It is too early to speculate about where the Russian invasion of Ukraine will stop. But it is already important to look beyond the horizon and analyze the role that Russia will be able to play in the regions to its south.
At the time of writing, Russia is facing an unprecedented reaction from Western countries over its invasion of Ukraine and the massive destruction of life and property that has ensued. This has included financial, military, and humanitarian support to Ukraine; moves to diversify energy supplies away from Russia; the exclusion of Russian banks from the international financial system; the interruption of most air and sea transport to and from Russia; the decision of major companies to suspend their activities in Russia, or with Russia; and a reinforcement of NATO and European Union mechanisms and policies. Yet, none of these will lead to a rapid resolution of the underlying issues tied to Ukraine.
Let’s consider a scenario in which Russia’s current posture would remain as it is in the long term—with its autocratic power structure engaged in a permanent adversarial relationship with Western countries and NATO, without being part of East-West agreements. The consequences would be momentous. Not only would the Western world have to rethink many of its policies, but countries to Russia’s south would have to factor in the changes and realignments resulting from its invasion of Ukraine. Five main consequences come to mind.
First, Russia’s political “brand” or “model” would probably remain attractive for a number of leaders in the Middle Eastern states of the Mediterranean—notably Syria, as well as Sub-Saharan African countries, including the Central African Republic and Mali, and to a certain extent Turkey as well. That is not to mention the geopolitical interests of larger players—such as China, the leading states in the Persian Gulf, and India—to accommodate Russian stances, if not actively support them. A Russia embodying anti-Western attitudes could well remain a political anchor, or at least an uneasy but valued partner. After all, to remain in power, a number of regimes resort to muzzling their political opponents, harassing media outlets and civil society activists, controlling their judiciary, and waging information battles based on false narratives. That is Russia’s brand.
A second consequence is the considerable reinforcement of European Union unity, triggered by Russia’s imprudent invasion of Ukraine. In just two weeks, the EU has managed to leap forward on a policy of energy diversification away from Russia and on foreign arms sales. More importantly, EU member states, including those governments closer to Moscow, have remained unified in their reaction to Russia’s invasion. In a matter of days, for instance, Germany concluded a decades-long internal debate on increased military funding. In addition, Russia’s political influence over European political parties has fallen drastically.
These evolutions will reshape relations around the Mediterranean, in the Western Balkans, and in Sub-Saharan Africa. They will have an influence on Europe’s counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa, on its network of values-based agreements, possibly even on its future enlargement. The EU and the United Kingdom could enhance their military cooperation, be it through joint exercises, basing rights, counterterrorism cooperation, or the joint production of equipment.
Third, Russia and the West would now be expected to argue with more virulence at the United Nations, with countries outside the Western orbit being challenged to choose sides. Many questions will become more acute and information wars will escalate. Already, the NATO-Russia dialogue has been stopped and Moscow has withdrawn from Council of Europe meetings. Will its narrative about a morally corrupt, declining Europe still hold currency around the world once the horrors of the Ukraine invasion are fully documented?
Fourth, countries in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Africa will face important consequences. The cost of their imports of cereals will rise. Negotiations in the United Nations framework over, say, the Syria or Libya peace settlements will involve a harsher competition for support from third countries. And Moscow will likely increase the promotion of its interests through the deployment of private military companies, military sales, and air and naval basing rights.
Fifth, Turkey will face its own issues at a time when it has started an extensive campaign to repair its diplomatic relationships and is conducting high-level talks to that effect with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Israel, and Greece. In the short term, there is little doubt that Turkey will try as much as possible to maintain a balance in its ties with Russia and Ukraine, and to promote its potential “mediation” role (so far only a facilitation role).
However, given the deliberate violence against Ukrainian civilians and civil infrastructure, preserving warm relations with Moscow will inevitably become problematic. In a scenario where today’s Ukraine is erased from the map, Turkey will be faced with a new Russia totally dominating the northern shore of the Black Sea, reinforcing its naval base in Sevastopol, controlling one-third of global cereal exports, and more than ever exerting power through its supply of oil and gas.
In the defense domain, and unless a drastic reversal occurs, Turkey’s S400 missile defense system delivered in 2019 will remain entirely dependent on Russia for training, maintenance, and resupplies. This will be a core liability in a lasting confrontation between Russia and NATO in the years to come. The modernization of Turkey’s air force will also become a challenge, as Ankara will need to find an alternative to its exclusion from the U.S. F-35 stealth fighter program.
Similarly, regarding the implementation of the Montreux Convention of 1936 regulating maritime traffic through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits, Russia may seek to modify the treaty. In addition, Turkey could face increasing difficulties in its dealings with Russia over Syria, unless it plainly agrees to deal with the Assad regime.
Overall, faced with the scenario of a permanently adversarial Russia, a number of countries to Russia’s south would be confronted with difficult choices in a vast array of domains—food security, trade, energy supplies, arms procurement, and military alliances. Ultimately, they could be pushed to choose between political alignment with Russia (which would imply autocracy) and good relations with the West (which would imply democracy).