The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a turning point in international geopolitics. When Russia invaded Ukraine, it crossed the post-Cold War Rubicon (1990-2022), ushering in a dangerous new world order that will affect every corner of the world and whose outcome is unknown. President Vladimir Putin is said to want to resurrect the old Soviet Union. It is more accurate to say he wants to return Russia to the glory of the Czarist era after its 20th-century humiliations, and become a folk hero in the image of Peter the Great.
Dictators like Putin can stay in power for decades, while American presidents change every four or eight years. American foreign policy is whipsawed from president to president, with changing views of our security interests. During the first Cold War (1946-1990), the Soviet Union knew the US not only had the means to fight but believed America would use them if provoked enough.
Today, the world’s dictators believe America has lost its will. The world’s bullies will watch for how long a war-weary America can remain interested in Eastern Europe once the sensational images decrease or another story captivates the public’s limited attention span.
Friends and enemies both wonder: is America still a force to be reckoned with? Can it be trusted to keep its word? Is Ukraine a turning point in American policy?
To most of the world, America is seen either on the decline or choosing isolationism over engagement. In a world of dictators who look for every opportunity to expand their spheres of influence, an America whose global standing has receded increases the chance for regional wars.
When the international balance of power changes, bad actors like Iran, China, and Russia fill the void America leaves behind. Unfortunately, those nations remaining in those regions after US disengagement are forced to accommodate the authoritarian power flexing its muscle, lest they end up like Syria, Chechnya, Crimea, and Iraq.
This, in part, explains the delicate dance nations like Israel, India, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, are forced to navigate, not knowing if America is a reliable counterbalance against their regional aggressors. America looks hypocritical and unreliable when the US appeases Iran in a new nuclear deal that threatens long-standing allies.
In the post 9/11 era, America’s decisions, many made with the best of intentions, had too many negative and unanticipated consequences. As just one example, Iran’s arch-enemy Iraq previously acted as a bulwark against the hegemonic ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran. When I was asked on ABC radio in 2003 if the US should go into Iraq, my answer was that unless we also have a plan for Iran, don’t go in. Today, Iran dominates Iraq and much of the Levant because of America’s withdrawal from the region.
Peter Savodnik, writing in Common Sense, adds a sobering commentary to what may be required in the new post-post-Cold War world order.
“Vladimir Putin knows how much daylight there is between hard geopolitical reality and American rhetoric,” he writes. “They make us think that we can rewind, undo, or make things better if we just say the right things. It is time to imagine what our president seems incapable of: a new order, jungle-like, shot through with the fevers and hatreds of the world as it had always been before. Uncivilization.”
Just look at the carnage in Syria, the Iranian children marched out into minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, the concentration camps for the Uyghurs in China, or the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas from Myanmar, to grasp how barbaric the world really is. Yet America must remain faithful to itself, a beacon of freedom that cannot be sullied by lowering ourselves to the level of our enemies.
The long-term impact of the Russian invasion will reverberate for decades. Intelligence failures should humble Western analysts and politicians who will be strategizing the next phase of the post-Ukrainian world order. This also means upgrading all levels of intelligence, including HUMINT (Human Intelligence), something Israel is excellent at; America not so much, especially after everyone saw those who had worked with the US abandoned in a rush to get out of Afghanistan.
For nations like Israel, the lesson to learn from the Russian invasion is that you must expect to defend yourself by yourself. Israel never wants American soldiers to protect its interests, just the means to fight and the diplomatic cover to protect it from false accusations. Middle East nations wish to align with Israel, which they see as the only reliable ally who is self-confident and is not interested in dominating them. That is why there is now the Abraham Accords between former enemies, and the Palestinians have become a tertiary concern except for progressive Westerners. The latter are locked in their intersectional anti-Israel echo chambers, damn the facts.
For Israel, the Ukrainian invasion’s outcome directly impacts its “War Between Wars” with Iran in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
- Will Russia still allow Israel to coordinate its attacks on precision-guided missiles transiting the region or manufactured in Syria and Lebanon?
- Will Putin see Israel’s vote against Russia in the UN General Assembly as a betrayal? Russia’s advanced S-400 missile defense system is in Syria. If Russia decided to use it against Israeli planes and missiles, it would create a formidable challenge for Israel. If attacked, Israel would have to target Russian missile systems, creating the same dilemma that the US is trying to avoid in Ukraine with a no-fly zone.
- Will Iran feel Russia is weakened by its Ukraine adventure and take liberties in Syria without regard to Russian objectives?
- Will Russia purposely provoke a new Mideast conflict between Israel and Hezbollah to distract the world’s attention from their war crimes in Ukraine?
The dots directly connect the American withdrawal from Afghanistan this past summer with this year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin calculated that the Biden administration would never risk US soldiers and would stand by as they conquer Ukraine. Dictators see weakness and act upon it, especially the current crop of President Putin, President Xi of China, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim un, and the Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. If you want to connect the dots further, just look at the minimal consequences Russia experienced after it invaded Chechnya, northern Georgia in 2007, and Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Dictators are patient; they know what they want and swoop down like hawks when they spot weak prey.
Russia looks at the Middle East as one large military theater, ranging from Crimea to the Levant to North Africa. With America’s abandonment from Syria and Iraq, Moscow became the go-to address to address all concerns, ranging from arch-enemies Iran and Israel to Turkey and the Gulf states. But will this last in the post-Ukraine world?
With America unlikely to reengage in the Middle East, Russia and China are still in the driver’s seat. Energy is still a primary issue, and the world’s desire for fossil fuels will not be quenched by America going green long before alternative energies are ready to replace them. It used to be that the US allied with its authoritarian friends in the Gulf to keep energy flowing and the world economy humming. What will the US do in the new Cold War era? Will the progressives dictate energy policy, or will there be some realpolitik, as even Elon Musk, the face of green transportation, has called for an increase in the use of fossil fuels for the immediate future to deal with the instability of the world in the post-Ukrainian world?
How the fallout of the Ukrainian invasion will affect the rest of the Middle East is very much on the minds of Israel’s political, military, security and intelligence communities. From Syria to Turkey, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, every nation is grappling with how their interests will be affected by the war’s outcome.
“Leaders in the Middle East and North Africa view the United States with a great deal of uncertainty,” wrote Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute. “Many are diversifying their foreign policies because they do not believe they can count on Washington... The Iranian and Syrian regimes and their proxies are backing his invasion, while other governments hesitate to take sides... Regarding the war’s potential effects on the Middle East itself, one key factor is Ukraine’s connection to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Moscow views these two seas and the East Mediterranean as a three-tiered defensive perimeter protecting Russia’s southern underbelly so that the outcome may influence Putin’s future posture toward the various states along and near these waters.”
How will the war affect Turkey, the second-largest military in NATO, which has cozied up to Russia by buying its anti-missile system, yet now suffers from self-inflicted economic problems? Will Turkey move back to the West? It is already re-engaging with Israel, and knows that Russia is an ally of convenience for short-term shared interests that include sharing a hatred of the West. This is an opportunity to bring it back to the West, even with an Islamist president, who still prefers his survival over being voted out of office because of his economic mismanagement, which the Turkish people feel every day.
“Ankara views Ukraine as a key ally in counterbalancing Moscow, and will do a great deal to prevent Kyiv from falling under Putin’s thumb,” says Turkish expert Soner Cagaptay. “At the same time, Erdogan cannot afford to alienate Russia too much because the Kremlin can do a great deal to threaten his reelection prospects in 2023... Putin could take military action in Syria that triggers refugees toward Turkey... the time is ripe for Washington to engage Ankara in deeper strategic conversations, reaching a grand bargain that includes increasing bilateral cooperation on Ukraine; nixing Turkey’s S-400 missile deal; revisiting US policy toward Kurdish forces in Syria; re-inviting Turkey into the F-35 project; and seeking congressional approval for F-16 sales to Ankara.”
One underappreciated consequence of the Ukrainian crisis for the Middle East is Egypt’s dependence on grain from Ukraine and Russia, from where Egypt imports 85% of its grain. If the price of bread in Egypt skyrockets, it could lead to instability in Egypt, which has a recent history of widespread protests provoking coups, including one that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. The memory of president Morsi’s incompetence will be forgotten on an empty stomach.
We in the West rarely pro-actively choose a course of action, too often responding after the events occur. In the case of Ukraine, the US and allies decided to delay their military supply to Ukraine before the invasion, lest they provoke Russia. This was a total misreading of Putin, who carpet-bombed Chechnya, invaded Georgia and Crimea, and supported an ethnic cleansing in Syria in the name of shared interests. There were more than enough warning lights to alert the West who they were dealing with in Moscow.
But will the West learn the lessons of Ukraine and choose a better if not more challenging foreign policy course, as it did during the first Cold War? Can a polarized American polity increase its underfunded military budget representing a relative historic low of 3.75% GDP to a more normative 5%? The next phase supporting a Ukrainian insurgency will require a commitment of years and billions of dollars. You can imagine what the Squad and the isolationist far-right will say.
America has to confront Russia and increase its military budget to fight on two fronts simultaneously in the 21st century. Its most formidable foe is not Russia but China, to say nothing of North Korea, Iran, and global terrorism that wants biological, nuclear, and chemical weapons.
And lastly, have we learned the energy lesson from the Ukraine invasion? Can the Europeans and we become energy independent as a geopolitical necessity even before we can become green? Can we find rare earth metals from reliable non-authoritarian states?
The world is watching, waiting to see what America and the West will do in the new Cold War. ■
The writer is director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network), and regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides.