Russia’s new threats on Ukraine could alienate Middle East - analysis

Countries of the Middle East have tried to stay neutral, but the latest developments in the Ukrainian conflict could push them away from Russia diplomatically, militarily and economically.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a ceremony opening the international military-technical forum Army-2022 at Patriot Congress and Exhibition Centre in the Moscow region, Russia August 15, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a ceremony opening the international military-technical forum Army-2022 at Patriot Congress and Exhibition Centre in the Moscow region, Russia August 15, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)

Russian President Vladimir Putin in a nationally televised speech on Wednesday announced that the Kremlin will use any necessary means, and indirectly threatened to use nuclear weapons, if Russia’s territorial integrity is jeopardized, claiming that the West wants to destroy his country.

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“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and for separate components and more modern than those of NATO countries and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal," Putin said, adding: "It's not a bluff."

Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, added that Russia will begin an immediate draft of 300,000 new reservists. “These are not some people who have never heard of the army. … These are really those who have served, have a military specialty, that is, a specialty that is needed today in the Armed Forces, who have combat experience,” he said.

The Russian leaders’ speeches come as the United Nations General Assembly is taking place, where the Russian invasion of Ukraine is being strongly criticized by the international community. The announcements also come a day after Russian-controlled regions captured from Ukraine announced plans to hold referendums on becoming part of Russia.

National flag flies over the Russian Central Bank headquarters in Moscow, Russia May 27, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)National flag flies over the Russian Central Bank headquarters in Moscow, Russia May 27, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)

As the world reacts to the speech, calling it an escalation and saying that it is an indication of the Russian army's weakness, most Middle Eastern countries, which have tried to appear neutral during the conflict due to their ties with both Russia and the West, might change their position and their perception of Russia.

Has Turkey changed its approach to Russia?

Gökçe Hubar, a foreign policy researcher and columnist for the Independent Turkish news website, told The Media Line that while the Russian president blamed the West for the ongoing war and declared partial military mobilization, Turkey’s stance has not changed since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

"Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan carefully avoided condemning Russia with harsh rhetoric and preferred to appear neutral for geopolitical and geostrategic reasons," she said.

She noted that, for Turkey, protecting Ukrainian territorial integrity is critical and the referendums to declare the Russian-controlled territories in Ukraine as part of the Russian Federation "worry Turkey."

"If these regions declare that they are joining Russia, Turkey will never recognize this. Because the territorial integrity issue is a red line for Turkey," Hubar added.

In August, Erdoğan participated in the Crimea Platform Online Leaders Summit via video message. In it, he said: “The extradition of Crimea to Ukraine, of which it is an inseparable part, is essentially a requirement of international law. Protecting Ukraine's territorial integrity, sovereignty and political unity is critical not only for regional but also for global security and stability.”

Israel interested in security understanding with Russia

Professor Ze’ev Khanin, an expert on Israel-FSU relations at Bar-Ilan and Ariel Universities, told The Media Line that Israel also has attempted to not condemn Russia very strongly in order to protect Israel's understanding with Russia in the Middle East concerning Israel’s security.

The Israeli approach to the situation has been to provide diplomatic, moral and humanitarian support to Ukraine, he explained.

Khanin believes that, in Jerusalem, Putin’s announcements are "seen as more of the same in terms of Israeli foreign policy."

However, he says that the troop mobilization planned by Russia means the conflict is in for the long run. "At a certain point, Israel will have to take a more explicit position," he added.

It also means that Russia has become weaker, and is losing hope that it will be able to defeat Ukraine in the near future, Khanin continued.  

Hubar also believes that a longer war will probably prejudice Russia as an actor in the Middle East. "A Russian defeat in Ukraine would gradually damage the image of Russia among the Middle Eastern countries," she said.

The longer the war carries on, she continued, "the more people die and the more civilian buildings are bombed, they [Middle Eastern countries] will move further away from Russia."

Ukraine war could affect Mideast Russian arms import

Anna Jacobs, a senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group based in Doha, Qatar, told The Media Line that the Russian losses in the war with Ukraine might even affect the Middle Eastern import of Russian arms.

"People in the region and the world have seen how poorly the Russian army has performed, and how poor its equipment is, to the extent that Gulf countries that buy Russian materiel may think twice now," she said.

And in the meantime, she continued, "Gulf countries will continue to balance their relationships in order not to anger Putin."

For Israel, there are additional developments to consider, noted Khanin.

Israel perceives the new strategic partnership between Russia and Iran as something which lies beyond the previous understandings between Jerusalem and Moscow, he explained.

The provision of Iranian ammunition to Russia, which according to Israeli sources are being provided for free in exchange for Russian concessions to Iran in other fields, including Syria, might be counter to previous Russian-Israeli agreements, Khanin added.

"This might open new possibilities or remove the limitations that Israel had in considering Russia's interest in Syria," he said.

However, Khanin stresses that Israel still has to consider its own responsibility in the region and the Jewish communities both in Russia and Ukraine.

World leaders outside the Middle East have extensively reacted to Putin's statements in his televised speech on Wednesday.

"Sham referenda and mobilization are signs of weakness, of Russian failure," Bridget Brink, the US ambassador to Ukraine, tweeted on Wednesday.

British Foreign Minister Gillian Keegan told Sky News: “Clearly, it’s something that we should take very seriously because, you know, we’re not in control – I am not sure he’s in control either, really. This is obviously an escalation."

China’s Foreign Ministry urged the parties to hold a dialogue and called Putin's threat “nuclear blackmail.”

Robert Habeck, the German vice chancellor and economy minister, said it was “another bad and wrong step from Russia, which of course we will discuss and consult on politically regarding how to respond.”