With Russia moving forces onto the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine, Europe can yet avoid a new Crimean war—but some argue that it is already caught up in a renewed Cold War. The Ukraine conflict is reshaping Russia’s relations with the United States and the European Union, and the repercussions will be widely felt—including in the Middle East.
For one thing, events in Ukraine are sure to intensify the long-running struggle over natural gas supplies to the EU, given that Ukraine is the main transit route for Russia’s own exports. Attempts to secure gas for the EU from other sources—including via pipelines over Turkish territory—must now seem all the more urgent to European governments. The long-term effects will be felt as far away as in Qatar and Iran, two major gas producers. And of course, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran are all intimately involved with the Syrian war.
If the conflict in Ukraine develops into a lasting standoff between the U.S.-EU camp and Russia, it may shift the dynamics in Syria in more direct ways as well. Both the rebel movement and the government in Damascus are by now fully dependent on foreign support, with the United States and Russia as two key actors. A crisis in Ukraine will not in itself alter the political interests of these states in Syria, but it will greatly affect the relations between them.
“The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not,” Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in a New York Times op-ed in September 2013, arguing against a U.S. military strike on President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. “Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the [UN] Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”
Of course, Putin’s word did not carry any great moral weight in international affairs even then. (Neither did Washington’s after the United States illegally invaded Iraq in 2003, cavalierly breaking all those principles that it now accuses Russia of violating.) But the past few days must still have been instructive to those who had sought to convince themselves of Russia’s charitable motives for propping up Assad.
By exposing the hollowness of Putin’s public argument on Syria, events in Ukraine could for good or bad reopen the way to unilateral action by his rivals—or even help provoke it, if Russia manages to antagonize the United States and the European states so thoroughly that they decide to strike back where they still can.
More immediately, the chemical weapons deal concluded between Russia and the United States in September 2013 might now be in danger. The deal laid out a plan for the dismantlement of Assad’s chemical weapons program, but the implementation of this plan has faltered of late. The Syrian government is reporting perfectly legitimate security concerns as a reason for not being able to fulfill its commitments on time, but it may also be dragging its feet and trying to extract concessions over the time and scope of the disarmament process.
So far, the operation has been financed almost entirely by the United States and the EU, with minor contributions from Russia and China (and none whatsoever from Iran or the Arab League states). But regardless of who has been stuck with the bill, the United States and Russia are in fact both heavily invested in the September agreement. Neither government has any real reason to abandon it, since it serves as a linchpin of their current policy in Syria.
Even so, it is of course possible that relations could fray over Ukraine to a point where Washington and Moscow cease to work effectively together in Syria, thereby ending pressure on Assad to complete the deal. If that is allowed to happen, it is again worth recalling that the United States never took the threat of air strikes against Assad’s government off the table. U.S. President Barack Obama simply decided to hold off on unilateral action for as long as Syrian authorities demonstrated full cooperation. And making that happen was Putin’s job.
Of course, the U.S. president does not really seem to want intervention in Syria. Rather, Obama has wagered much of his prestige on collaboration with Russia to achieve a negotiated containment and scaling down of the Syrian conflict through the United Nations–backed peace process known as Geneva II.
The first two rounds of the Geneva II peace conference, held on January 22–31 and February 10–15, achieved almost nothing. The United States and its allies were clearly frustrated, and many now seem to have lost faith in Russia’s assurances that it could deliver concessions from Assad once negotiations began.
With no date set for a third round, both sides have already been ratcheting up their rhetoric and increasing arms deliveries to the conflict. Add the Ukraine crisis to that mess, and any useful progress on Geneva II becomes unlikely indeed.
In the larger scheme of things, what Ukraine means for Syria is a remodeling of Russia’s relations with the United States and the EU. By virtue of U.S. global power, Obama will be expected by many European nations to take the lead on Ukraine, just like they expected him to do in Syria. But in Ukraine, the stakes are far higher for European nations than for the United States itself. They are highest of all for Russia, which views events in Ukraine as intrinsically linked to its own national security. And Russia has now made its move, opting for massive escalation.
Many members of the EU, particularly among Moscow’s former subjects in the Eastern bloc, are understandably terrified by Putin’s saber rattling. They will argue for a punishing response to what they view as the last and worst in a long line of provocations. At the same time, others may feel that the United States and the EU cannot hope to roll back Russian advances and should at least avoid a more fundamental breakdown in Russian-EU relations. But whatever path is chosen, European states that have remained hands-off on a distant conflict like that in Syria—think, for example, of Germany—will now be fully involved in facing Russia on the Ukraine front.
How that will affect their behavior in Syria remains to be seen. By energizing the European opposition to Putin, the Ukraine affair could sway the EU as a whole toward greater active involvement in Syria. But for all of these states, the future of Ukraine is of course vastly more important than Syria itself will ever be. Leaders in Moscow, Brussels, Berlin, and Washington may well end up using their political leverage in Syria as a bargaining chip to gain concessions where they think it really matters—that is, in Ukraine.
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