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The Crisis in Ukraine and the Middle East

Session V-04, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 1:30 pm

Special Session Description
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is clearly a transformative moment in global affairs, particularly for the West. Vladimir Putin “has shattered the architecture of global security,” according to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. “The invasion of Ukraine,” she stated, “is a paradigm shift on the scale of 9/11. How we respond today will set the pattern for this new era.” Other world leaders have echoed this sentiment. Speaking in Warsaw on March 26, 2022, President Biden claimed that we now face a “great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and once governed by brute force.” The president added: “This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.” While most scholars of the Middle East are skeptical of this framework, whether one agrees with it or not, there is no denying that the Ukraine-Russia crisis is an important global event with consequences that will affect our economies, our politics and international relations more broadly. The key overarching question that will shape this special session is: how will the societies and politics of the Middle East be affected by the war in Ukraine? Other sub questions the panelists will engage with are: ● what do you expect to be the war’s most significant and lasting impact in the Middle East and North Africa? ● How might the Ukraine war effect the academic study of the Middle East in terms of research agendas and the scholarly study of the Middle East? ● To what extent is the Ukraine-9/11 analogy accurate? What alternative framework of analysis might be better?
  • What does the Russian invasion of Ukraine mean for the Middle East? First, it turned 2022 into a year of food insecurity for millions, as bread shortages proliferated when half of Ukraine wheat was taken off the market by the war. Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran were all deeply affected, with a potential for political instability, as we saw in 2010-2011 when wheat prices also spiked. Second, the war repositioned US grand strategy back toward central and eastern Europe, where it had been focused during the Cold War 1946-1991. This development implied less US attention toward the Middle East, as well as greater emphasis on the ways in which Middle Eastern oil and gas could replace Russian exports for Europe. The stock of Gulf countries like Qatar soared. Whereas the Biden administration had bad relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, by spring of 2022 Biden’s emissaries were going hat in hand to ask for help with offsetting Russian energy exports. The impact on Iran was mixed. The US needed a return to the JCPOA more than ever, again to bring Iranian oil and gas online to replace boycotted Russian supplies. Questions arose of how cooperative Russia itself would be in restoring the treaty, however. My comments will focus on these topics.
  • The Ukraine war has occasioned a reboot of Cold War thinking in the U.S., with familiar tropes about a global battle for freedom and foreign policy elites returning to the comfortable grooves of geopolitical rivalry. For the Middle East, the conflict displaces (and perhaps winds down) the two-decades-long “war on terror”—already reframed by the Afghanistan withdrawal in August 2021—but may herald a period of even greater instability. On the one hand, the impact on global energy markets has buoyed the Gulf. On the other hand, food insecurity now threatens already precarious states from Egypt and Tunisia to Lebanon and Yemen. Meanwhile, the already complicated multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have been stalled. The war has also exposed significant rifts between the U.S. and regional partners that have declined to take sides in the conflict. Interrogating whether Russia’s invasion signals the arrival of a truly “post-American” era in the region, I will discuss the potential impact of the Ukraine conflict on (re-) distributions of power in the MENA and consider whether a more multipolar order (and the decline of U.S. influence) portends greater conflict or new opportunities to resolve long-standing grievances in the region between rulers and ruled.
  • My talk on Ukraine and the Middle East will focus on four issues: first, what it reveals about US alliances in the region that so many of its regional partners either remained neutral or took Russia's side; second, what the course of the war might mean for Russia's military interventions and weapons sales; third, the impact on food security and political stability in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • The war in Ukraine has been a clarifying moment on many fronts around the world, especially in exposing the global costs of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. America’s support for abusive and authoritarian governments, including arms and political support for their vicious and unlawful war crimes, while attacking global mechanisms for accountability to protect these governments, now undermines the legal, moral and political support the US needs to garner support for the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the governments supported by the U.S. have evolved into their own independent power bloc with no loyalty or commitment to supporting U.S. interests while wielding increasing influence on the American government through election interference and campaign financing corruption. This evolution is likely to dramatically increase the power of authoritarian governments in the region, while minimizing what little leverage the US believed it had. The people in the region will as usual pay the greatest price for this evolution.