.
It is also possible that the war could threaten Israel’s efforts to counter Iranian forces in Syria. Israel believes that its relationship with Russia is highly significant because the fact that it needs the acquiescence of the Russian government's missile defences and air force to carry out its bombing campaigns against Iranian forces inside Syria. Indeed, Israel has been attacking Iranian proxy bases inside Syria while Russian forces based in the country have decided not to confront the Israelis over these actions. Therefore, Israel would potentially be one of the biggest losers in an escalation of the tensions between the United States and Russia because it would be forced to take sides in a way that would undermine any gains that it has made on either side. Nonetheless, Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine's Deputy Foreign Minister, warned Israel that it would be directly affected by a long-term Russia invasion. These consequences could include significant cuts of wheat imports or the obstruction of Jewish immigrants to Israel from Ukraine.
Furthermore, Turkey's view of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine could have severe long-term effects for the Middle East. For instance, Turkish President Erdogan decided to denounce Russia's decision to invade as a “heavy blow” to peace in the region. Therefore, Erdogan offered to mediate between the two countries at the start of February 2022. On 10 March 2022, the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia arrived in Antalya, a city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, for face-to-face talks on the crisis in Ukraine. This was the first time that Russia had sent a minister for talks on the crisis in Ukraine since Moscow's decision to invade the country. The foreign ministers of both these countries were also joined by Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey's Foreign Minister, as Erdogan remains eager to maintain close relations with both Russia and Ukraine in spite of the conflict. However, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, stated that he discussed a 24-hour ceasefire with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, but that no progress was made because Lavrov defended Russia's invasion and asserted that it was going as planned.
Nonetheless, it is still possible that Russia's invasion of Ukraine could push Turkey back into the arms of the Western world. Indeed, Turkey has decided to apply the 1936 Montreux Convention, which governs the use of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles by warships at a time of war. This stops further Russian naval build-up in the Black Sea — from where it has launched attacks on Ukraine — and now Russia's warships can only use these waters if they are returning to base. Nonetheless, President Erdogan has looked to keep lines of communication open to both the Ukrainians and the Russians. Certainly, Putin criticised Turkey's leaders after they chose to sell their Bayraktar TB2 drones to the Ukrainian army. Ukraine's embassy in the Turkish capital Ankara decided to post a video that shows a Bayraktar TB2 drone destroying a group of Russian tanks. However, Turkey has not joined the sanctions drive against Russia as of this time of writing; and Turkey even abstained from the Council of Europe's vote to suspend Russia. Thus it is considered that Erdogan looks to maintain Turkey’s relations with both sides in this conflict.
However, Turkey will also be watching Russia's invasion of Ukraine closely for very different reasons altogether. Much like his neighbour Vladimir Putin, who some see as neo-tsarist, President Erdogan, who some also see as neo-sultan, has never hid his idea of maritime and territorial expansion that is tied to his wider Ottoman restorationist ambitions. Erdogan has spoken of Turkey's claims to the Iraqi city of Mosul and Iran's leaders have criticised Erdogan for his claims on its territory. Therefore, if Putin comes out of this situation as the victor, a weakened NATO may result in Erdogan considering territorial expansion.
Ultimately, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had and will continue to have severe consequences for the Middle East. The reliance that a number of countries have in the region on Ukrainian and Russian wheat could see them plunge into chaos at the domestic level if the conflict becomes a long and protracted one. Also, the desire of Western countries to focus attention on this conflict could give Iran more bargaining power in the ongoing nuclear negotiations, although Russia’s recent demands regarding sanctions have acted to delay efforts to conclude a deal in the near future. In addition, the conflict could also threaten Israel’s efforts to counter Iranian forces in Syria, embolden Turkey’s Erdogan, as well as force Gulf countries to choose between the US and Russia in the event that this conflict becomes a long-term one.