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The Gulf crisis has lessons for Vladimir Putin. Not all may work in his favour

By James M. Dorsey

The Ukraine crisis may constitute a more impactful, historic watershed than the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall in the mind of Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “perhaps even a bigger moment than the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Mr. Balakrishnan said.

“We believe we are at an inflection point,” he added. “Little Singapore is standing up for principles and expressing a hope for the rules of engagement for this new era.”

In a break with diplomatic tradition, Singapore joined Western nations in sanctioning Russia, the first Southeast Asian nation to do so in the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Mr. Balakrishnan may well be right even if the Berlin wall sparked the end of communism as an ideology rather than a power-driven political system, while Ukraine is likely to take Russia out of the race for global power in an emerging bi- or multipolar world order.

Despite the characterisation of the Ukraine crisis as one that pits democracy against autocracy and the fact that the vast majority of nations that have taken action against Russia happen to be democracies, the stakes in the crisis are really about adherence to international law irrespective of a country’s political system.

That is evident in the diddling of countries like China, India, and the United Arab Emirates that have tried to straddle a middle ground. So have Israel and Turkey, exploiting their attempts to mediate an end to the Ukraine crisis.

China has struggled to uphold its long-standing principle of rejection of the interference in the affairs of others with its close partnership with Russia that was further cemented during a visit to Beijing in early February by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed told Mr. Putin in a March 1 phone call, on the back of Emirati interference in multiple countries, including Libya and Yemen, that “Russia has a right to ensure national security.” Mr. Bin Zayed was referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Short of the war, the destruction, and the massive loss of life, Ukraine is in many ways similar to the Gulf crisis in which the UAE, together with Saudi Arabia, led a 3.5-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar that, like the Russian invasion, was designed to hollow out the sovereignty of a neighbouring state.

Russia’s invasion constitutes the third time in a decade after the 2017-2021 Gulf crisis and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea that autocratic states have sought to ignore international law and brutally impose their will on a neighbour.

In that sense, Mr. Balakrishnan’s equation of the invasion with the Berlin wall hits the nail on the head. It also suggests that failure to act immediately to stop violations of international law opens the door to ever more egregious trespassings, including massive violations of human rights.

The analogies between the Ukraine and Gulf crises are most evident in the demands put forward in both incidents.

Like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Russia has put maximalist demands on the table that would subject Ukraine to its foreign, defense, and domestic policies and bend the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to its will.

At the time, the UAE and Saudi Arabia demanded that Qatar cut its ties to Islamists, shutter the free-wheeling Al Jazeera television network, expel Turkish troops, and effectively break relations with Iran.

Similarly, Russia demands that NATO withdraw from member states on Russia’s borders and that Ukraine halt its resistance to the invasion, alter its constitution to ensure that Ukraine cannot become a member of the European Union and/or NATO, and recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Russia-supported breakaway republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Qatari resilience in rejecting the UAE-Saudi demands and its ability to compensate for the fallout of the boycott ultimately persuaded the two states to drop their demands and lift the embargo in January 2021.

In what appears to be a manoeuvre similar to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recognition that Ukraine is unlikely to become a NATO member and may not want to do so given NATO’s refusal to impose a no-fly zone, Qatar at the time quietly made concessions that fell far short of Emirati-Saudi demands and did not fundamentally alter the Gulf state’s policies.

Islamists, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were asked to relocate to Istanbul and London while Al Jazeera toned down its more critical coverage of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Virtually absent in this week’s Al Jazeera newscasts was any reporting of the execution of 81 people in the kingdom, many of them Shiite activists. However, the Al Jazeera English website did report the executions. They are believed to have prompted Iran’s suspension of Iraqi-sponsored talks with Saudi Arabia designed to reduce tensions between the two regional rivals.

The failure of the Saudi-UAE-led boycott may have shown the limits of their power, but ending it without the ability to claim success did not threaten the survival of the two countries’ rulers. However, finding a face-saving solution to the Ukraine crisis that ultimately does not endanger the position of Mr. Putin could prove a lot more complicated.

The international community and Qatar were willing to give Mr. Bin Zayed and his Saudi counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a pass. That luxury is unlikely to be accorded to Mr. Putin.

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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.