The Middle East Council on Global Affairs (ME Council) hosted a webinar on March 15, 2023, in collaboration with Kedge Business School, examining how the war in Ukraine has impacted Russia’s presence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Experts examined key issues pertaining to the war, including regional states’ geopolitical posturing, evolving Russian economic relations with the region, and the emerging risks and opportunities for the region as the war continues. Galip Dalay, nonresident senior fellow at the ME Council, moderated the discussion. The expert panelists included Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council; Hannah Notte, senior research associate with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non‑Proliferation (VCDNP); and Hamidreza Azizi, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
Dalay started the discussion by posing a question on the implications of the war in Ukraine for Russia’s place in the Middle East. Kortunov responded that Moscow and Tehran have a geopolitical partnership that is gradually growing, and that Russia depends on Iran more than it did prior to the war. Kortunov added that this growing partnership makes Russia’s ties with Israel more tenuous, especially with the exposure of Israeli leadership to side with Ukraine. Regarding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Kortunov affirmed that Russia must court GCC countries’ favor as potential trading partners and a source of much-needed investment to alleviate the pressures that Russia’s economy is facing as a result of the regime of sanctions imposed by the West. Coordination between Russia and major GCC players, particularly Saudi Arabia, on energy pricing could give Russia more leverage. Moreover, he emphasized that the Chinese role in negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran might give Russia opportunities for involvement in multilateral arrangements in the region.
Dalay then shifted the discussion to the war’s impacts on MENA states’ relations with major global powers. Many MENA countries, he noted, are engaging in geopolitical balancing acts on the war, but it is an open question how sustainable this balancing strategy is for MENA states. Notte responded by noting the war’s impacts on food security in MENA, as it inflated the price of wheat and other goods. Such disruption amplified MENA countries’ pre-existing concerns, such as high inflation, the lingering economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and political instability. She added that there has been a reluctance by some countries to condemn Russia and enforce Western-imposed sanctions. Furthermore, there are competing narratives about the drivers of the war. Some countries view it as a war of Russian aggression, while others see it as a war partially fueled by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States. Resentment within MENA has also grown due to what is seen as a double standard with regard to the West’s response to Ukraine as compared with wars and conflicts in MENA. For instance, refugees from Syria and other countries have not received a comparable welcome in Europe. Also, the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Yemen and conditions in Palestine under Israeli occupation have not been met with the same levels of attention and support from Western countries.
Dalay then posed a question to Azizi regarding how the war has affected and reshaped Russian-Iranian relations. Azizi highlighted that Russia is receiving military support from Iran, as there is evidence that it is using Iranian drones in Ukraine. Beyond military cooperation, Iran uses its relations with Russia to serve its public relations goals—boasting about Iranian military advancements and emphasizing to rivals the importance of the two countries partnership. Iran’s support for Russia in the war on Ukraine has increased tensions with the West. Adding to these tensions, Iran has refused to come to an agreement about renewing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or complying with the IAEA (until very recently). He concluded that without any willingness on Tehran’s part to revise its policies regarding Russia and Ukraine, substantive progress on the nuclear deal negotiations is unlikely.
In the subsequent question and answer session, Kortunov was asked whether Russia can afford to lose the war in Ukraine. He stressed that Russian leadership cannot afford failure as they view the war in existential terms—as one that will define the country’s future. The next question was directed to Notte, asking whether the West and Ukraine can afford to lose the war. Notte suggested that even if a ceasefire is reached, there is concern from the West that Russia will use this to replenish its ammunition and continue to undermine Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. Ultimately, the stakes remain high for both Russia and the West, complicating any move towards offramps from the war. As such, MENA countries will continue to face economic disruptions and difficult political decisions, under immense geopolitical pressure, as the war drags on.