A week of quantum change

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 3 Mar 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said takes on the Ukraine crisis.

Not a week but a lightyear has passed since my last column, on the Middle East after the Ukraine crisis. The prevalent thinking at the time was that common challenges would keep the Ukraine crisis from escalating into war. Fighting terrorism and global warming, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, preserving the stability of the world order and reducing rivalries at new frontiers in outer space have and would continue to bring together East and West for the sake of shared political, economic and security interests.

Collective efforts in these areas would keep markets and channels of communications open, preserving the essential components of globalisation. The growing interconnectedness globalisation made possible gave weight to the assumption that major warfare, as occurred in two world wars or even the Korean, Vietnam and Afghan wars, is too foolhardy and inappropriate for the 21st century. 

Then, on 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Before the sun set that day, Western countries and NATO responded with a barrage of economic sanctions with the effect of severing the lines of diverse economic interactions, creating a dent in a core feature of the global economy and the mutual dependency on which it is based. Germany’s first action was to freeze the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.

Together with the first pipeline that would have doubled Russian-European interdependency in energy and should have caused the two sides think twice before taking military action or shutting down the pipeline. Unfortunately, globalisation failed to prevent recourse to military force and, now, the world is on the edge of its seat, waiting to see how the situation continues to unfold and whether the sanctions will be enough to pressure Russia into withdrawing its forces. Interdependence was not enough to contain the threat and the clash. Democracy failed to solve the problem of the Ukraine’s Russian minority which Russia relied on as a kind of Trojan horse.

The world axis is shifting away from the position it has known since the end of the Cold War. Russia and China are promoting a revision of the international order. Where this will lead the many different countries on this planet is a matter that requires a lot of thought and planning, they do not have the luxury to wait until the superpowers work out their differences through war, negotiations or tricks of fate. This process is still at the beginning. So, too, is Russia’s military entry into Ukraine at the time of writing.

Some analysts believe the Kremlin’s plan is to take over the whole of Ukraine and replace its government with one more to Russian tastes. If so, this will take some time – at least as long as it took for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan. Regardless of the impression the media might give, it is hard to assess how effective and influential the sanctions will be in determining whether the Russian forces will press forward or retreat. We do know, however, that no one in the West - whether the US or other NATO countries - wants to enter into the war, let alone risk a nuclear confrontation. 

Certainly, the domestic circumstances in the countries that are party to the crisis play a crucial part in their behaviour. In Russia, a majority of the public supports Putin’s actions while an active minority believes that the course he chose will cause a lot of suffering and perhaps a wider war. This is something Russians are very familiar with in their painful history. In the US, the Biden administration and the Democratic Party were already in trouble before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Congressional midterms lay ahead, so Biden needs to prove that he is a strong president and that sanctions are working. 

The world will be preoccupied by this question for some time. The parties involved will be making calculations, revisions and reassessments in the light of hopes and prayers that their decisions do not lead to a war that could destroy the planet. As for the rest of the countries in the world, including ours here in the Middle East, they will end up paying a huge price in terms of the energy and resources they had invested in development and reform because of the dangerous game being played in the north. 

Some months ago, against the backdrop of the US withdrawal from this region, I wrote that the peoples and countries of this region have no choice but to rely on themselves. Today, against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this advice is truer than ever. Fortunately, since the Al-Ula summit, there have been many communications and exploratory talks between the Arab and non-Arab countries in the Middle East: Iran, Turkey and Israel. Some results of this, so far, are well known.

But many security matters remain pending and the Yemeni and Syrian crises are as intractable as ever. In view of recent international developments, dialogue and understanding are this region’s most compelling options for confronting the looming evils on the global horizon. In other words, not only is it in the power of the countries of this region to handle this region’s problems, they can set their sights further too. They can work together to anticipate fallout from the above-mentioned “revision” process that Russia and China are promoting. Whether to further their immediate interests (as in Ukraine or Taiwan) or less immediate one, but definitely on a larger scale, those two powers are working to shape a new world order that will be with us for decades to come.

No sooner did the Ukraine crisis cross the threshold into use of force, than it triggered worldwide spikes in the cost of energy, food and raw materials: upheavals in international stock exchanges, financial markets and exchange rates, and further complications in the post-pandemic supply chain syndrome. Regional self-reliance appears the best option, not just because of the need for a better regional security system but also in order to respond to the repercussions of the international crisis, especially if a return to peace is not at hand. World powers are forever inclined to blame Middle Eastern countries for causing headaches.

These countries come under pressure just because they produce oil and gas, and today they will be pressed to compensate for the collapse of mutual dependency with Russia. But just as people cannot choose their parents and whether they will be born into poverty or wealth, countries cannot choose their neighbours, even if the relationship holds the promise of a beneficial mutual dependency. That is a problem that needs to be addressed. 

The Middle East has endured endless catastrophes since the beginning of this century. Following the US invasion of Iraq and the rise of terrorism, the Arab Spring shook the region, unleashing a flood of crises that attracted little attention among world powers preoccupied by their own concerns. Will it be possible for the countries of this region to build on the exploratory talks and understanding they have reached so far and forge the type of cooperation needed to contend with a post-Ukraine world, inclusive of a possible US-Iranian deal? This is a question that merits intensive study. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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