On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, launching attacks at several strategic locations throughout the country including the capital of Kyiv. The attack on the sovereign state of Ukraine by its Russian neighbor under the guise of a peace mission to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine has been labeled by Western political leaders as an attack on Europe’s political and security order, and as a violation of international law. We spoke with Mark Katz, Professor at George Mason University, about how the Ukraine war could impact the war in Yemen.
1) Broadly speaking, how do you see the wider fallout from the Ukraine conflict over the region?
For as long as it is going on, the conflict in Ukraine and Europe will be a much greater focus of attention than the Middle East both for Western governments and Russia. Washington and Moscow, though, will be paying attention to how Middle Eastern governments position themselves on the conflict. The Assad regime in Syria has, not surprisingly, come out in support of Russia. But while Iran has joined Russia in criticizing NATO, it has not endorsed the Russian intervention in Ukraine. All of America’s Middle Eastern allies now also have good relations with Moscow. They seem to be trying to avoid choosing between the two. Even America’s close ally Israel, which has condemned Russia’s intervention, has made clear that it cannot afford to alienate Moscow due to its deconfliction agreement with Russia over Syria whereby Moscow turns a blind eye to Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah targets there. Turkey is the one Middle Eastern country that has openly supported Ukraine and criticized Russia. Turkey is also the one Middle East country bordering the Black Sea, and which sees the war over Ukraine as directly affecting its security.
2) Russia has played a comparatively balanced role in the Yemen conflict so far. Do you think that this could lead to them taking some sort of shifts in their positioning on Yemen?
In my view, Russian policy toward Yemen won’t change. This is because all three main regional players in Yemen–Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–are not being critical of Russian policy in Ukraine or joining any US sanctions campaign. So long as this remains true, Moscow won’t move against any of them. If Saudi Arabia or the UAE did come out in favor of Ukraine, then Moscow could well move against them in Yemen and elsewhere—and so Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will not take that risk.
3) Do you think that this could have an affect on the United Nations Security Council dynamics, particularly with the UAE’s current position on the council?
I think that the UAE is likely to try to avoid choosing between supporting Russia and supporting the West on the UNSC when it comes to Ukraine. It recently abstained (along with China and India) on a Security Council vote on a US-backed resolution criticizing Russia for invading Ukraine. Since Russia can veto any Security Council resolution criticizing or taking action against it for intervening in Ukraine anyway, the UAE may see little to gain from joining any Western-sponsored resolution on Ukraine.
4) How could this affect diplomatic Gulf–Russia relations related to Yemen and the region in general?
As we have seen with continued Russian support for the ongoing negotiations over the resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in Vienna, Moscow is capable of compartmentalizing its diplomatic efforts: disagreements with the West over Ukraine do not prevent Russia from collaborating with it on issues of common concern. I believe that Russia will adopt the same attitude with regard to diplomacy over the Yemen conflict too. Indeed, by doing so, Moscow may hope to show the world that Russia continues to be a ‘responsible’ great power, and that its actions in Ukraine are exceptional due to what it regards as nefarious NATO policy.
5) Both Russia and Ukraine export a significant amount of wheat to Yemen. Do you think the conflict risks disrupting this?
If Ukrainian grain exports to Yemen and elsewhere are disrupted, then this may be an opportunity for Russia to export even more. And if Russia is able to subdue Ukraine quickly, Ukrainian grain exports may effectively become additional Russian exports. In other words, the Russian occupation authorities or the new pro-Russian Ukrainian government that Moscow seeks to install will definitely want to continue exporting grain to the Middle East and North Africa region. The real question is whether the fighting in Ukraine will disrupt grain harvests there and for how long.
Mark Katz is Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University. He has authored several books about the relationship between Russia and the global south, specifically the Middle East, including Russia and Arabia: Soviet Foreign Policy toward the Arabian Peninsula (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
Adam Baron is a writer and political analyst. He was based in Yemen from 2011–2014. He is also a YPC Board Member.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.
Copy editor: Jatinder Padda
Lviv, Ukraine, December 30, 2014. Armed forces of Ukraine. Military and armored vehicles at the International Center for Peacemaking and Safety before transferring into zone of military conflict. Credit: Drop of Light, via Shutterstock.