11 February 2024

Ukraine vs Gaza

The Gaza war has fuelled geopolitical trends that compromise Ukraine’s position, and with which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy must contend if Ukraine is to survive.

IIn autumn 2023, Ukraine’s spring offensive ran up against the hard realities of Russian defences. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was hitting other obstacles, too, as his diplomacy felt the impact of shifts in geopolitical trends favouring Russian President Vladimir Putin. They included the rise in the strategic assertiveness of middle powers; the strengthening of like-minded groups of countries who felt disempowered under the post-Second World War dispensations; the promotion of nationalist agendas; and a revalorisation of authoritarian government, of which Putin was the arch-practitioner. That was before 7 October, when Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel and Israel’s ruthless response dislodged Ukraine from the top slot on the global-security agenda. While the course and outcome of the Russia–Ukraine war remain unclear, the Gaza war has undoubtedly fuelled geopolitical trends that compromise Ukraine’s position and which Zelenskyy must contend with if Ukraine is to survive, let alone win.

The wars in Ukraine and Israel are manifestly different in character and seem to belong on split screens. One is a war of imperial conquest waged by an expansionist military superpower against a sovereign state, the other the fight of a sovereign state against non-state actors and terrorists. But they do share common features and, problematically for Zelenskyy, certain dependencies. Both wars are being fought over sovereignty and territory. The United States and Iran are involved as suppliers of military assistance in each conflict. In both cases, vetoes have neutered the United Nations Security Council and rendered UN agencies powerless. Secondary similarities include the unusually high level of citizen forces mobilised in both Ukraine and Israel; the disruption of global liquefied-natural-gas supplies now that the Gaza war has drawn in the piratical Houthis; and a mediating role for the Arab Gulf states, in particular Qatar, a rising geopolitical entrepreneur.

The most important of these linkages is the cardinal role the US plays as security guarantor and armourer for Ukraine and Israel. Ukraine must now compete for military assistance and attention with the formidable Israeli lobby. American assistance to Ukraine has already become subject to congressional packaging and conditionality where there was none before. Donald Trump’s MAGA supporters in the House of Representatives have managed, as of this writing, to block the Biden administration’s request for new funding to support Ukraine’s defence; as Trump’s renomination as the Republican presidential candidate looks ever more likely, support for Ukraine among Republicans is likely to dim even further. If pressed to choose between defending Israel against terrorists and defending Ukraine against Russia, even for the sake of NATO, US politicians of both stripes will be inclined, especially during a presidential-election year, to follow the domestic votes.

The news for Ukraine isn’t all bad. Its relations with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have improved, and Putin’s adoption of the Palestinian cause has increased tension between Russia and Israel. But Israeli sympathy for Ukraine, like any form of association with Israel, diminishes support for Ukraine among the nations – perhaps now a global majority – that are indifferent to Ukraine’s fate and may gravitate towards Moscow for historical, commercial or political reasons, including in some cases long-standing anti-Americanism. In September 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not invite Zelenskyy to the G20 summit and confidently steered the Leaders’ Declaration in directions favourable to Russia. Next year the group’s summit host will be Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), the other flag-carrier for democracy among the BRICS countries, and he has said he will invite Putin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may typify the policy fluidity of middle powers: he viscerally condemns Israel and, while formally opposing Putin as a member of NATO, has allowed Turkiye to function as a conduit for Russian commerce and delayed the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, reportedly declined to join BRICS, but has taken a leading role in supporting the Palestinians.

More ominously, Iran and North Korea, two regimes intensely focused on perpetuating their rule, have used the Russia–Ukraine war to leverage a deeper relationship with Russia. Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Turkiye, have aligned with Russia to promote their own credentials as negotiators, bridge builders or, more ambitiously, regional or even global leaders. Putin meanwhile has seized the opportunity to skewer Kyiv by openly championing the Palestinian cause, which resonates in many Asian and African countries with strong institutional memories of colonialism. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, a controversial but influential figure in that community, has backed Putin and the Palestinians, and brought a suit against Israel in the International Court of Justice alleging genocide.

IIThis alignment will please Iran, a key disruptive actor in both wars and a new member of BRICS. Russia’s Iranian-made drones are in constant use against targets inside Ukraine, and neither political recalculation nor new priorities for defence products has induced Tehran to recalibrate its support for the Kremlin. This could change if Israel follows through on its threats to take down Hizbullah as it has Hamas, which would oblige Tehran to concentrate resources on protecting Hizbullah. While Iran has avoided entering into direct hostilities as a state, it has remained involved in training and equipping the terrorist groups against which Israel is fighting. By thus participating in both wars, Iran has upgraded its status as head of the so-called ‘axis of resistance’ to a leading role in a global community that increasingly opposes the US, NATO and the order they underwrite, but does not yet have a satisfactory alternative. What has emerged amounts to an ‘axis of rejection’ – a term earlier applied to Palestinian groups backed by Syria and Iran who rejected Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization and any recognition of Israel. Their alternative of terrorism and political sabotage came to grim maturity on 7 October.

Iran is back in its groove as a regional disruptor and scourge-in-chief of the United States. It has secured the support, if not the protection, of Russia and China, while continuing to expand both its involvement in terrorism and, while eyes are elsewhere, the enhancement of its nuclear programme, all at relatively low cost. But this activity has brought a high degree of risk at a moment when Israel’s tolerance for Iranian agitation is at a breaking point. Decisions that Iran’s leaders take in the coming year on how they manage this exposure both in the Middle East and Ukraine, and how they deal with a faltering economy and a restless domestic opposition, will have material consequences for both wars. To add to the uncertainty, at some point soon the elderly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei will need to be replaced. There may be a seamless transition to an equally conservative senior cleric. It is also possible, however, that the edifice of an ageing revolution rejected by the young and unpopular for its foreign adventures comes tumbling down. In turn, Iran could find itself the swing player in two wars and the shaper of geopolitics among the global majority, or a chancer at the zenith of its influence from which it can only decline. Tehran’s cautious avoidance of open conflict with Israel speaks to its fear that, for all its bombast, precipitating a shooting war would probably be the regime’s last act. It values the threat of a showdown with Israel far more than it wants the showdown itself. Iran has structured its defence around a ring of regional non-state actors that provide both a defensive cordon and forward operating bases precisely because it is not equipped to defend itself against direct attacks by well-armed states.

Zelenskyy, for his part, cannot afford to wait for Iran or any other medium power to reorient geopolitics. The trends running against him are broad-based and gathering momentum. He will need to outpace two in particular: the increasing inclination of some US allies to de-link their own security strategies from those of the United States, and the normalisation of authoritarian power projection. The first has seen close US allies in the Gulf, in particular, seek to maintain deep defence and commercial relations with the US while pursuing strategically assertive foreign policies. Emirati and Saudi leaders have maintained openly friendly relations with Putin. They have also declined to join the US-led protection fleet in the Red Sea, though Bahrain, which signed a comprehensive security agreement with the US in November, is participating. The hazard for Zelenskyy is not so much outright hostility among the middle powers as it is the dizzying plurality of their security strategies. With the exception of NATO headquarters in Brussels, he has no one stop where he can shop for support in bulk. Moreover, winning support in Washington no longer guarantees the backing of non-NATO US allies. Russia and China have paralysed the UN. Even some of the NATO allies are nervous about sustainability. The wooing and dealing required to generate mass among international actors deeply divided on international security policy would exhaust a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is even more to expect of Ukraine.
IIIThe Arab Gulf states have taken an independent line from the beginning of the war in Ukraine and will probably continue to do so. They are likely to be encouraged by the resilience of authoritarian power projection. Russia has been subject to an unprecedented level of US, European Union and market-driven sanctions, but it has generated record revenues from oil sales and reaped a war dividend in its domestic economy without disgorging the land it has taken from Ukraine or relinquishing its war aims. Its relationship with China, which at one point looked imperilled by Putin’s costly miscalculations, has been reaffirmed by both sides. China, for its part, has absorbed the pressure of US policies, and continued to grow its armed forces and project its economic power. The authoritarian axis, along with the brand, is holding. It received a boost, if not a relaunch, by way of the expansion of BRICS at a summit in October to include leading middle powers in the Middle East and Africa.

However imperfect the expansion, BRICS now includes four top hydrocarbon producers: Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Buoying the enduring value of hydrocarbons are the adoption by parties to the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference of a watered-down resolution to phase hydrocarbons down rather than out, and steadily rising demand for Gulf-produced hydrocarbons in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, Gulf states are insuring themselves against the long-term impact of the green transition on their hydrocarbon revenues with record investments in renewables and economic diversification. This hedging only increases their strategic confidence. It also bolsters the case for a stabilitätspolitik, towards which much Gulf diplomacy is directed. The unprecedented de-escalation starting with the Abraham Accords in 2020 and extending to the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2023 reflect a shared disposition to balance the region politically in order to permit economic growth. Despite the political and humanitarian rupture of the Gaza war, that is likely to remain the Gulf states’ objective. It will incline them to urge, or at least settle for, manageable ceasefires. On Ukraine, they represent many in the global majority. Their position on Palestinian statehood, which enjoys consensus international support, is apt to be more complicated.

In any case, they will not endorse maximal war aims in either conflict. In the rhetoric of Putin, Hamas and even extreme Israeli political leaders, the wars are portrayed as zero-sum games that entail the negation or triumph of existing political identities and entities. Ukraine remains absolutely determined to retain its territory and by implication to erase self-declared, Kremlin-backed political entities in occupied Donbas. While the international community includes fierce advocates of the principles of statehood and sovereignty, in practice compromises of both are usually required to end conflict. A desire to stabilise, if not resolve, the status of disputed territory will grow as the conflicts continue and casualties mount.

For Zelenskyy, two developments could reduce the pressure to compromise. The first would be if he could generate sufficient momentum in reclaiming occupied territory for his war aims to look achievable. The second would be for Europe and NATO to provide a critical increase in the type and duration of their military assistance. Since the two are reciprocally related, their appropriate sequencing is a matter of debate in Europe and Kyiv. Either way, to regain momentum, Ukraine and its allies will have to adjust a stalled strategy. That may well involve taking yet more risks militarily, as well as politically.

Israel’s war will continue. So will its shadow over the Russia–Ukraine war. It may widen further, but it will remain asymmetric. Non-state groups may be drawn in further as targets or aggressors, as the Houthis already have been, but regional powers, including Iran, do not want to fight as states. If the current Gaza war mutates into a broader war involving Israel, and other states, against non-state groups across the region, that may help distinguish it in the minds of politicians and policymakers from Russia’s war in Ukraine, which requires different resources and capabilities. Less helpful to Zelenskyy is the fact that whatever form its next phase takes, Israel’s war is now an active ingredient in the evolving geopolitics that he and his supporters must navigate.

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