The Ukraine-Russia conflict echoes loudly in the Middle East

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: Ukraine is not far from the Middle East, just across the Black Sea from Turkey, and Russia is present inthe region in a massive way.

 RUSSIAN ARMY military vehicles drive along a street in Armyansk, Crimea, yesterday, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine. (photo credit: REUTERS)
RUSSIAN ARMY military vehicles drive along a street in Armyansk, Crimea, yesterday, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The ripples of Thursday’s Russian invasion of Ukraine will be felt far and wide. But, for a number of reasons, these ripples – more like battering waves – are likely to strike Israel and the Mideast with greater intensity than other parts of the world.

Why? First, because of proximity. The Mideast is not that far from Ukraine.

Turkey, which is part of the Mideast, is just across the Black Sea from Ukraine, and just one country (Armenia) south of Russia. Tel Aviv is only some 3,000 kilometers from Kyiv, and Odessa is 2,000 km. from Beirut.

As Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert on Russia in the Middle East at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointed out, “Historically, the Russian state always looks at this region as one whole. In fact, the military position that Russia has established in Syria is now helping to put pressure on Ukraine through Crimea. So this is all essentially one theater.”

The second reason the ripples from this war will be felt here is that Russia is present in the region in a massive way.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid makes a public statement on the Russia-Ukraine crisis at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem,February 24, 2022. (credit: NIV MOSMAN, GPO)Foreign Minister Yair Lapid makes a public statement on the Russia-Ukraine crisis at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem,February 24, 2022. (credit: NIV MOSMAN, GPO)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said this week, when speaking of Russia’s seven-year presence in Syria, that he has told the Americans that Israel is more like a Baltic state than a Mideastern one, because it, too, has Russia as a neighbor. (Except for one glaring difference: the Baltic states feel themselves at war with Russia, not a sentiment shared by Israel.)

Russia is using its presence in Syria, where it has both a naval base and an air base, to flex its military might and as a jumping-off point for a massive military exercise it is currently conducting in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Borshchevskaya said this is an example of the military position Russia established in Syria enabling it to project power into Crimea and the Ukraine through greater naval access through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. “This creates another very important strategic pressure point,” she said.

Borshchevskaya said that Russia’s moving into Syria in 2015 was “much bigger” than just wanting to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, though that surely was also part of the motivation.

“Fundamentally, the Syria intervention was an anti-American campaign,” she said. “They wanted to establish a strategic foothold in that part of the world which would allow Russia to project power to all of NATO’s southern flank, into southern Europe and also into the Middle East. It’s a strategic location that historically the Russian state always tried to gain access to.”

Likewise, she said, what’s happening in Ukraine is much more than “just” about Ukraine.

“You’re seeing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin trying to replay the Cold War with an alternate ending. You’re seeing a fundamental question of values – the values of the liberal US-led global order are clashing with Russian state authoritarian interests that want to see an erosion of this liberal rules-based global order. And so Israel, as a liberal democracy, has a stake in this crisis,” she said.

The third reason the ripples from this conflict will be felt here stronger than in other parts of the world is that the Russians could use this region to apply pressure on the US and the West.

Or, in the stark words of Zvi Magen, who has served various stints as Israel’s ambassador to Russia, Ukraine and – before that – as the head of the Nativ liaison bureau inside the Prime Minister’s Office dealing with the former Soviet Union – “there is a situation where Russia might just ignite the Middle East to create another crisis of its own to place pressure on the West.”

Magen, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said that recent Russian responses to purported Israeli military strikes in Syria over the last few weeks were clear signals to the West that the Russians have the ability in Syria to create turmoil.

Magen said that there was a significant outcry in the Russian media earlier this month after an alleged Israeli missile attack near Damascus. The gist of these articles, he said, was that Israel is not behaving properly, that it is allowing itself all kinds of prerogatives, and that while the West is looking at the situation in Ukraine, it is ignoring what is going on in the Mideast.

“They are saying, ‘Look what Israel is doing,’” Magen said. “This is an effort to send a message, not to Israel, but to the world that we [the Russians] can create havoc.”

If the Russians so decide, they could severely restrict Israel’s freedom of action over Syrian skies, making it more difficult for Israel to fight Iran’s proxies in the region and to prevent Iranian and Hezbollah entrenchment in Syria.

Another way that Russia could use Syria to place pressure on the West is by creating a refugee crisis, as it has done in the past.

“They may put more pressure on Turkey, as they’ve done before, by threatening refugees,” Borshchevskaya said. “That’s a standard card that Russia plays,” she said, adding that when Russia moved into Syria in 2015, it capitalized on the flow of refugees into Turkey, and then into southern Europe, and made the refugee flood worse through its own airstrikes.

But Syria is only one possible Russian pressure point on the West in the Middle East. Iran is the other colossal one.

In the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was much speculation that the US may now want to rush headlong into a new nuclear deal with Iran, so that it can move this issue off the agenda and concentrate on the Ukrainian issue. But the Russians also realize this, and they may use this as an opportunity to show how indispensable they are for US President Joe Biden’s other global security priorities.

In this scenario, Moscow could conceivably move to convince the Iranians not to sign any new nuclear deal with the West, promising Russian assistance if Tehran plays ball. With crippling sanctions likely to be leveled against Russia, including on its banking system and its ability to import critical technology, Moscow may conclude that it has nothing to lose, and that if the West is treating it like a rogue state, it will act like a rogue state and sponsor Iran’s nuclear development – perhaps by helping Tehran build massive civilian nuclear infrastructure that could potentially be for civilian/military dual use.

This is a move that would create panic in the West and in the Mideast, and would cause clear pain to the Biden administration by handing it a massive political defeat. A renewed Iran nuclear deal is something that the Biden administration had put at the top of its list of foreign policy priorities.

REGIONALLY, SAID Borshchevskaya, Putin has succeeded in doing something that the leaders of the Soviet Union never did: making Russia indispensable to all parties in the Mideast by maintaining good relations with everyone.

“This is the hallmark of Putin’s approach to the Mideast,” she said. “Putin positioned himself in the Middle East as a mediator, and somebody that can talk to all sides. He’s positioned himself as a mediator between Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Israel.... Russia built good relations with all governments and even the opposition movements to them. This is a fundamentally different approach to the Mideast [than under the Soviets], giving Moscow greater flexibility.”

According to Borshchevskaya, wanting to maintain good relations with all Mideast players may be what is keeping Russia from hitting at the US and the West by stoking the flames on Israel’s northern border.

“The fact of the matter is Russia does not want a serious bilateral crisis with Israel. And Israel doesn’t want a serious bilateral crisis with Russia,” she said.

This also explains why Israel is not the only country in the Mideast treading very carefully regarding how to respond to the current crisis. On Wednesday Israel finally released a statement regarding the crisis, affirming its support for Ukrainian sovereignty, but not slamming Russia in any way. Most of the other countries in the Mideast are in a similar quandary, having good relations with Russia and afraid of making it an enemy by backing its rival.

But Borshchevskaya pointed out that there is one big difference between Israel and these other Mideast countries: “Israel is a genuine democracy – it is part of the Western family of liberal democracy.”

Borshchevskaya said that while it is clear that Israel’s security concerns regarding Russia are critical and need to be taken into consideration, and that Jerusalem needs to be extremely cautious in navigating its way through this crisis, “putting principles over interests can sometimes pay dividends.” •