by Mark N. Katz
The Ukraine crisis, as well as the broader deterioration in relations between Russia on the one hand and America and Europe on the other, is not taking place in a void. Many momentous events are happening simultaneously, including growing conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim World, increased tension between China and several of its neighbors, and the rise of India and certain other non-Western nations.
The reaction of the world outside the West and the former Soviet Union to the crisis in Ukraine has been remarkably evasive. Although Syria and Venezuela have expressed their support for Russia, many other non-Western states have adopted a more neutral stance. Several Middle Eastern governments actually seem impatient with the Ukrainian crisis for diverting Western attention from the severe crises of their region. This issue just is not as significant for them as it is for countries closer to the conflict zone. Nor do they have any desire to get dragged into it.
Nevertheless, the Ukraine crisis may have wider ramifications. In mid-2014, Russia reacted to European moves to reduce petroleum imports from Russia by signing a deal to redirect petroleum exports to China—reportedly at a very low price. The longer the crisis between Russia and the West continues, the more likely are European-Russian economic ties likely to fray and Russia to become increasingly dependent economically—and perhaps politically—on China.
If this occurs, and if tension between China and India continues as expected, then India will no longer view Moscow as a credible mediator between New Delhi and Beijing much less a restraint on China vis-à-vis India. As much as India may want to resume the glory days of Russian-Indian cooperation that characterized the Sino-Soviet rift period in the Cold War, India may find that only the West can help it vis-à-vis China. It is not clear, though, how much the West will be willing or able to do this. Indeed, the lesson that China might learn from the West’s weak reaction to Russian intervention in Ukraine is that the West is unlikely to react strongly to assertive Chinese policy toward its Asian neighbors either.
Another possible ramification is that the Western desire to reduce dependence on Russian petroleum might serve as an important inducement for Washington in particular to improve relations with Iran. Europe, after all, cannot simply forgo importing gas just because it does not approve of Russian policy toward Ukraine. Iran, though, has huge reserves of natural gas that have not been developed due to American sanctions policy against that country. If Iranian-American relations finally do normalize, then the increased availability of Iranian gas would, in time, allow most European states a means of reducing their dependence on Russian gas. And given both its own economic needs and its own contentious relationship with Russia going back over two centuries now, Iran is not likely to pass up the opportunity to profit at Russia’s expense. Israel and the Gulf Arab states, of course, would try to prevent this, but the tenser Russian-Western relations get, the more compelling the desirability of a Western rapprochement with Iran will become.
Also, if the P5 +1 and Iran successfully achieve a nuclear agreement but Russia and the West become further absorbed with Ukraine and the security of Europe more broadly, the West and Russia will pay less time and attention to the Sunni-Shi’ite conflicts taking place in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and now Yemen. Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies (most Arab governments plus Pakistan and possibly Turkey) on the one hand and Iran and its Shi’ite allies (the Baghdad government in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and probably the Houthis in Yemen) on the other will see Western distraction with affairs in Europe as forcing them to engage more directly in these conflicts or risk the defeat of their Sunni or Shi’ite allies. And this risks the outbreak of a large-scale, prolonged Sunni-Shi’ite conflict. Israel may benefit in the short-run if Arabs and Muslims focus their hostility on each other rather than on the Jewish state. But in the long-run Israel cannot avoid being negatively affected if order breaks down altogether in its neighborhood.
Finally, those who gain the most in this period of turmoil will not likely be those powers that come out ahead in any specific conflict but those potential great powers that avoid involvement in conflict altogether. Two such possibilities are Brazil and Indonesia.
Whether and to what extent the crisis in Ukraine and Europe will give rise to any or all of the possibilities raised here is not yet clear. That the prolongation and intensification of this crisis in Ukraine and Europe will impact international relations elsewhere, though, is.