John P. Ruehl

China's geopolitical inroads into Central Asia are coming at Russia’s expense

At the recent Commonwealth for Independent States (CIS) summit held on October 14 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon expressed previously inconceivable remarks. His public admonishment of Russian President Vladimir Putin to treat Central Asian states with more respect showed the growing confidence of Central Asian leaders amid Russia’s embroilment in Ukraine and China’s expanding regional influence.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

After coming under Russian imperial rule in the 18th and 19th centuries, five Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—emerged independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.

While these countries remained heavily dependent on Russia for security, economic, and diplomatic support, China saw an opportunity in their vast resources and potential to facilitate trade across Eurasia. Chinese-backed development and commerce increased after the Soviet collapse and expanded further after the launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013.

Billions of dollars in investment, access to Chinese goods, and opening up China’s enormous consumer market allowed Beijing to restructure Central Asian economies. Soviet-era gas pipeline networks, for example, traditionally forced much of the region’s natural resources to flow through Russia to access the European market. The Central Asia-China pipeline and Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline are just some of the newer pipelines built to transport resources to the Chinese market instead.

These developments have added to friction between Central Asian states and Russia. Disputes between Turkmenistan and Russia over gas prices and a mysterious pipeline explosion in 2009 saw Russian gas imports from Turkmenistan decline until they halted completely in 2016, upending Turkmenistan’s access to Europe. Turkmenistan redirected much of its supply to China for the next three years, before a rapprochement with Moscow in 2019 saw imports to Russia resume.

This affair demonstrated the economic opportunities China could provide to Central Asian states that were previously dependent on Russia. Competing Chinese and Russian attempts to supply Central Asia with COVID-19 vaccines was another demonstration of Beijing’s multifaceted approach to increasing its regional influence.

Sensing the inevitability of Chinese investment in revolutionizing regional economies, the Kremlin announced the “Greater Eurasian Partnership” in 2015. This partnership attempted to integrate the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of, with the BRI. Though this partnership has only been partially successful, Putin has sought to use Chinese investment to help develop Russia’s Far East.

Russia’s connections to the remaining Soviet political networks and military power in the region have allowed Moscow to contend with China’s growing economic edge in Central Asia over the last two decades. But the increasing international pressure on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine has suddenly upset the traditional “division of labor” between Russia and China in Central Asia. Though still a vital partner to Central Asian states, Russia risks losing greater economic and security ground to China in the coming years.

After cross-border trade between the EU and Russia and Belarus was reduced following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, China placed renewed focus on developing the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), or “Middle Corridor,” of the BRI. Instead of Chinese trade flowing from Russia into Europe, it is increasingly being transported through Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Turkey. The newly built Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway, as well as other projects like the China-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway, will further erode Russia’s importance to the BRI.

On September 14, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Kazakhstan on his first foreign trip since the pandemic began. His destination was symbolic—the BRI was first announced by Xi in Kazakhstan in 2013, and the country has fashioned itself as the “buckle” of the project.

Alongside signing economic deals during his visit in September, Xi vowed to back Kazakhstan “in the defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” This contrasts with Russian political figures who have questioned the validity of Kazakhstan’s statehood in the past, including Putin. Xi then traveled to Uzbekistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on September 15 and 16 and signed deals worth $16 billion with Uzbekistan, dwarfing the $4.6 billion signed between Uzbekistan and Russia.

China’s auto industry has also increased its manufacturing presence and share of the market in Central Asia in 2022, as sanctions have hindered Russia’s production capabilities.

China’s growing military presence in Central Asia has similarly been a major concern for the Kremlin. Over the last decade, China has rapidly increased its arms exports to the region. And though China has conducted bilateral military exercises in Central Asia since 2002 in coordination with the SCO, in 2016 China held its first antiterrorism exercises with Tajikistan, and held the “Cooperation 2019” exercises with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, “marking the first time their national guard units had trained with China on counterterrorism.”

In 2021, Tajikistan also approved the construction of a Chinese-funded military base in the country near its border with Afghanistan—though China’s focus on Tajikistan is “linked more to Afghanistan than to Central Asia as a whole.” However, the use of Chinese private military and security companies (PMSCs) in Africa and the Middle East has also led to concern in Moscow that China’s PMSCs may expand further across Central Asia.

Moscow’s strained military situation became evident in September, when Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance, engaged in deadly border clashes. While Russia and the CSTO were unable to calm hostilities, the leaders of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan met on the sidelines of the SCO summit on September 16 to cool tensions.

Nonetheless, several factors inhibit China from eclipsing Russia’s geopolitical influence in Central Asia. Beijing has typically been hesitant to commit military forces abroad and continues to see the Russian military as an asset against instability in the region. The Russian-led CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan in January 2022 showed the Kremlin was capable of stabilizing vulnerable national governments facing social unrest in the region, as well as cementing their authority and international legitimacy.

Russia also operates a military base in Tajikistan, while Kyrgyzstan hosts a Russian military air base. Kazakhstan’s large ethnic Russian minority, meanwhile, holds local economic and political power, and the Kazakh government remains fearful of a Russian military intervention ostensibly to protect them.

Additionally, Russia retains some economic leverage over Central Asian states. Russia conducts billions of dollars worth of trade with them annually and maintains several Soviet legacy projects that have bound Central Asia to it, such as common gas and oil pipelines, waterways, railway networks, and electricity grids. Central Asian states also have some of the largest annual remittance rates in the world, with the remittances from Russia to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan accounting for roughly 30 percent of their gross domestic product in 2021.

The Kremlin also has the ability to shape local perceptions of Russia through its dominant media and social media channels in Central Asia. But positive public opinion toward China across the region steadily declined between 2017 and 2021 for a variety of reasons, especially in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Many Central Asians are concerned over China’s “debt-trap diplomacy,” while large numbers of Chinese workers brought in to develop BRI projects in the region have resulted in deadly protests and clashes with locals.

Competition between China and Central Asian states over scarce regional water supplies, as well as China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim ethnic group, who “see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations,” have also damaged China’s ties in the region.

Evidently, China’s own obstacles and Russia’s lingering presence in the region have helped sustain the geopolitical balance in Central Asia. But mutual pledges by China and Russia to respect one another’s core interests, most recently repeated in June 2022, have contributed the most to preventing greater agitation in the region. While Beijing and Moscow are destined to compete in Central Asia, careful diplomacy will likely prolong their cautious cooperation.

Ultimately, China remains more concerned with Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the broader Asia Pacific region, while Russia is more preoccupied in its eastern and southern regions, most notably Ukraine.

Russia has so far borne the brunt of U.S.-led efforts to contain their foreign policies. But the launch of the U.S.-China trade war in 2018 under former U.S. President Donald Trump marked a serious turn in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, which has continued under President Joe Biden. The Biden administration (as well as the EU) has criticized and sanctioned China over its policies in Xinjiang, and most recently imposed significant technology export controls on China on October 7.

Heightened tensions with the West will draw China and Russia closer together. While Central Asia is where their interests collide the most, Beijing and Moscow will continue to avoid conflict there to focus on pushing back against Western power elsewhere in the world.

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.

Why support for Ukraine could dwindle in the final months of 2022

With the U.S. midterm elections looming and Europe’s economic situation deteriorating, the threat of reduced international support for Ukraine could limit Kyiv’s options heading into the new year.

Since February 24, 2022, Ukraine’s armed forces have successfully defended much of their country. But without American assistance, the Ukrainian military campaign would have likely floundered months ago. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. has provided the lion’s share of military aid to Ukraine, alongside enormous financial and humanitarian assistance. With the U.S. midterm elections to be held on November 8, 2022, both President Joe Biden’s administration and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fear that these channels of support for Ukraine will diminish significantly.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

The economic effects of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, such as higher energy prices, have taken their toll on American voters, and recent polling shows that U.S. support for the war is waning, especially among Republicans. According to Pew Research Center, the belief that the U.S. is providing too much support to Ukraine surged among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents from 9 percent in March to 32 percent in September.

While the U.S. economy is in a relatively good state compared to much of the rest of the world, Republicans have exploited domestic economic concerns to undermine Biden and the Democrats for months. And though many influential Republicans, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, continue to voice strong support for Ukraine, others aligned with the Tea Party and former U.S. President Donald Trump form the GOP’s increasingly vocal “isolationist wing.”

The influence of this populist group has been reflected in the growing split between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, with both of them recently sparring over the issue of Ukraine aid. In May, 57 House Republicans voted against the $40 billion aid package to Ukraine, and during the middle of October, McCarthy warned that the U.S. is “not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.” With elections polls predicting a Republican House majority, future aid packages to Ukraine are likely to face greater GOP resistance.

Support for NATO and Ukraine among Trump-leaning Republicans has traditionally been low. Trump derided NATO throughout his 2016 presidential campaign and presidency, and his July 2019 phone call with Zelenskyy led to the first official efforts to impeach him. Florida Republican Governor and Trump ally Ron DeSantis was also comfortable enough to ignore calls to pull his state’s $300 million investments from Russia shortly after the war began.

Unfortunately for Kyiv, Democratic support for Ukraine has also fallen, according to the September Pew Research Center poll, as anxiety over the economy, access to abortion, and other issues have mounted. Another Pew Research Center poll from October found that the economy is the top issue for voters heading into the midterm elections. Biden’s explanation of rising inflation as “Putin’s price hike in gasoline” has only reinforced the notion in some voters’ minds that U.S.-led sanctions targeting Moscow and support for Ukraine have been partly responsible for their economic pain.

And on October 24, 30 members of the progressive caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Joe Biden urging him to hold direct talks with Russia and end the war. While the letter was retracted the next day, it further demonstrated Ukraine’s falling support with the left in the U.S.

Any significant drop in American assistance to Ukraine—the U.S. has provided more than 52 billion euros in military, humanitarian, and financial aid to Ukraine from January 24 to October 3, 2022—will severely impact the latter’s ability to defend itself. According to Christoph Trebesch, head of the team compiling the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine Support Tracker, “The U.S. is now committing nearly twice as much as all EU countries and institutions combined.”

The UK has led major European efforts to defend Ukraine and is on track to train up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers on its own soil this year. But the UK is experiencing political destabilization following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September and the resignation of two prime ministers in under two months. These events have inhibited the British government’s ability to form a coherent foreign policy and expand its support for Ukraine.

Furthermore, the UK has its own disputes with the EU regarding Brexit and is unlikely to rally many of the EU states to join its efforts to support Ukraine without strong U.S. coordination.

The EU has sent billions of euros of financial aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict, but far less humanitarian and military aid. Bilateral military aid from Ukraine’s most important EU suppliers—France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Poland—fell significantly since the end of April 2022, with no new military pledges being made in July. Large-scale European military assistance only resumed following the launch of the successful Ukrainian offensive that has reclaimed a large part of the territory since early September.

Yet around the same time (on September 5), EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that member states’ weapons stocks were “severely ‘depleted’” after months of providing Ukraine with arms, reinforcing perceptions of the EU’s inability to provide long-term military support to Kyiv.

On October 17, the EU formed its own military training program for Ukrainian soldiers. France declared it would train 2,000 on its soil, while other EU members will train another 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Though they are unlikely to match NATO-led initiatives, the latest round of EU sanctions against Russia, which were approved on October 5, demonstrate Europe’s commitment to keeping pressure on Russia.

A drastic increase in EU assistance to Ukraine and confrontation with Russia, however, remains unlikely. Poland, the leading member state advocating for these policies, was the largest recipient of EU funds between 2007 and 2020, and will not be able to coalesce the bloc for these purposes on its own. And with Europe’s energy costs mounting, the ability of the EU countries to maintain, let alone increase, their support for Ukraine may also soon come under much further strain.

As in the U.S., much of Europe’s political right-wing (as well as left-wing political elements) is already far less enthusiastic about maintaining support for Ukraine than the political mainstream. Citing economic pain at home, fueled in part by rising energy costs, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has led the continental criticism against Russian sanctions since the Ukrainian invasion. His enthusiastic reception at the August 4 Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, proves that these policies have not caused much concern in the GOP.

With the threat of reduced support from the U.S. and Europe, Ukraine’s ability to hold off Russia will weaken significantly in 2023. While most UN members voted to condemn Russia for its invasion, only Western allies like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have chosen to sanction Russia and aid Ukraine. This is unlikely to change, particularly if pressure from Washington and Brussels subsides.

Because the newly elected and reelected representatives in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections will not take office until January 2023, the Biden administration appears intent on using this window to build up its support for Kyiv. Lawmakers have begun discussing a $50 billion aid package for Ukraine that is expected to be finalized by January.

One problem with this strategy is that winter weather risks grinding Ukraine’s autumn offensive to a halt. Any potential Russian counteroffensive may wait until next spring, and Ukraine’s needs may have changed by then. Russia has shifted strategies throughout the war, including bolstering the use of artillery, Iranian drones, and other weapons. The first of the roughly 300,000 Russian reservists and volunteers are expected to arrive soon in Ukraine, allowing Russia to change strategies once more.

By then the war would be more than a year old, and U.S. public and political support would likely have fallen further. Having already provided more than 52 billion euros in military, humanitarian, and financial aid to Ukraine since January 24, 2022, Washington is unlikely to provide Ukraine with more large aid packages until the U.S. domestic economic situation improves.

It remains to be seen if Republicans win the House or the Senate. And if Ukrainian forces manage to regain a significant amount of territory from Russia over the next few months, then current levels of U.S. support could be mostly maintained even if Republicans gain control over either chamber of Congress. Nonetheless, Kyiv may be wise to prepare for one more extensive U.S. aid package and focus on maintaining support for current sanctions while appealing for greater help from Europe. While the Ukrainian armed forces may not mount any new major offensives for the foreseeable future, they may be able to prevent the Russian military from doing so.

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.

How Europe is navigating its energy crises

A multifaceted response from Europe has so far prevented its energy woes from creating widespread social and economic destabilization. But with winter approaching, the crisis is far from over and risks are getting worse.

While European energy prices have eased slightly in recent months, stress continues to build across a continent that has long been dependent on access to cheap Russian energy.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Protests related to high energy costs have been held from Belgium to the Czech Republic in Europe. Fuel shortages have led to long queues to buy petrol at gas stations in France. The Don’t Pay UK movement has urged British citizens to enter a “bill strike” by refusing to pay energy bills until gas and electricity prices are reduced to an “affordable level.” Europe’s remarkably high energy prices have also fueled climate change protests across the continent.

European governments have resorted to diverse measures to manage the crisis. After the EU banned Russian coal imports, coal regulations were reduced in Poland, which has led to illegal coal mines being operated in the country. Aid packages, such as Austria’s 1.3 billion euro initiative, aim to help companies struggling with mounting energy costs. The UK “has capped the price of average household energy bills at 2,500 pounds ($2,770) a year for two years from October” and also announced a cap on energy per unit for businesses, charities, and NGOs in September.

Italy has shown considerable capability in diversifying its energy imports from Russia since the beginning of the year to reduce its dependence on the Kremlin. Under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy began to increase its reliance on Russian energy, a process that continued even after his election defeat in 2011 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

This reliance came to an abrupt end after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Italy signed natural gas deals with Egypt and Algeria in April and held additional talks with the Republic of Congo and Angola regarding energy supplies as well. In June, Italy also purchased two additional liquefied natural gas (LNG) vessels, adding to the three LNG terminals it already operates, to further diversify its natural gas (gas for short) supplies.

Not all countries, however, have matched Italy’s success of diversifying their energy imports. France declared it would cap power and gas price increases for households at 15 percent in 2023. But since more than half of France’s 56 nuclear reactors have been shut down for maintenance (Europe’s summer drought also prevented the water-based cooling systems of the French nuclear plants from functioning), France will struggle with mounting energy costs as well as upholding its traditional role as an electricity exporter to other European countries.

Like other European countries, Germany chose to nationalize some of its major energy companies, such as Uniper in September. In October, the German government proposed a 200 billion euro energy subsidies initiative. With gas storage projected to reach 95 percent capacity by November, Germany has also provided itself with significant protection.

But Germany lacks LNG infrastructure and remains vulnerable if Russia cuts off gas through pipelines completely. Currently, Germany is at level two of the country’s three-tier emergency gas plan, with the last stage introducing direct government intervention in gas distribution and rationing.

Because Germany makes the largest contributions of funds to the EU, its economic vulnerability poses concerning implications for the rest of the bloc. And in addition to suffering from gas shortages, Central European countries will “also suffer from the effects of gas rationing in the German industrial sector, given their integration into German supply chains.” Such uncertainty has blunted investment in the region, further compounding Europe’s economic issues.

These issues have underlined the perception that while Russian coal has been relatively easy to ban in Europe and Russian oil is slowly being phased out, Russian natural gas remains too important for much of the continent’s energy mix to be shunned completely.

Dozens of ships carrying LNG have been stuck off Europe’s coast, as the plants “that convert the seaborne fuel back to gas are operating at maximum limit.” High gas prices have meanwhile resulted in key industries across Europe that are reliant on the energy source to shut down, sparking fears of “uncontrolled deindustrialization.”

In addition to national strategies, European countries have pursued collective initiatives to confront the energy crisis. On September 27, Norway, Denmark, and Poland officially opened the Baltic Pipe to supply Poland with natural gas. On October 1, Greece and Bulgaria began commercial operation of the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline, which serves as another link in the Western-backed Southern Gas Corridor project to bring natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe.

On October 13, France began sending Germany natural gas for the first time, based on an agreement that “Germany would generate more electricity to supply France during times of peak consumption.” The European Council stated on September 30 that EU states will implement “a voluntary overall reduction target of 10 percent of gross electricity consumption and a mandatory reduction target of 5 percent of the electricity consumption in peak hours.”

Additionally, the EU continues to debate imposing a price cap on Russian gas to the EU, and the G7 countries and its allies agreed on September 2 to implement a price cap on Russian crude oil and oil products in December 2022 and February 2023, respectively.

Germany, however, has led criticism over the “proposal to cap the price on all gas imports to the EU,” stating that the EU lacks the authority to do so, alongside expressing concerns that gas providers will simply sell gas to other countries. Norway, traditionally Europe’s second-largest gas provider after Russia, also indicated it would not accept a cap on gas, and Russia stated it would not sell oil or gas to countries doing so either. The resulting restrictions in energy supply would likely further raise prices.

European countries also remain bound by their own interests, further undermining multilateral cooperation. Croatia, for example, announced it would ban natural gas exports in September. Many European countries have criticized Germany’s planned 200 billion euro subsidies plan for fear that it “could trigger economic imbalances in the bloc.” Germany, meanwhile, declared it would not support a joint EU debt issuance on October 11, only later agreeing to the measures out of pressure from its European allies.

In September, the UK accused the EU of pushing British energy prices higher by severing energy cooperation following Brexit. The U.S. and Norway have also been singled out by EU members for profiting off the current energy crisis.

Varying levels of vulnerability have resulted in some European countries breaking with the continental norm and negotiating with Russia. Serbia, which is not in NATO or part of the EU, signed its own natural gas deal with Russia in May, while Hungary drew the ire of Western allies by signing its own gas deal with Russia in August. Hungary was among the first European countries to agree to purchase Russian natural gas in rubles, stabilizing the Russian currency as sanctions were placed on the Russian economy. If the crisis worsens considerably, other countries may follow suit.

As Europe’s energy crisis has continued, many countries across the world have become increasingly wary. European demand for LNG and a willingness to pay premiums has meant suppliers are increasingly rerouting gas to the continent.

Though rich competitors like South Korea and Japan have been able to contend with European competition for LNG, it has caused shortages elsewhere. Bangladesh and Pakistan, for example, have struggled to secure their traditional LNG imports since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Blackouts in these countries have increased, causing them to resort to more carbon-intensive energy alternatives and prompting renewed talks with Russia over LNG imports and developing pipeline networks to supply natural gas to Asia.

Europe’s decades-long exposure to Russian energy means that its current energy crisis will persist for years. Even with predictions for a relatively mild upcoming winter, overcoming this energy crisis will require cooperation and sacrifice among European states—particularly if the war in Ukraine escalates further. While the West’s solidarity will be put to the test, poorer, energy-vulnerable countries will continue to fall victim as a result of the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.

How Iran and Turkey are joining Russia and China to bypass Western global influence

While far from an alliance, the SCO is increasingly utilized for managing Eurasian affairs without traditional Western mechanisms and organizations.

Held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, from September 15 to 16, the 2022 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Heads of State Council demonstrated that the SCO was continuing to evolve into a viable international political congregation independent from the West.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Beginning in the early 1800s, international organizations (IOs) began to emerge as modest arbiters of European affairs. But during and after World War II, new IOs established themselves as far more prominent actors on a global scale. The United Nations (UN), the Arab League, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and several other IOs were created to manage the affairs of their member states.

After the Soviet collapse, more IOs were created to manage the independence of new states, globalization, and regional cooperation. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), created in 1991, attempted to coordinate military, economic, and political policies between post-Soviet states. The European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU), created in 1993 and 2002, respectively, bound member states more forcefully to common economic and political norms. Other IOs, like the Arctic Council (1996) and Asia Cooperation Dialogue (2002), aimed to foster broader regional cooperation.

Most new international organizations meshed neatly with the Western-led liberal world order. But in 2001, the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was formally announced, and it established itself as an exclusionary outlier. Originally known as the Shanghai Five when it was created in 1996, it included China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, with Uzbekistan later joining when it evolved into the SCO in 2001.

The SCO was created partly to help coordinate a new era of peaceful relations between Moscow and Beijing and to manage their coalescing interests in Central Asian states. In addition, combatting the “Three Evils” of extremism, separatism, and terrorism were major priorities for the organization, which included data and intelligence sharing and common military drills among its member states.

Over time, the SCO began to embrace greater political and economic integration. Support for autocratic rule and limiting criticism of human rights violations set it apart from other Western-aligned IOs, with the SCO also overseeing the growth of joint energy projects, the fostering of trade agreements, and the introduction of the SCO Interbank Consortium in 2005 “to organize a mechanism for financing and banking services in investment projects supported by the governments of the SCO member states.”

But the organization’s most pressing vocation was facilitating a multipolar world order. Investing in an independent forum for economic, political, and military affairs outside of Western influence became a key component of Russian and Chinese attempts to reduce Western power in global affairs.

Russia and China have also developed complementary mechanisms to the SCO, which have helped decentralize its mission. Following the blacklisting of several Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) in 2014, for example, the Kremlin approved the creation of the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) to replicate SWIFT and introduced the National Payment Card System (now known as Mir), while China created the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS).

These initiatives even proved attractive to states that were more aligned with the Western-led global order. India and Pakistan began SCO accession talks in 2015 and officially joined the organization in 2017. Despite relatively positive relations with the West, India and Pakistan have both faced Western criticism over human rights and democratic backsliding in recent years. India’s introduction of platforms like RuPay in 2012 and Unified Payments Interface, which eroded the traditional dominance of Visa and Mastercard in the country, also complemented SCO’s attempts to reduce Western economic preeminence globally.

At the 2022 summit of the SCO Heads of State Council, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev reiterated that the SCO was not an anti-U.S. or anti-NATO alliance. But the organization’s original motive to create a multipolar world was echoed in its Samarkand Declaration, the final declaration of this meeting, and continues to conflict with Washington’s attempts to maintain the U.S.-led world order. According to the declaration, the member states “confirm[ed] their commitment to [the] formation of a more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order.”

This core stratagem continues to appeal to countries around the world. Alongside the leaders of its eight member states, the SCO invited the presidents of Belarus, Mongolia, and Iran as official observers to the recent summit. Having started its accession process in 2021, Iran signed a memorandum of understanding with the SCO to join the institution by April 2023.

The SCO would likely alleviate Iran’s sense of economic isolation stemming from Western sanctions, a sentiment shared by Iranian officials at the summit and something that was also noted back in 2007. Belarus has also found itself under increasing sanctions in recent years and enhanced its accession procedures to join the SCO in Samarkand.

The presidents of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Turkey were also invited to the SCO summit as special guests, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announcing that his country would seek full membership to the SCO. In 2012, Erdoğan joked to Russian President Vladimir Putin about abandoning Turkey’s EU aspirations if Russia would allow them into the SCO. Turkey’s renewed attempt comes at a time when its ties with the rest of the Western world are increasingly strained and could instigate other NATO states, and potentially the EU states, to join the SCO as well.

The SCO has also established strong relations with other IOs. Representatives from ASEAN, the UN, the Russian-dominated CIS, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) were invited to the 2022 summit. Notably absent were any representatives from the EU or NATO. Meanwhile, in 2005, the U.S. was rejected from gaining observer status, solidifying the SCO’s status as a bulwark against U.S. influence in Eurasia.

Like all major international organizations, the SCO faces systemic obstacles that hinder its effectiveness and long-term viability. At the recent summit in Uzbekistan, China’s Xi Jinping was welcomed to the country by his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Putin, however, was greeted by Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov, highlighting Russia’s strained relations with many of the former Soviet states and the growing strength of Beijing over Moscow. Unlike in the CSTO and the EAEU, Russia is not the dominant actor in the SCO, and will increasingly have to contend with China’s predominant authority.

Disputes also remain between SCO member states. India and Pakistan, for example, are afflicted with an ongoing struggle over Kashmir. China and India have their own territorial disputes and have engaged in minor violent skirmishes since India joined the SCO. Additionally, deadly clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan erupted during the recent summit, while admitting Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of which are SCO dialogue partners, will only further increase the number of members currently locked in their own territorial disputes.

But the SCO has consistently portrayed itself as a vehicle to supervise these issues. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met for talks during the summit to assuage tensions. And since 2002, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) has encouraged military coordination between member states, with the Indian and Pakistani militaries conducting RATS drills in 2021. More drills between them are planned for October, and while they are aimed primarily at countering unrest from Afghanistan, they are also part of SCO’s attempts to manage relations of member states.

China and Russia have also agreed to “synergize” the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the EAEU to help mitigate possible tension between them, with both Xi and Putin meeting on the sidelines of the 2022 SCO summit and pledging to respect each other’s core interests.

The SCO member states clearly believe the organization can, and has greater potential to, effectively manage their concerns and regional affairs, and its appeal continues to grow. Besides the additional SCO dialogue partners (Cambodia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt were granted the status of SCO dialogue partners at the 2022 SCO summit. Myanmar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Maldives were also granted the status of dialogue partners.

Russian and Chinese influence will fall as more members join, which will also dilute consensus within the organization. But it remains a Beijing and Moscow-led initiative to manage world affairs and to demonstrate that the “international community” is not just the West. With almost half of the world’s population and a quarter of the global GDP, the SCO is increasingly becoming a representative of the Global South.

By pooling together other IOs into an umbrella forum, the SCO can further its goal of challenging the wider Western-dominated IO ecosystem and prevent Washington from setting the global agenda. This will require the constructive management of Russian and Chinese ambitions and the increasingly complex needs of more member states.

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.

Understanding Libya’s relentless destabilization

Libya’s competing domestic actors are being exploited by foreign powers seeking to downplay their role in the fragile country.

After leading a military coup in 1969, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi cemented his rule over Libya for more than 40 years. A variety of different political ideologies—Pan-Arabism, Pan-Africanism, socialism, Islamic leftism, and others—characterized his leadership, which were further reinforced by a cult of personality. While living standards for Libyans increased under his rule, Gaddafi attracted resentment among some non-Arab populations, Islamic extremists, and other political opponents.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

As the Arab Spring spread outward from neighboring Tunisia into Libya in February 2011, protestors and militant groups seized parts of the country. Loyalist armed forces retook control of much of what they had lost over the next few weeks after the outbreak of the protests, but Gaddafi’s historical antagonism toward Western governments saw them seize the opportunity to impose a no-fly zone and bombing campaign against Libyan forces in March 2011.

Alongside assistance from regional Middle Eastern allies, the NATO-led intervention was successful in helping local militant groups topple Gaddafi, who was later captured and executed in October 2011. Soon after his death, questions were immediately raised about how Libya could be politically restructured and avoid becoming a failed state. After militant groups refused to disarm, they along with their allies began to contest territory and control over Libya’s fragile new national institutions.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) was established to coordinate rebel groups against Gaddafi, and naturally inherited much of the Libyan government after the war. But a number of countries did not recognize its authority, and after handing power over to the General National Congress (GNC) in 2012, Libya’s weak central government steadily lost political control over its enormous territory to competing groups.

Libya’s population of almost 7 million people lives in a highly urbanized society that has led to the development of strong regional identities among those living in its northern coastal cities. There has also historically been an east-west divide between the two coastal provinces of Cyrenaica in the east and Tripolitania in the west.

A large Turkish and part-Turkish minority also live throughout Libya’s major cities, particularly in the city of Misrata. Most of them have descended from the Ottoman troops who married local women during Ottoman rule from 1551-1912, and though not a strictly homogenous group, the majority revolted against Gaddafi as nationwide protests began in Libya.

The historical lack of central authority in Libya’s more rural south resulted in widespread autonomy for the Tuareg tribe in the southwest and the Tubu tribe in the southeast. While the Tuaregs largely supported Gaddafi, the Tubu joined the revolutionaries, sparking increased tension between these two tribes to gain control over the city of Ubari, local smuggling routes, and energy infrastructure.

Alongside ethnic and cultural disputes, Libya was further destabilized by radical Islamists after the fall of Gaddafi. Mass unemployment among Libya’s relatively young population fueled recruitment for ISIS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia. Having gained battlefield experience and with limited economic prospects, many militants in Libya had little incentive to return to civilian life, while the influx of foreign jihadists also kept the violence ongoing.

Rivalries between these numerous factions helped lead to the outbreak of the second Libyan civil war in 2014. The UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) was signed in December 2015 to create a Presidential Council (PC) for appointing a unity government in Tripoli but failed to curtail growing violence between local actors.

Two major entities came to dominate the country. The Government of National Accord (GNA), which was presided over by the PC, was recognized in March 2016 to lead Libya, with Fayez Serraj as the Libyan prime minister. This move partly incorporated elements of Libya’s political Islamic factions.

The Libyan House of Representatives (HoR), meanwhile, refused to endorse the GNA, and relocated to Tobruk in Cyrenaica after political pressure and Islamist militias forced it out of Tripoli in 2014. The HoR is led by former General Khalifa Haftar, who commands the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The GNA retained official recognition by the UN as well as Libya’s most important economic institutions, including the Central Bank of Libya (CBL). But both the GNA and the HoR continued to fight for influence over the National Oil Corporation (NOC), while many other national institutions were forced to work with both factions.

Military force has also been integral to enforcing rival claims to Libya’s leadership. In 2017, Haftar’s forces seized Benghazi, consolidating power across much of the east and center of the country. But his attempt to take Tripoli in 2019-2020 was repelled by GNA and allied forces, prompting an HoR retreat on several fronts. A ceasefire between the GNA and the rival administration of the LNA declared an end to the war in October 2020, but tensions and violence persisted.

Libya’s civil conflict has also been inflamed by outside powers. Turkey opposed the original NATO-led intervention in 2011 but supported Libyan Turks, some of whom founded the Libya Koroglu Association in 2015, to coordinate with Turkey. Ankara has also supported the GNA with arms, money, and diplomatic support for years, and Turkish forces and military technology were integral to repelling Haftar’s assault on Tripoli.

Turkey’s business interests in Libya and desire to increase its power in the Mediterranean remain Ankara’s core initiatives, and in June it voted to extend the mandate for military deployment in Libya for another 18 months. Both Turkey and Qatar, which has also been a strong backer of the GNA, are close with the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and associated political circles in Libya, to attempt to promote a brand of political Islam that rivals Saudi-led initiatives.

With few core interests in Libya, the U.S. has shown tacit support for intervening again in a conflict it had allegedly won, but from 2015 to 2019, U.S. airstrikes and military support helped the GNA push ISIS out of many Libyan cities. Yet, Washington has remained wary of being associated with the Libyan conflict and with Islamists allied with the GNA, and the U.S. harbored and provided support to Haftar for decades to pressure Gaddafi before the civil war.

Egypt has been one of the HoR’s most crucial allies, providing weapons, military support, and safe haven through Libya’s eastern border. Besides protecting Libya’s Egyptian population, Egypt’s military-led government is also seeking to suppress political Islam in the region after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood briefly ruled Egypt from 2011 to 2013 following Egypt’s own revolution. In 2020, Cairo approved its own intervention in Libya.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have similar interests in suppressing rival political Islamic forces in the region and have provided funding and weaponry to Haftar. Doing so has brought them closer to Russia, which has also supported Haftar with substantial military assistance. This includes warplanes piloted by the Russian private military company Wagner, which is suspected to be partially bankrolled in Libya by the UAE.

Libya’s destabilization complements the Kremlin’s attempts to influence Europe. Haftar’s forces and supporters managed to block Libyan oil exports in 2020 and again earlier this year, threatening continental supply and increasing Russia’s leverage. Additionally, instability in the region and porous borders encourage migrant flows to Europe, often increasing the popularity of right-wing political parties which have grown closer to Russia over the last two decades.

The HoR has also found less direct aid from France. Officially, Paris has supported UN negotiations and the GNA and has sought to minimize perceptions of its involvement in the conflict. But the death of three undercover French soldiers in Libya in 2016 showed that Paris remained deeply involved in the country’s civil war, and it has sold billions in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to help Haftar. This is part of France’s efforts to suppress Islamist groups in Africa, where France retains considerable interests.

France’s position has brought criticism from Western allies. In 2019, Paris blocked an EU statement calling on Haftar to stop his offensive on Tripoli, while its support for Haftar has severely undermined its relationship with Italy, which has seen its economic influence in Libya decline.

Since the conclusion of the second Libyan civil war in 2020, steps have been taken to unify the country. A Government of National Unity was established in 2021 to consolidate Libya’s political forces, and the new Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh reached an agreement with Haftar in July 2022 to enforce a ceasefire.

But based on the current dynamics of limited intervention, there is relatively little risk and high rewards for foreign powers to continue destabilizing Libya. Turkey and Russia are also using the conflict to add to their leverage over one another in Syria. With repeated delays in holding elections in Libya and rival local and foreign actors seeking to dominate the country, Libyan citizens risk continuing to be used instead of being helped to ensure a stable and secure future for their country.

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.

How the war in Ukraine is fueling a new space race

The suspension of collaborative projects between Russian and Western space agencies will enhance their traditional rivalries. But the new space race is also being driven by other countries—as well as private companies.

Shortly after Russia was sanctioned for invading Ukraine in late February, Russia’s state-run space agency, Roscosmos, announced that it was officially suspending the U.S. from an upcoming Venus exploration mission. Weeks later, on March 17, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the suspension of a joint mission to Mars with Roscosmos, and further said that it would not be taking part in upcoming Roscosmos missions to the moon.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

These decisions have naturally generated concern across the space industry and political landscape. For decades, Russian and Western countries have collaborated in space despite flare-ups in tensions on Earth. In 1975, the U.S. Apollo capsule linked up with the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft briefly as a symbol of cooperation amid the Cold War. In 1995, the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir.

And in 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) was launched, featuring a Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and a United States Orbital Segment (USOS), the latter being operated by NASA, the ESA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Sustained cooperation on the ISS has been a notable exception to the growing tensions between Russia and the Western states over the last decade. But in April, Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, declared that Russia would end cooperation on the ISS, as well as other joint projects, if sanctions against Russia were not lifted. While such threats have been issued before, notably after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the heightened confrontation between Russia and the West since the start of the Ukrainian invasion has reinforced this possibility.

NASA, meanwhile, chose to downplay Rogozin’s claims and stated that it will continue to operate the ISS until at least 2030. But Roscosmos has previously stated that it intends to develop its own space station by 2025, and has also revealed plans for a potential manned mission to the moon. Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system, which achieved global coverage in 2011, has also become a viable rival to the United States’ GPS system. These developments show the Kremlin’s growing commitment to pursuing its own interests in space without partnering with Western states.

In comparison, Roscosmos has increased its collaboration with the China National Space Administration (CNSA), particularly after the first wave of Western sanctions in 2014. In 2021, China and Russia announced plans to build a lunar research station, a direct rival to NASA’s Gateway project, which will be coordinated with the space agencies from Europe, Japan, and Canada.

China has already created its own space station, the Tiangong Space Station, which was launched in 2021. While far smaller than the ISS, China’s space agency has six more launches planned this year to complete the installation. China also sent a rover to the far side of the moon in 2019, as well as to Mars in 2021, and has announced plans for its own manned moon mission this decade.

While the space programs of some countries in the Global South, such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Iran, are certainly less impressive, their development demonstrates the growing accessibility to space, which has long been dominated by Russia, China, and Western states. More than 70 countries now have space agencies, while 14 are capable of orbital launch.

For these countries, success in space in recent years has often come from collaborating with existing space powers. In 2005, Iran’s first satellite was built and launched in Russia, while in 2008, China, Iran, and Thailand launched a joint research satellite on a Chinese rocket. Technology sharing, domestic innovation, and decreasing costs have also allowed more countries to compete in space. India made history in 2013 after it sent its own orbiter to Mars, notably on a smaller budget than the space movie “Gravity,” which came out the same year.

The growing number of countries active in Earth’s orbit and beyond have also revitalized fears of the possibility of the militarization of space. So far, only Russia, China, the U.S., and India have successfully demonstrated anti-satellite weapons. Other countries, however, including Iran and Israel, are believed to either be developing or already have similar capabilities.

Of course, Western countries remain far ahead technologically than any other state or group of states. NASA’s Artemis 1 mission, for example, aims to place humans on the moon again by 2025, while three NASA rovers are currently active on Mars. NASA’s unmanned X-37B program—which began in 1999, was transferred to the U.S. military in 2004, and is now being run by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office—has so far conducted four missions, while collaborative projects with the ESA have further underlined Western dominance in space.

But a growing phenomenon in space is the role of private companies. They have been involved in many of NASA’s and the ESA’s high-profile projects, including Boeing’s involvement in the X-37B project. Largely based in the U.S. and the UK, these companies have helped reduce costs and have increased opportunities for government space agencies, and they will be essential for exploiting the vast resources on the moon, asteroids, and other celestial bodies.

Though hundreds of space-related companies exist, a handful have stood out as pioneers of the modern space age. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson respectively, both made history in 2021 after conducting their own manned space flights. Blue Origin, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and other corporations have also signed contracts to create private space stations in the future.

The most notable private company operating in space, however, is SpaceX, which is owned by entrepreneur Elon Musk. In recent years, the company has helped reduce the United States’ dependency on Russian Soyuz rockets to bring astronauts and deliveries to the ISS following the termination of the NASA program as a consequence of the Ukraine war.

SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 Starlink satellites into space, with plans to launch more than 12,000 by 2026. Most will form part of the Starlink project that aims to provide internet access to populations around the world.

Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted at Elon Musk in February to use the Starlink project to bring internet to Ukraine after some services were disrupted by the Russian invasion. Within days, Starlink was active across the country, and in early May, Ukrainian officials stated that 150,000 Ukrainians were using the service daily.

The use of Starlink satellites was no doubt seen in Moscow as a direct challenge to the Kremlin. While Russia is currently unlikely to attack the network, it has raised questions as to how future confrontations between private companies and countries in space might play out. The growing use of private military companies on Earth by both states and the private sector could inspire similar moves to protect government and private assets in space.

The growing profile of private space-related companies threatens to upend the rules of regulations regarding space, most of which were written decades ago. This includes the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which through Article VI established that countries have the legal authority to regulate space and not international bodies, with private companies not yet having started space exploration when the treaty was finalized. The Artemis Accords, a modern U.S.-sponsored agreement to regulate space created in 2020, has so far only been signed by 16 countries.

Nonetheless, the increasingly competitive space industry has already demonstrated that even smaller countries can play a large role in it. Overseeing the development of technologies and tempering the weaponization of space, by both countries and companies, should become a priority globally to help ensure that growing competition in space does not lead to avoidable and destructive consequences on Earth.

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.

Why Biden can’t woo the Middle East

Since the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last August and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the White House has been desperate to showcase U.S. strength on the world stage. But the Biden administration has struggled to rally traditional Middle Eastern allies against Russia, raising questions over U.S. influence in the region.

For decades, U.S. policy in the Middle East has relied on coordination with the Saudi-led Gulf states, Israel, Egypt and Turkey. Since the Obama administration, however, relations between Washington and its core regional allies in the Middle East have floundered, confounding the United States’ ability to manage Middle Eastern crises and formulate consensus in the region.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Washington’s troubled relations with its Middle Eastern allies have become particularly pronounced since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. Though all the Middle Eastern countries that are American allies—Saudi-led Gulf states, Israel, Egypt and Turkey—condemned Russia at the UN Resolution in March for starting a war with Ukraine, only Israel has implemented sanctions, albeit minimally. The reluctance to impose sanctions by the United States’ allies in the Middle East reflects their intention to avoid antagonizing Russia, which is increasingly influential in the region, and also reflects their dissatisfaction with Washington and confirms the perception that its influence in the region is waning.

U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia began to deteriorate notably in 2015. The Iran nuclear deal implemented by former President Barack Obama caused considerable alarm in Riyadh, while Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, which also began that year, received only lukewarm U.S. support. Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, took a more pro-Saudi approach upon entering the White House in 2017, traveling to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president and increasing weapons sales to the country.

President Joe Biden, however, adopted a hard stance against Saudi Arabia during his 2020 presidential campaign. He declared he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” if elected, criticized Saudi policies in Yemen and called for the country to take accountability for the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

These foreign policy stances taken during Biden’s presidential campaign continued after he became president. Weeks after entering office in 2021, Biden released a 2018 U.S. intelligence report on the assassination of Khashoggi—which concluded that the assassination in Turkey was carried out “on behalf of

✎ EditSign” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “who considered the regime critic a threat to the kingdom”—paused weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, announced an end to U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen and removed Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels from the U.S. terrorism list.

Biden’s intent to downsize the U.S. presence in the Middle East, part of an ongoing trend seen since the Obama administration, has also caused alarm in Riyadh. The Saudis have long relied on the U.S. presence to deter threats in the Middle East, from when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq to Iran today, and Biden’s remarks spelling out the United States’ diplomatic stance in the Middle East have further enhanced Saudi fears over its own security. In 2021, more than 300 Houthi drone and missile attacks hit Saudi Arabia, and there have been recent attacks on the United Arab Emirates by the Houthi rebels as well. The UAE has also joined the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.

The Gulf States’ deteriorating security situation and the belief that the U.S. is unwilling to provide satisfactory assistance to them have instigated Arab attempts to diversify their security guarantors. In August 2021, for example, Saudi Arabia and Russia signed a military cooperation agreement “aimed at developing joint military cooperation between the two countries.” The UAE agreed to purchase dozens of French Rafale jets and helicopters in December 2021 and signed a multibillion-dollar contract with South Korea for an air defense system (based on a Russian design) in January 2022.

It was also revealed in December 2021 that Saudi Arabia was building its own missiles with Chinese assistance, while a suspected Chinese military base under construction in the UAE was shut down in November 2021 following pressure from the U.S.

Leaders of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently declined calls from Biden to discuss the Ukraine crisis soon after Russia attacked the country, while Riyadh also rejected U.S. calls to increase oil production and help lower oil prices in mid-February 2022. And in March 2022, Saudi Arabia and Qatar criticized the West for the resolute response to Russia in Ukraine while neglecting crises in the Middle East.

Israel’s relationship with the U.S. has also fluctuated in recent years. Obama and former Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu shared a strained relationship over Palestine as well as the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. U.S.-Israeli ties were revived under Trump, who moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and took a more forceful approach against Iran (including canceling the Iran nuclear deal).

But the Biden administration’s renewed efforts to reimplement the Iran nuclear deal, coupled with warnings over Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank, have complicated U.S.-Israeli relations again. Russia’s influence over Iran and Syria has also made Israel cautious of condemning the Kremlin, lest it may need Moscow’s assistance to alleviate future crises with both these countries.

Perceptions persist in Egypt that the U.S. abandoned former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 after he faced nationwide protests as part of the wider Arab Spring. Following his downfall, the Muslim Brotherhood under Mohammed Morsi led the country for more than a year until a military coup, denounced by the White House, deposed him in 2013.

Biden has taken a tepid approach to build back the United States’ relationship with Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has led the country since 2014. While the U.S. has maintained its military assistance to Egypt, it cut $130 million in military aid to Egypt in January 2022 over human rights concerns in the country. The move blunted Egyptian enthusiasm for a tough response against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine the following month.

Raising tensions with Russia over Ukraine will also have drastic consequences for Egypt’s food security. Ukraine and Russia are both major food exporters to Egypt, and the spike in grain prices in 2010-2011 played a major role in raising public frustration that culminated in the Arab Spring. Cairo will not jeopardize its fragile food situation further by sanctioning Russia. Moreover, increasing military and energy ties between Egypt and Russia since 2014 have also helped cement positive relations between the two countries.

The degradation of the U.S.-Turkish relationship over the last decade has also become increasingly obvious. President Recep Erdoğan has faced U.S. criticism over his domestic policies, while many in Turkey have accused the U.S. of involvement in the attempted coup that almost removed Erdoğan from power in 2016.

In 2018, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Turkey’s aluminum and steel exports following rising tensions between the two countries. The following year, in 2019, Turkey agreed to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense system, leading to Turkey’s removal from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program with the U.S, and more U.S. sanctions were imposed on Turkey in December 2020.

Turkey has also increased its economic relationship with Russia through energy deals, tourism ties and trade. Russia is Turkey’s largest importer, and their burgeoning economic relationship has continued to develop despite the shooting down of a Russian bomber by Turkish jets while it was flying over Syria in 2015—according to Russia—as well as their opposing sides in proxy wars in Libya, Syria and the former Soviet Union countries.

So far, Turkey has opposed sanctions on Russia, and has called on the West to avoid isolating Russia and, instead, look at focusing on dialogue as the way forward in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Clearly, Russia’s strained relations with major U.S. allies in the region, notably Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have not prevented the Kremlin from leveraging its power in the Middle East to prevent greater regional blowback for its invasion of Ukraine.

The United States’ dismissal of Egypt’s Mubarak in 2011, alongside the Biden administration’s current rapprochement with Iran, has again underlined the bipolar nature of U.S. foreign policy in an already unstable region. In comparison, Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war has shown the Kremlin is willing to consistently back its allies even when they themselves are under intense pressure.

The belief that the U.S. cannot offer its traditional Middle Eastern allies meaningful support means their allies are naturally wary of upsetting Russia, which, thanks to its more coherent strategy in the Middle East in recent years, has greatly increased its regional influence. With nothing new to offer them, the Biden administration risks seeing American allies continue to drift away in the region.

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.

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