Russia’s Middle East diplomacy is expansive, but Kyiv has pressed its interests in this strategic region. Ukraine’s Western partners can do more to help.
Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine has affected the entire world, well beyond Europe. Since 2014 – and especially since 2022 – Moscow has worked to create a network of friendly regimes to facilitate sanctions evasion and to displace the West from sensitive regions. And the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) has long been one of those.
In the past, Moscow sought to deter potential threats from transnational terrorism in MENA and to coordinate with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel to maintain crude oil prices at an advantageous level. By intervening in Libya and Syria, Moscow has also sought to increase its leverage in relation to the West and thus become a fully-fledged security actor in the region. Although Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has already consumed its attention and resources, the Kremlin, nevertheless, remained committed to keeping its MENA presence.
Most have condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine out of a concern about state sovereignty and territorial integrity, yet few – outside the West – followed with action. MENA countries have mostly voted in favour of the UN resolutions condemning Russia but failed to impose sanctions. Some of them have also joined the Ukraine Defence Consultative Group (informally known as the Ramstein Group), while others have become hubs for Russian trade and sanctions evasion.
For Ukraine’s diplomacy, the region remains important as both a source of potential support and an area to blunt Russia’s diplomatic moves. Despite having embassies in most MENA states, Ukraine’s diplomatic presence is smaller but not irrelevant. And its importance has only grown for Kyiv, with President Zelensky appointing a Special Envoy for the Middle East and Africa in July 2022. Ukraine’s diplomatic moves in the Middle East have received the support of its closest partners such as Poland and the United States. Now is the time to take a closer look at how Kyiv’s and Moscow’s positions in MENA have changed since 2022.
The economics of the war
With Ukraine and Russia, together, accounting for most of the grain and fertiliser imports to MENA, Russia’s war has had a profound impact. Compounding on the COVID-19 pandemic economic fallout, the year 2022 saw spikes in the prices for both grains and fuel needed by the agriculture industry. As of 2021, 20% of all food-insecure people were residing in MENA, the UN estimated, despite the region having only 6% of the global population. Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen are particularly vulnerable.
With food supplies on top of MENA’s agenda, many nations have been reconsidering their diplomatic positions. For instance, on 10 March, Cairo announced that it was withdrawing from the UN Grains Trade Convention (GTC), signed in 1995. The government no longer saw the benefit of paying the membership fees for the GTC had failed to control the grain market. It is worth mentioning that Egypt is 80% dependent on Ukrainian and Russian grain.
Both Ukraine and Russia are aware of how urgent and critical the matter is. Moscow has taken the opportunity to undermine Ukraine and the West through its policy and propaganda. For months, Russia has been delivering stolen Ukrainian grain to its client regime in Syria, therefore, facilitating the of the al-Assad dictatorship. Even though Russian grains and fertilisers are exempt from sanctions, Moscow has claimed that sanctions are to blame for the food prices rising worldwide.
Dispelling Russia’s propaganda has been a challenge for Ukraine and its partners. On 26 November, Kyiv launched the Grain from Ukraine programme with Western support and funding. Ethiopia and Somalia were the first recipients of grain donated from Ukraine, and the Middle Eastern countries beset by famine conditions such as Yemen will soon see the deliveries, too.
A land of brewing conflicts
The Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Iran square saw many changes and turns over the last year. Before 2022, Israel and Iran largely enjoyed good relations with both Ukraine and Russia. Since then, however, a Ukraine-Israel and Russia-Iran chasm has been forming.
In the past, Kyiv never had much to argue over with Tehran. For instance, Iran never recognised Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Yet, first, the accidental downing of a Ukrainian civilian jet over Iran’s territory in 2020 and – most crucially – Tehran’s recent transfers of armed drones to the Kremlin sank that relationship. And in December 2022, Zelensky called Iran Russia’s “ally” in Moscow’s genocidal policy.
In the meantime, Ukraine and Israel have grown closer. Early in the war, Israel was trying to stay cautious, initially seeking to mediate between Ukraine and Russia. But those attempts had floundered by March 2022. In September 2022, Ukrainian diplomats allegedly asked their Israeli counterparts to share intelligence on Iran, specifically to monitor Tehran’s drone programme. In February 2023, Israel reportedly approved the export licenses enabling a potential sale of its anti-drone systems to Ukraine. Israel itself might be interested in testing how effective those systems are against the Iranian drones. While the new approach is far from the commitment shown by Ukraine’s Western partners, Israel has been warming up to Kyiv rather than keeping a neutral stance.
There have been changes in Israel’s stance towards, too. Despite its initially cautious approach, Israel finally condemned the full-scale aggression following the Russian massacre in Bucha. In turn, Moscow abandoned its much-vaunted neutrality in the conflict between Israel and Palestine by reverting to a pro-Palestine position in April 2022.
Over the course of last year, Iran moved from a tenuous partner to a supporter of Russia (albeit with some reservations). This shift came – at least in part – as a response to the growing normalisation in relations between Israel and the Arab states under the Abraham Accords of 2020. Grounded in tactical necessities and a shared opposition to the West, Moscow and Tehran are now converging on the JCPOA and other military affairs.
Turkey is uncommitted
Despite being a traditionally close partner, Turkey’s response to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been underwhelming. The two countries have previously cooperated in such areas as defence and security, as well as in terms of the Western partnership. Ankara did condemn the Russian aggression in 2014 and, again, in 2022.
At the same time, Turkey has refused to break or reduce its engagements with Moscow. Much to Moscow’s delight, Ankara failed to impose sanctions and blocked Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership. In fact, Turkey not only emerged as one of Russia’s largest trade partners in 2022 but also facilitated its scheming to evade sanctions. This ambiguous position has been described by some as a ‘balancing’ or ‘non-binary’ act – neither pro-Ukrainian nor anti-Russian. As a result, Kyiv no longer sees its relationship with Ankara as part of its Western partnership.
Is Ukraine caught in the US-Saudi relationship?
Having historically pursued a good relationship with both Ukraine and Russia, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been among the countries that seek to play the mediator role. In fact, Riyadh has already mediated prisoner exchanges – an area where Saudi diplomacy has a record of success during other wars.
However, Riyadh’s policy in Ukraine has been impacted by the broader shifts in its relationship with the United States, its main security provider. The Western condemnation of the 2018 Khashoggi assassination consolidated Riyadh’s drive to gain new leverage in its relationship with its Western partners. Consequently, it engaged China (in the 2023 “reset” with Iran), as well as Russia. Saudi Arabia might also empathise with Russia’s grievances about the so-called NATO expansion in Ukraine, comparing it to its own war in Yemen.
To avoid being overly Russia-dependent, Riyadh has tried to ‘balance’ its position. In October 2022, just as Saudi Arabia and Russia had coordinated a large oil production cut, Riyadh pledged a 400-million-dollar aid package for Ukraine. In February 2023, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs made an official visit to Ukraine, thus leading the first high-level delegation from his country. That trip reportedly signalled Riyadh’s intention to improve relations with the US.
Ukraine has not been a passive observer of these shifts either. The appointment of a new Ukrainian ambassador in September 2022 was followed by a flurry of high-level meetings in the Kingdom. Seizing the moment, Kyiv stated its interest in expanding the relationship, in particular in the context of the Grain from Ukraine programme. In addition, Ukrainian officials have pointed out the challenge from Iran’s drone industry to their Saudi counterparts.
What is ahead?
In strategic terms, Moscow’s full-scale war has contributed to and amplified reconfigurations far away from the borders of Ukraine and Russia. Kyiv has been seeking new partners and sources of support in MENA, growing closer to Israel, and navigating through the region’s rivalries.
Although Moscow still has a larger presence, its aggression against Ukraine has hindered its ability to maintain as many commitments in the region as it used to. Nevertheless, Russia is determined to continue wielding its influence and putting pressure on the West in MENA. To respond, Ukraine’s partners can lend their diplomatic networks to Kyiv for its message to reach farther and resonate with the right audiences. Due to the lingering anti-Americanism, however, winning over public opinion in MENA might not be possible, and special attention, at least in the short term, must be given to the region’s leadership.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.