Diplomatic tightrope

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 21 Feb 2023

The Russia-Ukraine war has exacted a heavy toll and left Arab countries struggling to balance their relations with Washington and Moscow.

photo: AP
Biden with Zelenskyy in Kyiv (photo: AP)


Most Arab countries were set to join the majority of UN General Assembly members and vote in favour of a draft resolution calling for “a comprehensive, just and lasting peace” to the Russian Ukraine war “as soon as possible”, and in line with the UN Charter. The 23 February resolution is designed to mark a year since the war began.

Arab diplomatic sources say the language of the draft resolution has been crafted in a way that is compatible with the positions of Arab countries which have refrained from condemning Russia but also refused to condone the annexation of Ukrainian territory.

It will not be the first time Arab countries have supported a UNGA resolution calling for the end of war and the protection of civilians. Sources say the Arab group in the headquarters of the UN has worked closely with the American mission to facilitate the adoption of a UN Security Council presidential statement calling for an end to unilateral actions that undermine the chances for peace in the Middle East, including Israeli demolitions of Palestinian houses and the construction of new settlements on Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

On behalf of the Palestinian Authority, the UAE, the current Arab non-permanent member of the UNSC, and China presented the council with a draft resolution to this effect. Sources in New York, however, say the American and British representatives refused to back the resolution.

“The [collective Arab] decision was to get something to engage the Americans on,” said one source. He added that a number of Arab countries have been at pains to “remind Washington and other key Western capitals that they cannot condemn a war on one people and turn a blind eye to the total violation of another people.”

“We are telling the US and the West in general that this is an appalling show of double standards and of an unfair world order,” he said.

Arab diplomatic sources say they do not expect any serious political engagement with the Palestinian situation before the war in Ukraine ends and there are no indications of when that might happen.

In a statement made in Kyiv during a visit on Monday to mark the anniversary of the war, US President Joe Biden said that Washington will stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in turn, called on the US and the West to step up arms supplies in order to help Ukraine win the war.

On 17 February, Zelensky made a similar appeal via Zoom to Western officials during the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC). For the first time, Russian officials were not invited to the conference.

In an introductory statement to the conference’s annual report, MSC Chair Christoph Heusgen said the end of the war will come when Ukraine wins and until then the West must do what it can to win support for Kyiv against “Russian aggression”.

The MSC warned China against providing Russia with military aid in the form of ammunition and arms. China has already been criticised by the West for its economic aid to Russia over the past year. For its part, Beijing said it was engaged in a diplomatic initiative to facilitate an end to the year-long war and refuted what it called “false” accusations coming from the US which has been “endlessly” sending arms to the battlefield.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladmir Putin used his annual state-of-nation address to reiterate that Russia was facing “an existential threat” and accuse the West of deliberately trying to turn “this conflict to an international conflict”. The Russian president said as long as the West continues to scale up its arms supplies to Ukraine, Russia “will have to defend its borders”.

“There is no way that Russia will be defeated in this war… Russia has the right to be a strong state,” he said.

Putin spoke shortly after the US announced a new $500 million package of military and infrastructure aid to Ukraine. Biden was also expected to use his meeting on Tuesday in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda and other NATO allies to push for more support for Ukraine. According to Polish official press statements, an expanded NATO presence in the country was also on the agenda.

Diplomatic sources in Cairo see only escalation at the moment. “India and China might have wished to step in with some ideas for a compromise, each for its own reasons, but given that there is no winner or loser yet, neither side will concede its position and the war could last for much longer,” said one.

There has been speculation about a Russian offensive to mark the anniversary of the war, with 300,000 soldiers being called up to join the 150,000 Russian troops already on the ground.

The worst scenario for Arab diplomatic sources is not that the war might continue for another year or more but that it could expand into a wider conflict. If this happens, they say it will be increasingly difficult to maintain the balance of relations that most Arab states have tried to maintain between the US, the ultimate ally of many Arab countries, and Russia, seen as a reliable partner in some Arab capitals.

With the exception of Morocco and Jordan, which joined a US-led committee to support Ukraine, almost every other Arab country, including Qatar which hosts a key US military base, has been trying to strike a balanced stand on the conflict. It has not always been easy given the pressure both Moscow and Washington have exercised.

While Gulf countries have made big gains on the back of increased energy prices, Arab states with smaller economies face economic problems caused by ongoing disruption to food supply chains and the inflationary pressures caused by the war.

Speaking off the record, a government source said another year of war will be very troubling for Egypt. Over the past year, the Egyptian pound has been devalued three times and inflation has surged. Egypt has also had to accommodate higher oil prices. In an attempt to lessen the impact on the most vulnerable, the government has launched a range of initiatives, placing more pressure on the state budget.

“We are hoping to be able to sell off some assets to foreign investors to bring in foreign currency to help with the purchase of food essentials. We are covered for the moment but Ramadan, a high consumption month, is just around the corner and we will need to keep stocking up,” said the source.

Egypt, which has an established alliance with the US and is keen to build on its cooperation with Russia, has required its diplomats to walk a fine line over the past year. There are few, if any, signs that this will change.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: