When Russian troops poured over the Ukrainian border on the morning of February 24, it marked a watershed moment in postwar European history. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a war between two states. It may even be defined as a war between a superpower and its smaller neighbor. Semantics aside, it is officially a war between two regular armies and states, though the likes of the ongoing conflict—characterized by pitched battles and mechanized armed forces—have not been seen in Europe since World War Two.
During the Cold War, proxy wars between the Western and Soviet blocs limited conflict to an intrastate level. However, the current hostility between Russia and Ukraine follows a different model: full-blown interstate conflict. Though Ukraine has received support from the Western camp—in addition to Australia, Japan, and South Korea—the bloodshed is unlikely to cease anytime soon. Indeed, because Russia has shown its hand and committed significant resources and personnel to the invasion, Moscow will likely remain obstinate in the face of mounting pressure to end the war.
Gulf states watch the conflict unfold from the sidelines. Though the Russo-Ukrainian war holds potential opportunities for the GCC to exploit, the humanitarian crisis created by the fighting will likely cause significant international instability and may impact the GCC in unforeseen ways. Finally, as deaths mount and the war drags on, international calls for the Gulf states to pick a side will increase.
A New Paradigm
Different from proxy wars or worldwide competition between superpowers of the past, the current conflict is not ideological. Instead, Russia and Ukraine have come to blows over divergent interpretations of history and visions of the future. Of course, a rift in national interests has forced Moscow and Kyiv apart, just as geopolitical concerns soured the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union in the postwar period.
The consequences of this war are profound, and the possibility for it to expand into an even larger, more destructive conflict remains all too real. The war has already had a significant impact on the international relations of Europe and on the prospect for future partnerships available to the belligerents. The war will also have an impact on the rest of the world, including the Gulf region.
What the War Means for the EU and the Gulf
The first area of significant change regards Europe’s need for new streams of hydrocarbons to replace imports from Russia. Russia supplies Europe with over 40% of its gas and 25% of its imported oil—the lifeblood of economic activity. This has granted Russia a great deal of leverage over Europe in the past. However, its attack on Ukraine raised severe concerns in European capitals and has driven Brussels to work on reducing the EU’s reliance on Russian oil supplies. To achieve this, Europe will likely look to the Gulf to make up for lost Russian supplies of gas and oil.
Mounting need. for Gulf hydrocarbons will likely drive European powers to engage with Gulf states more sincerely than was perhaps the case in the past. Until recently, the West has viewed the Gulf as a less critical region and has disregarded GCC states’ security concerns. Indeed, the EU has all but ignored GCC fears of the threat posed by the Houthis, Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region, or even concerns of Turkey’s interference in the internal affairs of Arab states. Instead, the West has increasingly focused on the “threat” coming from China and the “Pivot to Asia” policy. The war in Ukraine has reversed this thinking. In the last few weeks, several Western leaders have visited the Gulf since the beginning of the conflict to ensure the flow of energy supplies from the region.
This places the Gulf states in a predicament, especially given the fact that they made a deal with Russia through OPEC+. Changing this deal cannot be done abruptly, but rather will depend on developments in Ukraine. At the same time, the GCC states are not the only suppliers for oil and gas. Iran is also an important energy producer and Europe may expect Iranian energy products to flow to Europe after Tehran and the P5+1 sign a revamped version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The real question remains: what price must be paid to allow more Iranian energy exports to Europe, and are European states willing to grant Tehran greater influence in the region? There are already concerns about Iranian support for militias operating in its near abroad. The revival of the JCPOA would mean the GCC states have to reconsider their security at a time when their oil exports are of the utmost importance.
Gulf states have also paid close attention to the revival of Europe’s military stance —particularly that of Germany—in the wake of the Russian invasion. Berlin, the most important industrial country in Europe, has begun to pay more attention to its defense and military strategies due to resurgent Russian aggression. Germany, perhaps more than any other European state, has the technical expertise and industrial capacity to grow its military power and contribute to the defense of Europe. Whether Berlin decides to take on this role remains to be seen. However, we cannot ignore the fact that it and other European states, like Switzerland and Sweden, have taken steps to break historical precedents of neutrality in light of current events.
Finally, the Russia-Ukraine conflict will likely place immense pressure on other states in the international system, including the Gulf states, to choose a side. As mentioned above, some historically neutral or pseudo-pacifist states have taken strong stances against Russia. For countries outside Europe, however, the choice is less clear, and there remain significant downsides to prematurely siding with one camp over another. Within the GCC states, there is a fear that the West will soon demand a vigorous condemnation of Russian aggression. Forcing states to take a strong stance on the conflict in Ukraine could lead to political infighting within the region and could endanger the diplomatic breakthroughs and rapprochement that have characterized the past year.
The war in Ukraine has already produced atrocities. The humanitarian toll on Ukrainian civilians serves as another reminder of the need to adhere to international law and buttress institutions that resolve conflicts between neighboring states in a peaceful manner. The Gulf states should call for this recourse. However, it is important for the Gulf states to maintain a safe distance from the conflict and to be on the right side in the end. The GCC states must secure their interests and reject the calls from belligerents to support their cause. The Gulf will have an interest wherever oil importers exist, but they shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket. While this conflict continues to destabilize Europe, it is important to remember that unity—with allies, but also within the GCC itself—is crucial. The GCC must end its internal squabbles and build a network of security partnerships to ensure its stability and security in uncertain times.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.