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How the Ukrainian crisis could impact the Middle East

The standoff between the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine will also play out in Syria

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The events in Ukraine following the ousting of pro-Kremlin President Victor Yanukovich and Russia’s securing of the Crimean Peninsula are reshaping the West’s policies towards Moscow. While a military face-off is not on the table, political and economic battles are being drafted by Washington and a more cautious Europe, and where the Middle East could play a key role in the readjustment.

While U.S. President Barack Obama never trusted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and viewed the icy relations as based on mutual interest, Russia’s reaction to the crisis in Ukraine surprised many in Washington.

The developments in Kiev and the Crimea are more of a wakeup call to Obama – signs that more should be done to curb a bellicose and unrestrained Putin.

It is prompting the administration’s negotiations with European allies on freezing assets of Putin’s oligarchs, suspension of international meetings in Russia, and finding alternatives to Moscow’s natural gas exports to Europe.

‘Gazprom’ and the Middle East

If no international agreement is reached and Russian troops do not withdraw from Crimea, U.S. and European officials are determined to slap the Russian government with costly economic measures to prevent Putin from setting a new military precedent on the gates of Europe.

The standoff between the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine will also play out in Syria, hardening positions of both the Assad regime and the opposition and hitting another nail in the Geneva II coffin

Joyce Karam

After all, Ukraine is neither Syria, nor Georgia, its demographic, cultural and geopolitical weight inside Europe makes Putin’s aggression all the more reprehensible.

Inside the West’s deliberations are proposals to target Gazprom, Russia’s largest gas extractor of natural gas which provides 30 percent of Europe’s needs shipping 162.7 billion cubic meters according to Reuters in 2013. These numbers give Putin confidence of Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas, as well as growing trade numbers especially with Germany and France.

Alternatives

But not so fast. While Putin has many reasons and pipelines to feel reassured, the new map and technological advances could offer European countries some alternatives. Four of the top ten world producers of natural gas are in the Middle East and North Africa: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Algeria.

While they are no match to Russia’s giant, they could along with Norway and the Netherlands, start filling the gaps if Europe decides to gradually isolate Putin. In fact Poland is launching this year the first liquified natural gas terminal for imports from Qatar. Gazprom’s own stock fell 13 percent this week over the events in Ukraine, and it is hard to foresee it making a strong comeback if Putin doesn’t reconcile with the government in Kiev.

There are 12 gas pipelines from Russia to Europe, five of which go through Ukraine.

Syria in the balance

The standoff between the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine will also play out in Syria, hardening positions of both the Assad regime and the opposition and hitting another nail in the Geneva II coffin.

Putin’s behavior in Crimea enforces the narrative inside the Obama administration that only a change of balance on the ground will make Russia compromise.

While the Kremlin initially labeled the new government in Ukraine as “Nazis” and “terrorists,” the West’s support to the new leaders with 16 billion dollars in aid, and the government’s wise restraint in approaching the Crimea crisis, is forcing it as a de facto player for Putin to reckon with.

Undoubtedly, the Syrian conflict is nowhere near a political transition or a major compromise, and the divergence in the U.S.-Russian relations will make it even less likely.

Reevaluation

As Washington reevaluates its policy for arming or funding few rebel brigades and doing more covert activity inside Syria, the events in Ukraine are likely to enforce this argument.

Today, there is a divide inside the administration about Syria, with Secretary of State John Kerry being more supportive of an escalation, while key advisors around U.S. President Barack Obama have been showing more reluctance and still prefer a hands off approach.

However, the rising tension with Putin, the deteriorating situation on the ground inside, and the pressure from regional allies on Washington as Obama heads to Riyadh the end of the month could the balance in favor of the pro-escalation crowd.

The Obama administration never had any illusions about Putin, neither “looked into his eye and saw his soul” as former President George W. Bush famously observed.

In a post-Yanukovich Ukraine and an occupied Crimea, Washington’s differences with Moscow will be played more openly, drawing Middle Eastern countries into the economic battles in Europe and hardening the proxy war in Syria.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.