The war in Ukraine – some insights and many question marks

By Michael Harari*

The war in Ukraine poses the most significant challenge to the world order since World War II and following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In many ways the writing was on the wall – Russia was not happy with the rapid expansion of the EU, and especially of NATO, to the east and it expressed it in a variety of ways. Looking back reveals, not surprisingly, a similar pattern. The same had happened in 2008 concerning the war in Georgia, and in 2014 against Ukraine, which ended at the time with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the continued activity in eastern Ukraine. The warnings to Moldova regarding the disputed area of Transnistria, were also from the same “political-strategic mindset”. Despite this, the invasion of Ukraine is a new milestone in this complex, as this time it is a direct offensive move, designed to conquer Ukraine, and return it to “Mother Russia’s lap”. Moreover, it is a strategic move, the purpose of which is to reshape the world order, and the power balance between the superpowers in a different way than has prevailed since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

How can we characterize the immediate consequences of the war in Ukraine?

While it is too early and too pretentious to paint a clear picture at this point, a few key insights can be pointed out:

  • Russia has revealed its strategic intentions and clarified where it is headed in shaping the global arena. (Many) days will tell, of course, if Russia has succeeded in achieving its goals. Much depends on the global response to the invasion of Ukraine.
  • The West has been shocked (and we shall put aside the tactical success of the intelligence achievement in identifying Russia’s offensive moves by the American and British intelligence). The (understandable) sense of victory, largely euphoric, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the accession of most of the former Eastern European countries to the Western camp, clashed with the assertive and blatant Russian response. In many ways, the war in Ukraine has strengthened the ranks among EU countries, which in recent years have faced growing skepticism about the European Vision – the Brexit on the one hand, and the authoritarian governments that have been strengthened in several countries on the other. The Russian attack has united the ranks, at least as of this hour.
  • The U.S. is facing a sharp internal challenge in recent years, as evidenced by Trump’s election, and the severe polarization in the American society and the political arena. These provide signals, naturally, also in the international arena, in which the global leadership of the United States faces a series of question marks in relation to its readiness to hold the baton of leadership. The American response in particular, and of the West in general, will dictate to a considerable extent, the way ahead in Europe and beyond.
  • China is looking at what is happening in Europe with an ambivalent view. Presumably, China is satisfied with the strategic challenge that has been placed at Washington’s doorstep. After all, China has not been satisfied with the unipolar arena of one superpower, and the Chinese – American rivalry has largely shaped the international arena in recent years, certainly from the American side. It is no wonder, then, that China stood, in its own way, alongside Moscow. The question remaining is for how long and how it will proceed later, of course also considering what is happening on the ground. In any case, the shift in the international arena towards a multi-polar arena serves the Chinese interest, alongside the inherent suspicion it has towards Russia.

Is it to be expected that the war will develop into a broader, and perhaps even direct confrontation between Russia and the West?

Prophecy, as always, is very problematic, and as mentioned depends on developments on the ground, and no less important is the way that the results of the war in Ukraine will be perceived. A sense of Russian achievement will increase Moscow’s appetite to continue with the “Grand Design”, that is: restoring the crown to its former glory.

What are the implications for “our neighborhood“, the Middle East and the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea? Several points may be highlighted:

  1. Most countries in the Middle East, including Israel, prefer at this stage to pursue a cautious policy: a weak and implied condemnation of the Russian invasion, which comes as a result of their dissatisfaction and concern about the decline in American attention to this region, and the assertive Russian policy in the area. It is enough to follow the reactions of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to understand this well. It has implications, in the immediate term, for the willingness of the oil and gas producing countries to increase their production to compensate for the American attempt to disconnect, as much as possible, Russian oil and gas from the global markets.
  2. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its consequences will affect all the players in the region. They will have to look closely at how they should behave in the coming weeks and months: the Gulf states in the face of their strategic reliance on the United States (whatever their criticism and disappointment from the various American administrations, and Biden’s at present); Israel in the face of its strategic alliance with Washington and its sense that it should keep its maneuvering ability visa vis Moscow; Egypt in the face of its reliance on the US since the peace agreement with Israel and the dissatisfaction with the Biden administration that has repeatedly raised human rights issues in the country.
  3. The Eastern Mediterranean Basin has in recent years experienced a fascinating strategic renaissance. The rapprochement of Israeli-Turkish relations, although not a direct result of the war in Ukraine, poses a real challenge to both countries and the entire region. The question remains whether the players in the region will be able to adopt a “creative policy”, which will harness the Turkish discomfort from its exclusion from the regional cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. At present we may raise few questions: how will Greece and Cyprus deal with what is required by their membership of the European Union and the steps it is taking against Russia; How will the prominent countries in the regional architecture of the last decade – Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus – behave in the face of Erdogan seeking to integrate into the “regional goldmine”; How will the war in Ukraine affect the regional conflicts – the  Cyprus problem, the Greek-Turkish dispute and also the Lebanese angle.

It is not possible to answer these questions in an established way, for the time being, but one thing is clear: the Eastern Mediterranean is standing at a unique strategic junction, and quite rarely with pretty good cards in its hands.

As mentioned, things are still in the making, and it is appropriate to exercise caution in assessments and especially in future forecasts. However, one thing seems clear: most players in the international arena and in the regional one, will have to choose sides. It seems that ambiguity is only possible for a short term.

*Michael Harari is Israel’s former ambassador to Cyprus and a Mitvim Institute fellow.

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