After months of military buildup on its border, the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine has shattered European peace and sent tremors through financial and energy markets as well as state capitals around the world. How this plays out for international peace and security will be determined by the aims and objectives of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who appears intent on undermining or toppling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in favor of a puppet government and keeping Ukraine weak. There will also be concerns about escalation and any possible spillover effects in terms of conflict with neighboring NATO member states, such as Poland.
The Russian-Ukrainian war is rooted in perceived injustices of the post-Cold War settlement, notably the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, which Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev signed in September 1990. Under the treaty, which facilitated German reunification, foreign troops were prohibited in the former East Germany, with an understanding in Moscow that NATO troops would not be deployed to other countries further east. The NATO-Russia Founding Act, which Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed in May 1997 in exchange for a variety of economic inducements, paved the way for the alliance to expand in central and eastern Europe, as well as the Baltic states. But Putin, who became the longest-serving Russian leader in 2017 since Joseph Stalin and is up for reelection in 2024, aims to revise the post-Cold War order.
This intervention follows similar moves during which he established his security credentials, such as the Second Chechen War in 1999-2000. However, it was the Bucharest Summit Declaration in 2007, which welcomed Ukraine’s and Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership, that crossed a redline in Russian foreign and security policy. The declaration played an important role in the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 and continues to reverberate in the current events in Ukraine. Precursors to the current war have also been evident through Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the more recent move by Putin to recognize two separatist regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The deployment of Russian troops to undertake “peacekeeping functions” there has effectively invalidated Minsk II, a February 2015 agreement that aimed to halt fighting in the Donbas. The agreement hinged on the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line and control of the state border reverting back to the Ukrainian government.
The Response from the Gulf States
The response to the Russian invasion so far has reflected Gulf state relations with the United States, hedging strategies, experience of conflict, and economic interests:
Citing preservation of the production agreement among OPEC and non-OPEC countries in the OPEC+ deal, Saudi Arabia refused President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s call to pump more oil as prices crept past the $100 per barrel mark after the attack on Ukraine. The U.S. president is likely to consider this as, in effect, undercutting Western attempts to utilize sanctions as their primary tool against Moscow. As part of its hedging strategy, Saudi Arabia also appears disinclined to drop its joint military cooperation with Russia.
The United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister had a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov February 23 discussing regional and international developments. Both parties highlighted their respective “keenness to enhance the prospects of UAE-Russian cooperation.” At the February 24 United Nations Security Council meeting, the UAE reaffirmed the importance of dialogue, intensifying diplomatic efforts on the basis of international law, and using the Minsk agreements as a good basis for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Additionally, the UAE expressed concern about humanitarian access, especially near the contact line in eastern Ukraine. Although the UAE is a close ally of the United States in the region, it has recently experienced difficulty in its negotiations with the United States over the purchase of F-35 fighter jets as well as U.S. allegations of Chinese military facility construction in the country. Rostec, a now-sanctioned Russian company, has strategic relations with the UAE Ministry of Defense, and investment from Gulf states, such as the UAE, will be especially welcome ahead of any possible further U.S. and EU coordinated sanctions.
Putin recognizes the role that Qatar could eventually play in diversifying European gas imports away from Russia, as Germany suspended the Nord Stream 2 gas project and Gazprom, its sole shareholder, has been hit by sanctions from the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom. Putin sent a letter to Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani outlining the ways in which the two countries could support and strengthen bilateral relations. The letter was delivered by Russia’s energy minister, Nikolay Shulginov, who was in Doha attending the annual Gas Exporting Countries Forum. Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani made two separate telephone calls to Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, expressing concern. Meanwhile, Tamim has called on all parties to exercise restraint and resolve the crisis through diplomatic means. The main issue for Qatar will be in balancing its gas exports with commitments in Asia, especially if demand increases in different regions simultaneously.
Kuwait has gone further than its neighbors and has been explicit in stressing the importance of respecting the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine. The Kuwaiti position appears to derive mainly from its recent experience of conflict and occupation. Indeed, Iraq just made its final reparations payment to Kuwait after 31 years and a total bill of $52.4 billion for its 1990 invasion.
Iran blamed NATO provocations for the Ukraine crisis, although Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also stated on Twitter the need to establish a cease-fire and to find a political and democratic resolution. Russia’s intervention and Western sanctions could jeopardize talks in Vienna aimed at restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. First, it could divert U.S. attention from Vienna, extending the time to reach a possible deal and allow for the possibility that further changes in the Iran nuclear program make a deal impossible. Second, pending the amount of pressure Western allies apply on Moscow, the Russian position could conceivably change, undermining tacit cooperative diplomacy that has existed between them so far.
Bahrain, in statements that pre-date the current crisis, supported the U.N. General Assembly resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine in 2014. In 2021, Abdulla bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, the undersecretary for international affairs at Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reaffirmed Bahrain’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and noted that Bahraini companies would be prevented from carrying out activities in occupied Crimea. With the international spotlight at its brightest after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it remains to be seen whether Bahrain will continue to stake out a bold public position on Ukraine.
Although Oman has yet to issue a response to the crisis, its position will be conditioned by its overall foreign policy orientation, preferring to focus on diplomatic solutions and mediation (and with pronounced accents on neutrality and respect for sovereignty). Muscat is bound to be cognizant of the limited role a small state can play in great power relations between the United States/NATO and Russia.
Many countries, including the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iraq, have urged their nationals to leave Ukraine, and many Gulf air carriers have suspended flights to Ukraine citing safety concerns.
Any lackluster or poorly executed U.S. response to the Ukrainian conflict, coming so soon after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, could stoke fears about diminishing U.S. power in the world. In the Middle East, some states have already engaged in hedging strategies, and those with close ties to Russia appear unwilling to shift or revisit their policies.
A key consideration will be in the position that Qatar adopts as a major gas exporter and the economic advantage it may gain from increasing exports to Europe. That may translate into closer relations, more resources, and an ability to withstand further pressure similar to that associated with the Qatar crisis, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a boycott on Qatar in 2017. Most of those countries have been improving relations with Doha since the January 2021 Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Al Ula that ended the boycott; however they have yet to resolve key political differences. Moscow is also well positioned to undermine a potential overland Qatari gas pipeline to Europe through its presence in Syria, although jihadi forces could also play a role in this regard.
The GCC states are not as dependent on Russian or Ukrainian grain exports as allies such as Morocco and Egypt, but any major interruption could translate into higher food prices and further socioeconomic instability. For Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, which have worked hard to bolster these Middle Eastern economies, it would be an unwelcome development.
Finally, the crisis could directly or indirectly upend the de-escalatory actions being undertaken by regional parties. For example, if the JCPOA fails, Saudi-Iranian talks may become defunct amid fears of Iran’s shortening breakout capacity. If the Ukrainian government falls, Turkey could be exposed to increasing Russian influence from across the Black Sea. Turkey, in its attempt to balance relations with Ukraine and Russia, could also end up being pressured further on its border with Syria where Ankara says Russia is failing to disarm Kurdish fighters. This could divert Ankara’s attention away from a new spate of diplomacy with the UAE.