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`New Cold War’ Begins to Alter the Middle East Balance

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has created the conditions for a “New Cold War,” pitting the United States and NATO against Russia and an emerging Asian alliance.  While the battles still going on in eastern Ukraine between Kiev-allied paramilitary battalions and Russian-backed separatist forces—despite a Minsk agreement among Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France to attempt to halt the conflict–are distant from the Middle East and North Africa, the implications of a superpower East-West rift has profound implications for MENA nations, still feeling the impact of the “Arab Spring.”


Already, major regional states, including Egypt and Turkey, are being impacted by the global conflict.  At the beginning of February, Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Cairo to affirm a new “strategic partnership” between Russia and Egypt.  China’s President Xi Jinping will also be visiting the Egyptian capital before the end of February, to sign substantial bilateral economic deals.  An investors’ conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, hosted by the El-Sissi government, was delayed until mid-March to allow a large Chinese delegation to participate without interfering with the Chinese New Year.


A prominent Egyptian veteran of the Tahrir Square revolt emphasized, recently, that the Putin visit was symbolically highlighted by President El-Sissi taking his Russian visitor to the Cairo Tower, built by former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser as a slap in the face to Washington.  Egypt is clearly one key MENA state that is contemplating an alteration in its relations with Washington and making an alignment with Moscow and Beijing.


Indeed, President Obama’s recent overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood produced a serious diplomatic protest from Egypt, and intensified the uncertainty in Cairo about Washington’s intentions.


Turkey is also in the middle of a shift from its historic NATO ties to a closer economic and potentially strategic partnership with Putin’s Moscow.  In response to European Union sanctions, Russia abandoned long-standing plans for a South Stream gas pipeline through Bulgaria to service southern Europe, in favor of Turkey Stream, a gas pipeline that will run from Russia through Turkey to a large gas depot along the Turkish-Greek border.


Russia has offered to finance and build new nuclear power plants in Turkey, Egypt and Jordan.  Turkey has also announced that it is prepared to purchase new air defense systems from China, despite the fact that they are incompatible with NATO systems.


Greece is already closely aligned with Russia, as demonstrated recently, when the newly elected Greek government played an important role in blocking new European Union sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.  New Greek Prime Minister Tsipras has already visited Moscow, in one of his first foreign trips after taking office, and his defense minister, Panos Kammenos, has accepted an invitation to visit Russia from his counterpart, Russian Minister of Defense Shoighu.


As far away as Pakistan, the “winds of change” are being felt.  At the conclusion of President Obama’s recent visit to India, where he was feted by Prime Minister Modi as his guest of honor at India’s annual Republic Day independence celebration, Pakistan opened tentative negotiations with Moscow over the potential purchase of Russian military hardware.  Pakistan, while remaining an ally of the United States, has always maintained even closer ties to China, striking a balance that could now tilt away from Washington. 


Both India and Pakistan are awaiting a formal invitation to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a joint Russia-China security alliance covering Central Asia, which could ultimately play a decisive role in Afghan security, in the post-NATO occupation period.  That formal invitation is pending later this year.


More important than the SCO expansion, both Russia and China are leading countries within the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—an emerging economic bloc that has already established a New Development Bank, an SCO Development Bank, an Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and a Silk Road Development Bank.  All of these institutions are offering long-term credits for concrete development projects stretching across all of Eurasia, into Africa.


Russian diplomacy has also been on the rise in the Middle East, with recent Moscow-hosted talks between the Syrian government and a range of Syrian rebel factions enjoying limited support from both Europe and the Obama Administration. 


If relations between Washington and Moscow further sour, the Russian initiatives in the region, like the Syrian mediation, could once again assume the character of a direct competition with the West.


These shifts are clearly just beginning, so it would be premature to draw any long-term conclusions.  However, the trends are evident and cannot be ignored or dismissed.

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