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Russia and the West: From Ukraine to the High Dam

The tension between the West and Russia over Ukraine, alongside other matters, once played out in Egypt, where Soviet funding proved decisive in building of one of the 20th century's greatest infrastructure achievements

Ahmed El-Sayed Al-Naggar , Wednesday 14 May 2014
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Once the former Soviet Union was dismantled, Russia — which was its brain, beating heart, spine and the main source of its resources and power — chose capitalism and flagrantly followed the West under Yeltsin, before the incumbent Russian president restored his country’s independence and power, even while it continues on the path of capitalism. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some believed the West would welcome Russia with open arms into political, economic and security organisations. Instead, the West — which had worked diligently overtly, covertly, politically and conspiratorially to dismantle the USSR — shunned Russia.

Even when the West accepted Russia into the G-7 group of industrial countries, making the G-8 after Russia joined, Moscow’s membership was insecure and used for extortion by the West. It was even threatened with expulsion from the G-8 in the wake of the power struggle in Ukraine, and subsequent referendum in Crimea that resulted in merging the peninsula with Russia. Russian-West relations gradually deteriorated to the extent of taking entirely contrary positions on Syria and preparing for confrontation in Ukraine.

Ukraine is a slap on the face of the West by Russia, to a large degree because of the ignorance of Obama and European leaders of political, economic and social complexities in Russian-Ukrainian relations and their foolish actions in this crisis. Crimea was a battleground for Czarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century in which Russia was victorious and Crimea became part of Russian territories at the end of 1783. It remained that way after the 1917 socialist revolution under the former Soviet Union. In the 1950s, as part of an administrative revision of borders within the USSR, Crimea was transferred to Ukraine administrative control during the tenure of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — a Russian from Kursk on the border with Ukraine. He was first secretary of Ukraine’s Communist Party in the 1930s and after World War II.

Merging the Russian peninsula with Ukraine did not change the demography there and Russians who spoke Russian remained the majority there. When the West tried to draw Ukraine away from Russia, it is only natural and even intuitive that Crimea’s Russian citizens rose up to return to the motherland — Russia — once power in Ukraine was overtaken by an opposing political faction hostile to Russia. The issue is not confined to the Russian peninsula, because all of East Ukraine — the industrial heart of the country — is home to a majority Russian nationals and speakers.

But why does the West reject capitalist Russia, wanting to isolate it, and taking opposite positions on almost all global conflicts?
 

Russia and the West: A nation in the face of a continent

Since the end of World War II until today, the challenge of the Russian military has been a key factor in bolstering the US military industry and its Western counterparts. Perhaps if Russia did not exist, the West, especially the US, would have created another Russia, because its existence as a rival or enemy is critical for continued defence spending. These funds profit the West’s politically influential military industry, which plays a key role in the making of political leaders, and funding US presidential campaigns especially.

The US has experimented with small or medium scale wars — even large scale ones in Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya. But these are not enough to justify massive military spending in the US, which amounts to 4.8 per cent of GDP, according to the World Bank report on development indicators in the world. This amounts to $770 billion, which the US spends annually, an important portion going to fund arms purchases from the US military industry.

The existence of a big Russia that possesses a nuclear arsenal on par with the US’s, and advanced conventional forces that rival the US, is the main reason for massive US military spending after the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the former Soviet Union. Thus, manufacturing disputes with Russia is a profitable course for the US military industry.

Also, any assimilation of Russia in the Western order would undermine the existence of fears on the European continent and boost its self-reliance, including the military giant Russia in matters of defence and security. This would have gradually led to marginalising the US military role on the old continent, which is a red line that cannot be encroached on because Washington relies on its leadership of its alliance with Europe for its world domination and control of global political and financial institutions.

A glance at hot and cold confrontations between Russia and the West reveals that the fate of the Russian nation, because of its geography and straddling two continents, is to confront crises from the East and South, most prominently Tartar invasions and conflicts with the Ottomans. Also, confronting Europe, backed by the US, on various fronts.

Despite the heavy presence of political-military justifications to continue rivalry and tensions between Russia and the West, cultural and civilisational factors also play a large role in this matter. Russia is a unique model in Europe and the world. With an area of more than 17.1 million square kilometres, or 12.7 per cent of land in the world, it spans both the continents of Europe and Asia and has unique characteristics that combine its European affiliations and Asian spirit. Russia’s very powerful and controlling central state is closer to the Asian model and unlike political regimes that emerged and developed in Western Europe.

Russian culture is the product of the country’s geographic and ethnic diversity. The home of Borodin, Glinka and Tchaikovsky in Western classical music, and great ballet works, is also home to Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer of the score for Scheherazade — the world renowned melody for the tales of One Thousand and One Nights. It is also home of Russian authors who led the world of literature, such as Lev Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Lermontov, Gogol, Maxim Gorky, Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Bunin and Sholokhov. The writing of most of these masters is a magical blend of East and West. Russia’s cultural and civilisation character in general makes it a unique pole compared to all of Europe, despite the latter’s great diversity.

In order to understand the nature of relations between Russia and the West, it is useful to revisit one of the major conflicts between the two sides. The funding of Egypt’s High Dam, which commemorates a milestone in its construction — namely the diversion of the Nile River — on 14 May.
 

Egypt’s High Dam and the Russia-West quarrel

At the beginning, Egypt had approached the West and World Bank to fund the construction of the High Dam, but after long contentious discussions they turned Cairo down in an insulting manner in July 1956, even though Egypt’s leader, the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, had accepted US conditions. Conditions included putting a ceiling on Egypt’s foreign debt and restricting it from signing new deals during the construction of the High Dam. Nasser’s concession was an attempt to undercut any excuse preventing Washington and the World Bank from helping fund the High Dam.

Nonetheless, the US refused to fund the project and its secretary of state told Egypt’s ambassador in Washington on 19 July 1956: “The US has changed its mind on the High Dam and now regrets it will not continue negotiations on funding the project. Our reasons are that one of the poorest countries in the world would not be able to foot the bill of this mega project. Also, Nile water is not the sole property of Egypt and there are others along the banks of the river that have another opinion.” On 20 July 1956, the US State Department issued a press statement declaring its refusal to the whole world with the same arrogance of the words of its secretary of state.

In response to this arrogant US rejection, which ridiculed Egypt and its people, Nasser gave a historic speech on 26 July 1956, announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal so its revenues can be used to fund the construction of the High Dam, in cooperation with the USSR, which offered to assist in funding and on easy terms.

Nasser said in his speech: “Revenue from the Suez Canal in 1955 was 35 million pounds or 100 million dollars. We, who dug the canal and lost 120,000 lives during excavation, collect only one million pounds — or three million dollars.”

He added: “Today, as we take back what is rightfully ours. I say in the name of the people: We are a people who will protect their right and hold onto it because we are recovering the past and we will not build the edifice of pride, freedom and dignity until we tear down the edifices of servitude. The Suez Canal was a structure of servitude, usurpation and humiliation. Today, my fellow citizens, I nationalise the Suez Canal.”

The reaction in London was fury against Egypt and it conspired to launch the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt with the help of France — which was angry over Egypt’s strong support of the Algerian revolution — and Israel. Israel is always ready to serve colonial goals and its own goals of aborting Egypt’s takeoff, presented in nationalising the Suez Canal, building the High Dam and reaping the rewards of revenue, energy and water needed for industrial and agricultural development.

The scene in Arab states was stunning: floods of protests took to the streets in support of Egypt, starting with countries in the Gulf and Iraq to the Arab Maghreb. Across the world, there were also massive protests supporting Egypt in many newly-independent countries and others under colonial rule. In Western countries, especially Britain and France, there were overwhelming protests against the assault on Egypt, which confirmed that the French-British-Israeli decision to go to war was the choice of radical capitalist governments not the choice of the people.

The climax of that global standoff was the USSR warning Britain, France and Israel to immediately end military operations against Egypt and withdraw from Egyptian territories, with a direct threat of USSR nuclear weapons to Paris and London, and a threat to Israel’s very existence.

The issue ended with the withdrawal of Tripartite troops and Egypt regained sovereignty and possession of the Suez Canal. This gave Egypt a great economic boost and a main source of funds for the construction of the High Dam.

On 27 December 1958, Egypt signed an agreement for a Soviet loan to fund the first phase of the dam, which included the start of construction and raising it high enough to allow the diversion of waters to a new waterway dug for this purpose, while raising the annual water reserve capacity. The agreement stated that the USSR, in which Russia was the heart and spine, would give Egypt a loan of 400 million rubles (LE34.8 million or $100 million) to be paid in 12 annual installments beginning in 1964, when construction of the first phase ends.

The course of the River Nile was indeed diverted on 14 May 1964, and the annual interest rate of the loan was 2.5 per cent. Despite tensions in Egypt-USSR relations in 1959, because of the crackdown on communists in Egypt, this upset did not affect the agreement with the Soviets in funding, designing and constructing the High Dam.

On 27 August, 1960, the two sides signed an agreement for the second and final phase of the High Dam. The USSR gave Egypt a loan of 900 million rubles (LE78 million or $215 million) to cover the cost of designing the project, research, studies, supply and installation of gates and hydroelectric generators, and equipment necessary for agricultural, land reform and other projects. The terms of the loan were the same as the first one, and payment began one year after all construction was done and no later than January 1962. The interest rate of 2.5 per cent began on the date of withdrawing each part of the loan, and was due in the first three months of the following year.

With this agreement, Egypt won its battle to build its dam and signaled the start of a legendary epic of building the greatest project in the country’s ancient and modern history. Despite the difficulties and Israel’s attack on Egypt in 1967, Egypt finished its mega project and its High Dam rose like a mountain straddling the Nile River, taming the world’s longest river for the first time. The High Dam protected Egypt against destructive floods and gave it central water reserves at Lake Nasser that protected Egypt against terrible drought cycles. It provided 19 billion cubic metres of clear water at Aswan after loss from evaporation, and Egypt received 7.5 billion cubic metres of that water while Sudan took 11.5 billion. The excess water allowed Egypt to reclaim and cultivate large areas of land that were far from water.

Since 1968/1969 until today, more than two million feddans of reclaimed and cultivated land was irrigated by water saved by the High Dam. The yield of the land also improved because water is available for crops all year round. Egypt also converted 973,000 feddans of basin irrigation that grows one crop per year to permanent irrigation where two or three crops are grown every year. This markedly raised the crop yield in Egypt. Nile navigation also improved, which boosted Nile tourism.

In the 1970s, the dam’s hydroelectric plant covered more than half of Egypt’s power needs. However, increasing numbers of thermal power plants using gas or oil reduced the share of the dam’s hydroelectric plant to 10 per cent of Egypt’s power needs.

Some of the side effects of the High Dam, such as siltation, erosion, rising groundwater and erosion of northern shores in some areas, and how the Nuba and its antiquities became submerged under water, were being addressed while others still need more diligent efforts to rectify — especially the sinking of Nuba whose people deserve to be relocated around Lake Nasser and assisted in funding agricultural, fishery and tourist projects, the production of tourist souvenirs, agro and mining industries.

In the 1970s, the High Dam came under attack as part of the negative campaign on the Nasser era and relations with the USSR. At the beginning of the 1980s, however, many critics of the High Dam fell silent when a severe drought hit the Equatorial Lakes and Ethiopian plateaus for seven years. The Nile’s water revenues dropped sharply and equatorial and Ethiopian source countries suffered the ravages of drought. Millions of people and livestock starved to death. Egypt, on the other hand, drew from its water reserves at Lake Nasser and did not suffer. Water reserves were depleted, however, and in 1988 there was nothing left behind the Dam except six billion cubic metres, which could have been a harbinger of serious disaster for Egypt. But the floods came high that year, raising Egypt’s water revenue for 1988/1989 to more than 106 billion cubic metres.

In August 1999, on the sidelines of a construction and industry trade expo in New Hampshire in the US, a poll was taken to choose the top 10 construction projects of the 20th century. Giant real estate companies, design houses and dam construction firms participated in the survey. Egypt’s High Dam topped the list as the greatest infrastructure project of the 20th century, ahead of the US’s Hoover (Boulder) Dam and the Empire State Building, the world’s first skyscraper. The reasons for choosing the High Dam as the greatest infrastructure project in the world of that century is because it is a world-class construction and engineering feat that resulted in great positive changes in the lives of an entire people.

This victory is a crown on the head of the Egyptian people and late leader Nasser, who fought fiercely and brilliantly at a difficult time to build Egypt’s High Dam, to protect his nation and change its course from a nation subject to the will of the Nile River to a nation controlling the river course.

The High Dam remains the greatest witness to Egyptian-Russian cooperation based on respect and equality. It is also witness to the battle between the West and Russia, the heart of the former Soviet Union.

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