How Might Russian-NATO Tensions Affect West Asia?


Wed, 09-02-2022 05:33 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko (South24) 

The world is nervously watching Russian-NATO tensions over Ukraine, wondering what might come next and what consequences it could have for everyone. This is also true for observers in West Asia, a region that some might not consider to be as directly affected as others in the event that some level of hostilities breaks out in Eastern Europe. After all, the US is still a powerful force in that part of the world despite gradually disengaging from it over the past few years as part of its ongoing “Pivot to Asia”. The purpose of this piece is to put everything into perspective and then forecast realistic scenarios. 

The ongoing tensions in Eastern Europe are described by the author as being between Russia and NATO and not between Russia and Ukraine per se contrary to how they’re popularly portrayed by the US-led Western Mainstream Media. This should be clarified before proceeding. Russian President Vladimir Putin explained his country’s perspective on this unprecedented post-Cold War crisis on 21 December in an “Expanded Meeting of the Defense Ministry Board”. What follows are some relevant excerpts that will then be briefly analyzed:

“It is extremely alarming that elements of the US global defense system are being deployed near Russia. The Mk 41 launchers, which are located in Romania and are to be deployed in Poland, are adapted for launching the Tomahawk strike missiles. If this infrastructure continues to move forward, and if US and NATO missile systems are deployed in Ukraine, their flight time to Moscow will be only 7–10 minutes, or even five minutes for hypersonic systems. This is a huge challenge for us, for our security.

NATO pays special attention to redeployment of troops to the bloc’s eastern flank, including from the continental part of the United States. The military drills include various scenarios involving the use of coalition groups of forces and non-NATO troops (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) against Russia. The desire of the Alliance to involve the Ukrainian armed forces in its military activities is threatening security, considering Kiev’s attempts at a military solution in Donbass.

The United States does not possess hypersonic weapons yet, but we know when they will have it. It cannot be hidden. Everything goes on record, successful or unsuccessful tests alike. We have a sense of when it might happen. They will supply hypersonic weapons to Ukraine and then use them as cover – that does not mean that they will start using them tomorrow, because we already have Tsircon and they do not – to arm extremists from a neighboring state and incite them against certain regions of the Russian Federation, such as Crimea, when they think circumstances are favorable.”

From his words, it’s clear that the Russian President is concerned that the US might deploy strike weapons – including hypersonic ones – to the region and even Ukraine itself under the pretext of defending that country in the event that Kiev is successfully encouraged by them and NATO to initiate a third round of civil war hostilities in Donbass. That risks undermining Russia’s nuclear second-strike capabilities and thus placing it in the position of nuclear blackmail vis-à-vis the US, which is why Moscow urgently made its security guarantee proposals in late December that form the basis of ongoing talks.  

Russia requests that the US enter into legally binding agreements to halt NATO’s eastward expansion, not deploy strike weapons near its borders, and return to the continental military status quo of the now-defunct Russia-NATO Founding Act of 1997 that would essentially remove the alliance’s military infrastructure from the former Warsaw Pact countries that have since joined it. The US and NATO’s response leaked to the media, and President Putin confirmed during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday that they “disregard” his country’s concerns. 

This explanation of the crisis is credible and makes much more strategic sense than claiming like the US does that Russia is obsessed with wanting to annex a war-torn and deindustrialize sliver of its border with Ukraine, Donbass, let alone that entire state of over 40 million people that’s also ignobly Europe’s poorest country. Having clarified that the current crisis is indeed a Russian-NATO one and not really a Russian-Ukrainian crisis, the analysis can now move along to briefly touching upon the most likely scenarios that could materialize in the event that hostilities of some kind are commenced.

Russia and the US accuse one another of plotting false flag provocations in Ukraine. The former’s latest warning came from Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Monday while State Department spokesman Ned Price issued his country’s own about Russia last week. The US even ordered a partial evacuation of its embassy in Kiev due to these concerns, but the EU described this move as “dramatizing” the situation while Kiev called it “premature”. Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky and US President Joe Biden also reportedly clashed over this issue too. 

That’s according to a report from CNN in late January citing unnamed sources after those two’s phone call at the time. Particularly problematic for Ukraine was the US’ scaremongering that a so-called “Russian invasion” is “imminent”, a description that White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently walked back and said that she will no longer use. Over the weekend, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted “Do not believe the apocalyptic predictions. Different capitals have different scenarios, but Ukraine is ready for any development.” 

This sequence of events very strongly suggests that the US is deliberately misportraying the state of Russian-Ukrainian tensions for self-interested reasons. Further credence is added to that observation by last month’s revival of the Normandy peace process that involved France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. Follow-up talks are expected later this month in Berlin. Very clearly, even Ukraine itself believes that diplomacy is still a viable option for peacefully resolving this larger crisis. In spite of this very cautious optimism, hostilities might still break out. 

A spokesman of one of the Donbass militias warned on Tuesday that “Ukrainian secret services have been plotting a fake high-profile terrorist act”, after which their self-proclaimed republic claimed later that same day that they downed a Ukrainian drone that could have pinpointed artillery strikes against their forces. However hostilities break out, in the event that they end up doing so, they’d most likely begin as a third round of civil war hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. It’s unclear to what extent Russia would support friendly forces in Donbass, but any such support would likely trigger US-led Western sanctions. 

It's unlikely, however, that Moscow would commence a full-fledged “invasion” of that neighboring country in spite of what the US alleges is its so-called “buildup” of forces within its own borders that Russia maintains is its sovereign right to do without any external criticism. That’s because the Kremlin would only likely seek to eliminate imminent or hot threats coming from Ukraine, not annex Donbass or the rest of that country like was earlier explained. Russia is concerned primarily with ensuring that no US- and/or NATO-provided strike weapons there are ever capable of threatening it if they’re delivered. 

Western sanctions

In any case, reports suggest that the threatened US-led Western sanctions would be “unprecedented”, perhaps even resulting in Russia’s disconnection from the SWIFT banking system and the cancellation of its Nord Stream II gas pipeline to Germany in the worst-case scenario. For its part, Moscow warned that such moves would also entail counterproductive consequences for the EU. It remains unclear, however, whether either of those two “unprecedented” moves will occur. Reports suggest that Europe is against the SWIFT scenario while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is ambivalent about the second. 

Observers are generally of the consensus, however, that Russian-EU energy transit will be disrupted to an unclear extent in one way or another. That’s why the US is reportedly in talks for Qatar to supply its allies with LNG. While the IHS Markit business intelligence firm’s latest report believes that such imports would be sufficient, the Middle East Institute and World Politics Review aren’t so sure. Any sudden disruption of supplies would almost certainly exacerbate the EU’s ongoing energy crisis that’s worsened its existing COVID-connected economic one. That could catalyze unpredictable political consequences. 

It's therefore improbable that Qatar can sufficiently replace any disruption of Russia’s gas exports to the EU, let alone sustainably considering the fact that it already has existing customers’ needs to meet. It’s predicted to attempt to play some sort of role in the US’ support, but this might be driven more by its leadership’s desire to improve fraught relations with America than any realistic expectation of resolving the EU’s energy woes in that scenario. No matter what it does, however, it’s unlikely to be very meaningful, both in terms of improving bilateral ties and helping Europe. 

The other energy-rich members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly its de facto joint Emirati-Saudi leaders, will also be expected to help Europe too but might not be able to do much either. Just like with Qatar, any of their potential contributions aren’t expected to be all that meaningful in terms of the bigger picture, both politically and in terms of supplying Europe. They both, after all, also have their own customers’ needs to meet and cannot realistically increase production to the point of replacing the 40% of gas and nearly 25% of oil that Russia supplies to the bloc, let alone right away. 

Political consequences

Apart from the potential energy-related consequences for West Asia of any Eastern European hostilities, there are also possible political ones to consider too. Iran would predictably throw its full support behind Russia due to its hostile attitude towards America and its NATO allies. The GCC, however, would probably repeat platitudes about the need for all parties to stop fighting as soon as possible and reach a political solution to their disputes. That’s because they’ve cultivated excellent ties with Russia over the past few years, especially in the military sphere, despite being the US’ traditional partners in the region. 

For what it’s worth, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told Axios last Wednesday that “At the moment, the [Israeli] assessment is that we don’t see a violent confrontation soon. I also don’t think a world war is about to start there…We have a duty to act with caution about the Russia-Ukraine crisis that no other country has.” This very balanced and mature position will likely be replicated by the GCC for the same reason that they, like Israel, also have close relations with both Russia and the US. In that sense, Israel might unofficially serve as a regional diplomatic leader by inspiring others to follow its balanced policy. 

West Asian observers might also wonder whether the scenario of Eastern European hostilities would affect the ongoing negotiations over the Iranian nuclear deal. The US recently restored some waivers for Iran’s nuclear energy program, which Russian Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted at the time “can be seen as an indication that the Vienna Talks have entered the final stage”. This professional assessment by someone who’s directly party to those ongoing talks very strongly suggests that they won’t be significantly affected in the examined scenario. 

The same can be said for the Yemeni War because the potential outbreak of hostilities in Eastern Europe is also unlikely to have any influence on the course of that conflict. Those two wars are completely disconnected from one another. It’s more likely that the US’ speculative consideration of a more comprehensive deal with Iran over responsibly regulating their regional rivalry might somehow or another involve that conflict and Syria’s, but even that scenario isn’t connected to anything that happens in Eastern Europe. Rather, it’s related to the US’ desire to accelerate its “Pivot to Asia”. 

In light of the insight that was shared in this analysis, West Asian observers shouldn’t expect Russian-NATO tensions to have any serious impact on their region even in the worst-case scenario of Moscow directly involving itself in a third round of civil war hostilities in Ukraine. Energy prices would probably skyrocket right away, which would in turn incentivize the GCC to try to cash in on this bonanza by exporting a bit more to the EU, but they’re incapable of replacing Russia’s dominant supplier role. The US’ renewed attention on Russia also likely won’t take away from its efforts to reach a deal with Iran. 

Moscow-based American political analyst
Photo: Atlantic Council
Opinions expressed in this analysis reflects its author 

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