On 10 March, the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine were scheduled to meet in the Turkish city of Antalya, the first high-level talks between officials of the two countries since Russia moved its troops into Ukraine on 24 February.
The direct talks, which Ankara coordinated with Washington, are part of a wider diplomatic push for de-escalation, the importance of which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underlined earlier in the week during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stolenberg in Brussels.
Containment seems to be the name of the game, with Blinken ruling out yet again the possibility of NATO imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. To do so, he said, would mean NATO shooting down Russian planes that enter Ukrainian airspace, something which would widen, rather than contain, the conflict. Later in the week, Stolenberg said that NATO is committed to preventing the conflict from spilling over the borders of Ukraine.
The immediate aim of initiatives being pursued by France, China, Turkey, and Israel, appeared to be to manage the unfolding humanitarian crisis that has followed Russia’s invasion. That crisis has been worsening against a backdrop of reports of collapsing morale among Russian troops, and in parallel with talks between delegations from Ukraine and Russia close to the Belarus border.
“It does not look as if this is going to be a short war: rather, it will be long, and with significant costs for both sides,” said a European diplomatic source. And despite the number of initiatives pushing for de-escalation, few sources expect a breakthrough any time soon. Indeed, many argue that the point of the initiatives is to prevent Russian President Vladmir Putin from feeling that he has painted himself into a corner.
Both Russia and Ukraine appear to be digging in for an extended conflict, one that is likely to involve guerilla warfare, and with it, mercenaries. In Syria, sources say recruiters are already signing up battle-hardened fighters to join Russian troops in Ukraine. There have also been reports that Russia is beginning to pull out its Wagner mercenaries from North Africa in order to move them to Ukraine.
For its part, Ukraine is seeking volunteers from European countries to fight against the Russian army. “These volunteers are travelling under the eyes of the West which is providing financial support for the operation in return for keeping the NATO out of this dangerous game,” said an Arab diplomatic source speaking from Europe.
Alongside Russia’s military bombardment and the diplomatic initiatives to contain it, the conflict also involves an information war. Moscow has acted to block all non-Russian state-aligned media, including social media platforms.
Meanwhile, the demand for VPN, allowing access to blocked sites, has increased by close to 700 per cent in Russia in the last two weeks, and the clampdown in Russia on protesters against the war is becoming ever more draconian.
Arab and European diplomats say the Kremlin is desperate to control public opinion, and push its own narrative, as the economic sanctions already imposed on Russia begin to make themselves felt.
On Tuesday, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said the EU could impose further asset freezes and travel bans on those in Russia responsible for the spread of disinformation. On the same day, US President Joe Biden announced a ban on Russian oil imports.
“We will not be part of subsidising Putin’s war,” Biden declared, calling the new action a “powerful blow” against Russia, and conceding that it will incur costs for American consumers.
In response to US pressure on its European allies to follow suit and ban Russian oil imports, Moscow has threatened an energy war, saying it could close a major gas pipeline to Germany. In an address on Russian state television, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said: “A rejection of Russian oil would lead to catastrophic consequences for the global market,” claiming the price of oil could rise to more than $300 a barrel.
Ahmed Kandil, head of the Energy Research Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says that while no European energy producing country could compensate for a full cut of Russian gas supplies to Europe, alternative sources include Algeria and Egypt, a key liquefied natural gas (LNG) hub.
Russian gas last year covered a third of Europe’s needs, though in the wake of the Ukraine crisis the EU has published plans to cut dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds this year, and end its reliance completely by 2030.
According to a European source, Egypt has increased its imports of gas from Israel by close to 50 per cent, and has already sent two ships with LNG to European ports.
Energy sources also say that Qatar is likely to step in to compensate for falling supplies, with one Washington-based diplomatic source saying Biden has already received commitments to this end from Doha. According to the same source, the US president is also considering how best to persuade Saudi Arabia to up its oil production, something Riyadh has so far resisted.
Like some other regional capitals, Riyadh, which has recently come to perceive Moscow as its most reliable transactional ally, is caught in a bind. Given the possibility of a protracted military and economic conflict, it must carefully calibrate its responses to Washington’s demands.
It will certainly be keeping a close eye on Iran, and the possibility of a new nuclear deal being signed that will allow Tehran to bump up its oil production. Once a deal is signed, Iran will also gain access to $7 billion currently frozen in South Korean banks, something which regional diplomats say will allow Tehran to upgrade its support to regional allies, including in Yemen.
Russia has already attempted to derail the signing of a new deal by placing maximalist demands as a condition for its approval. Yet despite its close alliance with Moscow, Tehran will be loath to pass up a deal, say sources close to the negotiations.
With the possible return of Iran to regional equations, the re-emergence of Turkey as a key regional player, and Israel’s first ever foray in mediating international relations, Arab countries have a great deal to think about beyond the immediate economic costs or benefits of the war.
Tuesday’s talks between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh will have broached the issues involved, as will this week’s ministerial level consultations at the headquarters of the Arab League.
Arab capitals are facing tough questions, not only over their role versus other non-Arab regional players, but how the shift in the international balance of relations — with Russia caught up in the Ukraine crisis, China focused on its economy, and the US and EU demanding its traditional allies provide substantial support — will impact on them.
* Reported by Salah Nasrawi, Dina Ezzat, and Amr Kandil in Cairo, Bassel Oudat in Damascus, and Mohamed Abu Shaar in Gaza
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.