It is nearly two weeks since the war started in Ukraine, a country ten times the area of Sri Lanka, with twice its population. In many ways, its experience seems to have parallels with the Sri Lankan experience – with the notable exception that Ukraine has 15 nuclear power plants that appear to be potential targets in this war, raising the spectre of a nuclear holocaust!
Let me be clear: I am with the Ukrainian and Russian people who are heroically opposing this war, and I stand with all those protesting the unbearable and often intentional burden this war is inflicting on civilians. If there is one lesson we have learned from the past ten decades, there are no winners in wars, and we all lose something besides our humanity.
Condemning aggression is an essential step. Putin’s ultranationalist ideology of bringing back Russia to its Tsar Era ‘glory’ is abundantly recorded in the Western media. Much less visible in this reporting is the hawkish nationalism of the Ukrainian presidents and their rejection of diplomatic solutions in favour of military solutions since 2014. There is radio silence in the mainstream media on the sustained and belligerent search by the US and its allies for enemies/ causes to sustain NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the very reason for NATO’s existence. This war is a product of these three forces at play.
I want to reiterate that nothing justifies invasion. But to avoid potentially catastrophic and eminently preventable conflicts like these in the future, we need to understand how we got to this point.
Yes, it is indeed not the media that launched this war. Yet, the western media appears to have abdicated its responsibility. Instead of presenting the whole truth to nudge their governments to take diplomatic options seriously, they presented half-truths. They cherry-picked facts to justify the war that the ruling ideology of the West is not too keen to avoid.
There are two opposing schools of thought regarding the backdrop of this war: Those who think that the present situation explains why Europe needs a NATO. Then some believe that NATO should not have continued to exist after the demise of the Soviet Union. Remnants of cold war ideology generated the much-needed enemy to justify NATO and led to this war – in other words, the existence of NATO will generate the reasons for its existence.
I support the latter hypothesis based on the available evidence. None of the US mainstream media provided any coverage of the historic Russian concerns – the exceptions like Democracy Now! and the Nation are too few and have a limited audience. Instead, the media continues to play a partisan role in demonizing Putin and exclusively focusing on his aggression while avoiding presenting the context that seems to fuel his aggression. In short, they continue to act as the voice of warmongers.
Russian-Sponsored Civil War and Ukrainian Intransigence
The Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine [mainly in Kyiv] was triggered by the 2013 decision of the pro-Russian President Yanukovych not to sign the EU-Ukraine Agreement (that would have paved the way for Ukraine to join the EU). Instead, he chose to embrace the Eurasian Economic Union favoured by Russia. In the end, Yanukovych was forced out of office (he fled to Russia). Subsequently, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and instigated and continued supporting an uprising in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine (LPR and DPR).
Facing this aggression, the Government of Ukraine pursued a military option with active support from the US and its allies. For instance, since 2014, Ukraine has received $2.7 billion in military assistance from the US. In 2014, President Petro Poroshenko incorporated the neo-Nazi militia Azov into the National Guard and praised their valour. Ukraine banned the use of the Russian language, including in the primarily Russian-speaking Southern and Eastern regions. Pursuing diplomatic options was not in the cards. The civil war that ensued has taken over 15,000 lives since 2014.
This continued even as the Russian invasion unfolded. The current President banned men of ages between18-60 from fleeing the country; he requested accelerated entry into NATO; and continued to pressure NATO to enforce a no-fly zone above Ukraine. The last one would have escalated this conflict into a European war. A total abdication of statesmanship accompanies the reckless disregard for civilian lives – the statesmanship needed to manage an aggressive neighbour. Sadly, this lack is celebrated as heroism by the champions of this war in the EU parliament and the Western media.
International Anti-war Activism: All Lives Matter
The outpouring of support around the globe to the Ukrainian people is heartening. A colleague of mine shared a message on Saturday asking me to switch off the lights at 8:00 pm for a while- a symbolic No to Putin’s energy supply. I marvelled at the creativity and symbolism. As I turned off the lights at the agreed time, I pondered the ongoing wars and refugee crises. Gradually Yemeni war drifted into my consciousness. It is not too far from Ukraine and has a similar population (30 million to Ukraine’s 43). This war also started around the same time – 2014-15 and has claimed over 18,500 lives. Civilians are targeted in this war as well – for example, the UK-based charity Oxfam noted that in January 2022 alone, there were 48 bombing attacks by the Saudi-led coalition on civilian targets. According to Save the Children, the month of January also saw record deaths and casualties – 599. How many of us would know the extent of deliberate targeting of civilians in Yemen? If we knew that, would we consider a day of a boycott of Saudi oil (not drive cars)? More importantly, how difficult would it be for Yemeni refugees to get asylum in Europe?
I deeply admire the courage and activism of the 13,500 Russians who have been incarcerated so far for protesting against the war despite the harsh measures imposed by Putin. I raise this point not to argue that the international community should pay less attention to this war and the plight of Ukrainian civilians. But to call for a recognition of our own biases, scrutinize our choices, examine the extent of our alignment with the International Order, and remind ourselves that atrocities perpetrated on those who do not resemble us are no less heinous and share our attention equitably.
The Outcomes of this War
It is doubtful that absolute victors and losers emerge at the end of this war. Russia would like to force Ukraine to revert to its satellite status of the Soviet era, which would require occupation. It would want to make an example out of Ukraine for the other countries in its ‘sphere of influence’. In its version of the International Order, they all need to reverse their course of joining the EU and avoid hostile military alliances (no NATO, no presence of hostile missiles, no military advisors, etc.). On the other hand, the US and its allies would like to enforce their vision of the Unipolar World Order and assert their monopoly of violence through punitive sanctions so comprehensive that will deter Russia from pursuing this war and other acts of aggression without their sanction.
When the dust settles, we will likely see neither side fully achieving its goals. For instance, Russia should recognize by now that reverting to the Soviet Era situation is not feasible. Given the resistance it is facing in Ukraine, installing a puppet regime is not a viable long-term option. It may have to settle for the neutrality of Ukraine (no joining NATO or hosting hostile long-range missiles). And the West will recognize the limitations of the efficacy of sanctions against a determined economic and military power.
The West and Ukraine have to come to terms with the fact that even severe sanctions are not likely to bring about quick results. Sanctions will hurt Russians considerably in the long run, but the current call for all countries by Biden to ban all oil imports from Russia is wrong-headed. It neglects the lessons from the OPEC oil embargo of oil in the ‘70s that resulted in a global recession and prolonged stagflation. Already, economies are reeling under the COVID shock. Oil price shock is the last thing the globe needs now.
While it’s hard to predict exactly how things will change, some areas of potential shifts are worth considering. The media punditry is too busy war-mongering to worry about such trivialities; hence we have to do it ourselves.
A Unipolar International Order
The first casualty could well be the existing Unipolar International Order – using the collective military and economic might to maintain a monopoly of global governance of trade and finance – of setting the rules of the ‘game’. While there may be no radical changes immediately, the tendency to fray at the edges will accelerate. Militarily, Russia already challenged this Order in Syria rather successfully (much to the detriment of the Syrian people). But the Order believes in the longer-term power of sanctions over short-term military losses.
Europe may begin to bolster its defence under the leadership of Germany and eventually provide an alternative to the NATO/US dominance. Already Trump (or one of his clones) is knocking at the doors of the US presidency in 2024. Trump has never hidden his admiration for Putin. Europe can no longer count on the US for its security. Recent statements of Germany points to its willingness to assert itself.
To what extent lessons from this war will embolden China and allow it to be better prepared when it challenges the Order as it carries out its own agenda of expansion in the South China Sea and Taiwan? In other words, to what extent will this war empower China to test its own might as a world power as it accelerates towards becoming the largest economy in the world?
To what extent other ex-Soviet bloc countries will be able to pursue an independent path to join the EU and NATO in the future? This is linked to a number of factors:
- To what extent will Europe be willing to put boots on the ground to defend these countries when Putin sends his tanks? NATO actions have made it quite clear to Ukraine and any potential newcomers that it will not fight for them. And that while sanctions take time to take effect, the consequences of war are immediate and harsh.
- The level of resistance Russia encountered during this invasion could make him realize that his original plan of occupying Ukraine and installing a puppet regime was not viable. Sooner or later, he may have to settle for a ‘neutrality’ position of Ukraine and withdraw from the country. This would mean that Ukraine agrees not to join the NATO or host hostile missiles against Russia.
- If he succeeds in Ukraine, to what extent will Ukraine be a deterrent for the ex-Soviet bloc? If it doesn’t function well enough as a deterrent, will Russia exercise further military aggression?
- A relevant question is: Will Putin be able to repeat such aggression in the future, given the internal resistance he faces against these aggressive expansionary tactics? Unlike the Crimean war, which had broad support within Russia, a war with Ukraine appears to have had little popular support before the invasion. With rising casualties, this opposition will continue to mount – Russia has admitted to losing 500 soldiers so far, but the actual figure could be much higher; as mentioned, despite the strict censorship (media is not allowed to use the word ‘war’ to describe the invasion) and draconian measures to suppress dissent, public protests are erupting in Russia – last Sunday alone 5,000 protesters got arrested, bringing the total to over 13,500; even the allies of Putin such as the Russian Orthodox Church have come out in opposition to the war. Finally, the war also might have disabused Putin of his illusion that the peoples of these countries are interested in joining his grand Russian empire.
Towards a Bipolar Global Financial System – Dollar and Renminbi
A second impact will be further gains to Renminbi as a reserve currency, though the dollar still remains the dominant global currency. Russia and similarly sanction-prone countries may seek to de-couple from the dollar and seek alternatives to protect their assets. Since the 2014 sanctions after illegally annexing Crimea, Russia has diversified its $630 billion liquid reserves – it reallocated over 55% of its reserves, and Renminbi has benefitted from this shift. As the largest trading nation and the second-largest economy, China’s push to make the Renminbi an alternative reserve currency will be boosted by this spurt of sanctions we have been seeing in the past two decades.
Rising fossil fuel prices will have the relative effect of strengthening Russia at the expense of the rest of Europe. Despite Rouble plummeting 35% (and Russian stock markets getting pummelled), crude prices have climbed well over $100 / barrel and, if 2014 is any indication, go North of $150/ barrel. Unless Iran sanctions are lifted shortly, and Saudi Arabia can be persuaded to ramp up its oil production, supply is not likely to increase. Therefore, prices will remain high throughout the war.
The recent move by the US and UK to impose a ban on Russian oil will have minimal effect on the oil and gas revenues of Russia since the imports from the US and UK are miniscule compared to its supply to Europe. However, record level gas prices that the US is seeing may cost Biden the mid-term elections (which would have happened anyway). Many are betting on a longer term inflation in the US as a result of higher gas prices. If this were to happen, it may cost Biden his next Presidential elections.
Higher fossil fuel prices will tend to push prices of many essential items higher, including food prices. Moreover, Russia and Ukraine together account for a quarter of the global wheat trade. Even the more affluent nations will see their central banks struggling to cope with the already high inflationary pressures with little wiggle room to combat this shock. But the biggest casualty of this war, besides the millions of Ukrainian civilians, will be the poor across the world, particularly those in the poorer nations whose economies are already buckling under the COVID shock – an additional 122 million people were pushed below the poverty line during the last two years, reversing the trend in the previous decade. In the coming months, the current hike in fuel and food prices are likely to push millions more into abject poverty and starvation.
In Summary: The existing International Order is a loose bundle of rules established by the powerful countries. This Order is blind to how it affects the lives of those in the less powerful nations. Putin is correct about calling out the hypocrisy of the current Unipolar Order (America and its allies calling all the shots) as evidenced by the invasion of Iraq (remember weapons of mass destruction?), Afghanistan, the War on Terror, and the list go on. These instances show the fundamental nature of the Order – it is always about their immediate interests—Right and Wrong matter only when they are not too inconvenient for those interests of the powerful players. Putin’s Russia wants to be recognized as part of this club as before. The plight of Ukrainians is collateral damage in this ‘jostling for position.’ This will not be the first nor the last such instance.
As Dylan asked five decades ago:
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?