Trendlines: What does the Ukraine crisis mean for the Middle East?

Rapid developments in Ukraine, including protests that pushed out Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia’s subsequent moves in the Crimea, have drawn international attention to the region. And, some fear, suctioned any chances of making headway in other pressing matters such as Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

We explored the possible impacts of the Ukrainian crisis on the Middle East in the web special Trendlines, a joint production of the PBS NewsHour and Al-Monitor, a website of reporting and analysis from the Middle East.

NewsHour chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner spoke with Al-Monitor Israel Pulse columnist Ben Caspit in Tel Aviv; Al-Monitor contributor and Tehran University professor Nasser Hadian in Tehran; Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution; and former Ambassador Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A transcript follows:

Margaret Warner: Hello, I’m Margaret Warner. Welcome to our Trendines special, a PBS NewsHour collaboration with Al-Monitor, a website of news, analysis and opinion on the Middle East.

The crisis in Ukraine — and the intense diplomacy over it — has dominated the world’s attention in recent weeks.  Today, we explore the impact it may have in the Middle East, where the stakes for the U.S. and Russia are also high.

The strategic Black Sea peninsula of Crimea — now the flashpoint for a new crisis in Ukraine. Russian troops took control of Crimea after Moscow-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital Kiev. The move in Crimea has inflamed tensions between Moscow, and the U.S. and its European allies.  Moscow maintains the military forces in Crimea are locals, not Russians.  But President Vladimir Putin insisted his government reserves the right to use force to protect ethnic Russians throughout Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin: “If we see that lawlessness starting in Eastern regions too, if people ask us for help — and we have already an official address from the current legitimate president — we reserve the right to use all options at our disposal to protect those citizens.”

Margaret Warner: President Obama has called on Russia to return to its bases in Crimea, vowed to impose “costs” on Moscow if it doesn’t. And authorized sanctions on those deemed to be behind Russia’s move.

President Obama: “This morning I signed an executive order that authorizes sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine or for stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people.”

Margaret Warner: The question is: As the U.S. and Russia joust over Ukraine,  what impact will that have on other parts of the world where the two countries cooperate and compete — particularly the Middle East. Top on the list there — the three-year conflict in Syria. Moscow continues to supply the Assad regime with arms. And in 2012, Russia blocked sanctions against Syria in the United Nations Security Council. Then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice:

Then-U.S. Ambassador to United Nations Susan Rice: “It’s pitiful and deeply regrettable that again today Russia and China for the third time have vetoed a resolution that garnered the overwhelming support of this Security Council.”

Margaret Warner: But last August, after President Obama threatened to strike Assad’s chemical weapons. The U.S. and Russia cooperated on a resolution requiring the Syrian government to surrender its stockpile. And early this year, Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brought the government and opposition to the table for peace talks in Geneva.  On Iran, Russia and the U.S. spearheaded talks between Tehran  and the world’s major powers over that country’s disputed nuclear program. Tehran came to the table after years of punishing sanctions that hobbled the Islamic republic’s economy. The talks are being closely watched by Iran’s regional neighbors, Israel and the Gulf states.

Elsewhere in the region, Russia has not been active in secretary Kerry’s intense effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Moscow is trying to ramp up its influence in Egypt, where relations with the United states — Cairo’s  longtime ally and military patron — have soured. Washington suspended some of its  $1.5 billion dollars of military aid after the army-led ouster of elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last July.

Russia hosted  Egyptian military chief and presumptive presidential candidate, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi,  in Moscow where they reportedly discussed a possible $2 billion dollar arms deal.

A man walks past a poster in Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula on March 11, 2014 depicting Crimea in the colors of the Russian flag. Photo by Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

A man walks past a poster in Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula on March 11, 2014 depicting Crimea in the colors of the Russian flag. Photo by Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

So, how serious a blowback could the Ukraine crisis have on the Middle East? And what form will it take? To explore this, we turn to two observers in the region: Ben Caspit, an Al-Monitor columnist based in Tel Aviv. He also writes for the Jerusalem Post and is a frequent  commentator on Israeli radio and television. And Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at Tehran University and an Al-Monitor contributor. He’s a former visiting scholar at Columbia University, and recently has been writing blogs for the U.S. Institute of Peace website.

Joining them here in the U.S.: Fiona Hill, former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. She’s now director of the center for the U.S. And Europe at the Brookings institution, and co-author of the book: “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”

And Dennis Ross, U.S. point man on the Mideast peace process for Presidents George H.W. Bush and  Clinton.  He ran the State Department’s Policy Planning Office at the end of the Cold War, and served as special adviser for the Gulf and Iran to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He’s now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Welcome to you all. Thank you for joining us from your various locales. This is such a big story, the Ukraine story, and there’s so many moving parts. So let’s zero in first on the U.S.-Russia piece. And Dennis Ross, beginning with you. What reverberations do you think the Ukraine crisis is going to have on the cooperation or competition between these two countries in the region?

Dennis Ross: Well it’s hard to imagine that if in fact we impose penalties on the, on the Russians because they don’t change the posture they’ve adopted in Crimea, that the Russians then won’t try to demonstrate to us that there’s some consequence for us. The question is, and this really gets to the heart of what you’re asking, will that play out in the Middle East itself? Certainly on Syria the Russians have hardly been a reliable partner. On Iran it could be a different story. They may want to show there’s a penalty in that we pay a price, but they’re not part of the five plus one as a favor to the United States. And the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state or a nuclear weapons capable state is not something that has a high degree of attractiveness to the Russians.

On the peace issue I would say the Russians, as you noted, had not been playing a major role here, if Abu Mazen [Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] decides that he doesn’t want to go along with what Secretary Kerry is presenting, then he may well look to the Russians to support his posture of not being supportive of it, and looking at the Russians as providing him with kind of an exit ramp. My guess is if they see it as an opportunity to show the United States what the cost is of putting pressure on them, they will do that, but it ultimately depends much more on what Abu Mazen’s position is going to be ultimately than the Russians.

Margaret Warner:   Fiona Hill, as our resident Russia expert here, how do you see the Ukraine crisis affecting Russia’s calculation in the Middle East and its relationship with the United States ?

Fiona Hill: This is a very difficult situation actually for the Russians in many respects because as Dennis has said, there’s actually some equities for Russia there in some of the conflicts we see in the Middle East and some of the (inaudible) that we’re talking about. In the instance of Iran for Russia, Iran is a very important counterweight to the Sunni Muslim powers in the Gulf, but Russia’s always been very concerned about potentially proselytizing and supporting groups inside of the Russian federation itself. And places like the Russian North Caucasus where there’s Chechnya for example. Russia has always been very careful to try to balance the interest of the Gulf states and Iran off against each other. It doesn’t take power at the same time want to basically let loose the grip that it has in many respects on the ongoing negotiations with Iran, in the sense that it’s very important for Russia to keep that in the confines of the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has a veto. Russia doesn’t want to have a return to the situation where it was the United States and say Israel, making determinations about whether there might be a strike against Iran if the negotiations over the nuclear weapons program weren’t going in a direction that they wanted to. I think what we’re likely to see is Russia very carefully play with this issue so that things don’t get out of hand. They do want to show that there are consequences if the U.S. needs Russia on all of these instances that we’re talking about. But they also have to calibrate that because they’re not always in the driving seat.

Margaret Warner: Let’s go to you, Professor Hadian in Tehran. How is this Ukraine crisis, first of all, is it being closely watched do you think by the Iranian leadership? And, and how might it affect Iran’s calculations about these negotiations if at all?

Nasser Hadian: Of course it is being  intensely watched in Iran by both the general citizens, the average citizen, and also by the elite and by the government officials as well. But of course for different reasons. I mean the average, many of the average citizens would watch it, because they would like to see how empowerment of the population can bring down a government and what would be the result. What would be the consequences? How they are going to deal with the Russians in this case. But of course there are other citizens who are very much,  basically see within it conspiracy theory. They think this is a conspiracy of the West, thus they would oppose the current government in Ukraine and it would support rather than positions of Russia.

Maragaret Warner: Ben Caspit in Tel Aviv, I assume this is being closely watched by at least the leadership in Israel.

Ben Caspit: Not only the leadership; media is covering the Ukrainian crisis extensively and intensively. I think all the media, the big media organizations in Israel sent correspondents to, to Crimea and to Ukraine. Last week it was the No. 1 item on the lineup. The leadership is watching very closely this dispute with huge concern because Israel, I’m talking now about Israeli-Palestinian track. Israel has needed to give a land to the Palestinians and security and get an agreement, a piece of paper. Now people especially from the right — from the center to the right in the political Israeli map is saying look what happened to this agreement that the Ukrainians had with the Russians. Everyone was signing the agreement that was talking that dealt with the peace and the borders and suddenly Mr. Putin is grabbing Crimea and no one is doing anything. This will arm the opposition in Israel and the right wing politicians with heavy artillery if we will get anywhere.

Margaret Warner: To what degree is this being seen as a test of wills between President Obama and President Putin, or is it a test of President Obama’s resolve? Dennis?

Dennis Ross: I think in the region it’s very much being seen as a test of wills and a test of President Obama’s resolve. There’s a perception in many parts of the Middle East that there’s been a shift in the balance of power against the interest of America’s friends, and they haven’t seen from the standpoint of the region, the kind of American activism and the face of that that they would have liked to have seen. So the president having established a very clear statement that there’s going to be consequences for this, they will look to see if in fact there are consequences, No. 1, and No. 2, how long those last.

Margaret Warner: Could the Ukraine crisis and the way the president handles it effect the Iranian government’s calculation in these talks over its nuclear program?

Hadian Nasser: I can say almost, if not zero, very close to zero impact. And in other words, we know that we have to deal with the U.S. on this issue. And how hard the U.S. is going to deal with the Russians in this regard does not have that much impact or calculus. You know there are, Russia is a player, U.S. is a very important player. Europeans are important player, and Chinese are, and Chinese are important player too. Thus, we know that this is not just I mean one country who is going to determine the future of the negotiation, and it does not have all that much impact on our calculation of how to conduct the negotiation.

Margaret Warner: Fiona Hill, this declaration by President Putin of a sort of new Putin Doctrine which is, if ethnic Russians in other countries say they feel threatened, then Russia has the right to intervene. Do you see that having implications for the way Russia operates in the Middle East? Or would you say on the Syria issue?

Fiona Hill: In 1992, in 1993, the similar statements were made under President Boris Yeltsin. The fact is that the Russians at that point didn’t really have much capacity because of the weakness of the Russian Federation militarily and economically, and fears also of the disintegration of the Russian Federation at that point they didn’t have that capacity to really intervene so effectively.

For most of the neighborhood it’s seen as being in that neighborhood, in that periphery of Russia, in the parts that were formerly of the Soviet Union.

Margaret Warner: And Ben Caspit, let’s look at the Ukrainian uprising that gave rise to all of this. I know you stay on top of the papers in the Arab world, and the commentary there as well. Are there parallels being drawn with the Arab Spring, the uprising of the Arab Spring?

Ben Caspit: Yes, we call this phenomena here in Israel a, I try to translate, a “squarocracy”. It’s the rule of the squares. We are seeing that the whole square in Cairo and the same square in Istanbul, and the Maidan Square in the Kiev, the same way. This can be very dangerous from one point is that the governments, the rulers have to start and think about the people daily, on a daily basis. But it is also very dangerous because the gap between democracy or the will of the masses and anarchy is very narrow. So we are watching it very, very closely here in Tel Aviv.

Margaret Warner: Dennis Ross, do you want to pick up on that point?

Dennis Ross: Well I do think that there’s two dimensions going on within the Middle East. One is, what’s the internal source of instability? And the other is, what’s the external source? Now, many of the Arab states are looking at the squares on the one hand and are concerned about it, but they also see frequently a hand behind it, whether it’s justified or not, if you go to the Gulf states, you look at Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia sees Iran very active every place in the region. And it’s that concern of the Iranian activity as it relates to the potential for upheaval, that raises many of their concerns, and it’s also that concern as well when they see America’s friends seemingly being vulnerable, they wonder, what’s America doing to help out?

Margaret Warner: And Fiona Hill, to what degree do you think that the outcome in the Middle East will in fact depend on how the Ukraine crisis resolves itself?

Fiona Hill: I think it’s going to be very important, not just for the Middle East, but more broadly globally because there’s so much of these protest movements happening elsewhere now that the final resolution that gets in place, hopefully a legitimate government in Kiev, and then finds some way of resolving the differences between the various communities and different perspectives in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, that’s going to be very important if we can put something together for the future.

Margaret Warner: And Ben Caspit in Tel Aviv, how do you see that?

Ben Caspit: In Israel the most important topic is the Iranian nuclear program. And when we watch President Obama soft diplomacy, President Roosevelt said to speak, talk softly and hold a big stick, and in Israel, in Jerusalem they say President Obama is talking softly and holds a handkerchief, so we’re getting very worried about the outcome in the Iranian track. No one in Israel is gambling now on the final agreement between the five plus one. One and Iran.

Margaret Warner: OK and I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it there. So Ben Caspit in Tel Aviv and Nasser Hadian in Tehran, Fiona Hill here in Washington, and Dennis Ross in New York. Thank you so much.

Fiona Hill: Thank you.

Dennis Ross: Thank you.

Margaret Warner: And thanks to all of you for watching. I will be reporting from Ukraine for the NewsHour later this week. You can watch our Trendlines specials on the NewsHour and Al-Monitor websites.

Related: Last month’s Trendlines special focused on “Syria after Geneva 2”.

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